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Every cook can govern

December 23, 2001
By Raffique Shah

IT IS almost two weeks today since the general election of December 10 ended in an unprecedented 18-18 tie between the UNC and the PNM. President Arthur Robinson, in keeping with his status as both President of the Republic and elder statesman, in a bid to have the hiatus resolved amicably, has succeeded in having leaders of both parties meet and reach a "limited agreement". On these bases they will allow a new government to be formed, and more important, allow it to function. But, by coincidence or design, the final results are yet to be ratified, and until that time Basdeo Panday's lame duck government stays in office.

This electoral hiatus, the second in 12 months, has been very revealing–and I am not referring to the almost equal division between the two main racial groups in the country. Last year, President Robinson also took quite some time before he appointed Panday as Prime Minister, then because the Elections and Boundaries Commission had not given him official results of the elections. So, on two occasions within one year, people have had the opportunity to see the country function without an elected government in place. And contrary to the popular belief that politicians are indispensable, the evidence is there that "auto-pilot" seems to be a better option than some crazed "pilot" who is bent on crashing the ship of state just to show everyone that he's the boss, dead or alive.

Let's examine what has happened over the past two weeks during which we have not had a functioning government in place. Every ministry has functioned as if there was never a minister in charge. Once the policies for the various ministries and departments have been laid down and the funds are available, public servants, for all their faults, have proved themselves capable of running the country. In the Ministry of Finance, for example, Inland Revenue and the VAT office continue to collect taxes and pass them on to the consolidated fund. The customs department is as busy as it can be at this time, collecting more revenues for the state coffers. And I'm sure that royalties and other quarterly payments due to the ministry by oil and gas producers, among other industrialists, are being paid on time.

The police service has functioned better over the past two weeks than it did in the two-month period before the elections within days of the triple murder at Cascade, they have nabbed two suspects and charged them. They have also arrested and charged two persons for the murder of retired Major Joe Mader. And while crime continues its merry run well into the Christmas season, the situation is no different to what it was when Panday was Minister of National Security, or, for that matter, under earlier stewardships in different governments.

Outside of government, industry and commerce have functioned without so much as missing a beat. Retailers are complaining about the "slow Christmas spending", but when have they not complained? If manufacturers are apprehensive about the immediate future, it has nothing to do with a government not being in place, with the 18-18 tie. The decline in business, especially export trade, is a sign of the state of the global economy, something that began well before the events of September 11. And everyday life continues unimpeded. One gets sick, the EHS and hospitals are there, whatever their shortcomings–and these were there even as we had ministers in charge of health. The highways are being maintained, commuters realise that they don't need Jearlean John or Victor George to keep the flow going, and I can go on and on.

The question people should ask themselves is this: do we really need politicians, of whatever ilk, to run a country? Can we, as a people, if we all put our shoulders to the wheel, not keep the ship of state sailing? I strongly suggest that President Robinson takes his time in deciding upon a government just to allow sensible people to see that politicians are dispensable, if not wholly unnecessary, in any society. We have become too dependent on ordinary charlatans masquerading as messiahs, making tin Gods out of politicians who invariably have feet of clay.

Now I know this argument for people to reclaim their sovereignty may sound hollow, if not unworkable, in modern societies. But I believe it is sobering for people with sense (and I keep making this distinction because there are so many fools out there, especially educated fools!) to use this period to reflect on where we really want to go politically. Indeed, where we must go if we are to escape this 18-18 divide that suits the charlatans.

And to underscore my point, I turn to the wisdom of the Caribbean's foremost intellectual of the 20th century, CLR James. In his 1956 publication, "Every Cook Can Govern", he examined how the ancient Greek city-states worked. He wrote: "Every Greek city was an independent state. At its best, in Athens, the public assembly of all citizens made all important decisions on such questions as peace and war...They dealt with all serious questions of taxation, they appointed the generals who would lead them in time of war. They organised the administration of the state, appointed officials and kept check on them. The public assembly of all the citizens was the government."

James went on to explain that in "direct democracy" of that type, the people would assemble and elect (by drawing lots) a few from among them to govern. The only requirements were that they must have fought in the wars and paid their taxes. "They did not ask whether you could read or write...I would suspect that a great number of them were illiterate…At the end of that period they went out and another set came in, chosen in the same way."

"Modern parliamentary democracy elects representatives who constitute the government. Before (direct) democracy came to power, the Greeks had been governed by various forms of government, including governments by representatives. The (direct) democracy knew representative government and rejected it. It refused to believe that the ordinary citizen was not able to perform practically all the business of government. And this form of government is the government under which flourished the greatest civilisation the world has ever known."

I can add nothing that will enhance what James wrote back in 1960. We cannot return to "direct democracy", which is impractical in modern society. But people need to understand that it does not take genius to run a government. Every cook–or Adesh Nanan–can govern.

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