Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Anatomy of apolitical act


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There is no question that Wayne Kublalsingh's bold and dramatic action in embarking on a hunger strike has captured, in a massive way, the attention of the country. It brings to mind the famous "fast'' which was staged by Lincoln Myers on the steps of the Hall of Justice some 30 years ago. But Dr Kublalsingh's action is not a fast. It is a hunger strike and as such generates even greater interest than Mr Myers' fast did, since each day that passes increases the elements of drama and potential tragedy as the possibility of his death from voluntary starvation comes into play.

Quite a few of those who, in the press and in the blogs, have opposed his action have sought to paint him as nothing but an inveterate publicity seeker. Such a characterisation is simplistic in the extreme. It is like accusing a fisherman of liking the sea too much or a batsman of liking to score too many runs. The point is that, whatever else he may be, Dr Kublalsingh is a politician and for politicians publicity is the very stuff of life.

We have a notion in this country that politicians are only those people who are in government or opposition or who join a party and contest elections. The fact is that many of those in government and opposition are not and will never be politicians. Their only interest is office and the perquisites thereof. On the other hand two of the greatest politicians the world has ever known, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, achieved monumental political feats without ever holding governmental office.

But politicians do not seek publicity for publicity sake. True politics is about the advocacy of views, interests, and causes and the attempt to persuade as many people as possible to take action to advance those causes and interests until such objectives are achieved. But to reach and persuade people, politicians must be seen and heard and that is why publicity is important.

Once we understand this we would have to acknowledge that Dr Kublalsingh's action has been, in terms of generating publicity at least, a political masterstroke. One sure indication of this is the sight of other politicians and would-be politicians of every ilk traipsing to his side like acolytes visiting a renowned guru, to bask in and borrow some of the brilliant glow of publicity which currently surrounds him.

But if publicity is not the end in itself of political action then the real answer to the question of whether any political action is successful or not lies in the extent to which the action taken and the attendant publicity serves to advance the cause being advocated.

In this context the evidence is far more equivocal if not negative. Dr Kublalsingh's ostensible cause is the Highway Re-route Movement which has long been advocating the re-routing of a portion of the proposed highway, specifically between Mon Desir and Debe. For almost two years now the advocates of that proposal, under the guidance of their "adviser'' Dr Kublalsingh, have battled the Government in all sorts of ways and all to no avail.

And for the last few months, since Minister of National Security Jack Warner called out the army to dismantle their camp built on the proposed highway site, it had appeared that the re-route movement had lost the struggle. The Government was proceeding with its plans, the construction was moving apace, the issue had moved out of the headlines and most important of all, the country, which had never evinced much interest in supporting their cause, had turned its attention to other matters.

In short, the Highway Re-route Movement was dying a slow and unpublicised death. The reason for this is that the movement has never done a good job of explaining to the public the rationale behind its position. They have concentrated their efforts on fighting the Government, not on informing the population.

So that today people still wonder why, if the people of Cocorite had to move to make way for a new highway, if the people of Bamboo No.1 had to move to make way for the overpass, if people all over the country have had to move to permit road construction, what made the condition of the Mon Desir/Debe people so special that they should not be required to move?

Until that question is answered in clear, cogent and convincing terms, it is highly unlikely that the population would be persuaded to bring enough pressure to bear on the Government to change its plans and such public pressure is the only force which can do so. In the circumstances, any attempt to revivify the cause would demand a massive political blood transfusion. Enter Dr Kublalsingh and his hunger strike.

But I did say that the Re-route Movement was Dr Kublalsingh's "ostensible" cause. I used that word because it would be nave of us not to admit into consideration the possibility that Dr Kublalsingh may have other interests which he is seeking to advance. Dr Kublalsingh is no novice politician. He has been here before. He led, along with Dr Peter Vine, the campaign against Mr Manning's plans to build an aluminium smelter in La Brea.

That campaign was successful in politicising the issue to the extent that the People's Partnership, in its election campaign, promised to abandon the plan to build a smelter if it should get into office. It did get into office and one of its first acts was to close down construction of the smelter.

It would be surprising if Dr Kublalsingh did not regard the shutdown of the smelter as his victory. It's a victory which may well have led him to believe not only that he could replicate that achievement in the context of other issues and causes but that he might eventually, through such actions, define for himself a powerful political role in the firmament as one whose imprimatur would be necessary for every major plan of civil engineering any future government should contemplate.

In this context it is instructive that his first demand, when he began his hunger strike, was that the Prime Minister should come to see him. That demand had nothing to do with the Re-route Movement and everything to do with his own sense of power. He has since amended that demand and, according to the Prime Minister, no longer wishes to see her.

Whether this speculating about Dr Kublalsingh's motivations is valid or not, it is clear that with his hunger strike Dr Kublalsingh has thrown all his chips into the pot. It is a political act of desperate audacity which has placed the Government in a highly untenable situation by shifting the discussion from the technicalities of highway construction to the Govern-ment's regard, or lack thereof, for human life.

Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.