December 09, 2001
By Raffique Shah
SO, some of my fans-cum-critics asked me, will you flee the country on Tuesday if the UNC is re-elected to government? Hell no! I responded. Why should I? I survived the worst days of the PNM in government, a time when banditry by ministers like John O'Halloran was rampant, when Afro-Trinidadians were as fanatical in supporting "their party" as most Indo-Trinis are today slavishly tied to Basdeo Panday and the UNC. Worse, as someone who led a mutiny against the military high command during the Black Power revolution of 1970, I was seen as Dr Eric Williams's worst nightmare-hence an enemy of his party and government.
Special Branch policemen stalked me for years: I couldn't flush a damn toilet without them listening to it! Then I watched as some of my comrades from the struggles of the 1970s fell victims to the lure of power and dollars and joined the PIP (Party in Power, mattered not which one it was). But I refused to compromise in what I saw then, and still do now, as a fight for social and economic justice, and true political independence. I should mention, though, that during the worst days of the PNM I never felt physically threatened. That was partly because as a people, we have never resorted to violence to settle political differences.
If, therefore, I didn't run from the "old PNM" when it was the "baddest pothound" in town, why should I run from UNC pompeks whose "rum talk" is as harmless as their platform threats? I didn't seek refugee status when it was available for the price an airline ticket, once one was Indian and could lie to the Canadian authorities, telling them that Ray Robinson's NAR government was "racial". And in spite of my long-held belief that Basdeo Panday was never suited to high political office, I did not remotely consider "banwaas" (exile) as an option when he became Prime Minister back in 1995.
So that if Panday is returned to power after tomorrow's general elections, which, given what appears to be a tight race, is highly probable, I will be sorry for Trinidad and Tobago, not for me. Let me explain. Some PNMites tell me they cannot understand how most Indians, even as they agree that corruption is rife in the ranks of the UNC, still feel compelled to support the party and its candidates, many of latter being no better than crapauds basking in the warmth of the rising sun. I remind them that when corruption was rampant in the PNM, when communities in urban districts like Laventille, Morvant and Carenage remained stuck in a colonial time warp, Africans there were fiercely loyal to the PNM.
Indians are today experiencing that same "taste of honey", and even as a few party financiers and corrupt officials sip on the nectar, the masses are content with seeing "we people in power". What's happening among Indians today is no different to what occurred in Africans a few decades ago. Does it matter to UNC supporters that so many senior party officials have actually been arrested and charged with corruption-related offences? That those arrested must be the tip of a stinking pile of cow dung that permeates the entire party hierarchy? Does it matter to them that the official residence of the Prime Minister has been brought into serious disrepute under Panday's stewardship? Or that Panday's personal conduct is unbecoming of any decent citizen, far less a Prime Minister?
I think not-at least for most fanatical UNC supporters. But I sense a change in attitude among mostly younger Indians, and this is a positive sign. For example, during the short campaign, whereas Ramesh Maharaj's Team Unity was expected to encounter "heat" in Panday's heartland, no such incidents took place. Instead, I saw hundreds of young Indians (and a few Africans) at his meetings, which must have shocked UNC strategists. Whether their vocal presence at Ramesh's meetings will translate into votes will be known by midnight tomorrow. But the fact that they dared to openly identify with Team Unity, that they defied Panday, sends a serious message to the last of the maximum leaders.
The PNM, too, is at critical crossroads in these elections. The party has been able to motivate its supporters once more, better, I believe, than during the last campaign. I saw bigger numbers and many more young people at the PNM meetings I attended. But there was still an absence of Indians. Well, let me adjust that: there were more Indians than before, but still nowhere close to being visible in the sea of Africans. So the PNM today, for all the attempts by Patrick Manning to reach out to non-Africans-and I know he has tried-remains very much an Afro-dominated party. Until and unless Indians are made to feel at home in the PNM, the party will be incapable of recapturing its "national" image.
In contrast, Panday has managed to attract many more Africans to his party and its meetings. Of course, being in government, especially a corrupt government, helped the UNC "colour" its meetings. It is well known that ETP workers were "bussed" to almost every meeting, and among them were many Africans. In fact, the UNC must have spent a small fortune on "bussing" people to its meetings. ETP workers were also used to campaign for the UNC (on taxpayers' time), but whether they will vote for the party tomorrow remains to be seen.
What, therefore, does the morrow hold for us? As all the party leaders have admitted, and that despite their platform boasts to the contrary, elections are won on polling day, not at meetings or in motorcades. I have not sensed any big "swing" among the electorate, although I find too many people are staying silent, not giving away their positions. Usually, when people support the party in power, they tend to come out openly waving their flags, wearing their party jerseys. If, however, they are planning to plant the boot on those in office, they strike, like mappipires, at the last moment. Still, it's difficult to predict the results of tomorrow's poll.
Whatever the outcome, though, from a personal standpoint I echo the words of Denyse Plummer: "I nah leaving!" Matters not which party wins the elections, like all patriots, I am here for the long haul. As for the masses, whatever their weaknesses, it is to their credit that they have not been duped into descending into the dangerous pit of elections violence. Tomorrow, they settle their differences by ballots, not bullets. We must be eternally grateful for such small mercies.
Copyright © Raffique Shah