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Office first, later for country

By Raffique Shah

I'M TEMPTED to echo a remark made famous by CLR James. Whenever politics in this country, and oftentimes elsewhere in the world, took a particular turn, "Nello" would turn to us lesser mortals and say: "I told you so!" But then I'm not in Nello's league, and I won't arrogate unto myself the status of political pundit or guru.

Still, I was not surprised when Basdeo Panday and his MPs, as well as those UNC members who benefitted from the spoils of office, decided not to honour the agreement reached with the PNM as soon as they realised that Patrick Manning, not Panday, will be the new Prime Minister. In other words, all Panday's rhetoric about "a mature people showing the world we could work things out peacefully", was just so much hogwash. What he had hoped for was that he could dupe Manning into accepting him (Panday) back in office, in which case he would have jettisoned the agreement as soon as he got control of the House and the Senate.

President Robinson rained on Panday's planned parade by choosing Manning over him. And therein lies the main bone of contention: office first, later for country. Panday will rally his supporters by having them believe that Robinson and Manning had a secret agreement (other UNC MPs have hinted at that), that his exclusion from office was a racial matter, not one that was made on other considerations. In fact, many of his supporters, egged on by rabble-rousers in the ranks, would have us believe that part of the President's statement when he appointed Manning was an insult to Hindus.

That is far from the truth. Anyone with a modicum of common sense knew that Robinson was referring to moral and spiritual values that are common to all religions (and to atheism and agnosticism as well). UNC supporters who are being misled by their MPs and leader should ask themselves this question: was it not the same Mr Robinson who opted to join with Panday, not Manning, following the 17-17-2 impasse in the 1995 general elections? Is it not true that the PNM had polled more votes than the UNC then, and that Robinson's rationale was that Manning had called an early election seeking a fresh mandate, but instead lost some seats?

Taking that argument further, was it not Panday who called snap elections, seeking, he told his supporters, 24 seats? And did he not lose one instead, not to add a significant number of overall votes? So was Robinson right in 1995 but wrong in 2001? Was he sane then, but senile today, as some disrespectful UNC fanatics are suggesting? I expect that at yesterday's "special national congress" of the party, speaker after speaker will have lambasted Robinson in the vilest manner, further exposing their unsuitability for high offices.

In view of the undisguised "call to arms" by UNC MPs, I wonder what Panday has to say now about "insurrectionists"? Anyone who dared to disagree with him when he was PM was deemed an "insurrectionist". Who are the "insurrectionists" now, Mr Panday? However much he and his gang may disgree with Robinson's choice of Manning as PM, they all know that it was a legitimate act, and that Manning is the duly named (if not elected) Prime Minister until general elections are held sometime soon. If, therefore, during this period, there are those who are intent on fomenting strife, on inciting people to commit acts of sabotage, then I say lock them up! There is nothing in law that says ex-ministers or even ex-Prime Ministers cannot be arrested for "insurrection".

Having put Panday and his gang of misfits to rest, let me now turn to Manning, who seems bent on blowing the last chance he would ever have as Prime Minister of the country. With an 18-18 tie reflecting the deep division in the society, and his hold on office tenuous at best, one would expect that Manning's choice of ministers would have excited the population. He said on campaign platforms that he had had time to reflect since he last held office, that what we were seeing was a "different PNM".

What has he delivered so far? He has foolishly brought back into Cabinet the controversial persons who were partly responsible for bringing down his government in 1994. Look, I know Lenny Saith is a very capable man, and I know he got a "bum rap" with that FCB loan write-off. But perception is what matters most in politics. And if many people see Saith as being controversial, then he has no business in a shaky Cabinet. Ditto for Knowlson Gift. Too, while Hazel Manning is very personable and may well prove to be a competent minister, why select her when you are walking an 18-18 tightrope?

No one could blame him for offering ministries to the PNM's 18 elected MPs, since he had little choice there. But he certainly had total control over his selection of senators and ministers from the latter. By Friday afternoon, when he had sworn in all but one of his ministers, he had failed to impress those who expected exciting times, the parliamentary gridlock notwithstanding. Now, talk is that he is about to commit an unforgivable sin (and I hope it's only "ole talk"). There are regulations in the military that prevent serving officers from holding political office. And there are conventions that dictate that you don't take a junior officer and put him in charge of his seniors, which is what would happen if Colonel Peter Joseph is named Minister of National Security.

Don't walk into that minefield, Mr Prime Minister. Colonel Joseph is a future CDS, as is Colonel Antoine. Let them be. I don't know that Manning can now undo the foolishness he has done in the past week, even if he sees political death staring him in the face. But blessings often come in disguise. Manning's political ineptitude combined with Panday's ragamuffin behaviour may well open the door for new politics, for a new generation of politicians coming from among our patriotic youths, dynamic people between the ages of 25 and 45.

To emphasise the latter, in replying to a young women who recently wrote to me about my commentaries, and wondered whether I'd be inclined to "get back into politics", I said: "Your generation has an obligation to save this country. Don't trust (your future to) anyone over the age of 50. We 'old fogeys' (I'm almost 56) must be cast aside in order to allow the country to breathe clean, fresh air." Need I say more?

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