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Political animals

Saturday, July 28, 2012

I choked on the shocking news last Saturday of the passing of the former chairman of the Environmental Management Authority, Kelvin Ramnath. The chairmanship of the authority is of course what he was known for most recently, but Kelvin Ramnath had a long, illustrious career as a politician.


Naturally, his funeral on Wednesday attracted many former parliamentary colleagues, including Leader of the Opposition Dr Keith Rowley. There were also several founding members of the UNC present, including former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday.


Four tributes to the life of this man were read at the proceedings. While most of them focused on the contributions to the country made by Mr Ramnath and his loving devotion as a father, the former Prime Minister felt perhaps these were far too sombre and trite for a funeral. No one was prepared for what Mr Panday did, although given the nature of this character we ought to have been.


Without even consideration of easing into his chosen subject matter, Mr Panday unleashed a vitriolic, scripture-infused diatribe eliciting gasps from mourners and sustained murmurs. Shortly after he began, it was quite evident that this rapier-tongued political veteran had prepared well for this. His entire presentation was clearly premeditated and could not be excused as an indiscretion of inconsolable grief.


What is remarkable is in condemning the present Government for its shoddy treatment of Ramnath in the run-up to the 2010 elections he removed, for convenience, his own egregious treatment of his former Cabinet colleague. True to his own words, “politics has a morality of its own,” Mr Panday omitted the fact that he sidelined Mr Ramnath in 1995, opting to put Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj to contest the Couva South seat.


Ironically, Maharaj would turn against Mr Panday by exposing corruption in the construction of the Piarco Airport terminal. This naked but poorly calculated bid for power led to fresh elections. At the time it was believed that the former attorney general’s laughable discomfort with the goings-on in government was really a manifestation of his disappointment at having been bypassed to act as Prime Minister in Mr Panday’s absence.


In his speech to the mouth-agape gathering, Mr Panday quoted extensively from newspaper articles in which reporters canvassed government ministers for their recollections of Ramnath. What was not widely reported in the electronic media was an interesting reference to the board of the EMA.


In essence, what Mr Panday was suggesting is that after all Mr Ramnath had done to build the party and hand his Judases their political futures, all that the Government could see fit to offer him was the chairmanship of a low-grade board. This was said in the presence of several members of that same board as well as the CEO of the EMA. I suppose, in Mr Panday’s mind, if you are going to rip the Band-Aid off, you have to rip it off all the way.


The effect of what Mr Panday did is turn what would have been news reports reflecting on the life of Ramnath into coverage of his perverse antics. Very recently at an EMA dinner, Mr Ramnath shared a funny story about his split with Mr Panday. During a chat one day, Mr Panday told Mr Ramnath, “You know Kello, in everything that I do, I always try to do the right thing.”


Still smarting from his 1995 treatment, Mr Ramnath responded, “Yeah, but you threw me under the bus man!” Panday responded in signature fashion, “Well at the time I thought it was the right thing to do!” If Mr Ramnath was still embittered by the twists and turns of a political life that can at times consign you to the “political cemetery,” he certainly did not show it.


What Mr Panday did at the funeral of Kelvin Ramnath had nothing to do with his friend; you can rest assured that this was all about the former Prime Minister. This was a fantastic opportunity to create a platform to register his contempt for how he was shelved by a party which he created. It certainly raises questions about the sort of politician our society breeds.


Mr Panday decries the scant courtesy with which he was treated by his own party, yet his party simply expressed the same “cut and thrust” principles which he cemented into the foundation. Many of the current government ministers inherited their former leader’s style of politics and as such the game hasn’t changed. Indeed, few of the players have either.


Politics will always be, in this country, the domain of power and reward. Service to the people is an afterthought. Given the open warfare that the country has witnessed in the People’s Partnership, there can be little doubt that the political animal which some thought was gone with the banishment of Basdeo Panday and Patrick Manning is still very much alive in the political landscape. The entire nation clamoured for change but we should have known that our politicians can’t even make the most basic transformation—the change from “self” to selfless.


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