Raising the bar for governance
In the end, neither side got exactly what it wanted. The Government has to submit to a review of its project documents for the Point Fortin Highway instead of just proceeding full steam ahead, while Dr Wayne Kublalsingh has to settle for an independent analysis of the existing reports rather than a new survey. But that is the nature of negotiation—in a good compromise neither side should be entirely satisfied.
On the other hand, Dr Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM) have scored a clear moral victory over the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration. From the start, the Prime Minister and her inner circle of ministers wrong-footed themselves by attempting to trivialise Dr Kublalsingh's actions and by attacking his supportive family. That approach only revealed, yet again, the poor political instincts of Mrs Persad-Bissessar and the unprofessionalism of her public relations advisers.
It remains to be seen whether the Government will hold its hand for the two months while the independent report is being prepared, and abide by the committee's findings if Dr James Armstrong and his team find that the HRM's socioeconomic and environmental concerns are justified. It also remains to be seen, if the Government is proven to have taken the right course of action, whether Dr Kublalsingh and the HRM will accept these findings with good grace.
In the final analysis, what Dr Kublalsingh has really accomplished is raising the bar for governance. In the course of his three-week hunger strike, the Debe-Mondesir matter became secondary to wider issues of accountability, transparency and democracy. Politicians from both major parties will continue to pay lip service to these governance principles, but the populace is now less likely to swallow words unsupported by action.
But Dr Kublalsingh's moral triumph also has caveats. The activist should note that the manner he chose to execute his protest caused unease even among many persons who supported the issue. While comparisons were naturally made with Gandhi, the Mahatma used the hunger strike as a means to stop sectarian violence in India and to achieve political freedom for his nation. Dr Kublalsingh's choice of a hunger strike thus seemed disproportionate to this specific issue of the Debe-Mondesir route.
Moreover, the average Trinbagonian has an instinctive distrust for extremism, whether the extremists are Muslimeen insurgents executing a coup or an individual starving himself for a cause. Such reticence may be rooted in apathy, but it also prevents the racial and religious eruptions which have shattered other societies.
Finding a sensible and effective middle ground for protest is now the challenge for concerned citizens. Dr Kublalsingh's campaign has demonstrated the power of the people and, whatever the outcome for the highway project, that is his real accomplishment.