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The fly in Wayne’s ointment

By Winford James

Dr Wayne Kublalsingh’s one-man hunger strike — 22 days old today, if he is still breathing — is a spellbinding affair. It commands the full gamut of our emotions — particularly, admiration, empathy, love, envy, rage, frustration, and fear. And it moves us on all the meaningful levels of experience — physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and religious.

Here, at the opening phase of his fifth decade, is a man of letters — a professor of English literature, no less — who has adopted the cause célèbre of environmental protection and has become its leading voice and symbol against the tyranny of runaway executive power to the extent of a willingness to sacrifice his life. And here is a son, a brother, a husband, a father, and a friend — a human being with human bonds, human strengths, human foibles, human magnificence, and human absurdity. Here he is, doing an unprecedented thing in our Trinbagonian civilisation — going on a death-courting hunger strike to constrain an excess of executive action, and something more.

I do not want to sound insensitive here, but his magnificence and absurdity touches me most, not on the emotional and spiritual levels, but on the political and intellectual. I am persuaded that it is being dramatised not merely to delight, sadden, frighten, or enervate me, but to lift me to higher levels of political thought.

He may not have intended to do so, but Wayne has dramatised the inability of our governance structures to govern us democratically — that is, in accordance with our collective will. He wanted to draw our attention to the insensitivity of the government in routing the Debe-Mon Desir branch road or component of the Point Fortin Highway through the Oropouche Lagoon and ‘smashing’ the agricultural economy of the area. He wanted ‘a review, not a rehash’ of plans relating to that component of the highway that would include a cost-benefit analysis.

He was of course appealing to our chief executive, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, fully aware of her power in our practice of government. But, as he has said, he did not have to meet with her personally.

Now, by appealing to her to intervene, he necessarily put her into national focus as the solution provider and brought to the forefront of our minds the choking, relentless power of the institution we call ‘prime minister’. Wittingly or unwittingly, he made me (if not you) see, one more uncomfortable time, the prime minister as the power of One, the ‘colonial governess’ (according to Tapiaman Lloyd Taylor), the constitutional king (see my column entitled ‘King Kamla’). If we want the highway ‘re-routed’ — that is, if we want the Debe-Mon Desir component shortened to Debe- Something Else, then we must look to Kamla. She it is that wields the power.

Not the Parliament; she is the Parliament — President, House of Representatives, Senate. Toute bagai.

Not the trade unions; or the NGOs; or the CBOs; or the Opposition; or other significant non-geographical constituencies.

Their field of law-making and dissent from the executive is the streets, not some law-instituted organ of government like the Senate or a People’s House.

To look to her was an unavoidable tragedy in the way we govern ourselves. The highway is under construction NOW. There is no Senate or People’s House meaningfully constructed or constituted NOW. Indeed, the country seems to be a good way off from it, from what we can read from the disposition of the political parties and their leaders. Kamla (along with the head-shakingly feckless Jack and Moonilal) loves her power. Panday and Rowley in their courtesy calls on Wayne did not — and could not — advise him to look elsewhere for the solution to his problem.

So, the elevation by Wayne of the governess and king was an opportunistic, pragmatic recourse, albeit a disaster in promoting the power of an office that is already far too powerful.

But there are the clearest of hints that Wayne does not regard appeals to her office as the solution to his problem. One is his statement that, contrary to some of the voices around him, he does not need to see her. A second is the verbal rout of Health Minister Fuad Khan with his ambulance. A third is that he has embraced the JCC (Joint Consultative Council) as an independent reviewer while finding fault with a few of their proposals. And a fourth is that he wants the residents of the area that would be affected by the Debe-Mon Desir branch road and other parties (I imagine, experts in environmental preservation) to represent their views to the reviewer in speech and writing (as would be required if we had a properly functioning senate).

But he does not articulate the long-term solution to the problem of how the people might constrain the excessive ambitions of our runaway executives. That, to me, is the fly in his ointment.

His hunger strike has accomplished a great deal already, not the least of which is a raising of public consciousness of the unsuitability of an untrammelled executive for democratic governance, especially one that includes unashamedly crass characters. This is something more. It has not so far produced calls for evidence-based constitutional reform.

But, hey, hunger strikes are not supposed to do that, are they?

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