July 01, 2001
By Raffique Shah
"AYE, yuh hear de man attack yuh again? Ha! Ha!" That was how I was greeted by gas station attendants, casual acquaintances at 'de junction', and even by persons unknown to me, a few days after I had participated in the Labour Day march and rally at Fyzabad. 'De man' they referred to was, of course, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, and the truth is I had not heard his latest broadside against me. I later learned that he was responding to questions posed by reporters about statements made by labour leaders at the rally. When he was asked about something I had said on the future of Caroni Limited, he brushed aside my comments with his now internally-etched (human CD ROM, no less!) 'anti-Shah quote', "Oh, he's a failure! He has nothing of substance to say!"
I was not surprised that Panday had once more zeroed in on me, although nothing I said at Fyzabad could be deemed anti-government or as inciting violence. During the last general election campaign, the second person on his 'hate list' (after Patrick Manning, who was a legitimate target as leader of the PNM) was yours truly. I am often asked why the PM becomes so agitated at the mere mention of my name. Well, way back in 1977/78 I was one of a small group of men (and I mean real MEN-George Weekes, Joe Young, Allan Alexander, George Sammy-to name a few) who had confronted him over his improper conduct as leader of the ULF. When he refused to budge, having decided that he had no further use for us, we had the cojones to stand up to him, to remove him as Leader of the Opposition, and in the process consciously sacrifice our parliamentary political careers on the altar of principle.
If there was any sin that I committed against Panday, it was that. Since then I have not interacted with the man, but I have spoken out against him whenever I thought it was necessary, and written as I saw fit. If I am the abysmal 'failure' in life he insists I am, why is he, Prime Minister of the country, bothered by me? Does he not have more important matters to address, party supporters to satisfy, financiers to suck up to, and now keep a permanent eye-over-his-shoulder on a deputy who is breathing down his neck?
Looking back at the enemies I made ever since I decided that I would be a man, nothing less, Panday stands out as the closest thing to engaging in a 'cussout' with a jammette. In 1970, as a 24 year-old lieutenant, I took up my rifle and led my men in rebellion against the army high command, and by extension, the government of the mighty Dr Eric Williams. For 11 years after that, I was the proverbial tick in Eric's you-know-what. Still, up to 1981 when he died, Eric never once mentioned me by name (at least in public). And if he did by inference (one day he 'licked me up sad' in the House), it was with the kind of class that caused me to chuckle, such were the level of his intellect and the sharpness of his wit.
Later, other prime ministers like George Chambers, Ray Robinson and Patrick Manning also felt the raw end of my pen or my tart tongue, as did so many others who were in government, including the chairman of CCN, Ken Gordon. And not one ever responded the way Panday does. Robinson, for example, was very upset with me when the split in the NAR occurred: he thought that I had taken Panday's side because other writers at the media house where I was managing editor appeared to have done so. I did come down heavy on him and his Cabinet after they went down the IMF road. In fact, as recently as when he fell ill after he became President of the Republic, I wrote that he should step down from office rather than die in the chair. During the leadership battle in the PNM back in 1996, I assaulted Manning from all sides, suggesting he, too, should step down and allow his party to breathe fresh air.
These public figures must have been hurt when I wrote or spoke about them the way I did. But on every occasion I had cause to interface with them they never displayed any rancour or treated me with scorn or contempt. To the contrary, they were very polite, and I showed them the respect they deserved as leaders or ministers or entrepreneurs, even if I felt strongly about something they did or were about to do. Such conduct is expected of people in public life. It is based on a solid foundation shaped initially by one's parents ('broughtupcy', as Trinis say), and later by teachers and other mentors or at institutions that one attends.
Panday, for all his pseudo-Oxford accent, comes across as the classical case of someone who has climbed out of the gutter, but from whom you cannot take the gutter away. He makes the proverbial 'George Street jammette' look like an angel, obviously convinced that he must 'do everybody first', that venomous speech is a sign of strength, of power. And I'm not writing here about his attacks on me. I watched video-clips of him at his party's meeting last Sunday and when I saw him attack his own colleagues, I wondered how they could sit there and have him defecate on them the way he did.
There was a man consumed with hatred, a man so intoxicated by power that he felt he was God. It is often said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I don't know if power has corrupted Panday, but I sense that it will drive him to his death. No man, least of all one who has serious health problems, can survive on a diet of hatred. An holistic approach to life teaches that there must be balance among mind, body and spirit. Panday cuts a sorry picture from this perspective.
But he has his life to live any which way he wants to. In so far as his attacks on me go, I have learnt to laugh at him. He no longer causes my temper or temperature to rise. I often wonder, though, if, one day when he's mid-flight in his verbal assaults, he won't implode. But then, that's his funeral, not mine. I am thankful for small mercies-like being 'the biggest failure in the country'.
Copyright © Raffique Shah