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How to save the PNM - Part I

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 18, 2010

Over the last two weeks the media have been merciless in their attacks against the PNM, the Prime Minister and the Government. When it was not about the Prime Minister's 'Prophetess' it was about Calder Hart's presumed deception and alleged financial indiscretions. When it was not about the vindication of Keith Rowley, it was about the wonders of a revivified Kamla and prediction of UNC's inevitable victory in the 2012 election, without the faintest acknowledgment that in politics, a week is like a year, and a year is like a decade. In political terms, 2012 might be 20 years in the future.

I am sure there is much truth in all that has been said about the shortcomings of the PNM Government but one wonders if any thought has been given to its achievements versus those of the UNC; Kamla's accomplishments in comparison to Mr. Manning's accomplishments; Mr. Manning's rectitude as opposed to the conduct of those who seek to strike the mortal blow against him and his party.

The record shows that over the 50 years of PNM's governance our national income has increased almost 50-fold. In 1956, the average income of a Trinbagonian was US$380; today it is US$20,035. Our country's GDP grew from about US$273.7 million in 1956 to US$163.3 billion in 2008. In 1963 the unemployment rate stood at 13.7 per cent; at the end of 2008 it had dropped to 4.6 per cent. Today it stands at 5.8 per cent, a more impressive performance than either the US or Europe. Such a remarkable performance is a result of the PNM's excellent stewardship.

Not that there have not been setbacks. No Trinbagonian should be without water and the crime rate has risen too high. People's well being is not given the attention it deserves and sometimes it looks as though the maniacal attempt to erect physical structures has taken precedence over the social and aesthetic development of our people. While it remains true that a certain level of physical construction is necessary to realise a people's well being, enough attention has not been paid to the quality of our civic life.

It is natural then, that in scenting PNM blood, the enemy seeks its comeuppance, particularly in light of the presumed arrogance of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, forgetting the overall achievement of the Government. Although such a natural impulse seems to be legitimate in a democracy-and the PNM has kept the democracy vibrant and pulsating-the media should not bowdlerise the Government even as it keeps up its unrelenting attack against the Prime Minister and his errors of judgment. Sometimes it seems as though the media is waging a more efficient campaign against the Government than either the UNC or the COP.

All that being said, it must be acknowledged that the Government has gone off track and, as my mother would warn, no one seems capable of saying "tun' back before it's too late" although several of my friends are convinced that already it's too late. I do not share that opinion. Although the Government and the party must acknowledge their downward momentum, I am not ready to conduct a political autopsy before the body is dead.

Before resuscitation can take place there needs to be recognition that there is a distinction between the party and the Government. Mr. Manning is the leader of the Government and the political leader of the party. However, while the party is in Government the officers of the movement have an obligation to run the party and advise the Government about the best course to follow no matter how stubborn the leader might be.

Neither Conrad Enill nor Martin Joseph, the chairman and general secretary of the party respectively, has been up to the task. As a result, the party and by extension the Government is paying dearly for their inattention. Neither seems to understand that he was elected to run the party rather than to serve Mr. Manning and therein lies the dilemma. Unless Mr. Enill and Mr. Joseph recognise their functions and act accordingly the party will continue to decline and the Government will continue to be the butt of ridicule.

The party must demand that the government become more accountable to the party and our citizens. The notion that the party does not wash its dirty linen in public is an anachronism. If one does not wash one's dirty linen in public and it is not aired in private, it soon begins to smell, which is what is happening to the party and Government at present. Mr. Manning's apparent unwillingness to listen respectfully to the pleas of those who see things differently (for example, on the building of the smelter plant) has hurt the Government even further. It conveys to the public a frame of mind that suggests "I will do what I want to do regardless of what the public thinks. I know what is best for the nation. When I speak I would prefer the faithful remain silent. I speak in thy name."

Such a posture is not conducive to building confidence in the social contract that exists between those who govern and those who are governed. I am willing to bet that more than half of the population, even those who count themselves as faithful party members, believe that Mr. Manning does not listen to what they say or what they think. And, as it is with the style of the PNM, no one in any position in the party feels he or she has an obligation to inform the public why the Government takes a particular action on a matter. There is a bombast that resides in all of the officials, from the most junior minister to the most senior members of the party. No one feels he or she has an obligation to explain to the public why they do what they do. Unless there is a change, the party and the country will pay the ultimate price.

***

How to save the PNM - Part II

March 19, 2010

In 1993, in "The Politics of Language," I made the following observation about Dr Williams's behaviour at the end of his career. I said: "There came a time when Dr Williams not only lost touch with his society's discourse, he also seemed to become deaf to some of the things people were saying Once he ceased to listen, he merely uttered himself and, thereby, estranged himself from his people. Once he uttered himself, he was unable to hear what others were saying and thus destabilized the dialogic project and dislocated himself from the discursive [political] project."

