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The quest is on

By Sunity Maharaj

Amazing scenes are indeed being witnessed as a people, trapped in a dysfunctional political system, continue their relentless search for representation.

Turning and twisting, this way and that; trying and trying, this thing and that, we are restless, intent only on quenching our long, deep thirst for a quality of representation in which the voices of all of us count in all matters involving us and our country. 

We thought we had settled the issue 50 years ago with our declaration of independence.

Alas, it wasn't to be.

The culture of central power, set with the very first brick on which the foundation of Caribbean society stands, has proven to be far more resistant to change than anyone could have suspected. What the experience of these 50 years has shown is the cunning of a culture that protects and replicates itself by adapting, co-opting and, ultimately, annihilating the risk of change the moment it peeps out from around the corner.

This is the process that has trapped us in a cycle that begins with the euphoria of hope and ends, like clockwork, with the disillusion of same-old same-old.

But if the old culture doesn't sleep, neither do we.

Our history shows that despite being tricked, repelled and beaten back by a culture that is willing to go only so far as donning the mask of change, we do not surrender. Like the ocean, we are ceaselessly on the move, surging forward even as we are being relentlessly pushed back against the tide of change.

In Port of Spain on Friday, we saw the early beginnings of another surge forward, leaving us, as always, to wonder what new understandings might be gleaned in order that we might intervene to change the usual outcome.

Friday's march was startling, not because of the size of the crowd or what it might say about public confidence in the government, but for what it reveals about the party of the status quo, the People's National Movement.

Whether the PNM recognises it or not, is in revolutionary mode.

For the first time since 1956, the PNM is demonstrating an instinct towards the politics of coalition.

The idea of coalition, so disowned by the PNM in its incarnation as the party of government, was the early PNM's instinctive response to the fractured reality of pre-Independence Trinidad and Tobago. This instinct found expression in its theme of Bandung Solidarity — taken from the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia — as well as the inclusion, at its highest levels, of personalities representing various interests, such as Kamal Mohammed, Gerard Montano, Winston Mahabir and Patrick Solomon, among others.

The PNM's 1956 coalition of interests proved effective enough to win office, but ultimately, not effective enough to transcend the culture of central power in order to pave the way for truly national government by a party in which competing interests could find room and representation.

In time, one interest after another would migrate to a variety of political spaces including Tapia, NJAC, the United Labour Front, the Organisation of National Reconstruction, the Democratic Action Congress. 

The fact that, with such haemorrhaging, the PNM could survive 30 unbroken years in office before being dislodged in 1986, is testimony to 1) the failure of its rivals to construct a suitably competing political mansion of many rooms until the NAR in 1986; 2) the PNM's power of incumbency and all that comes with it including the power of patronage, access to media and, where necessary, the use of police; 3) Eric Williams' political savvy drawn from his understanding of the popular culture.

Despite its spectacular collapse in 1990, the NAR did succeed in rekindling the dream that had been deferred by the PNM's failure after 1956, and in rebuilding the people's confidence in the power of national unity as the fundamental imperative for breaking the culture of central power and opening up the possibility for representative politics. 

Unmoved, the PNM has kept course, unable to read the meaning of these political experiments in coalition politics and very comfortable in its role as default party to which the electorate turns when their experiments fail to assuage their longing for truly national government.

Since the late 1960s, the political energies needed for change, and which in 1956, had resided within the PNM, has shifted outside the party, dynamising the opposition and reducing the PNM to the party of status quo.

If the culture succeeds in replicating itself and, in so doing, create the room for history to keep repeating itself, the PNM could easily be back in office as the option in default. Perhaps, a return to office on such terms is good enough for its supporters but it should not be good enough for any party that wishes to be relevant to the politics of Trinidad and Tobago.

What Friday's march suggested is that the PNM may, for the first time since 1956, be entering the dynamic sphere of politics. This is a virtual revolution from the ideology that inspired the mindset of 'win alone, lose alone'; it is equally different from Morris Marshall's personal decision to join the march of the Summit of People's Organisations (SOPO) in 1990.

What this latest development means is that the entire political environment is now fully dynamic. If we could rise above our anxieties, we would celebrate this moment as a breakthrough for the political culture.

Tomorrow, we know, is guaranteed to no one, but today, the possibility for shifting the culture, and therefore the system, is alive. In this laboratory of ours, every point of change has the potential to change everything.

It goes without saying that in such a fluid, dynamic environment, danger is as much a possibility as progress. We will all need to tread carefully even as we do what we can to encourage the process along.

After Friday's march, all of us, those in government and those outside, should be considering the implications of the evolution now underway and grasp it as a chance to get serious.

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