A Lunch Date Gone Wrong
It wasn't a "date" so much as it was damage control by police in a rather absurd turn of events. But let us stick with the term for now because optics matter, more so in Bangladesh's politics than anywhere else, and because the paradoxical nature of what was on offer – for both Gayeshwar Chandra Roy and the intended wider audience – and the unsavoury background to that offering makes it difficult to digest without a slight pinch of comedy.
First, let us focus on the spectacle at hand before we delve into the background. In pictures and videos that have gone viral, the senior BNP leader is seen having lunch with an unlikely host, the chief of the Detective Branch of police. Before them is a lavish spread of delicacies apparently brought in from a five-star hotel. It was a culinary showdown, with enough fruits and dishes to give anyone, as the saying goes, a "fine dining" experience. Although Gayeshwar has later clarified that he only accepted food brought from the DB chief's home, the spectacle held a power of its own, causing reactions both funny and speculative.
A second spectacle recorded on the same day had another senior BNP leader, Amanullah Aman, bedridden in a local hospital, receiving an unexpected lunch package courtesy of the prime minister herself. This image too quickly went viral.
So there it was: proof that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government is not insensitive to the needs of political rivals, offering them food and hospitality even when they are found in the crosshairs of law enforcement. Both leaders, in case you didn't know, sustained injuries earlier that day during BNP's sit-in programme at Dhaka city's entry points – both, ironically, roughed up in clashes with police or ruling party activists. Facing criticism from all sides, Awami League was not about to let the potential of this photo op go to waste. Its general secretary, Obaidul Quader, while denying his party had anything to do with the public dissemination of these images, couldn't resist mocking Gayeshwar: "Why had he eaten the meal? Was he that hungry? What type of a political leader is he?"
Or maybe it was this: an orchestrated episode meant to portray a false narrative, distract attention from the wider issues of concern, and create confusion among BNP's rank and file at a time when it is trying to mobilise public support for its one-point demand for the government's resignation in favour of national elections under a non-party interim administration. BNP has said as much, with both of its leaders hitting out at the government for using the photos for political advantage. Gayeshwar, not one to mince his words (pun intended), found the whole episode of offering food – and then turning it into political feed – "in low taste," and labelled it "shameful."
Public beating followed by public courtship – is this going to be a new political trend then? What's next on the menu? A parliamentary potluck for the surviving opposition MPs? A cabinet buffet? A charity football match between the serial beaters and the serial victims of our confrontational politics? A sword duel to decide who gets to sit at the helm of the election-time government?
Whichever narrative you find yourself leaning toward, it must be acknowledged that such pictures of apparent hospitality are so rare in our present political history that one needs to go back over 15 years in time for the closest reference to what a newspaper has termed "video politics" – it was during the last caretaker government, before Awami League came to power, when videos of one of its veteran leaders, then in custody, with fruits placed in front of him, were also publicly disseminated.
The problem with such images is that once they go viral, it is impossible to un-viral them or the message they ostensibly contain. It's little wonder that a significant percentage of social media users – in admiration or contempt – found the Gayeshwar/Amanullah spectacles compulsively absorbing.
But the truth eventually comes out. The lunch is eventually seen for what it is – a poor attempt at making up for brutalities publicly inflicted, brutalities that, in the age of a punitive US visa policy, may end up blowing up in the face of those behind them. Or at least this is how BNP's secretary general wants us to see these attempts. Unfortunately for Awami League, this theory may just outlast all others that are making rounds at the moment. And unfortunately for us, the party may not care.
Public beating followed by public courtship – is this going to be a new political trend then? What's next on the menu? A parliamentary potluck for the surviving opposition MPs? A cabinet buffet? A charity football match between the serial beaters and the serial victims of our confrontational politics? A sword duel to decide who gets to sit at the helm of the election-time government? Seeing how things have taken a strange turn lately – misusing authority to stage the optics of serving wounded/detained political opponents – it may not be long before "you've been served" enters the glossary of political double entendre.
Jokes aside, there is really no takeaway from Saturday's food fiasco. It will go down as yet another example of pointless political posturing – an inconsequential subplot, really, in the big political drama that is currently unfolding in the country.
Badiuzzaman Bay is assistant editor at The Daily Star.