One might be seeing a similar intransigence on the part of Mr. Manning. In a way, it may be a curious example of getting what he wanted by getting rid of anyone who seemed to have a contrary view but not anticipating the outcome of such actions. Yet all is not lost. If Mr. Manning and the other members of the PNM (People's National Movement) government can initiate what I am calling respectful listening, then they can resuscitate a productive dialogue with the public. At this moment of crisis, there is no more urgent task than the practicing of respectful listening on the part of every member of the Government and even the members of the press.

There is also an urgent need for members of the Cabinet to demonstrate an awareness of the tremendous heritage they carry in their briefcases. Few persons in government or the party command much respect from the public, and few seem to be aware of the PNM's rich intellectual and political heritage. Most of the ministers are seen as neophytes, lacking in sound judgment, ignorant of the party's history and bereft of any knowledge of political philosophy.

At the very least, they should have read the writings of party stalwarts such as Dr Williams, CLR James, Winston Mahabir, JA Rogers and the fundamental documents of the party. It is only in this way they can begin to understand what it means to be a member of the PNM, one's obligation to the party and their responsibility to the people who they are supposed to serve.

Needless to say, there are consequences for this ignorance and unawareness of what is meant when one utters the phrase 'Great is the PNM and it shall prevail'. Nor, for that matter, can there be a more sublime feeling of humility when one recognises one is 'a servant of and to the people'. In fact, the present members of the Government act more as 'masters over the people', which is one reason why the political leader has insisted they visit their constituencies and humble themselves as the ordinary folks are inclined to remind them.

I am not suggesting these correctives will fundamentally alter the relationship between the governed and those who govern them or that the press is likely to go any easier on Mr. Manning and the PNM. What I expect is a more conscious realisation among our elected members that they are there to serve us and a more self-conscious endeavour among the press to present the Government's shortcomings against a background of their achievements. And while it is true the fourth estate has an obligation to expose the wrongdoings of the Government and its officials, such an exposť should never be seen as the working out of personal vendettas against elected officers whom the press do not particularly care for.

Any casual observer of the current press reportage can see that Keith Rowley and Kamla are the clear favourites of the press. Not only are they presented in the best light, but they are pitted against Mr. Manning and his cohorts-including Calder Hart-who are depicted in the worst possible light. The most inane incident is presented as the key to unlock some malfeasance that has the capacity to defame the Government. I am sure the time will come when greater scrutiny would be given to Kamla, Rowley and the present press favourites. Journalistic ethics demand the media keep this balance in mind.

It is not inevitable the present Government will fall or it will not recover and assume ascendance in national life. Nor is there much virtue on the part of the Government in staying silent and having the worst possible motive assigned to its actions. I only wish there was a credible spokesperson on the Government's side who could speak with conviction and sincerity. This is one occasion when silence is not golden nor is it desirable to play dead to catch corbeaux alive. It is a time when the Government should level with the population, take them into their confidence and seek to open new paths of transparency and trustworthiness.

Such a strategy calls for fence-mending within the party itself. Mr. Manning cannot carry the party alone nor is it desirable that he does so. No party can be reduced to an individual, no matter how perspicacious such an individual might be. It goes without saying that he needs the help of others. The present moment calls for open discourse, respectful listening and a genuine desire to do what is in the best interest of the citizens. Under the circumstances, the party should welcome back into its fold anyone who has a contribution to make to the great and uplifting work of the nation. However, the leadership of the party must display a genuine sense of contrition, thereby, demonstrating to the party faithful that they are regretful of their shortcomings or lack of sensitivity to their needs.

Long ago, the old people used to say that "it's when the wind is blowing that folks can see the skin of a fowl" which, for the unacquainted, means: "True character is revealed under adverse circumstances." Although adverse winds may be blowing in the PNM's direction, the skin of the party faithful is taut and unbruised. They are willing to forgive and to forget, but they are not willing to be taken for granted and be disrespected. Common sense demands the necessary acts of contrition.

The media need to keep on informing the public of any perceived malfeasance and contradiction in the behaviours of our leaders. All one demands is balance and fairness and a realisation they have a sacred responsibility to reflect the nation as it is not as they would like it to be. Theirs is not the responsibility to make the news but to be judicious in their presentation of the news and, thereby, offer a balanced picture of the events that are taking place in our society. No one should demand more than this.

- Selwyn Cudjoe is Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, USA, president of the National Association for the Empowerment of African People and, also, a director of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago.

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