May 12, 2002
By Raffique Shah
THE "food-fight" between ex-Prime Minister Basdeo Panday and current PM Patrick Manning is most unbecoming of men holding such high office, and it raises questions about their suitability for the highest political appointment in the country. Living as I do on a street that's the domain of no less than 101 "pothounds" (and I swear I didn't copy that number from the movie), I felt as if the dogfight over who-ate-what were taking place on my street, complete with snarling, barking and biting. Manning was accused of having piping hot food, prepared at the kitchen in the official residence, delivered to him at his San Fernando home. And in this political-circus-without-end, the PNM shot back by claiming that during his extended stay at La Fantasie, Panday and his cohorts went on a food-orgy, racking up a bill of $187,000.
The trading of blows between two political foes, given the sharp divisions in the society and the close results in the last few elections, is not unexpected. In fact, as far as Panday is concerned, campaigning did not stop last December after the general elections. Manning, too, knows he has to face the electorate sooner rather than later, so he would say and do things with elections in mind. But while politiking is par for the course, cat-fights and dogfights are not. Worst of all, food-fights reduce these men to the level of mongrels.
If it's true that Manning has food delivered from La Fantasie to San Fernando by express delivery, complete with police escort. Since he has opted not to stay at the official residence, Manning must be prepared to forego some of the perks that go with the office. I don't see why a cook cannot operate at the PM's private residence. Since it's only two persons who presumably eat breakfast and dinner (lunch could come from the official residence), what's the problem having a cook at his home? If the allegation is untrue, then Manning must speak out since the perception among the population is that he has converted the PM's kitchen into a fast-foods outlet.
I have thus far treated the food-escort-service as a joke, and I'll tell you why. Ever since Manning assumed office, I have noticed that he uses far less police escorts than Panday did. Without breaching security or exposing the PM to danger, I have seen only two marked police vehicles escorting the PM and his wife to and from Port of Spain. In contrast, when Panday was in office and attended any function, from a private poolside party at some bigshot friend to a pooja at a Mandir, one saw no fewer than a dozen flashing blue lights. It was the first time, too, that we saw policemen riding cars with doors ajar, ready to leap into action-clearly mimicking the elaborate detail that accompanies the US President.
In Panday's case, I find the explanations we've had for the $187,000 expenditure on food and drinks amusing if not outrageous. Let me get one fallacy out of the way, since the population has been misled into believing that the "PM's household staff" are all entitled to free food. That is not true. There are no more than about a dozen members of staff who are catered for. These include some members of the kitchen staff (who work very odd hours), some service personnel, and a few more. Soldiers and policemen who guard the PM are not entitled to "ration". Nor are daytime staff who fall under the Public Service. In fact, it is even questionable as to whether the PM and his family are entitled to free food, since he is well paid and should be made to face the supermarket like other citizens.
What got my goat with Panday's massive food bill were the items that were bought. Now, everyone knows that Panday is a devout Hindu-at least that's what he portrays himself as. Yet, it was revealed that among the meats purchased were huge quantities of beef, pork and beefsteaks! Who ate the beef? And the pork? Surely, his head of household, Captain Gary Griffith, does not look like a man who devours meat. In any event, unless he's a glutton, he couldn't "put away" 30 kilos each of beef, pork, steaks, shrimp and more within two months. And what cook or bottle-washer would be served steak? If that were so, then half the public service would volunteer to work at the PM's residence.
So we have to assume that persons other than members of Panday's staff had a feast-or food-orgies-at taxpayers' expense. I could see Carlos John and Gerald Yet Ming digging into the finest pork chops or beef steaks, and Jack Warner looks like he revels in "ah piece ah pork". But most of Panday's other party colleagues who frequented the official residence after the elections were people like Ganga Singh, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Fazal Karim and Sadiq Baksh, to name just a handful. Maybe they could say who ate the beef and pork, because I'm sure that good Hindus and Muslims that they are, they'd never touch "haram" beef or "halal" pork!
As for the $1,000-a-bottle champagne and fine wines and whiskies purchased, really, I have no problem with these. Surely, an outgoing Prime Minister is entitled to drown his sorrow in nothing but the finest of spirits! And everyone-in-the-know knew that while "The Bas" was in office, his friends could always look forward to the PM entertaining them with scotch and coconut water wherever the official car went. At home it was no different: his parties were said to be events invitees could not miss out on, with food and drinks fit for Buckingham Palace being served.
Now, with the "food fight" getting nastier by the day, I suspect that Panday will soon provide us with photos of the police delivering hot meals to the Mannings. That should send more than a few voters hopping mad. And Manning would more than likely set up a Commission of Enquiry into his predecessor's feeding-frenzy, more so to find out what happened to the kilos of beef and pork. If it's discovered that some people who weren't supposed to be eating pork made "Chamars" of themselves ("Chamar" being outcast Hindus who are entitled to eat pork), or that certain self-proclaimed Muslims ate "haram" beef, then the cow dung would really hit the fan!
Whatever the outcome of this ongoing spat, both Manning and Panday should think of the shame they are bringing to the office of the Prime Minister. Food fights are for vagrants and mongrels, not for leaders of our nation.
Copyright © Raffique Shah