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Lessons for London

February 7, 2001
By Raffique Shah

I FELT a tinge of sorrow when the THA election results were announced two Monday nights ago. I had grown to dislike Hochoy Charles—not the man I should add (I don’t know him personally)—the airs he assumed upon becoming Chief Secretary, his bruising style of politics, his general demeanour. But when I saw him and the Tobago NAR routed at the polls by the PNM, I actually felt a sense of loss: maybe, as a journalist/columnist, it was the departure of a foot-in-the-mouth target that hurt more than anything.

But Charles had it coming, and his demise had little to do with the resurgence of the PNM on the national political landscape. Indeed, if the PNM had failed to gain ground in Tobago, and if the UNC did not gamble with taxpayers' money where the party had no voice, Deborah Moore-Miggins and PEP might well have filled the breach that Charles had worked so hard to create.

For me, Charles was the proverbial one-eyed king in the land of the blind, and the blind never wavered in their support for him until he went a few steps too far. I suspect the ADDA and Ringbang deals that went sour drove the final nails in his political coffin. The opposing parties capitalised on his perceived mismanagement of the THA affairs and targeted him personally, causing the NAR to suffer losses. But Charles' sins started long before ADDA and Ringbang.

When, having achieved ministerial rank (which I believe the Chief Secretary deserves) he proceeded to assume ministerial airs, the people of Tobago should have called halt there and then. They didn't. He soon became inaccessible to the public and the media: this latter "bad habit" was played out to the bitter end. On election night, journalists weren't allowed into the NAR headquarters, the only party to treat the media with such discourtesy. Then he got his official Volvo complete with police security and outriders, and a made-in-Tobago monster was on the loose.

But every rope has an end, as old Tobagonians say. Or every hog his Saturday (or Monday). And Hochoy's came almost with a vengeance when Tobagonians not only sent the NAR packing (quite decisively, I should add: no 19-16-1, here-a straight 8-4), but almost voted him out his own electoral district.

So exit Hochoy and enter Orville London and the PNM. One does not know what to make of this new political equation, since the UNC, for as long as it remains in charge of the Central Government, would do any and every thing to sink the PNM's ship. I suspect "Uncle" Basdeo Panday, just to display magnanimity for public consumption, will treat with London as if he were a long lost brother. But that's only the public facade. Behind the scenes, I suspect he will do all within his power to frustrate the THA and the people of Tobago, thus making London and the PNM look politically impotent.

If, however, Panday and his "spin doctors" believe that strategy will enhance their stocks in Tobago, they are fooling themselves. You see, ever since he entered politics, London struck me as being a simple and humble man, qualities that are sorely lacking in the wider political arena, and especially so in the Cabinet. His first act upon assuming office as Chief Secretary was to dismiss all but one of the police officers assigned to "secure" him. Hats off to the man, I say.

Because any political leader who cannot walk and mingle freely with his supporters, especially those at the "roots", then he (or she) is no real leader. Although I am ever mindful of the times in which we live, of the number of mad people out there who may be inclined to do harm to their leaders, these are in the minority, inordinately so. Which is why I could never come to terms with the extent of security that the Prime Minister and Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj have had around them since they assumed high offices. The Special Branch officers who accompany both men will be useful to that unit when the PM and AG demit office since the officers' faces are so well-known, they will no longer be able to operate undercover.

I could not understand, too, why Charles insisted on such elaborate security machinery, even if it was given to him freely by the Central Government. Really, who in Tobago would want to harm Charles if he was a competent Chief Secretary? Just looking at the size of the man, it would take a brave soul to attack him anyway! But, like most post-colonial leaders, he wanted the trappings of power even if power itself was beyond his reach. Just watch the PM or the AG as they whiz past you with blue lights flashing, police pulling vehicles aside to "make way for the Chief", watch the expressions on their faces, and you see precisely how power degenerates into an aphrodisiac-cum-opiate.

So London's decision to rid himself of some of these "trappings" is most laudable. The fact that he mingled freely with shoppers at the market as he had done before he became Chief Secretary, was also refreshing. If he continues in that vein, London could well emerge as a national leader who commands respect far beyond Tobago's boundaries. Of course, humility alone will not make him a good politician. He will need all his skills, his experience as a teacher, to steer the Tobago ship on a course of sustained development. He will have, too, to tread carefully as the island seeks to win more autonomy. While few will deny Tobagonians the right to run much of their own affairs, any attempt to secede, to create one more "little black speck" in the Caribbean, will be resisted both in Trinidad and in Tobago.

The new Chief Secretary has a tall task ahead of him. He seems capable of "handling his stories", as Trinis would say. Patrick Manning and the Trinidad arm of the PNM are best advised to allow London the same freedom they did during the election campaign. If decentralisation at both the party and government levels begins with this new dispensation, then all hail to Orville London. He starts off with tremendous goodwill from most Tobagonians—and Trinidadians.

Let's hope that unlike Panday, who enjoyed an equally auspicious initiation as Prime Minister back in 1995, he does not blow it by boorish behaviour that characterised his predecessor, and remains a way of life for the PM. Power, even the mere trappings of power, has a way of making fools of most men and women. London will do well to note how seemingly mighty men have fallen victims to this delusion.

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