Gestures of reconciliation
Stabroek News
November 14, 2002

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The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Patrick Manning has made an interesting start in his new administration in the field of ethnic relations.

Displaying what one Indian commentator in Trinidad described as a “new attitude towards nationals of East Indian descent” he celebrated Divali at the Prime Minister’s residence wearing a kurta with Mrs Manning wearing a shalwar. He admitted that this was the first time he had done this in two terms in office.

Himself and Mrs Manning were shown on television lighting the diyas at the official residence. In his address to guests at the celebration he declared that “when elections are over, we are not concerned with who supported who, we are concerned about bringing our society together as Trinidad and Tobago - a united country in which we aspire”.

Writing a column in the Trinidadian newspaper Newsday Mr Israel B. Khan S.C. who describes himself as of Muslim/Hindu/Christian stock offers congratulations to the leadership of the People’s National Movement for “moving away from their naked traditional tribalism and ethnicity to a new order of inclusion”. He refers to the recent selection of ministers and senators as an example of this.

He then says that he voted for Carlos John, an Afro-Trinidadian UNC candidate, because he believed that despite all of the ills of the UNC it was under Mr Panday a party of inclusion, a party that was really trying to bring the two major tribes together. He offered the view that the new approach to nation building by the leadership of the PNM was due to the scare Basdeo Panday had given them. “They have come to the stark realisation that in order to hold on to political power the other tribe must be included. Mr Manning must always remember and never forget that the old PNM refused to allow a Trinbagonian of East Indian descent to be appointed Prime Minister of this country”. He noted that on the death of Dr Eric Williams the PNM bypassed the two most senior cabinet members, Kamaluddin Mohamed and Errol Mahabir, both foundation members of the PNM.

Mr Khan, who describes himself as a floating voter with many thousands of others (and indeed the last election results suggest that such voters do exist in fairly substantial numbers in Trinidad - there was a substantial gain of votes by Mr Manning from the election the previous year, some of it attributed to getting out more of the traditional PNM vote) says that they wait with bated breath to see whether the new dispensation will be based on merit, ability and integrity and not tribe and ethnicity. “A true leader must lead with a clear vision of inclusion and not harken to the ignorant voices of his tribe”.

Mr Manning has exciting opportunities before him for domestic and regional leadership. Trinidad and Tobago is likely to enjoy a period of considerable prosperity over the next five to ten years based on investments in oil and natural gas. Critics of his first budget say it places too much emphasis on welfare provisions and handouts which are difficult to reverse in the event of an unexpected downturn in revenues and too little emphasis on building for the future which will benefit the country forever. The prosperity must not be frittered away as happened on a previous occasion. Mr Manning is talking of providing energy to the region, which would be an imaginative and progressive development. He is discussing a regional airline with Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, not a new idea but if they can build on work already done and put some energy and resources into it, it would give substance and impetus to Caricom in many ways.

Mr Manning has proved to be a survivor both in his party where he survived challenges for the leadership and nationally. It would seem he is growing on the job. If he can hold his nerve and play for big stakes like national inclusion and regional coherence, he can achieve a stature that did not at one stage seem likely.

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