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The ABC of today's political lingo

By Lennox Grant

For reader-friendliness, the history writing about this period in Trinidad and Tobago will require a glossary of terms including: A) "race talk"; B) "heritage", and C) "kurta-clad".

Writers may define A) as the lingua franca, or the contemporary political lingo, the vocabulary comprising fighting words for use in of the contestation for power. This assumes racial advancement, to be the unchanging, if unacknowledged, agenda of politics.

 The term "race talk" covers not just explicit racial curse words but also references capable of feeding self-pity, exploiting insecure fears, and even rallying triumphalist sentiment along racial lines.

The rubric thus captures Port of Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing and Port of Spain South MP Marlene McDonald's sour reflections on the People's Partnership government decentralisation moves.

Chaguanas and Couva are being favoured over Port of Spain, the Mayor and the MP said last week. "Nothing is being developed in Port of Spain, or in east Port of Spain," said the mayor. "Everything is being developed in Debe and Chaguanas."

Moving ministerial head offices means creating sustainable jobs in their new Indian-populated Central and South locations, Ms McDonald said. The former PNM's government campus high-rises should, accordingly, create such jobs in the capital.

Somehow, that hasn't worked out to benefit the bleak, black-inhabited, east Port of Spain heartland. But race talk is still comforting to whom it may concern. In the case of the PNM, it doesn't interrogate what went wrong, under the last Patrick Manning administration, to leave east Port of Spain in its unimproved condition.

Doing so would require answers from present PNM leader and former housing minister Keith Rowley. Never having been asked, Dr Rowley is still to account for the mysterious false start of "Eastbridge", his much-trumpeted 2006 "renewal" plan for the upgrade of east Port of Spain socially, aesthetically and economically.

Instead, today, Dr Rowley queries race talk by Neil Parsan, T&T Ambassador to the US, whose Divali message chauvinistically extolled advances made by T&T Indians. Such content, Dr Parsan said in explanation, belonged to the first draft of the message, released in error. His race talk only confirmed the ambassador's reputation for undiplomatically misspeaking himself, to the embarrassment of the T&T nationals he represents, and questioned his qualifications for the job.

Dr Rowley remonstrated with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar over Dr Parsan's fitness for the ambassadorial position. All our representatives, he admonished, should be "cognisant of the need to be sensitive of the rights and feelings of all the people of our diverse nation".

This was days after Dr Rowley had used the B) word above ("heritage") in declaring solidarity with the PNM campaign to retain the Tobago House of Assembly. Addressing a "Tobago Day" at Balisier House, the Tobagonian PNM leader declared: "We stand side by side with you in defence of Tobago's heritage."

Well, it turns out that "heritage", amid the political exchanges of today's Tobago, invokes more than the speech bands, heel-and-toe dances and the pappyshow weddings made familiar in the island's annual Heritage Festival. As a code word for the closing of ranks against an enemy rampaging out of Trinidad, "heritage" figures in a grim perspective, according to which Tobago is targeted for domination and takeover by dark and nameless forces.

"We see increasing threats to our space, our culture, and our land," said THA Finance Secretary Anselm London in his June budget address. In Dr London's rhetoric as the THA's ideologue-in-chief, land ownership by Tobagonians is especially endangered: "Certain non-Tobagonians now seek to own every available square foot of land in Tobago."

In the THA policy push-back, emerging opportunities, including in land distribution, are reserved for Tobagonians "born and bred".  With the election campaign heating up, the hitherto nameless "non-Tobagonian" predators are now being identified by race, and denounced as Fifth Column of the People's Partnership.

In the Senate last week, Justice Minister Christlyn Moore rendered in plain talk the PNM campaign message: "If you vote for the TOP, Indians will take your land."

If this seems a far stretch from Dr Rowley's signing on to the "heritage" crusade, it's only because there's nothing about blue food and crab racing cultural fare that's apprehended by the THA to be under threat. In Tobago these days, recognise "heritage" as a loaded word of high political calibre.

C) With startling speed, "kurta-clad", Ms Persad-Bissessar's term for Dr Rowley's Divali Nagar get-up, has gained such political notoriety as to deprive it of utility as a straightforward descriptor of apparel. On the last occasion a hyphenated word, out of an Indian mouth, caused so much trouble, the question of its acceptability was finally decided by the Privy Council.

That word, spoken by then Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, to cuss then publisher Ken Gordon, was "pseudo-racist". The law lords ruled: No, it's not acceptable.

Since the defamation award and legal fees totalled about $1 million (late 1990s dollars), the effect has been to deter use of "racist" in public speech. In its own way, consequences of "kurta-clad" look even more punitive. Ms Persad-Bissessar's Tobago allies, the TOP, could lose the THA election as a result, with dire knock-on effects for the Partnership's 2015 chances. All because of that misspoken C-word.

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