Tuesday, January 20, 2009

V.S. Naipaul on Elections

"Democracy had come to Elvira four years before, in 1946; but it had taken nearly everybody by surprise and it wasn't until 1950, a few months before the second general election under universal adult franchise, that people began to see the possibilities."

So begins V.S. Naipaul's 1958 novel, The Suffrage of Elvira, Elvira in this case being a small town in Trinidad that Naipaul situates in the far northeastern corner of the island. The Trinidadian economist and politician Lloyd Best recommended the novel to his students, calling it the most important of Naipaul's novels in that "he saw how the society worked, as distinct from how people thought it ought to work. ... he was absolutely lucid as to how the political system really worked, and how people actually behaved" (from an interview in Patrick French's Naipaul biography, The World Is What It Is).

I reread The Suffrage of Elvira a few weeks ago, just as the political scandals in Chicago and the Minnesota senatorial recount were entering their most ludicrous stage. If you want to understand the kinds of political shenanigans going on in those Midwestern states, read Naipaul's novel. It concerns a Mr Surujpat Harbans, who wishes to run in the general election to represent Elvira. He is not your typical Jaycee. The roads of Elvira are in terrible shape, full of potholes, but he is not running in order to improve the roads. Indeed, for years he had been able to persuade the chief engineer of the county to keep his hands off the roads, so that big repairs were never made. In this way, Harbans Transport Service made lots of money year after year transporting gravel and stone from his quarry to fill in the holes.

At first Harbans' path to victory looks like a done deal, as he recruits the leading men of Elvira to form a committee to run his campaign. These include the goldsmith Chittaranjan, who controls 3,000 Hindu votes and 1,000 Spanish votes, and the Muslim tailor Baksh, who "found himself the leader of the Muslims in Elvira and thus in control of 1,000 Muslim votes in a county of 8,000." A very heady position for Baksh to be in, one that eventually goes to his head. As someone says: "Everyone else in Elvira just asking for one little piece of help before they vote for any particular body. Baksh is the only man who wants three." Yes, as Harbans hears over and over when soliciting votes: "It go take some money." At every turn, he is donating to sick Hindus or pulling out his checkbook to rebuild a goal post so that the "boys from Pueblo Road" can play football this season. And if there is going to be sport, it would be nice to give out prizes. In the end the man who runs the campaign for Harbans' opponent offers to turn over 800 votes for a dollar a vote.

And there are less predictable events, over which money may have no influence. For instance, the Jehovah's Witnesses have convinced the Spanish to sit out the election since politics is not a divine thing. Then, there is the matter of a scrawny dog named Tiger, who, so people believe, is a bringer of bad magic, or obeah. When things get contentious, every statement is twisted out of recognition. Rumors fly. Poll takers are bribed. Chittaranjan hopes for rain (mud will keep people from getting out to vote). Each side has its own person to oversee fair voting. The process gets Harbans down, and "with his moods and exaltations, depressions and rages," he became an embarrassment to his committee, who wished him out of the way so that they could run things for themselves. The process takes over. Harbans is told by Pundit Dhaniram that he could stay in Port of Spain and win the election in Elvira. "'Just leave everything to your party machine,' he added, savouring the words. 'Party machine.'" He would have a future in Chicago.

The high point of the novel is the death and funeral of Mr. Cuffy, a respectable elderly Negro, which Chittaranjan stage manages as an election event, with Harbans paying for the Chinese undertaker, the expensive coffin, quantities of rum, coffee, and biscuits for those who gathered when the news got out. "Harbans mingled with the mourners as though they were his guests; and everyone knew, and was grateful, that Harbans had taken all the expenses of the wake upon himself."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The behavior of our congress these past few months (eg. a "bailout" that is 80% pork) makes one long for the likes of Boss Tweed and Richard Daly Sr. They understood 'steal a little, leave a little', rather than ruining the country with debt. The INTEREST on the bailout debt, exclusive of other deficit financing is a large fraction of the cost of the entire US higher education system. The corrupt politicians in Trinidad had a stake in the continued solvency of their island, I doubt that the same can be said for our congress.