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Nightmare at Crowne Plaza

December 13, 2001
By Raffique Shah

ANYTIME the citizens of this country, or people elsewhere in the world, have difficulties in determining differences between "police and thief", we would find ourselves in deep crisis. It is not that this has not happened before. In fact, today, it is not uncommon for bandits to disguise themselves as policemen, gruffness et al, and proceed to gain entry into people’s homes and commit the most heinous crimes. Conversely, we have seen many policemen collaborate with criminals, from drug lords to burglars, reducing the concept of law, order and justice to a joke, and law-abiding citizens to victims of both "police and thief".

This analogy came to mind when news broke late last Friday night that the leaders of the UNC and PNM had arrived at a "limited agreement" to break the 18-18 deadlock that resulted from the December 10 general election. At the time of writing this column (Saturday morning), details of the agreement are yet to be made public. I cannot, however, conceive of what kind of consensus, agreement–call it what you will–Basdeo Panday and Patrick Manning could possibly arrive at. Here we have the leaders of two parties that purport to represent different policies, different principles, and radically different approaches to governance, supposedly finding common ground that will allow them to form a "government of national unity", whatever that might be.

President Arthur Robinson, faced with an unprecedented tie in the elections’ results, had no choice but to first see if it were possible to have the two contenders for the position of Prime Minister agree on how a new government could be formed. That was one way of getting rid of the hot potato that had unexpectedly landed in his lap. But I doubt that even he expected anything positive to come out of discussions between Panday and Manning. After all, the President is an ardent student of history and politics, added to which he was both a victor and victim of Panday’s warped concept of "national unity". And he knows only too well that the latter’s rank opportunism, his notoriety as the biggest political quack to have wormed his way to prominence and power, will never allow for real unity.

Manning, too, is acutely aware of this deadly trait in his opponent. He must have known that walking into that meeting at the Crowne Plaza hotel could be likened to descending into a pit of vipers. But the President of the Republic had requested that he meet with Chief Power Crazy, so I guess he went along. What happened behind the closed doors of the meeting room, however, remains secret. What we saw on television after the talks, though, was suspicious, to say the least: there was Panday, his trademark grin-even-as-I-cut-your-throat etched on his face, hugging Manning and saying loudly for all to hear, "Let’s go home, kid!" Kid? How insulting!

Look, I may sound like the perennial pessimist when it comes to what is loosely termed "national unity". But I can tell you, I have good reasons to be sceptical when it comes to dealing with Panday. Back in 1986, when the entire country lined up behind the NAR vociferously proclaiming a new day for our people, I was the lone dissenting voice pronouncing the NAR dead even before it won the elections 33-3. With just about everyone of standing in the society joining the masses that thronged NAR meetings, Panday repeatedly remarked: "The only man in this country who is against national unity is Raffique Shah!" The crowds applauded him wildly, and I was the victim of derision.

Well, it didn’t take the country long to realise why someone like me, one of a select few who put their lives on the line fighting against PNM post-independence policies, did not support the NAR. Panday made short work of that marriage of convenience, and within months, the disparate and desperate forces, whose only common ground was their hatred of the PNM, were rent asunder. After "burying" Robinson in 1991, at the cost of putting the PNM back in power, Panday would once more go to bed with the NAR leader following the 17-17-2 results of the 1995 general elections. And for yet another time he spat out Robinson and Pamela Nicholson like plum seeds, once he had secured his position as Prime Minister.

So why would he now have any interest in joining with the PNM to form a coalition government, or a "government of national unity"? The sole reason is to remain in the corridors of power, to allow him access to state resources so that he could cut Manning’s throat at the earliest possible opportunity. If Manning does not realise that, then that’s his funeral, quite literally, I should add. Which brings me to the analogy with which I began this column, that of "police and thief" being one and the same.

Panday’s government fell from power on the issue of corruption, a political cancer that first surfaced within weeks of him assuming the office of Prime Minister. He summarily dismissed allegations of corruption, and whatever probes there were, were cosmetic, not intending to really get at the thieves. When Ramesh Maharaj and company "buss the mark", giving credence to what journalists and PNM politicians were saying and writing since 1996, Panday continued to evade the issue.

But he was forced into calling fresh elections, seeking a mandate based on performance. The PNM’s platform, as was Team Unity’s, was solidly anti-corruption. And although Manning did not win the election by a clear majority, one mandate he got was to probe allegations of corruption, and if justiciable evidence is unearthed, to lock up those who are so fingered.

He also got a mandate to probe the EBC, to ensure that it functions within the law and not as a law unto itself.

Now, if the two arrived at some kind of "arrangement" that would see them share power, how would "police" Manning pursue the thieves within the UNC? In case the PNM leader does not realise it, both PNM supporters and those who did not vote expect him to attack corruption with full force. But if "police" and "thief" are sitting alongside each other, if they intend to share the "spoils" the way bandits split their loot, then what happens to the hopes of honest citizens? Are we sinking into a bottomless pit of immorality in which political expediency comes before integrity in public affairs? We can only hope that what transpired over the past two days was merely a nightmare at Crowne Plaza, nothing worse.

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