September 01, 2002
By Raffique Shah
THE surprise at last Wednesday's abortive sitting of the House of Representatives was that so many people expressed surprise when Prime Minister Patrick Manning announced the dissolution of Parliament and a date for fresh elections. Really, did they expect the PM, who has never shown any inclination towards dictatorship in his 30-odd years in politics, to violate the Constitution and rule the country by decree or a state of emergency? It was clear to any sober-thinking citizen that Manning's term of office as PM in an 18-18 electoral tie had come to an end, that the 18 UNC MPs, having opted to face the polls rather than face a PNM government for five years, left the PM with no choice but to call fresh elections.
Whether the elections will break the political gridlock is to be seen. Given the racial polarisation that has etched itself onto our hitherto cosmopolitan landscape, chances of either of the two main parties winning a clear majority are slim. It's not that "apan jhat" politics is new to the nation. Long before we became independent 40 years ago, race was an important factor in elections, though not as marked as it is today. Some contests that took place before the advent of the PNM-PDP (later DLP) rivalry showed that race was not an important a factor.
Time was when "Potogee" Albert Gomes and C.G. Netto could thrash all comers in Port of Spain North and St George East respectively (in 1950). Four years earlier, in the immediate post-war elections, the very popular Buzz Butler left his stomping ground in South Trinidad to take on Gomes in POS North-and he was soundly beaten, 5,215 votes to 1,984. In that constituency the majority of electors were Afro-Trinidadians who had benefited in no small way from Butler's struggles and sacrifices. Similarly, Timothy Roodal, who was elected unopposed in St Patrick in 1933 and won the same seat with a whopping 13,619 votes in 1946, fell victim to an independent candidate, Ajodhasingh, in 1950.
It seems, though, that as the society becomes more developed, more sophisticated, primal instincts override sober thinking. At a recent seminar hosted by Wendell Mottley's Citizens' Alliance, Hindu activist Ravi Ji made one of the most edifying political statements in the last decade. He advised those who will cast their votes in the upcoming elections, "When you stain your finger, make sure you do not stain your character." Anyone with a modicum of common sense, who values morality in public affairs above tribal loyalty, would understand the point Ravi made. Yet, it is almost certain that even among his disciples in the Prachar there are those would ignore him on polling day (but praise him every other day) and vote along racial lines.
Many things are rotten in the state of Trinidad and Tobago. Racial animosity is little different among core supporters of the PNM. According to media reports from last Wednesday's sitting of the House, a large number of PNM supporters had gathered outside the Red House, presumably to lend support to their leader and MPs. When the UNC MPs emerged in their bus after the sitting, PNM supporters hurled abuses at them (nothing wrong with that) and flung some racial slurs for added impact (everything wrong with the latter). While it is true the PNM frontline MPs and other members have worked assiduously at breaking out of the race cocoon, they have failed to convey those sentiments to their base supporters. So for the latter every Indian is "ah UNC supporter" while for Basdeo Panday's loyalists all Africans (except the handful who were handpicked by their leader) are PNMites.
This primitiveness makes life hell for tens of thousands of Afro and Indo-Trinis like me, not to add citizens of other races, whose loyalty is to Mother Trinidad and Tobago, not to any politician with feet of clay, and most definitely not to any leader who espouses the mantra of "apan jhatism". As a consequence, the elections of October 7 will be a battle between the two tribes, with a few, mainly opportunistic Hutus aligning themselves with the Tutsi camp, and vice versa. There is little or no room for sane and sober citizens to exercise our rights without staining our characters, lest we want to risk being dubbed traitors to our respective "tribes".
The founding fathers of our nation must be turning in their graves when they see where we have not reached after 40 years of independence. I feel certain that Eric Williams and Rudranath Capildeo, whatever their tribal bases were in the early 1960s, had hoped that we would have achieved greater integration among the diverse "tribes" as the nation grew up. It's true that the society has not collapsed into an orgy of racial violence the way others have, the closest to us being our Caricom neighbour Guyana. But if we aren't careful, if we do not make a conscious effort to stem this tide of racism, we risk having this country torn apart at the racial seams.
But the elections of October 7 also offer us an opportunity to derail this descent into the hellhole of racial strife. If only the electorate would carefully examine the parties and their leaders who are offering themselves for office, and not vote blindly along racial lines, we might just begin the process of breaking down the walls that are being erected to keep us apart. Independent Senator Ken Ramchand was quoted as saying that the best result from another election might well be 18-18 again. That way, he argued, the leaders will be forced into working towards a new political order that takes us beyond the "winner takes all" syndrome.
I beg to disagree with the professor. If we had leaders of intellect, of high moral values and unquestionable patriotism, another tie in the results would probably provoke them into steering the country in a new direction. But we are not blessed with men of that stature. All the leaders currently offering themselves for office (and here I include the smaller parties) want to be Prime Minister. And under our system, the PM's powers are not unlike what the governor wielded during colonialism. That is why Panday controls his 17 men and women the way the Shogun did in ancient Japan. Manning, too, however less dictatorial he may come across, brooks no bickering in the ranks of the PNM.
So if we end up with another tie, we might as well prepare for war. Plenty "pouyahs" and "pookneys" will surface as the savages decide on our future.
Copyright © Raffique Shah