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The Calcutta distraction

By Rolph Balgobin

At 50, three unfortunate but enduring aspects of our democracy remain the low intellectual quality of our politicians, the high degree of corruption we are numb to and the racism we tolerate.

In the case of PNM's Mr Sandy, it is hard to know what exactly he was thinking. Listening to his address, I am not persuaded that he was the victim of his own exhilaration. It seemed to me to be a racial call to arms.

This in my view disqualifies him from candidacy and the PNM, with its history and reputation for ethnic bias, should have pulled him from the slate and given up the seat. This alone would have probably stemmed the haemorrhage. It was not to be. He was "upbraided" and released back into the wild ocean of our politics.

The flammable reading of the world through ethnic lens seeks to separate out one's racial reality as someone's only significant identity. It ignores the very many affiliations that link the person to others around him such as nationality, language, neighbourhood, religion, profession, social level and gender. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argues that this creates a notion of "civilisational clash", which when adopted takes on an air of inevitability because that is what distinct civilisations are fated to do if they occupy the same space.

This view of human development is seriously flawed. We did not establish our identities completely free from each other. No Indian or African or Chinese or European descendant living on this country grew up entirely free of contact with, and therefore influence from, other ethnic groups. To suggest that anyone in Tobago should be afraid of anyone on a ship from Calcutta or anywhere else for that matter is a statement of breathtaking stupidity.

People who utter these kind of ignorant statements have no business being anywhere near public funds, far less managing them. And for leaders who fail to condemn the solitarist thinking which gives rise to such statements, the population should reserve its harshest judgement. Too often, our politicians take us lower and not higher.

Atomistic, solitarist thinking creates a straw man as a mental companion. Sociologists and philosophers alike have long established the importance of others in defining the self. A person can be, without contradiction, a spouse, a parent, a Trinidadian with an American passport, a vegetarian, a heterosexual, a doctor, a Christian married to a Hindu, a lover of tennis and a person who feels that the most pressing problem in the region is the revival of West Indies cricket.

Each of these identities will shape and be shaped by a person's values and will in turn determine their unique identity. To take the crude shortcut to suggest that one of these identities overshadows the rest is to take quite a leap in defining human identity as well as ignoring most of human history. The simple fact is that we have far more in common – we simply choose to focus on the differences.

This lack of understanding, combined with weak intellectual input on the issues has resulted in, for example, the hijack of diversity by race and of gender by feminism. Neither diversity nor gender is exclusively about these things. We have made them so, and in so doing, established artificial towers from which we peer warily at each other, forgetting we are standing on the same ground.

Our politicians should bear most of the blame for this, but I wonder whether they even realise that they've missed the point. Politics in Trinidad and Tobago is not a place for free, intelligent speech and even the few smart ones parrot stupid things said by their more powerful counterparts. Proof that self-respect is often weaker than love of power.

The sad thing is that all this is merely a distraction, and Tobago has not addressed its most pressing problem. The elephant in the room remains invisible. By this I mean that the Tobago economy is unsuccessful, unproductive and uncompetitive.

Tobago's economic weakness is a major problem. The issue is not where $20 billion was (mis)spent. To be sure the THA has made a grand mess of its budgetary allocation. But most Tobagonians have not been told enough that most of the money the THA gets funds a wasteful bureaucracy. There are few funds left over for development.

The real issue is how to build the competitiveness of Tobago. How to get the island's economy in a place where it is generating wealth. Right now it is not. Budget documents this year identified less than $170 million in revenue from Tobago. But the debate is about the $4 billion Tobago spends each year, not on what it is generating.

With such a misguided, distracted public conversation neither Ashworth Jack nor Orville London recommend themselves as leaders for the future. Neither has suggested that they have the solution. London promises more of the same. Given the extremely poor development of Tobago, this is an almost illogical offer. On the other hand, Ashworth Jack needs a script for a debate – not surprising for a man who can't answer simple questions about his income or how his house was built. His laughable response to why someone should vote for him is that he is neither London nor Charles. Like the national election, this is being positioned as a vote against the PNM and nobody, certainly not the TOP, has much of an idea what to do to turn the economic fate of Tobago around afterwards.

The headache that comes after the drunkenness of the Calcutta Distraction wears off may take more than Panadol to relieve. Where do we go when our democracy throws up no real choices? Like Simon and Garfunkel sang in "Mrs Robinson": "laugh about it, shout about it, when you've got to choose – any way you look at this you lose".

* Rolph Balgobin is an Independent Senator

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