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Betraying a People's trust

August 05, 2001
By Raffique Shah

IF anyone had said to me 15 years ago, or as recently as 1995 when he assumed office as Prime Minister, that Basdeo Panday would head the most corrupt government ever in this country, I would have responded with an emphatic, "No way!"

Today, in the face of overwhelming evidence that he presides over a gang of bandits, a few of them inside his Cabinet, but mostly outsiders who are even more powerful than his ministers, I feel ashamed. Ashamed to have been partly responsible for foisting him on the country, ashamed of being Indo-Trinidadian ("look a t'iefing Indian dey!"), ashamed of being Trinidadian, period.

Based on all that I have written over the past two weeks about mainly "old PNM" corruption, and more so the strong anti-corruption stance of the "old ULF", Panday ought to have emerged as the knight in corruption-proof armour. I'm not suggesting that he's a saint-turned-sinner. When I knew him, he had all the weaknesses of someone who lusted after power: he was vengeful, vindictive, dictatorial, vain, and willing to crush anyone who stood in his path. But such qualities are not uncommon among political animals.

What I could say up until 1996 was what I had said to many who expected me to tarnish Panday's name because of our fallout in 1978: he was not corrupt. I had seen that tendency among others in the "old ULF". But not Panday. There was not a hint that he stole from poor litigants the way many attorneys did, or that he used his position as Leader of the Opposition to enrich himself. Maybe he's still clean, sitting much the way Eric Williams did, watching over the cesspool of corruption, taking copious notes, holding files on the corrupt for use at some opportune time. Many felt that Eric had "the goods" on his associates and would expose or jail them one day. He never did. When he died, a thick, dark cloud of corruption still hovered over his government.

When Panday came to office, however, the metamorphosis in his character came like the proverbial thief in the night, at least to those who know him only from a distance. His government did not wait to settle into office before evidence of corruption and nepotism surfaced. I shan't go into the gory details of the Cherokee Jeep scandal (weeks after the UNC formed the government), the Indian rice deal that cost NFM $30 million, the airport contracts that reeked of nepotism if not corruption, and others too numerous to mention. It was not just the corruption: after all, as apologists for the UNC argue, there was corruption under PNM rule. It was the way they went about it, the bandit-like, don't-give-a-damn attitude of those who were stealing public funds and flaunting their ill-gotten gains in the faces of the victims-the public.

Like Williams, Panday has made no visible efforts to stem the slush that would ultimately bury his government and party if it continues to flow unabated. Some may point to the arrest of ex-minister Dhanraj Singh on corruption charges as a signal that the PM is prepared to take action against anyone who is seen to be corrupt. In my view, Singh is a scapegoat. He is possibly the least of the sinners-and bear in mind that he is only charged, he is not guilty of any offence.

Again, like Williams, Panday has chosen to hide behind the fig leaf of the hollow cry: Bring me the evidence! He knows that hard evidence that could lead to criminal charges is accessible only to high officials, that banking information is confidential, and off-shore bank accounts almost invisible to the public. But he also knows that journalists have sources, that we get information that is damning, but we can't publish it because of the strictures of the laws governing libel. So just as the "old PNM" thieves of yesteryear got away with stacks of public funds, so too will the UNC thieves.

Panday knows only too well (hell, it was our mantra many moons ago) that corruption not only eats away at the moral fabric of a society, but it denies the poor and the hard working of their just shares of the national pie. For every million that is stolen from public funds, that's one million less to spend on health, on education, on sports, on housing, on social welfare. Multiply that by 100 or 1,000, and the true measure of the banditry that's overtaken this society can be better gauged. In other words, people are denied decent standards not because of a paucity of funds. They are robbed by those who insist on living high on the public's hog, at the expense of the masses.

These factors, I suspect, touched Ralph Maharaj's conscience and prompted him to comment on the perception of runaway corruption in the UNC government. Based on his early tutelage in politics, Panday ought to have been the one to clamp down on corruption long before Maharaj's conscience pricked him. But Bas has changed. Power, it is said, corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Well, Panday must have absolute power, given his frenzied, almost frenetic behaviour every time charges of corruption are leveled at his government.

In his stupor, he probably has not noted that many prominent Indians, among them newspaper columnists who once endorsed his government with passion, have become critical of corruption in the UNC. I suspect he will dismiss them, especially the writers, as "PNM tools". He does not hear, too, the rumblings from the ground, from among his diehard supporters who feel cheated, betrayed. Oh, he knows that if Ralph resigns and if many more take up the anti-corruption chant, he'll still retain his dominance in the traditional support base.

But his support base is shrinking much faster than he thinks. Sensible Indians are openly saying they feel ashamed of their race since the government, which is perceived to be Indian, is also perceived to be a den of thieves. They feel that they and their children will be condemned to carry the burden of the sins of this government. Interestingly, many of the thieves in government are not Indian. But the Prime Minister is Indian, so all Indians are perceived to be thieves.

So Panday can rant and rave and misbehave, he is not fooling anyone. Not even those who applaud him as he oozes venom. The wider population feels its trust in "the man" has been violated. In the twilight of his political career, he faces an avalanche of "people fury" that's about to envelop him. Pity the poor bugger.

A Culture Of Corruption Part 1
The trickle down effects of corruption Part 2

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