By Jai Parasram
Keith Rowley’s move to shake things up in the Senate is no accident and we need to look beyond today to understand what is happening within the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM).
When Rowley, as political leader, got the party to change the constitution to follow the lead of other national parties in the country and elect its leaders by popular one-member, one-vote, he was protecting his turf while ostensibly bringing more democracy into the party.
Jai Parasram is the author of Far From the Mountain, a series of political stories and commentaries covering Trinidad and Tobago over the period 2007 to 2012 and covers the a turbulent period from the struggles within the opposition UNC, the change of leadership and the rise of Kamla Persad-Bissessar as the first female PM of T&T. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website
He had been defeated earlier in his career in a leadership challenge to Patrick Manning and realized that a sitting leader could manipulate the delegate system to his/her advantage. While he might have kept the old system and tried to do the same, he knew that there was and continues to be a Manning arm within the party that could have challenged him and possibly win. He was not willing to take the chance.
Now the system that he introduced to protect him could come back to bite him. Both sacked Senator Pennelope ‘Penny’ Beckles-Robinson and former Port of Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing have indicated that they would run against Rowley for the leadership of the PNM in 2014.
And that makes Rowley nervous, especially since Terrence Deyalsingh is the only MP in the Lower House with allegiance to Rowley; Manning handpicked the others and at least two of them – Colm Imbert and Amery Browne – continue to defy their leader by wearing the outlawed Balisier tie in Parliament.
Rowley has already taken care of Lee Sing – or so he thinks – by keeping him out of City Hall. By removing Penny from the Senate the opposition leader is hoping to clip her wings and her leadership ambitions. Two from three leaves one … and he is hoping no other challenger would emerge.
But why fire Hinds? The former MP had been a strong Rowley ally but today he is a liability when it comes to Rowley’s new agenda – that of showing that he can embrace Indians within the bosom of the party. Hinds is well-known for his racist outbursts (ex. Saying he would cut off the locks off a rasta boy’s head for hugging the PM). So moving him and putting two Indians in the Senate fits the ‘indianisation’ agenda.
But lest anyone be fooled about his intentions, Rowley’s move to put Avinash Singh and Diane Baaldeo-Chadeesingh into the Senate is not the magic political potion to get Indians lining up to join the PNM.
Avinash is a failed election candidate (Chaguanas West) and Rowley broke a party tradition in appointing a defeated candidate to the Upper House. In the case of Diane, she is not known for any political skills or strong positions. In effect Rowley has put two insignificant people into the Senate as window dressing to lure Indians to the PNM. He can now boast of having an Indian chairman, one Indian MP and two Indian senators.
But the real hole in this strategic move by Rowley is that he has demonstrated a measure of contempt for the Senate while trying to whitewash the fact that he kicked out Penny and Hinds.
PNM PRO Faris al-Rawi is saying this was a strategic move with the focus on winning the general election in 2015. He has suggested that the party wants to use the Senate as a political space to train future PNM leaders.
If that is so the party has revealed its ignorance of the role of the Senate and senators. This chamber is not a place to stumble and fumble while you find your way in the political arena. It is a chamber of careful reflection, charged with the responsibility of keeping checks and balances within the legislature and of holding members of the Lower House accountable.
The very structure of the Trinidad and Tobago Senate ensures that the government has only a simple majority to prevent the sitting administration from always getting its way within the legislature as we have seen with several pieces of legislation that failed to get Senate approval and therefore either failed or had to be shelved.
Rowley’s challenge now is how to contain his own base and prevent the dissent within his own party, which includes some of the movers and shakers who are pushing Penny to run for the leadership of the PNM. These people have the money and the clout to make Rowley nervous and Rowley reacted by kicking out Penny now.
The indianisation move is an excellent idea if it were genuine. But it is as bogus as eating doubles in Debe and going to Divali Nagar dress in a kurta because, while Rowley pretends that he and his party are embracing everyone, the records show a different Rowley and a different political agenda.
The real Rowley is opposed to a Couva Hospital and Debe Campus, not because they are not needed but because of their location – in the Indian heartland that is perceived as UNC territory. The PNM is opposed to the rural development that is a response to decades of PNM neglect. The PNM’s past is a treasure chest of discriminatory behaviour against Indians so window dressing won’t do.
People no longer buy into wholesale propaganda, so Rowley would have to do much more before he earns any credibility for his latest moves.
For now Rowley needs to watch his back carefully. And he needs to start showing that he is a leader because Penny, Louis and others are waiting and watching.