Sat | Mar 24, 2018

Tony Deyal | Talking Rott

Published:Saturday | November 26, 2016 | 12:00 AM

"When dey drink dey rum, dey only want roti ... ." This calypso by Da Mastermind and Patch attests to the popularity of a combination of supplies that was deemed vital to success in elections in Trinidad and Tobago for many years, especially from the 1950s on.

Rum and roti are still considered part of the political victory formula, but only as the supporting cast to the main benefit performance, part- or full-time employment or a 'wock' in one of the 'gangs' making up the numbers in free-money, make-work projects which still continue and are said to be growing in Trinidad and Tobago despite the country's worsening economy and increasing taxes that seem destined, if not intended, to wipe out the middle class.

Promises of free housing come a close second, but the job, even if for a succession of '10 days' of temporary labourless 'work' bolstered by continuous pay, is what seals the deal. The rum and roti are of secondary significance. In terms of defining my terms, I believe every one of my readers knows what 'rum' is, but if anyone needs further enlightenment, the situation I have described above is as rum as you can get and it is becoming increasingly unsteady if not blind drunk, not by alcohol but by political power.

The sums spent on this rum way of managing a recession are staggering and as anyone who has used this product knows, it causes further depression and leads to an economic headache that none of the whiz-kids or aspirin politicians can solve. For example, the national oil company, Petrotrin, has posted a net loss before tax of $1.95 billion, and when told that the economy was contracting, one of my friends retorted, "Yes, contractors getting all the money and they pass on a lot of it to the politicians."




As for 'roti', the time when some West Indians were unaware of, or made fun of it, has long past and it is for most of us an occasional and filling low-cost meal. The cost is important, but not as much as the temperature. People like their roti hot, and the hottest one you can find is being served up right now by the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Keith Rowley, and his minions over the cost of a function held by his predecessor, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, to celebrate the annual Diwali in 2014.

Leading the way at a political rally as part of the local government elections scheduled for Monday, November 28, Dr Rowley sank his teeth into a bill for $350,000 for roti for that function.

The initial response, especially from Dr Rowley's followers, was one of outrage at the amount "squandered" by the Opposition when it was in power. Perhaps the juxtaposition of 'roti', normally a relatively inexpensive meal, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money, may have been the intention, but then an opposition member of parliament, Barry Padarath, questioned Dr Rowley's claim and challenged him to produce the bills, adding, "I wonder if this roti talk has any subliminal messaging, as it is entirely misleading." Then Dr Rowley and Mr Padarath clashed over the cost of the roti in Parliament. Following a heated dispute, Mr Padarath was temporarily suspended and Dr Rowley promised to provide the bills for the function.

From that point, 'roti' became a four-letter word and generated much more heat than light, shifting quickly from what many thought was the initial focus of financial waste and profligacy to race and nationality. If this was the message, it was no longer subliminal.

In an editorial titled 'Roti with Red herring', The Trinidad Express newspaper noted, "Sadly, this issue risks being overshadowed by platform rhetoric that is so debased as to assume racial connotations. We urge all parties to desist from this wholly unproductive distraction and stick to the facts."

It was a clear indication that whether it was a red herring or not, a significant number of citizens, mostly of East Indian descent, found the roti focus to be fishy.




They reached that conclusion because of the context in which the roti was rolled out. In a previous election in Tobago, a platform speaker was accused of attempting to scare the people about voting for candidates representing Persad-Bissessar's party with a reference to a ship at Calcutta (a village in Central Trinidad) waiting to sail to Tobago, and that if they brought the wrong results, "Calcutta ship is coming down for you!"

There was a reference by one present minister of government to "alligators from the same murky pond", which people of East Indian descent believe referred to them, and a recent statement on a political platform from the same minister about the opposition party, "We need to finish them out. Kill them dead. I want you to understand that on November 28, you have the opportunity to drive a PNM balisier deep into the hearts of the wicked UNC vampires. Take a stake with a balisier on top and drive it deep within their heart and finish them off once and for all."

Trinidad and Tobago has two major political parties, and each is assumed to represent one of the two dominant races. It is inevitable that any reference to a diet staple associated with one of the races, particularly when that was used historically as a term of derision (Coolie, Coolie come for roti), would be seen as a deliberately racist strategy intended to unite the supporters of the governing party.

However, in this and the previous general election in 2015, the focus by both parties has been petty and parochial. The other side has made much of the fact that Dr Rowley has two sons born out of wedlock, and his response that it was his "goddamned" business illustrates the level to which politics has sunk and explains why race and roti seem to have found an equal place in the mix.

I am saddened that Dr Rowley, who was always so aggressive a platform speaker that we used to call him the 'Rottweiler', has now become a Rotiweiler. This is not a good way to curry favour with the population.

• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that the invitation to the function had RSVP written on it, which in Trinidad means, 'Roti Sharing Very Plentifully.'