Sunity Maharaj

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Politics without people

By Sunity Maharaj

Once again, the smiling face of the UNC has been ripped apart from the inside-out to reveal the party's innards as they came tumbling out in broad daylight last week. And it wasn't pretty.

The distraction of who tief which woman from who was bad enough. But the sorriest of the sagas were those exposed in the details of how two women came to high public office, one a young woman catapulted into the spotlight as mayor of Chaguanas, and the other, a seasoned politician, who rose overnight to become political leader of the UNC and prime minister of T&T. The sheer brass and bold-facedness of the puppeteers' boast is an eye-opener about just how far we are from realising our hope for a truly participatory democracy, where the world is shaped by the people, not manipulative machinators. It is as if our democracy has gone into reverse gear.

In the name of "The People", we are continuing to finesse the art of hijacking the people's power. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same. As always, the trick is to recognise the difference between real change, and the status quo merely disguising itself as change in order to protect itself — or what that perennial wit, Basdeo Panday, has described as change versus exchange.

Twenty-five years ago, with the election of the NAR in 1986, we thought the path had been cleared for politics that was truly national. By then, the 30-year experience of the Williams era had already rid us of the delusion that political independence was the same thing as independence, that majority government was the same thing as democracy, and that the peculiar variant of the Westminster system we operate actually provided representation for us all in the seat of power. In 2012, we know much better.

Despite the top billing given to the people in the People's Partnership and the People's National Movement, the people themselves are in large measure not to be found in party politics. Almost half of them don't even engage the process, not even by voting, although even when they do vote for one party or the other, they still remain outside, representing themselves. Those without money hit the streets, marching and shouting down Babylon, hoping to break through the locked gates of power with the sheer weight of numbers. On the other hand, the only numbers those with money and position need are the cellphone numbers of people in high places where power is available at a price — which they say, is going cheap, cheap, these days. The result is protest outside, corruption inside, which are the siamese twins of the disempowerment that has been the lot of Caribbean people ever since Columbus came and disrupted the order of the indigenous people.

The failure to fertilise the environment and water the roots of a genuine democracy is the source of the enduring protest and corruption that so define Caribbean society. It is why in this peaceful region of sun, sea and sand, we can never take social peace for granted. Under the surface of the 500-year history of the modern Caribbean runs a thread of revolution that represents the unending battle to destroy centralised power. On any given day, in any given country, we could wake up to news of a protest that has been magically and mysteriously transformed into revolution.

It is also the reason why corruption is essentially no ordinary thievery, although ordinary thievery is a definite sub-sector of the species. The more important thing about the corruption is that it facilitates the smooth functioning of everyday life in the context of absent or broken down institutions. If things worked well, fairly and transparently, bribery would soon be a dead-end business. As with crime, corruption is the symptom of a phenomenon that we need to understand, not just judge, in order to inform effective responses.

In the context of an unformed and dysfunctional socio-political infrastructure, the task has fallen to each community that has arrived here to find means and ways from within its culture for looking after its own. To one extent or another, this instinct towards cultural self-protection has kept us alive and intact as distinct and different cultural communities. But it has also served to turn communities inward and to embed and entrench a culture of separateness while elevating our differences over our common interests.

In the logic of this, no culture will surrender its right and responsibility to protect its own, unless and until it comes to the point of trusting another to do so. Why should they? Why would you? After the political failures of the Independence period, from Williams to Persad-Bissessar, what can be done to bring trust into the political system?

In communities across the country, groups are debating issues like these even as in other places from Port of Spain and Penal, the dish may be threatening to run away with the spoon.

Last week, as if it were occurring on another planet, the UNC internal elections never once featured at the Common Sense Convois. It was as if the people who came to Convois events at Curepe, Chaguaramas, Couva, Point Fortin, Manzanilla and Port of Spain in Trinidad and at Lowlands in Tobago were in a country different from the one featured in Medialand. Maybe it was the fact that their discussions were focused on the next 50 years where the passing parade of political personalities did not exist. Or maybe we were all delusional wishful thinkers, dreaming of a world ruled by the doctrine of Common Sense.

The Convois is not alone. Every day, every night, people are meeting the length and breadth of this place, trying to figure things out, understand their responsibility to the next generation, and to collaborate in designing solutions. None of this is new. This is what Caribbean people have done since the 16th century which is why they have survived to the 21st century, still alive with the possibility of creating a New World here in this intriguing corner of the world.

That ultimately is our real responsibility. All we need to do is to pick up the conversation and see where it takes us from here. Just common sense.

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