Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Our hollow head


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There is no escape from absurdity in Trinidad and Tobago. From one election that confirmed race putrefying our politics 50 years after Independence, we move to the farce of another, the choice of the President of the Republic, a large cardboard figure at the highest level of national affairs.

Serious change requires frankness. There is a huge hollowness at the head of our state. The President is selected, not elected. The Parliament rubber stamps the Government's choice. Any voting is a sham. And the absurdity takes place in our highest place, where MPs, smaller cardboard cutouts, will be as impotent as when they allowed the Parliament to be manipulated into freeing some ruling party financiers accused of massive corruption. And after the presidential choosing charade, the new cardboard elected will emerge to do the Government's bidding for the next four years, possibly sign another Section 34 to subvert the law, and be a weather vane in his longing for a second term.

With such a process, the presidency can't be more than meaningless. I can't understand why any sane person would want the job. It has to be one of the most unbearably boring jobs in the world. You have no mandate to meet and no authority to act independently except with a handful of appointments, and even here you should not unnerve your overlord, the Prime Minister, lest you are denied foreign travel at state expense or funds to repair your residence. So unless you have become intellectually lazy, and want camouflaged decay, how could anyone endure it? Like being the Queen of England. How could that poor lady have survived 60 years of being a cardboard monarch? She must be "a very special woman'' indeed. Living in total luxury; no challenges except from your wayward children and daughters-in-law. It is dehumanising.

It is therefore not surprising that, except for ANR Robinson, our presidents have been distinctly unremarkable. It's the nature of the job. Their fault is in choosing it. What have any done that is truly memorable or inspiring? Some people mention Ellis Clarke's "dilemma'' in selecting George Chambers as prime minister after the death of Eric Williams. That was no challenge. Clarke had no choice or felt he had none. Had he not chosen Chambers, the PNM's base would have eaten him raw. But had he appointed Kamaluddin Mohammed, the deserving senior of the three deputies, the country and the PNM could have turned out differently. Clarke missed his chance with history. Instead, as President, he left us his image of the dancing, ageing debonair of the cocktail circuit.

And Noor Hassanali? A "good'' man who must hold the record as the most colourless person in the universe. I try hard to remember something he said or did for eight years as President, and all that comes to mind is his stooping to tie the shoelaces of a boy scout at some ceremony or the other.

He was hailed as the epitome of humility for it and repeated the act for another scout on another occasion. The nation's president was on the lookout for the loose laces of errant boy scouts! Thank God editorial wisdom prevailed and Hassanali did not make the front pages twice for that triviality.

As I said, you remember "Robbie''. Of gutsy political pedigree, including standing up to Eric Williams as well as "attack with full force'' under the gun, President Robinson, in a memorable and unprecedented address to the nation, alerted the country to the "galloping dictatorship'' of the Basdeo Panday regime that appointed him. He also used the power of delay to make his views known on appointing too many defeated general election candidates as senators, but eventually had to allow the Prime Minister his way.

And then there is the incumbent, Professor Max Richards. The major statement of his presidency has been his undying love for our declining Carnival. As an opinion-shaper, "Max'' could have helped to return the festival to its original uniqueness. But he uttered not a single lament about the present corrosive banality of our premier cultural product. Without such intervention, his high presence and participation in this mere mass street fete can only be interpreted as an endorsement of the annual paltriness. A regular headline he generates around Carnival is "fete to the max''. If he truly understood the Carnival, he would have helped to save it.

This brings us to the one area from which, even our cardboard presidents can do something meaningful. They have a platform from which to speak. And no one, including the Prime Minister can stop them. They can be independent if they choose, and speak with sufficiency on most matters: the economy, culture, education, environment, poverty eradication and more. From a presidency could emanate a significant body of thought that would inspire youth and influence the direction of the society. But that requires guts, insight, creativity and commitment to the people at whose expense you luxuriate.

Sadly, after almost 40 years and all that expenditure, nothing truly enduring has come from the minds of the presidents of Trinidad and Tobago.

There is an almost total absence of poetry and philosophy. They have therefore been weakest where they should have been very strong, deficient where they should have been nourishing. Examine presidential speeches over the last 40 years in this country and you will find overwhelming predictability and pedestrianism; little or no references to history or literature; no originality whatsoever.

I am reminded of lines from "Gerontion'' by TS Eliot, who profoundly explored the barrenness of modern life: "we are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men…headpiece filled with straw.'' Constitution reform now!

• Ralph Maraj is a former

government minister.