Almost from the moment the Tobago House of Assembly election date was announced last November, rumours started that the PNM in the island was using race as a political scare tactic. Last Sunday, Deputy Chief Secretary Hilton Sandy, in a careless remark, added credence to such a perception. Speaking on the platform at a public political meeting, Mr Sandy said, "There is a ship at Calcutta waiting to sail to Tobago. That ship is waiting to sail to Tobago; they are waiting to get the results of this election, if you bring the wrong results, Calcutta ship is coming down for you!"
Mr Sandy has since apologised, saying his statement was "just some political picong, but it was no racist talk. It was not meant to offend anybody." But, first of all, Mr Sandy needs to look up the meaning of "picong", since his remark entirely lacked the wit or wordplay which defines the term. Secondly, the fact that, even in the heat of rhetoric, the Deputy Chief Secretary would consider such a claim apposite or inoffensive reveals an unbecoming mindset. Indeed, by including in his apology the clichéd claim of "I have a lot of Indian friends", he has only reinforced the inference. People who have lots of friends from outside their ethnic group do not usually need to trumpet the fact.
It is more likely that, because the Indo-Trinidadian vote is irrelevant in the THA election, Mr Sandy thought he could couch his "picong'' in racial terms, creating without backlash a spectre of Indians waiting to overrun and take over Tobago. In Trinidad, where both parties need crossover votes for electoral victory, politicians' public statements are correspondingly more circumspect.
Even so, when it became the turn of PNM Leader Keith Rowley to distance himself and his party from Mr Sandy's statement, "unfortunate" and "unnecessary" were Dr Rowley's strongest adjectives for his Tobago PNM colleague's "misstep or misgivings". He then added that Mr Sandy's message "forms no part of PNM policy or PNM campaign.'' Knowledgeable observers would have reached for their pinches of salt at this claim, recalling evidence of the race card long being played by the Tobago PNM, albeit at a safe distance from media cameras. Indeed, Mr Sandy's error fits the definition given by one wag—a gaffe in politics is when someone accidentally tells the truth. Mr Sandy's "picong'' accordingly represented a whispering campaign having become a roar, with no immediate condemnation coming from Dr Rowley or Chief Secretary Orville London.
Would this lose them votes in Tobago? Probably not. But, unless the party's leadership does some more effective damage control, the incident will return to haunt the PNM in the next Trinidad election.