To Meet The Culture And Change It…This Is The Challenge Of Transformation
By SUNITY MAHARAJ
If we were confused before, we should be clear by now on the huge difference between regime change and the politics of transformation.
On the surface, the politics of Trinidad and Tobago has always been cast along the simple lines of racial difference which, repeatedly, translates into a competition for resources and the spoils of office. The more fundamental difference, however, is the tension between the forces of the status quo and the forces of transformation.
It is easy to identify the People’s National Movement as the political representative of those in favour of the status quo. In 1962, Eric Williams’ party slipped neatly into the saddle to take the reins from Britain. Since then, its programme has been largely expansionist, seeking mainly to do more and do it better than the British. While the party holds up Education as the symbol of its transformative impact on the society, it is really in Energy that it changed the rules of the old game, even though it stopped well short of moving from there to meet the challenge of transforming the economy as a whole.
On the other side of the ideological divide stand the forces of transformation. But who are they? What do they want? Are they even for real?
Since Independence, the platform for transformation has become the ideological rallying point for the forces in opposition to the PNM. In 1986, 1995 and 2010, they demonstrated that they have the numerical strength to dislodge the PNM. In office, however, they have repeatedly shown that they do not have the policy and programmatic instruments to bring to life their espoused platform of transformation.
Unequipped for the task, they run headlong into the unyielding wall of the status quo. Some surrender and smile, others turn bull in this china shop. At this point, the promise of change quickly degenerates into “exchange and re-arrange” with the pledge of reform giving way to one cosmetic act after another. Permanent Secretaries are peddled around; portfolios are re-christened; a plethora of experts are appointed in a kind of parallel government. Accusations of spite and mischief break out. Invariably, the race card gets played as a kind of self-evident truth of unfair hurt. Destabilisation and cost overrun take root and, in the melee, the Platform for Change is transformed into a Platform for Survival- none of which, it should be said, has so far managed to survive.
What the various self-declared platforms for change and transformation have so far failed to grasp is the need to make a serious investment in changing the political culture in order to create the room for building the capability and capacity for transformation in office.
To declare yourself for change is to unleash the pent-up hopes of those outside the status quo. To fail to prepare to engage and change the status quo could be suicidal. As a self-defence mechanism of the existing order, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Better to stay put than to fall into unprepared hands.
Which is why, as I have argued before, the PNM is the default party of Trinidad and Tobago. In its mastery of the status quo, the PNM has no competition. Its strength comes from its
ideological clarity at the point of transition from British colonial rule, as well as from long occupation at the crease. It may not have invented the status quo, but it has refined and re-defined it over 42 years in office, a full 30 of which were unbroken (1956-86), compared to the other side’s twelve years of experience in government which was broken over three periods (1986-91; 1995-2001; 2010-present). So if we like it so, and would just like it better and have more it more, the vote will go to the PNM. Which explains why the only basis on which Patrick Manning could separate himself from the PNM’s past was “old PNM” and “new PNM” and why Keith Rowley is resting his hopes on a new strategic plan as opposed to new politics.
For the forces campaigning on the platform of change, however, governing towards transformation in the context of the status quo, is a challenge of a completely different order. As we are once again witnessing, it becomes an impossible order when they enter office without a coherent idea of what they want to transform, why they want to transform it, and how they plan to do so.
The result is a hodge-podge of loud instincts underpinned by little more than outrage- which ultimately ends up debasing what should be critical issues of national policy. Like the Prime Minister’s statements on Caricom, Nizam Mohammed’s statement on racial discrimination in the Police Service offered one view of the truth without understanding and, in so doing, turned it into a lie.
To meet the culture and change it; this is the challenge of transformation within
the imperative of
social harmony. The cynical view might suggest that there is really no agenda for change; just another masquerade in the competition for office. But that would be to deny those among us who believe, among other things, that it is possible to govern on the basis that:
• We have enough resources- material and human—to feed, clothe and house ourselves if we could bring a different perspective to managing the economy that breaks the historical patterns of trade and consumption.
• We could be a happier, more productive people, less dependent on welfare and dead-end jobs, with a policy approach that values creative enterprise as a viable path to growth and not as a recipient of hand-outs.
• Education is the hand-maiden of independence that increases our value to ourselves, our society and the world. When it fails to achieve this, it’s not education.
• Whatever the size or quality of our natural resources, they must be harnessed for the nation’s development in such a way that protects the historical heritage and equitably and transparently distributes them among competing interests, while increasing their value for the generations yet to come.
• It is possible to negotiate our differences while uniting us around our common interests.
• It is within our ability to design a political system with the scope for representation that is both deep and wide enough to bring everyone into the decision-making process.
• We can be stronger by strengthening the Caribbean family and creating a solid Caribbean bloc in engaging the world
• Size is no deterrent to having self-respect and self-confidence in treating with the rest of the world.
These are, of course, mere statements of ideals which are in no way original and which cover just a few areas for policy. The political challenge lies in getting agreement on the vision among one’s supporters and in transforming the vision into actionable policy from which will spring the array of strategies in the form of the legislative agenda, the national budget, sectoral plans and day-to-day management of the respective plans. In all of this, there is no way to avoid continuous engagement, negotiation, discussion, debate and sheer hard work if one is to have an iota of a chance at succeeding in office on a platform of change and transformation.
Repeatedly, however, the self-declared platforms for change have arrived in office with no blueprint for transformation. Leaders land in the PM’s office straight off a flight of rhetoric. Somebody else supposed to do the thinking; if not available, it can be bought.
Consultants galore! Lost without a roadmap, extempo, mamaguy and pappyshow become the order of the day. As bush fires break out, alliances are built and broken on the go. The expedient rises to the top of the agenda, leaving no time for anything else, certainly not for the delicate processes of change.
When in doubt, throw money or whatever. As Basdeo Panday once said, everybody has a price; it’s just to know what it is. And when all else fails and fire breaks out, pour oil on troubled waters, soothe the hurt, apologise and move on.
They say this is the world of real politics, where survival is the art of the possible. Given the disorientation on display, one might well ask: Survival for what?