October 06, 2002
By Raffique Shah
A COUNTRY hardly emerges from 10-plus years of political trauma physically and mentally unscathed. Yet, this is precisely what most sensible citizens hope for in the aftermath of tomorrow's general elections in Trinidad and Tobago. It may be wishful thinking on the part of patriots. After 40 years as an independent nation, several political leaders who privately trade on divisiveness have damaged the ethnic fabric of the society, some say beyond repair.
But eternal optimist that I am, I believe that these cracks are superficial, that with some diligent work by responsible people who do not wish for us to descend into the hellhole that is Guyana or Sierra Leone or Kashmir, we shall overcome the seeds of disunity. It will, however, take a Herculean effort on the part of the few to restore tranquility among the many, whatever the results of tomorrow's polls.
As I have written before, another 18-18 tie would be welcome only if we wish to engage in the bloody passage of rites that so many post-colonial societies have endured as a kind of catharsis. Or it could be, as Lloyd Best and others argue, "the best result", it would deliver us from the evil of two like parties, Bim and Bam, and make way for fundamental constitutional changes and the emergence of a party for all the people in this diverse society.
I am not convinced of the above, certainly not at this stage of our development. If ever we were to descend into a vortex of violence as a means of resolving our political differences, there won't be much left for the "victors" in any such a conflict. To put it bluntly, such descent into hell may be suitable for societies that do not have the potential for creating heaven on their wretched pieces of earth. In other words, they have little to lose-except a few hundred thousand miserable lives.
We are quite different to most of these hotbeds of strife in that we are blessed with natural resources that are more than adequate to transform the country from it underdeveloped state to prosperity. And our many talented citizens are perfectly capable of utilising these and other resources to the benefit of all if they are given the opportunity. The tapping of all talents available may be wishful thinking, though, since bright, visionary and pro-active people are the natural enemies of self-centred politicians.
These squabbles aside, what can we hope for after Monday? Another tie, as I argued above, could prove to be either a blessing in disguise or a curse that would haunt us for who-knows-how-long. A win for either of the two main parties, especially if it's by a narrow margin, could also spark the kind of reaction decent citizens don't care for. But if our leaders are responsible, and more than that if they act responsibly after Monday, we could see this thing through without so much as anyone coughing loudly.
Let me lay the cards squarely on the table. If the UNC were to win the elections, what indicators are there that Afro-Trinidadians (and Tobagonians) would be treated as outcasts? This is not to deny that there are rabid racists in the ranks of the UNC. But the party governed the country for six years, and while there were instances of racial discrimination in the upper reaches of boardrooms and senior management, there was no discrimination as to who would be consigned to "ketch arse" for life. Poor people from both races suffered equally during a time when the gods of oil were generous to us.
But that is-or was-par for the course on both sides of the political divide. Where the UNC government fell down, and eventually collapsed, was by its widespread abuse of the public purse. Despite Basdeo Panday's pronouncements to the contrary ("dey 'ent lock up ah UNC minister yet!"), there is little doubt that a gang of thieves operating from inside the party looted the Treasury in a manner no different to the way Beethan bandits would pounce upon an overturned biscuit truck! And whether or not the party forms the government, the thieves should be charged and locked up for life.
So the UNC can be accused of corruption and of harbouring racists in its ranks. But the party as government did not discriminate against Afro-Trinidadians the way some people claim. Which leads me to question the asinine threat made by one fool from Laventille who was interviewed on television recently. I feel certain he did not reflect the views of Laventille as a whole, or other communities that are Afro-dominated. But his threats of "war against Indians" in the event of a UNC win show the irrational level of thinking among the dregs of society-and here I mean 'dregs' in the mental sense. But don't worry, he has his equivalents among "Junglee" Indians!
By similar token, why do so many Indo-Trinidadians believe (or claim to believe) they would suffer at the hands of a PNM government, should the latter win the elections? The PNM ruled this country between 1956 and 1981 uninterrupted, and if there were instances of racial discrimination, they were no worse than what obtained under the UNC. I have heard some Indians say that if the PNM is returned to office this time around, "Indians go eat grass", while others have said they won't be able to live in this country again.
So where was the exodus of Indians between 1956-86? Oh, there was a mini-flight of a few unpatriotic neemakharams following the Panday-Robinson split in the NAR in 1987. But more than a generation of Indians grew up under PNM rule, thousands enjoyed the benefits of educational opportunities made available by the PNM (I certainly did), others prospered unhindered in business, and not one could genuinely claim to have been forced to flee this country because of PNM racism. Fears of any kind of "racial backlash" from a PNM victory on Monday are, therefore, mischievous at best, or a deliberate lie designed to drive fear in the hearts of Indians.
Still, the fact that these perceptions exist on both sides of the racial divide suggests that whoever wins the elections-and that's assuming there is a definitive result-has to work overtime to heal wounds that have been allowed to fester for forty-plus years. I wish the protagonists would rise above their narrow concerns for power, that they would both commit themselves to restoring peace and harmony in our not-so-badly-fractured society. Only then can we truly dub tomorrow "Merciful Monday".
Copyright © Raffique Shah