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Can Trinidad & Tobago Rise Above Race-Based Politics?

Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, speaking in Washington, D.C. last year. Photo by Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS, used under a CC license.

The Hon. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, speaking in Washington, D.C. last year. Photo by Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS, used under a CC license.

Satnarayan (Sat) Maharaj can be a divisive religious and political figure in Trinidad and Tobago. Statements he has made in his capacity as the Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the country's largest and most active Hindu organisation, have often polarised the country's other major ethnic group, Trinbagonians of African descent. (Indo-Trinidadians have historically voted for the party Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar now leads, the United National Congress, while Afro-Trinidadians mainly vote for the People's National Movement.)

Most recently, Maharaj's comments at an event the Maha Sabha hosted to commemorate Indian Arrival Day – and the Prime Minister's silence about them – made headlines. (Indian Arrival Day observes the anniversary of the first arrivals of Indian indentured labourers to the island. The branding of the public holiday – which was once simply called Arrival Day – is controversial, since people from the Indian sub-continent were not the only ethnic group that migrated to work Trinidad's agricultural estates and were just one of the groups that arrived and made valuable contributions to society. The twin island republic, to this day, is one of the most multi-ethnic territories in the region.)

In his speech, Maharaj contended that generations of civil servants loyal to the People’s National Movement (PNM) (a party with an African support base that formed the country's first ever government independent from colonial rule in 1956) have prevented any other political party from getting a second term.

The comments upset a great many people, one of whom is Reginald Dumas, former head of the public service who spoke out about it, asking that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar issue a statement about whether or not she agrees with Maharaj's claim, noting that the implication could racially divide the country and alienate hard working civil servants. According to the Trinidad and Tobago News Blog, Dumas went further, calling Maharaj's statements a “serious assault on the public service.”

Maharaj's comments did not go unnoticed on social media either. Although Twitter users were preoccupied with the festivities of Indian Arrival Day, Facebook was full of discussion about Maharaj's statements, which were deemed to be enough of a hot topic for the Trinidad Express Newspapers Facebook page to make it the day's “big question”:

What do you think of the claim by Sat Maharaj that some pro-PNM public servants are working against the Government?

There was a slew of responses. Kevin Niles suggested that “no one [was] bringing this government besides themselves”, while Allan Joseph asked:

How old is Sat? How long again does he have to be dividing T&T the way he does? He must [cry] when he remembers that his reign must one day come to an end…and in case he didn't know, many jobs changed hands in May 2010, so [it's] probably his own people working against them right now, just saying.

Joy Thompson thought it was just more of the same old tribal politics:

Divide and rule. That's their mantra. Their days numbered.

Sapphire Mohan, however, thought the premise wasn't so far-fetched:

It's true…and as [there] are pro PNM public servants there are also pro UNC/COP/ILP servants as well. It's when they apply their political agenda in the workplace does it become an issue and I am sure it happens because if persons can accuse any govt. of nepotism etc., why can't they accuse those opposed to the govt. of pursuing their own personal political agenda?

Other commenters on the thread, like Nadiyah Sarransingh, found Maharaj irrelevant:

Why does the media give this man so much attention? Time to change the topic.

Changing the topic was one thing that political blog The Eternal Pantomime was not prepared to do, calling the Prime Minister's close association with the Maha Sabha head a sign of political desperation:

Imagine you playing a high stakes game of politics, winner gets all, and the only card in your hand is Sat Maharaj?

That is pretty much the predicament in which Kamla and her government have found themselves.

Both Labour and Jack Warner have abandoned them: so the popular support and the deep coffers Warner (once) had have both disappeared. The COP [Congress of the People, one of the other political parties in the coalition government] we all know, is a dead and riderless horse.

The numerous other civil society groups that sung Kamla['s] praises and supported her have all but disappeared and several of them now march against her in very public rallies. In short, all of the public good will that Persad-Bissessar had garnered…has disappeared.

This, the blogger surmised, leaves the People's Partnership government between a rock and a hard place come national elections, which are due next year:

At this point the PP or UNC, whichever name it chooses to go into election 2015 with, is reliant on two groups: the criminal element and die hard UNC supporters.

Even supporters of Kamla have grown fed up of her style of non-governance. Why else would you need to pull out your trump card of Maha Sabha religious leader, on Indian Arrival Day, in a predominantly Indian electoral seat unless……Sat is your only trump card and things so bad, you need to rally your base?

The post reminded readers about the current government's campaign promises back in 2010:

1. Good Governance, Transparency and accountability. The country still waiting.

2. An end to wastage of public monies and Squandermania. Have you read the last two Auditor General Reports on the spending of Public Monies? We are $30 billion dollars in debt. Yes. $30b.

3. An end to violent criminal activity and white collar crime. Two words: Dana Seetahal.

4. The right to recall MPs if they are underperforming. Cabinets shuffling and reshuffling and realigning every year, but no talk of the right of recall anymore. I wonder why?

The blogger addressed what she called “the criminal element”:

Abu Bakr of 1990 coup fame has often alluded to the role his organization, the Jamaat Al Muslimeen, has played in mobilizing votes for political parties.

As reports on the Life Sport Programme have shown [read more here], Kamla’s government has gotten very cozy with a group that has criminal shadows over it. As an electorate, we have to ask ourselves how many other groups like this is the UNC govt bankrolling and at what cost.

She was dismayed at what the use of Sat Maharaj as a political tool could mean for the nation and hoped that Trinbagonians – Afro, Indo, or Other – would transcend race and put country first:

After running a slick PR campaign in 2010 that pretended to be about issues, Persad-Bissessar has gone back to basics and is going to run a race platform. In reassuring herself of her heartland base Kamla has resorted to reactivating the Race Bogey. We are back in 1961 all over again [when the ruling PNM did pretty much the same thing]. Sat Maharaj remains one of the most polarizing and divisive individuals the country has produced. His racist comments are now being described by the PM as free speech. And the PM is yet to apologize for the many instances she has used race baiting and prejudiced comments on the campaign trail during last year’s 4 elections. When calypsonians and satirists practise the same freedom of speech I hope she is just as openminded.

It is now up to us, right thinking citizens, to reject race rhetoric and force the coming political campaigns to be about the glaring issues that are sinking us daily.

It remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister's United National Congress, whose logo is an image of the rising sun, can rise above playing the race card. The electorate, no doubt, will be watching whether the opposition rises to the occasion as well.

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