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Peeping Inside The PNM

By Selwyn Ryan

 There should be at least three intra party elections during the year, the PNM, the UNC and the COP. The outcomes of these events are likely to help determine what happens in 2015.

All three parties have leadership issues that are tangled in concerns about social class, race, gender, and leadership style. Our focus this week continues to be on the PNM. 

The key question that PNM party stalwarts will have to answer is: should Dr Keith Rowley  be acclaimed  for another four year term or should someone else be elected as leader? If the latter is said to be desirable or electorally necessary, what reasons are being adduced to support this change?  Some of Dr Rowley’s critics claim sotto voce  that he is a tad too “black” for a country that is ethnically structured in the way that Trinidad and Tobago is.  The view definitely exists both inside and outside the party that a paler face is required if the PNM is going to be regarded as being adequately diversified.

Many hold the view that while Dr Rowley might appeal to the PNM base, he does not have the same level of acceptability among the brown upwardly mobile Brahmins who live in and around gated suburbia, many of whom fled to the COP in 2010 as an alternative to Mr Manning, and it is not yet clear whether they will remain there, or return to their hyphenated kin group. 

Part of the problem for these voters is that the COP does not have the allure which it had in 2010. 

Many also do not consider Kamla and the UNC a desirable or a legitimate alternative.

The PNM also has other ethnic cleavages. There has always been a small group of Indo-Trinidadian PNM party members. Most have been either Presbyterian, Catholic, Pentecostal, and Muslim. Most are urban.  Few have been Hindus.   

All PNM leaders have gone out of their way to attract more of these elements without much success.  Rowley is no exception.  

Of late, he is however being challenged from an unusual quarter—Dr Bhose Sharma, who was the PNM candidate for St Augustine in 2010 over the question of whether sufficient is being done to recruit Indians into the PNM, and also whether enough is being done to valorise PNM iconic symbols like the Balisier.  

Dr Rowley believes that the PNM has done well in recent months to attract Indians, and has accused Sharma of consciously and deliberately doing the reverse — discouraging East Indians from doing so — by telling them that they are not welcome as members, the aim being to suggest they switch to the Partnership.  Rowley angrily counter-argued that Sharma was not speaking for the Indian community and that he would not stand idly by and allow the party’s record and history to be misrepresented. 

Sharma concedes that Dr Rowley has done well to regenerate the party, but believes that he does not have the support of the other groups which the party needs if it is to take the PNM back to office. He also claimed that despite what Rowley asserts, he has not really changed the maximum leadership style. Rowley asserts that he has opened up the party leadership to all-comers, and that any party member is free to throw his or her hat in the ring,

Charges have been made that Rowley is arrogant and aloof. I have not seen Rowley’s arrogant face, if it exists. He is however strong willed, quick thinking, and does not suffer fools lightly. It will be interesting to see how he will handle the reins of power were it to be placed in his hands. Power, as we well know, is an aphrodisiac, and hubris always needs to be present to constrain those who exceed their limits

Some of Rowley’s critics claim that he is racially demonised among Indians for whom he is the proverbial Rawan.  This reputation may have taken form in the context of vigorous debates over social policy which have taken place between him and the UNC over the years on the issue of crime. Spokespersons for the UNC claim that criminal activity is due in part to  class factors. Anil Roberts, for example, recently argued that the incidence of crime is due largely to policies which the PNM put in place between 1962 and the present. These  policies, it is said, led to an inequitable distribution of wealth which created a climate and conditions for criminality. Increasing crime did not happen overnight, he argued. It happened after decades of PNM policies. The problems were aggravated by race, cronyism and corruption.  

Rowley’s riposte was that poverty and the behaviours which it generates do not inevitably lead to crime. Many who grew up poor, as he did, went on to do well. There was in fact no logic to the Partnership’s argument. What causes the poverty?  Dr Rowley is on record (in a parliamentary debate in October 2003) that the main cause of crime in Trinidad was the existence of angry, frustrated youth, 17-24, in Eastern Port of Spain.  The root of the problem was the fact that the education system was producing a large number of angry, at risk, youth without employable skills and without jobs. These youngsters were at risk and a danger to the community at large. Prudence required them to be targeted and placed in remedial programmes such as those offered at Costaatt.

Interestingly, the plan to introduce Afrocentric policies was withdrawn by prime minister Manning, who described it as being a tactical “error”. 

Dr Rowley denied that it was so. The policies were however to be based on social need and would be open to all.  The opposition however described the policy as being unconstitutional and racist and akin to the exclusivist ethnic balancing (Bumiputra) policies which were being attempted in Malaysia at the expense of the Chinese, a charge which Rowley stoutly denied,

Ironically, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar later chided Rowley for withdrawing the policy, suggesting that had he not done so in 2003, she might not have had to declare a state of emergency seven years later! 

Rowley’s response was to concede that he had capitulated, but did so in order to appease the opposition and refute  allegations of affirmative action.   Despite his capitulation, Dr Rowley’s reputation as a black nationalist has remained and contrives to colour his image. But as he said, “Those who feel that as PNM leader I would be afraid of an engagement on the issue of ethnicity, I have this to say: ‘Wrong man, wrong time. We are an institution representing every race, colour, creed, and class’.”

This author is of the view that there are no serious challengers to Dr Rowley and that it is unlikely that he would be successfully ambushed as Mr Panday was in 2010.   

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