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After January 21, 2013

By Reginald Dumas

Part II

In my previous article (February 5) I mentioned culture and tradition as important elements of the anthropological "nation". I think most would agree that, despite certain incursions from the larger island in the last few years, Tobago is a very different place indeed from Trinidad in these respects. Far from the extroversion of its neighbour, Tobago sometimes feels almost Victorian in many of its attitudes. But these attitudes, whether you like them or not, must be understood and respected.

Thus when over the last nearly three years Orville London complained constantly about "disrespect" of the THA by the central government, he was striking a responsive chord. When children appeared in a tv ad lampooning him by politicising the tune of an old UK folk song, the issue of disrespect, this time of young persons for their elders, was given a fillip – as it was when he was discourteously invited at the last minute, by text message, to the opening of a gas station his own administration had advocated.

When an election campaign was submerged by an astounding inundation of ads from the TOP, a body not known for the depth of its pockets, concern over the prospect of being bought, and bought from outside, began to occupy minds. And minds were already disturbed by inadequate explanations about his house from the TOP leader, Ashworth Jack, not known for the depth of his pockets, heavy sales of pumpkin and cucumber notwithstanding. Offence was being given to the Tobagonian sense of self.

Despite several warnings to the contrary (so I'm told), Jack continued to dance attendance on the Prime Minister, to refrain from even the mildest public wrist-slapping of the Government's panoply of flubs, and to de-emphasise his responsibilities to Tobago as against his involvement in People's Partnership coalition business. Rubbing shoulders with PMs, and going on and on about your closeness to them, is all well and good (well, no, it isn't really, though let that pass for now), but you must never neglect your base. Not if you want to be seen as a serious politician. And certainly not if you want to retain and expand goodwill among your island people who, I repeat, have a well-developed sense of self.

Astonishingly, the Tobago-born and bred Jack, apparently mesmerised by the new limelight into which he had been thrust, seemed to have misplaced his understanding of the Tobago psyche. When he went further and acquiesced in the domination by an unwisely triumphalist PM of the closing days of the campaign – a highly critical period – he sent a message fatal to his party's chances.

There were other Tobago factors that militated against him and the TOP. He was held to be dismissive of his party elders; that was a major error. In a society that greatly values academic and professional achievement, he was considered deficient on both counts, and nervousness about his fitness to hold the office of Chief Secretary was everywhere to be found. I am not one of those who believe that the possession of a university degree or other professional qualification necessarily confers on you the wherewithal for leadership in any field, but here again we must take tradition and culture into account.

It was also represented to me by TOP members and supporters that the party's structure and planning mechanisms were greatly lacking in coherence, even non-existent in material particulars. This isn't a Tobago issue as such; it's something you can find elsewhere. But what was bothering those making the complaint was that the party's forward march was being impeded, that consultation was only occasional and superficial, that a tiny, inexperienced cabal was running things (and running them badly), and that an unfortunate hubris in confident anticipation of electoral victory was rapidly replacing good and common sense.

Here again Jack had been warned. A poll commissioned by the TOP itself and conducted by Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES) in May 2011, nearly two years before the recent election, found "an outlook for the TOP that is at this time not comforting (emphasis in report). The TOP is clearly behind in terms of popular support in Tobago and moreover has slipped somewhat since the last election. In general political terms a political party in opposition does not deteriorate since there is little basis for judgment; however the TOP has fallen behind, which clearly implies that it has either not performed well locally, or that Tobagonians have identified the TOP as a de facto Government in Tobago on account of its association with the COP (sic) and are judging it accordingly." The poll report went on to say that one of the TOP's "main weaknesses" was "its leadership" (an identical view was held of the PNM).

And there was of course the matter of race. In an Express article of last November 21, exactly two months before the election, I said this: "I don't think it's a secret that the poison of race has for some considerable time now been infecting relations between Tobago and Trinidad, and things will only grow worse as the election campaign intensifies. Insidious messages are already being put about..." Hilton Sandy with his "ship from Calcutta" was merely giving public voice to what many in Tobago had already been saying sotto voce.

But it would nonetheless be simplistic to attribute the January 21 rout of the TOP only to race. Yes, race played a part, and in my November 21 article I talked about the coded comments being made even then. Essentially, however, it is to the characteristics of what I call "the Tobago nation" that one must have recourse. I therefore agree with the distinction drawn by Winford James in his Express article of January 31 between a PNM "win" and a Tobago "victory".

* Reginald Dumas is a former ambassador and former head of the Public Service

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