December 01, 2002
By Raffique Shah
SOME day last week I heard UNC spokesperson Carol Cuffie-Dowlath on radio gloating over what she perceived to be rumblings in the ranks of the governing PNM. She was particularly buoyed over fiery protests by residents of Embacadere, an NHA block of apartments in San Fernando. There, occupants were angry over the quality-or lack thereof-of restorative work done by the NHA. And in Port of Spain, hundreds of people who claimed to have worked with the same project rowdily picketed the NHA's head offices, demanding that they be paid wages owed to them. Most of the protestors in both instances claimed that they had supported the PNM and now they were not being recompensed or treated fairly.
In these protests Cuffie-Dowlath saw the beginning-of-the-end of the Patrick Manning government, the disintegration of the PNM, and, by extension (and her own warped logic) the return to office of her party. It is almost comical that even as the UNC seems to be imploding with more and more one-time diehard supporters calling for Basdeo Panday's head, the lady chose to focus on problems within the PNM, not on the catastrophe that's about to befall the UNC. Hers is a chronic case of seeing the mote in her rival's eye, not the beam in her own.
It did not dawn on Dowlath that the protests mounted by those people mentioned above, as well as by other self-proclaimed PNM supporters in Penal Rock Road and Moruga over the conditions of their roads, are just what the doctor ordered for the PNM. And that in those protests lay an important lesson in democracy that is alien to the UNC. You see I am among those who subscribe to the theory that the PNM as a party started losing its iron-grip on the Afro-Trinidadian vote from as far back as in 1970. I've often written that the Black Power revolution of that year was fuelled by discontent among what I term "the children of the PNM".
I don't know-nor for that matter do I care-that Dowlath and her fellow-sycophants would understand, but I'd nevertheless proceed to explain. When Dr Eric Williams burst onto the political stage in 1956, he was seen by Afro-Trinis as the "Black Messiah". That was understandable-and one needs to be student of local history and politics to grasp just what Williams meant to a people who had never before tasted political power even though they formed the single biggest ethnic group in the country. Before that they had voted for Albert Gomes, a Portuguese-Trinidadian, who won in Port-of-Spain North comfortably in 1946 and 1950. In San Fernando, Syrian-Trini Roy Joseph ruled the roost.
So Eric was seen as The Messiah when he let his bucket down, as he said in that famous first speech in Woodford Square. With the first wave of black consciousness sweeping through the country, Eric personified the ambition of the "Negro". Thus, he was able to harness the "black vote", and, to be fair to him, make a bid to woo as many Indians as he could. By 1970, after eight years of independence and all that nationhood was supposed to mean for them, young, bright Afros felt cheated, disappointed. It was they who spearheaded the movement that drew tens of thousands of "children of the PNM" onto the streets in violent protests against Eric and his government.
Williams benefited to a large extent from the Black Power movement. He crushed the revolution with a near iron fist. But he heeded the cries from the platforms and the streets by creating more opportunities for his people. So he survived a "no vote" campaign in 1971 as well as the onslaught of the first organically integrated party, the ULF, in 1976. By the time he gave up the ghost in 1980, the PNM was losing its Afro base-support rapidly, and we saw what happened in 1986 when the party was annihilated at the polls by the NAR. Ever since, the PNM has had to fight every centimetre to regain and/or retain that bloc of votes.
To some extent, tribalism among Afros died with Williams, or before that. Which meant that when the PNM returned to power with Manning at the helm in 1991, it was not smooth sailing for the new chief. Within four years and after many blunders, Manning found that he had lost considerable support among Afro-Trinis. The end result was many of the votes of disgruntled Afros went to the UNC, leading to the 17-17-2 results of the 1995 elections. It took Manning another six years to recapture some of those votes and once more see the seat of power. He learned the hard way he could not rely on blind support from the mass of Afros, that he would have to perform to retain their votes. Protests this early in his new term of office are, therefore, not unexpected.
In the UNC, on the other hand, blind support for the Maximum Leader remains the order of the day, although more diehards are deserting the sinking ship. Many Indo-Trinis are quietly switching their support, some to Ramesh Maharaj, others to the PNM, and yet others are simply switching off! But where are the protests against corruption, which was largely responsible for the fall of the party? Where are the protests against the leader who said, most emphatically, that he would retire from politics, having led his party to yet another defeat? Who among UNC supporters dare go to Rienzi Complex and demand that Panday retire in order to allow the party a chance to survive?
Besides some voices, like Fuad Khan's, Mervyn Assam's and a few who write to the press, there is grumbling in the ranks, yes, but little rumbling. No one has the grit to confront the leader. And therein lies the basic difference between the UNC and the PNM. In a structured party like the PNM, for all its sins and its faults, there is some measure of independence among members. That is what allows for the kind of protests we see. In the UNC, "not a damn dog dare bark", as Eric once said to his "blind supporters".
What is worse for the UNC is the disenchanted in the party's ranks are quietly seeking out new leadership, but again they are looking for another Indian messiah, one who will command-what else?-their blind loyalty. The day of the messiah, people, is over: it's a new dawn. Wake up and smell the café con leche, the right mix, or you'll get it all wrong for yet another generation.
Copyright © Raffique Shah