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By GHK Lall
I envy the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Aubrey Norton. Everybody is in a rush to shake his hand, so much in standing and importance he has grown in a matter of mere months. The problem is that he is having none of it. Here is where I stand on this business of leadership handshakes. Of any kind of handshake involving anyone.
Speaking from a personal perspective, I differ from the Opposition Leader in that rejecting an offered hand is not something I would do. The position is that I will allow no one to out courtesy me, and this includes those I look upon differently, which should be interpreted anyhow that it pleases. Now this is only personally speaking.
On the other hand, it is a different matter when I consider this public handshake rebuff with all political strands and elements on the table, I think I begin to understand. Guyanese are tired of empty, opportunistic handshakes that are nothing but shows. We have had them: handshakes, photo-ops, with passing thrill, only for the rawness of the environment to remind of its grim realities. In a nutshell, there is nothing to cheer about, nothing to talk about up to this time. It is jarring, insulting, and as a powerful a putdown as any. I also sense a warning, for that handshake chilliness harbors much more than meets the eye, way past the words that Mr. Norton did decide to share. Anger. Tensions. Pressures. Impatience. I discern that the Opposition Leader is raising the bar inexorably, starting with himself. His postures convey that he is not into cosmetics, not be distracted by calculated frivolities of counterparts. He senses pressures intensified by Washington on the President, and he is determined not to help him out of the hole that he has carved for himself.
It has to do with patrimony, and Emancipation Day celebrations provided the perfect and passionate backdrop to where that stands. As matters presently stand, and given only the last two years of local political history, the PPP Government is now staring at what must be considered reparations to make good on its assaults and failures on those who contributed the most to this country’s start. Given it a start when it had nothing but chained and whipped labor, and visions of free products and rich profits dancing in the heads of foreign masters. Huge amounts of everything that could be thought of, things highly desired, have been doled out, shared out, given out, and handed out to Guyanese. The records identify which sections and regions received, and which citizens counted in the grand giveaways, which ones endured sustained mockeries. So, to extend a hand and ask for it to be shaken is unthinkable and unmentionable, and, at its worst, adding insult to injury, and pretending that all is well in games played by children.
All is not well, far from it. And that is what I heard the Opposition Leader saying out aloud, being about, standing for. Unsaid by Mr. Norton is that he will not be a part of such a farce intended to give President Ali the legitimacy (a loaded word, indeed) that he craves in the eyes of outsiders. The President desires to be seen as a man for all the people, by the same people who summoned him to Washington. The Opposition Leader is not playing along, not consenting to be a partner to the pretense. Mr. Norton is not cooperating in the games that President Ali plays, one of which is to be the occasional PPP Government good cop on the beat. Mr. Norton is tired; he is disgusted because his people are frustrated and unhappy at being treated like beggars and lepers. It is not a healthy combination.
I also detect that the Opposition Leader is digging in his heels, and coming into his own, with his growing understanding the President is all about employing a feathery strategy that is laced through with empty platitudes and emptier postures. Tangible outflows from Guyana’s variety of riches are in the scarcest supply, and as experienced by one segment of the local population. One does not have to be a mathematician or a scientist to appreciate the grave imbalances, what some would call grave injustices. I do. These are some of the simmering, piercing things that I gather are behind the extended hand refused. In the simplest terms, the President is practiced in the shallow gesture, with his problem being that there is no taker, given the Opposition Leader’s range of considerations. He has made some of them clear, and not for the first time. Fix the people properly. They are hurting, they are worried about behind left behind, and while handshakes are good for the photo-ops, they are nothing but Judas’s kisses. One hand strike in the kidneys, while the other is stroking the cheeks. It has been seen before, meant nothing before, and holds nothing of substance right now.
When such is the case and courses taken are reversed, then there are ample grounds to shake hands, smile with satisfaction, and even find issues on which to meet for meeting of the minds. Today, minds could not be farther apart in Guyana on how the nation’s bonanza has turned to be an extravaganza. The reality is that it is an extravaganza for one set of Guyanese people only. No passing handshake can contradict. What I hear the Opposition Leader saying by not shaking is this: don’t pretend to be my friend and my brother. Not when I am seen and concluded to be nothing but a competitor, a challenger, an outsider, and the worst of undesirable pariah.
Finally, Mr. Norton has thrown down the gauntlet, and it is for President Ali to make the next move. Whatever he does or doesn’t do, the Opposition Leader has made one thing crystal clear: he is not prepared to function as a prop for the President’s act to satisfy Uncle Sam and Cousin Sarah Ann.