By Raffique Shah
July 28, 2013
The tragedy of tomorrow’s by-election in Chaguanas West is that all of us—politicians, commentators, journalists, publicists and people—treated the exercise, more so the campaign, as a big joke, a comedy festival of sorts. In other words, we have all helped to perpetuate the unholy mess that passes for politics in a country where buffoonery triumphs over rationale, in a land where crapaud is king – or queen.
It’s not that we had much choice. Those who can make a difference, who can possibly convince the confused electorate to place reason before rhyme, sense before dollars, logic before rhetoric, have been hounded into hiding by philistines on platforms who have mastered the science of keeping the masses wired to accept mediocrity, or worse. That way, the people remain beholden to buffoons, resistant to enlightenment, and so the circus continues, ad infinitum.
For all the furore generated over his coarse remarks on Jack Warner’s platform, Guyanese Jailall Kissoon should be hailed as a trailblazer for Trinidad politics. His buffoonery is a glimpse into our future. It is where we are heading. Let us not fool ourselves.
It was not always this way. Those who do not know their history might be shocked to learn that there was a time not very long ago when many politicians maintained high standards during campaigns. And governance, while it was always far from perfect (some might say riddled with imperfections), showed a more civilised face.
Campaigning used to be about platform education and informative debates. Dr Eric Williams, prior to launching the PNM in 1956, conducted a series of public lectures at the Public Library, the “University of Woodford Square” and Harris Promenade. Masses of people attended these sessions that often triggered spirited debates. Indeed, the founding principal of St Benedict’s College, Dom Basil Matthews, challenged and debated Williams. Williams later adopted that style in campaigning, although he often savaged his opponents with a tart tongue and keen wit.
The titans of that era who used political platforms to deal in-depth with serious issues included Dr Rudranath Capildeo, CLR James, Lennox Pierre, Peter Farquhar, the Sinanan brothers Mitra and Ashford, Albert Gomes, Patrick Solomon, Simbhoonath Capildeo, Winston Mahabir. The level of discourse these men generated continued from the 1950s into the 1960s and the 1970s with the likes of Arthur NR Robinson, Lloyd Best and his Tapia crew, Makandal Daaga and the Black Power advocates, George Weekes and the trade union stalwarts, Basdeo Panday, and many more.
People used to make their way to meetings by whatever means (no free rides), walk with their snacks and hot beverages, and stand for hours absorbing the gems of speeches emanating from platforms. Oh, there was wit, humour and picong. But those punctuated the speeches, not dominated them. And even when they did not support the individuals or parties, the people often applauded, “Speech, boy, speech!” Or, “You preach!”
Where are we today? Buffoon Kissoon probably best represents the level our politics and campaigning have sunk to. “You see how ugly Jack is…he like Hanuman!” Applause. Laughter. “Jack is a lagahoo!” More applause. “Call me Sledge! Ah bad!” A group of “winers” gyrate on stage. A calypsonian sings a stale song. Moko Jumbies parade. Contending candidates and their backers “fogging up de stage”. It’s a road show. And we accept it as politics.
Today’s best platform performers (well, they are not orators) talk about box drains, potholes, their opponents’ anatomies and families, and who thief more than whom. They are incapable of rising from the gutter, so they cannot lift their audiences from the gutter. Politicians and people wallow in sludge, and both are happy with each other’s performances.
Against this grim backdrop, is there any hope for the nation? I hate to be so nihilistic about this sorry state of affairs, but I cannot help being realistic. In his final speech last Friday night, Jack Warner tried to rise above the rubble, to sound statesmanlike. But the damage had already been done in a devastating way. Mosques were desecrated in the holy month of Ramadan, mandirs transformed into dens of political iniquity as politicians and priests joined hands to lower the bar to a level below which no limbo dancer can go.
The only interesting aspect of this election is a likely Warner win in a heartland Indian constituency, which some see as breaking the race barrier. If he does beat the UNC, it will signal the collapse of Kamla’s leadership and a rejection of her ministerial cabal who cannot see the disappointment on the faces of the coalition’s swing supporters that made the difference in 2010.
This lot was always a one-term, grab-and-run government. The alternatives on offer neither excite the imagination nor stimulate the intellect. Ours is a resource-rich country that lacks the leadership that can rescue us from mediocrity or worse, and take us even halfway towards the paradise we can be.
For this sorry state of affairs, we must all share the blame.