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Raffique Shah


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Political cocktail: the sacred and the profane

By Raffique Shah
May 23, 2010

I am told by people who have witnessed election campaigns in other Caribbean countries that ours are not unique in their curious blend of the sacred and the profane. I regret not having experiences like theirs so I can make comparisons. I doubt, though, that elections platforms in any other country can rival ours when it comes to hypocrisy, contradictions and shamelessness.

Can anyone tell me when abortion became an issue important enough to dominate campaign speeches? I know in countries where religion supersedes secularism, issues like abortion, wearing symbols like the cross, women covered in 'niquabs', the length of men's beards, and castes of the candidates, to name but a few, are real. Zealots immersed in their rigid beliefs maim or kill perceived heretics for violating their canons or edicts or religious laws.

But such extreme electioneering happens in backward countries, not in Trinidad and Tobago. We have here a multiplicity of ethnic groups, of people adhering to myriad 'faiths'; we also have the most rum-shops or upscale bars per square kilometre; we fashioned a 'bumsee' Carnival that has infected many countries and cities across the world; and we have added so many religious festivals and holy days that, should we accede to requests for public holidays for them all, we would need two years to fit them into one!

These are our contradictions, yet we fail to admit to them. Politicians see nothing wrong in wooing votes in places of worship with full blessings of a pastor or pundit or imam in some mosque or temple or church, then stepping next door into a bar where profanity rules, to hug and sip alcohol with drunken patrons.

Which is why I was amazed when the abortion issue surfaced on the PNM platform. 'From ah born', as my Tobago brethren would say, to the autumn years I now enjoy, I have known that abortions are commonplace in this country. It's against the law. But if ever the state, driven by fundamentalism, were to try to enforce this law, thousands of teenage and mature women, not to add doctors and 'back-a-yard' abortionists, would bring the overburdened justice system to a screeching halt. The authorities would have to convert all of Mr Manning's unoccupied high-rise buildings into jails-and they would still need more space for these 'felons'.

It just does not make sense. Just as the furore over ex-priest Kennedy Swaratsingh is a non-issue. What's wrong with Kennedy preaching from a pulpit one day and sleeping with a woman later that night? We should be thankful he did not mess around with choir boys! More than that, his sins (if they can be so categorised) are tame when compared with many clerics from most religions who answer nature's call to 'rise' while still adorned in their cassocks, kurtas or dhotis. I am sure most readers know of such 'hoodlum priests' (or pundits and imams).

In this country where the profane far outnumber the sacred, the issues are not abortion, not de-frocking a priest, not who has a spiritual advisor and who a 'jharaying pundit'. The vast majority of people who vote tomorrow want to see a reduction in crime from Tuesday. They want the protective services to honour their oaths of office and the politicians to honour their promises. They want water in their taps. The unemployed want jobs. The under-employed want better wages and salaries. The infirm expect much-improved health care. Communities want better roads and services.

I cannot exhaust the list of expectations that people have of whichever party is elected to govern them. If politicians think rhetoric will satiate people's needs, they will be in for a rude awakening in short order. While far too many people remain stuck in the politics of race-and this remains a determining factor more than most would admit-they also know they cannot take their ethnicity to the supermarket or job site after the elections madness has subsided. Indeed, race is a major issue only during elections.

Many readers might have expected me to 'call' the elections results in today's column. Truth be told, while I watched the People's Partnership make gains over the past week, I am not foolish enough to predict a runaway win for the PP. 'There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip,' an old English proverb warns. With a little more than 72 hours to go between when I write this and the polls close on Monday evening, anything can change how people vote.

I shall be most surprised, though, if the PNM retains the 26 seats it won in the last elections. As it stands, Mr Manning is fighting for survival, not for coronation. He would be lucky to retain power, and if he does, it would be by the narrowest of margins. That does not bode well for his political future.

The PNM has reached a critical crossroad in its long history. For all its sins of commission and omission, as Keith Rowley has been bold enough to admit, it has been the most stable party in the country's history. But it cannot survive on past glory. It faces a future that demands radical change. If it fails to re-engineer itself it could be buried in the rubble of tomorrow's elections.

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