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When Things Fall Apart

August 19, 2001
By Raffique Shah

FINANCE Minister Gerald Yet Ming, who is no doubt a good Christian, clearly believes in the biblical injunction, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven." What he will learn, though, as he tries to persuade the warring factions in the UNC to "talk" in order to heal the rift in the ruling UNC, is that there is one law for mankind and another for political animals. Because while the main protagonists, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday and Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj, will heed his call and "talk", what they say to each other, and to their supporters, may not be quite what Yet Ming has in mind.

In his opening salvo, for example, Panday also waxed biblical by blasting the "Judases in the party". Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ to the Romans, is alleged to have kissed his Master after he had accepted 30 pieces of silver to deliver the latter's head on a platter. We must conclude, therefore, that Maharaj and others kissed Panday somewhere, sometime, and most important on some part of his anatomy that The Chief did not find exciting. Maharaj was quick to deny that he was a "Judas": clearly he does not believe in "kiss and tell", and was put off by Panday's public exposure of what must have been a private arrangement.

If the banker-turned-Finance-Minister was stung by the harshness of language that flowed from the PM's mouth, he must have been floored when Panday jumped into the gutter to wrestle the "cobos" (I did not hear him use the highfalutin term "corbeaux"; he is a "cobo" man) that were stalking him. That description of his enemies evoked memories of old Western movies in which some hapless cowboy trudges through the wilderness, half-dead for lack of food and water, and stalked by ugly vultures that pounce even before he makes his final stumble. One does not wish such fate on one's worst enemies, far less one's Prime Minister.

It is only a matter of time before the gutter sniping in the UNC makes way for "mud wrestling". Yet Ming can take it from someone who has been there and done that, that once Panday strips down to his boxers and sees some mud around, he dives head-first into it. He should ask Kelvin Ramnath about the stellar performance Panday put on at a bazaar held in Balmain on the eve of the 1976 general election.

When 'The Bas" is properly plied and ready to roll in mud, and more so if there is throbbing tassa to accompany his act, he puts on quite a show. In Balmain that day, his white clothes were ruddy brown by the time I pulled him out of the "mud dance". His brother, Subhas, and hundreds of ULF supporters who were present, will bear testimony to Panday "romancing the mud" that Sunday afternoon.

So Yet Ming is yet to see the "best of Bas", or the worst, depending on one's perspective. Look, let me be blunt with the Finance Minister: cockroach should stay out of fowl business, a Trini adage that is not irrelevant, certainly not in the animal kingdom of politics. When he left the sanitized world of banking in which employees and managers barely whisper to each other when they speak, the last place he thought he'd end up was in a political "whore house". Soon he will rue the day he made that fateful decision. Politics is not for the faint-hearted. It is also not an arena in which decent people want to be, especially if those in control come from the gutter.

Over the next few months, this country will witness the most bruising internal political battle we have ever seen. What happened in the ULF in 1977/78 will pale when compared with what's on the cards for the UNC. Then, we who dared to oppose Panday foolishly thought that qualities like principle and idealism prevailed over the pettiness we saw in everyday life. How wrong we were. When the mess hit the fan, we had no place to shelter. So we had to clutch our bags of "principle" and "idealism" and run for cover, away from the Philistines who had seized the time and the minds of the masses.

Then, we were in opposition, so the stakes were not so high. Today, the UNC is in government, controlling billions of dollars in the Treasury as well as plum positions for those who do their master's bidding. Worse, the Treasury has become a "feeding trough" for those who have the right "pin" combinations to open up the vaults. Few will willingly walk away from this political El Dorado. So the battle is going to be bitter, and if Yet Ming (and others like him who are unaccustomed to "jammette" behaviour) does not take cover soon, he would be sucked into the vortex of war without end. Or one that will end only when the combatants drop dead.

In such a situation, the peacemaker often ends up absorbing blows from both sides because neither side wants peace. If Yet Ming were observant, he would notice Panday foaming at the mouth whenever he speaks. The venom he once directed at his enemies is now turned inward, in the direction of those who applauded him when he blasted journalists. Today, they are getting a taste of the same bitter medicine they saw being shoved down the throats of others.

The main casualty in this war, though, will be the UNC. Already, its members and supporters are badly divided over who they perceive to be right or wrong. Neighbours are cursing each other, families are divided on the issue, it is debated in bars across central Trinidad. As it intensifies, bloodletting may well be the order of the day-or night-since politics and alcohol form a deadly cocktail. At this stage, having achieved most of what he wanted in life, Panday couldn't care less. Who dead, dead, as Trinis often say.

Sometime last week a prominent UNC official asked me if I had ever read Chinua Achebe's novel, "Things Fall Apart". Indeed, I read the book many years ago. It's an intriguing story set in post-colonial Africa, the lead character being a smartman-turned-politician who went on to fool the masses, gain power, wield it in the most unscrupulous manner-until time and the said masses caught up with him. I think things are falling apart for Panday, and he'll take the UNC with him when he goes. He must be thankful, though, that he has been able to fool many people for a very long time.

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