By Raffique Shah
December 20, 2017
It must have been at the funeral for a military colleague that Brigadier Joseph Theodore, then a minister in the Basdeo Panday administration, pulled me aside for private conversation, which he initiated by brusquely whispering in my ear: “Raf, you couldn’t £$&*g warn me about getting involved in politics?” I laughed, but Joe continued his mini-tirade about the underworld of politics in which one “had to tolerate so much s%$t” in contrast to the military, where order, discipline, rules and regulations reigned supreme, and where, generally, soldiers lived by codes of honour that implied implicit trust in one’s comrades.
Such standards did not exist among politicians, much to Theodore’s disappointment. “I feel sorry for them,” he said.
In response, I told Joe he should have noted that I spent five short years in the jungle of parliamentary politics, after which I “buss it”, never to seek or accept office again. It is a culture that is alien to the mores of military life, especially for professionals like Joe and me (among others) who had trained at one of the elite military colleges in the world, Britain’s Sandhurst. For two long, tough years, some of the finest staff and instructors had hammered into us the codes and principles of good conduct, honour and honesty, fairness and fearlessness, of leadership by example, always putting the interests of one’s men and one’s country before self.
This is not to paint all soldiers as paragons of virtue, and all politicians as scoundrels. Far from it, many officers and too many among the other ranks engage in unsavoury, sometimes criminal activities that bring their units into disrepute. Incidents in the latter category are occurring with alarming frequency.
But the ratio of military personnel who engage in misconduct when compared with politicians is miniscule. Indeed, public perception is that every politician is a crook, guilty unless proven innocent. Their infractions are not limited to corruption, but extend to nepotism, influence peddling, and most of all lying. They are compulsive liars. It’s an indispensible tool of their trade.
It must have been these latter traits, which are inextricably linked to the profession, not just locally, but globally, that upset Theodore, hence his bitterness over having to coexist with some of the most artful practitioners in the Panday administration.
Mark you, I don’t envy the buggers. I pity them. They serve at the pleasure of the electorate, which, in Trinidad and Tobago, seems to take a perverse delight in granting them no more than five years to play themselves before they bring them crashing to the ground, to the reality that power is but a fleeting illusion, that politicians’ shelf-lives are shorter than a “doubles” in a greedy Trini’s mouth.
In this regard I pity them because, caught between a restless, demanding population that has grown accustomed to living heavily subsidised lifestyles, and pontificating professionals who profess to have all the answers to economic and social challenges that are of global proportions, the politicians are dammed if they do, and damned if they don’t.
For instance, in the current situation where revenues, hence foreign exchange earnings, have plummeted, economists insist that the government must devalue the dollar, down to eight-to-one US dollar, some say ten-to-one, which Trinis know is murder. Because we import 90 percent of all we consume (food, clothes, furniture, appliances, toiletries etc), prices of all goods and services would axiomatically double—killing the poor and middle classes, but hardly wounding the wealthy.
Such drastic measure would be suicidal for the incumbents.
The trade unions say “not a man must go”, meaning that no workers, including those who were added to establishments that are grossly overstaffed and under-producing, many on short-term, politically-expedient contracts, must be terminated. That most state institutions and enterprises simply do not have the money to pay salaries is immaterial to the conversation.
Only the finance minister knows what magic he must weave every end-of-month to meet the billion-dollar salaries bill.
The “lochos” at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder insist they must get “wuk” where they don’t actually have to work, but must be paid (or they will burn tyres and block roadways). The government has no choice but to satiate this ogre they and their predecessors created, for fear of being branded inhumane.
Meanwhile, in millionaires’ row where the good life keeps rolling on whatever the state of the economy, luxury limousines line the garages of super-posh mansions and enclaves that are insulated from the crime rampage by high-tech security and hired guns. Conspicuous consumption continues unabated even as the elite insist that the government keep the restless natives in check, by whatever means necessary.
Throw them a hamper here, a bouncy castle there (oh, how I miss Glenn Ramadharsingh!). After all, ’tis the season of giving, ’tis Christmas time. If the natives cry out for bread, give them black cake or the crumbs thereof-and hope that among the mites there aren’t a few aiming real guns at you!
In the spirit of the season, regardless of the realities, I wish all—patricians, politicians and plebes—a peaceful, enjoyable Christmas.