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Hubris and fasting-to-death syndrome

By Selwyn Ryan

Over the past three weeks, we have been witness to an epic struggle between two traditions and patterns of political behaviour which are reflected in Greco-Roman mythology. We also witnessed aspects of neo-Gandhianism suspiciously at work. The battle is not yet fully at an end by any means. When it does end and we count the full cost, we will find that the characters would have paid a high price for their hubris, the Greek word for ambition and arrogance, which eventually led to disaster. Hubris is an occupational hazard to persons in public life, an affliction to which most leaders eventually fall victim. Few manage to avoid it. Some have it thrust upon them. Yet others acquire it with their stars.

Some two years ago, I used this column to advise the newly elected Prime Minister to be wary of the Icarus syndrome, the insolence and mental aberration that derives from man's political vanity, and his/her belief that one could overrule the gods. She may well have forgotten or ignored my advice. My concern today is however not with the Prime Minister who has had more than her share of public bashing. The personality on whom I turn the searchlight today is Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, the most recent Caribbean victim of the Icarus syndrome.

For those who might be curious about Icarus, we restate here the myth that surrounds him. He was a young sapling who was marooned on the island of Crete and who wanted to find his way home. He was provided with makeshift wings by his father, Daedalus, who constructed them out of feathers and glue. Icarus was advised to "rise", but to be careful not to fly too low or too high. Doing either could lead to cosmic disaster. Flying too low was evidence of a lack of ambition and entrepreneurialism. Flying too high was evidence of being an insolent showoff which could lead to death if he went off course.

Icarus, however, found flying much easier than his father imagined and disregarded his father's advice. Unfortunately, he grew overconfident, and flew too high. In doing so, he got much too close to the sun whereupon the wax that held his feathers together melted and became undone. Icarus fell into the sea and died. His affliction was the byproduct of initial success and vanity which bred ambition and arrogance.

I do not wish to engage in the ongoing debate about highway routes. I also have no opinion as to whether Dr Kublalsingh is a fraudster, a conman, or a charlatan as some insist. It is, however, clear he is less interested in the projects he wants to confront, and more interested in the process and the politics of the process. He is a professional activist (activism is an art, he tells us) in search of epic battles.

The same disposition was evident in the battle over the smelter and the steel plant. His horizon is larger than that of the canvas on which he imposes his projects. His concern is to steal fire from the gods and harass them.

As he himself put it, "This (hunger strike) is about developing a new platform for government in Trinidad and Tobago, not the vikey-vie planning. If you are going to build a mega project, do the thing properly. What they are doing (is) deliberately ignoring certain instruments that have been handed down by our social scientists, for example cost benefit analysis, so that they could use that opportunity to squeeze fat out of the land of the people of Mon Desir and Debe and put it in the hands of contractors. Actually, immense corruption."

Dr Kublalsingh also claims his concern is to change the way we construct our politics. His ambition is to "influence principled and scientific governance. Otherwise, chaos results".

I share Dr Kublalsingh's concerns about how we plan our mega projects and how we finance them. The operative concern seems to be, as he says, not "scientific governance", but who gets a turn to eat at the trough. I share Dr Kublalsingh's concern with how we husband and expend our resources.

There is nothing wrong and everything good in citizens agitating for change and development and against corruption. That is all part of the democratic political process in which civil society is heroically engaged. Dr Kublalsingh, however, has chosen to employ an extreme form of lobbying. One took place in India a few months ago when it was used by a 70-year-old popular leader, Anna Hazare, as a weapon to try and force MPs to take action in respect of corruption. Mr Kublalsingh might have been a copycat.

The general theoretical question asked by many in the case of India was, which was more "democratic", popular agitation involving threats to "fast to the death" or reliance on established institutions or to get policies accepted or working through established institutions?

There were millions who supported the "fast to the death" strategy to address the issue of corruption. There was also equal support for the view that the people had elected their representatives and as such reform should be effected through the duly constituted parliament. Both points of view had some validity.

The popular democrats, if we can call them so, argued that the existing party system blocked all positive change. Money had corrupted the existing political process. The other view was that there is no telling what would happen if publicity seeking holy men or shysters used extreme demands and made threats using self immolation by fiery death or a fast to death as their weapon of self destruction or constructive suicide. That might be a way to satisfy their urge to connect with their God.

Hazare tells us that he was giving thought to the meaning of human existence and the purpose of life and hit upon the use of fasting to death as a weapon which could be used on behalf of the poor.

Hazare, who was well past 70, successfully mobilised millions of people across rural India pledging to "fast to death" to secure reforms. Late last year, he turned his attention to urban India and attracted huge crowds. At one time it looked as if he would bring down the existing political establishment. The politicians were in a panic. The movement, however, got out of hand and attracted imitators who whipped up mass hysteria and brought the movement into disrepute by playing to the gallery using coercive tactics.

The problem with these unorthodox""ultimate" strategies is that they often get out of hand. Their copycat actions often damage political and social institutions and much else. Many of the activists are latent terrorists. I do not believe for a moment that Dr Kublalsingh is a terrorists, but he has the mental and physical stamina and characteristics of which terrorists are made. The problem is to find a place where hubris and ambition intersect to the benefit of the society.

In the meantime, I share the view of Panditai Rampersad who advised the PM "not to surrender to the Stockholm syndrome and show empathy and sympathy for a hostage-taker with a bomb in hand demanding that he gets what he wants or else he will take the ultimate step—much like a hostage-taker with a bomb in hand".

Happily, the Prime Minister has indicated that she is not about to genuflect to Dr Kublalsingh's obvious political vanity. She has a country to govern. I wish him recovery and hope that his actions do not attract imitators from peripheral urban and communities in the Beetham who can choke the city and then ask for "ransom", "amnesty" or "condonation" as occurred in 1970 and 1990.

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