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Does size matter?

July 03, 2012

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-Illustration by Mahjabeen Mankani/Dawn.com

The ubiquitous inchee-tape is out. No, it's not a mullah measuring the distance between the waistline and hemline of a sassy screen personality for the obvious purpose of assessing whether she deserves a fatwa or not. Instead, the Election Commission of Pakistan is holding it. The object of measurement are the posters, banners and hoarding boards while the object of desire are the election candidates who are expected to display these visuals to make their prospective voters know them by face.

The Commission has required the posters to remain within a char-dewari, I mean perimeter, that is 24 inches wide and 36 inches long. Interestingly, very few printing presses in the country possess the technical capacity to cross this limit and print on papers of this or bigger size. I am sure none in NA 151 or even in entire Multan city can. The all powerful print media too frets at the suggestion of stepping out of this limit as the size of a newspaper spread is smaller than this. So, the Commission can congratulate itself in advance because at least one of its coded rules will definitely not be violated.

The size of a cloth banner has been restricted to three feet by nine feet. There is, however, no bar on joining together three banners in one line (making it three by 27 feet, the usual size) and, of course, no restrictions have been placed on how to recycle the cloth once the election campaign is over. So it is up to the party workers to either cut these into pieces and use them as mops or put some effort to tailor a few Bermuda shorts out of these.

A hoarding board has to be three feet by five feet notwithstanding the fact that none comes in that size. I checked with my friends in advertising agencies and hearing of elections and business none wanted to disappoint me. "Well, actually things can be designed and flex printed in that size, you can call it a hoarding if you wish. Who cares?" Ignorant chap didn't have the slightest idea, how important the size has become now. Consider for example, if a petitioner proves that a hoarding (of three by five feet) is actually a poster, it will be in violation of the code of conduct. However, if the defender is able to ascertain that it is, in fact, a hoarding, it will fall well within the confines of law.

The Commission says that the leaflet shall not exceed nine inches in length and six inches in width, the rule however is silent about how many folds are allowed. It does not even throw light on whether on the judgment day the leaflets will be measured while folded or unfolded. But what are our great constitutional lawyers for? They will file a petition to get this issue of great national importance interpreted according to our constitution (with injunctions of Islam standing in reserve) and, of course, in a manner that will set the precedence for all campaigns to come.

While the commission has been meticulous in deciding vital measurements of election campaign tools, it missed fixing many other more important ones. It did not specify that how many copies of a poster, hoarding or leaflet can be printed. The limit on size, ostensibly, is imposed to curtail expenses in election campaigns however the fact is that expense is directly proportionate to the number of copies, and not necessarily to the size, of the poster, banner etc. So what should the candidate choose? 1000 banners of three feet by nine feet or 100 banners of three feet by ten feet. The latter will be illegal yet frugal while the former will conform to the law despite being profligate.

The Commission's obsession with the size is not new found. It had released the evil corrupting powers of posters and banners for the first time in 1993 when hoarding and banners were declared haram while posters were humbled down to a size two feet by one and half feet. Taking another revolutionary step towards puritanical election campaigns, the commission banned all of the above in general elections 1997.

But the elections 2002, held under the supervision of our puppy-loving General Musharraf, witnessed a u-turn. A new edict declared all the poster, banners and hoardings as kosher. The same prevailed in the past elections held in 2008.

Two consecutive elections were held with measured posters, banners and the following two were free sized. Did the matter have any impact on the quality of electoral processes and election results? It certainly did not and if someone is kicking up dust and making hay of the matter again, it certainly is not aimed at making elections freer and fairer.


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.