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“I say let the 44,190 go independent if they wish or, for that matter, let them join a federal relationship with Grenada and let Morgan Job be president. The result will make the African population of Trinidad a smaller minority by another two per cent. With the Tobago figure taken out of the 2000 census figures, the Indian majority will climb to 41.85 per cent while the African will slip to 35.04 per cent.
These census figures that are being suppressed have serious implications for the disbursement of funds for education, culture, regional development and other State realignments.” Devant Maharaj: South Asian Outlook, November 2004.
I find no more (or less) racist Devant Maharaj’s recommendation for ethnic cleansing the Afro-Trinidadian population, than Hilton Sandy’s crude, jingoistic appeal to Tobago voters that has generated so much political hysteria in the last weeks of an extremely bitter campaign for the THA elections.
Both men are unfit for public office, not just because their ethnic appeals if taken to their logical conclusions can do real harm, but because they espouse views that, in the long run are not conducive to the greater harmony needed to develop the Trinidad and Tobago in which we would all like to live. But until we get there we are likely to see and vote several of their avatars into office.
Maharaj's views, which also appeared under the byline of Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha leader Sat Maharaj in the Guardian of August 2004 (one can’t be sure whether it was ghost-writing or plagiarism) are well known and have been articulated over a long period in public life, while Sandy is a relatively unknown nationally but is a key figure in Tobago's politics where such jingoism is worn as a badge of honour.
Maharaj, despite such views, for which he has never apologised nor repudiated a single word, has been a rising star in the People’s Partnership administration where he was first appointed a state board chairman, then minister of Transport and more recently minister of Agriculture. Sandy, an appointed assemblyman is seeking election, having been previously appointed to the THA and been entrusted with the position of deputy chief secretary where he holds the pivotal portfolio of Infrastructure and Public Utilities.
Even if nomination day had not long since passed and withdrawing Sandy would not be tantamount to surrendering the district and the election to the TOP, the PNM would be hard pressed to withdraw Sandy for the same reason that Kamla Persad-Bissessar has been unable to jettison Maharaj whose words (and sometimes quite reprehensible) actions are so disturbing to a section of the country.
Both Sandy and Maharaj speak for large sections of the population, people for whom race matters. For those of us secure in our middle class values and education, the ethnicity of who held what post would not matter as long as they had the requisite qualifications and experience. But for the people who still constitute a majority and who make up large blocks of the voting base of our two major parties, race does matter and people like Maharaj and Sandy speak for and on their behalf.
Political parties, those at least which seek to hold power, understand this and are adept at appealing to one constituency and soothing their ethnic fears without alienating the other deracinated constituency which constitutes a quite vocal minority. Sandy’s true transgression is his failure to balance his message to the two.
Most analysis of the ethnic divide offer simplistic solutions (like forming a national party) to the challenge of reducing ethnic voting, or simply offer a description of the phenomenon based on historical sociological patterns rather than any prescriptions for its elimination. Assuming, of course, that that is even a worthwhile goal.
In a 1965 paper on The Development and Persistence of Ethnic Voting, Raymond E Wolfinger examined voting behaviour in the United States and argued that “one of the more remarkable tendencies in political behaviour is the persistence of partisan affiliations for generations after the reasons for their formations have become irrelevant to contemporary society.”
After examining the persistence of ethnic voters in the American electorate despite sociological changes over time, he saw that such tendencies are likely to last way into the future as anyone who followed the recent US presidential elections can attest.
Both our major parties, the PNM and the UNC, recognise the ethnic vote will be critical to winning any election. They are the base on which our two-party democratic system is built. If we are as high-minded as we are pretending to be, no one will need to call on Sandy to withdraw from the election and democracy would take its course with the voters repudiation of his views. Maharaj would not even have been selected as an elected candidate far less being a Cabinet minister.
And to show how hypocritical our politicians are, three years after the publication of that article Maharaj was selected as a candidate to contest the election, not by the ethnic-voting base of the UNC but by the high-minded intellectuals of the Congress of the People on whose behalf he contested the 2007 general election in Couva South. The online dictionary defines ‘Tobago love’ as ‘Disguising one’s feelings of attraction or love...” It is clear that when it comes to race talk, we have it bad.
Maxie Cuffie runs a media consultancy, Integrated Media Company Ltd, is an economics graduate of the UWI and holds an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School as a Mason Fellow in Public Policy and Management.
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