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Enduring power of the PNM model

By Lennox Grant

On any given night, somewhere in Trinidad or in Tobago, a PNM meeting is sure to be taking place, a former cabinet minister assured me. The message of a party thus going about its work came in response to my querying the report that, over 48 hours, the PNM had collected 25,000 signatures for its anti-Section 34 petition. I was as impressed by the response as I was meant to be.   

It offered a picture recalling what, in the Tapia House days, we had called "party life". That is, a disciplined culture expressed in ceaseless activity by members and associates, practising a politics we advertised as "new" and "unconventional". Such activity went on far from media cameras that might capture Lloyd Best hawking Tapia newspapers to test-match spectators in the Queen's Park Oval, like Keith Rowley buying pumpkin and ochro at a Debe market.

The marvellous prospect unfolded to my imagination by the former minister included the building of a permanent organisation with custom-made vital organs, of constantly winning people over, and of "planting roots in the grass". Had the PNM been operating like that since 1955?

If, yes, sceptics and critics and analysts must have been all the while looking the other way. For we had concluded that, by the 1970s, the grand old party was little more than a machine for rallying crowd support for the hero in Dr Eric Williams.

We called it "doctor politics". We labelled our own politics "building from the earth". The slogans both hailed our own approach and denounced the crowd-winning agitprop of Black Power as having been basically patterned on the PNM model.

"Power to the hardwuk!" shouted one Tapia poster. Before long, not only cynics understood that the PNM kept holding the power, leaving for us only the unavailing "hardwuk".

Last week, the PNM resolved to enshrine one-man, one-vote. That decision presumably enfranchised those faceless party people giving their time and their hopes to the nightly meeting and working. The party also decided to trim the overweening prerogatives of its political leader.

In the decades since 1956, on what did the party groups—supposedly meeting some place every night—deliberate? What political values were distilled and evangelised whenever two or three were gathered in the name of the PNM, whose most memorable doctrine teaches that it is "great" and "will prevail"?

If by their deeds you shall know them, the combination of doctrine and "praxis" certainly succeeded in keeping the party in office for most of our times.

Eventually, all T&T political parties came to endorse the singularly effective political precept that exalts the indispensability of gaining and holding office. It's what the People's Partnership, cluelessly unprovided with any policy template of its own, desperately embraced. Control of the State, expansion of the State, entrenchment of the positive potential of being in charge of the State: politics has appeared to constitute all that, and to require nothing else to do.

Last week, people stopped or slowed Beetham Highway traffic. Why? Something the State hadn't done for those who had flung garbage and set it aflame on the roadway: nobody was sure what.

On that same evening, I walked west for six blocks along the Old St Joseph Road in Success Village. A helicopter, with searchlight finger pointing downward, droned back and forth. Traffic snarling the "back road" included a column of rifle-bearing riot police fast-striding through the dimness. 

Attention of the State had been gained, though not yet of the media to the Old St Joseph Road surface which, since July, had been excavated by WASA pipelayers, and re-asphalted only here and there. Every sidewalk manhole cover had been dislodged, exposing for unwary pedestrians the menace of a fearsome four-foot drop to the drain below.  

I recognised the potential representation of a behavioural pattern replicable anywhere you could shut your eyes and put a finger on the map. The State screws up; the people find garbage to burn and block the traffic; the media cameras find breathlessly voluble  spokespersons…

State responsibility, and political liability, extend open-endedly to "culture". To which quotation marks apply to reflect the effective nationalisation of Emancipation, Indian Arrival, Hosay, Chutney, Soca and Calypso Monarchs and tents, Panorama, Divali Nagar, to sample only headlines for an ever-extending list.

To the list has now been added responsibility for preservation of "traditional local skills", implying as well the ascription to the state of dollar-signed obligations for all the above and more. In the bluntest expression of such entitlement, Rubadiri Victor last month assigned blame for the "death of our Golden Age generation … (to) our political leadership (which) hasn't seen it fit to document, collect, curate, and transmit T&T's legacy".

In such areas, the possibilities of private initiative are assessed as zero. It's an article of pure statist faith that fullest State funding and other supports are only to be expected from "political leadership" of the unreconstructed PNM model.

Expect, then, newest demonstrations of protest by people not just demanding the funding but now also stipulating the design of the State agency dispensing the funds.

More on this to come.

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