Vinay Lal

Three general elections have taken place in Trinidad in a little more than two years, the most recent in October 2002. The population of Trinidad, about 1.3 million, is divided nearly equally between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians, who together account for a little over 80 percent of the people: the former are the descendants of slaves brought to the British colony to work on the plantations, while the latter are descendants of indentured laborers (another term, some scholars have argued, for slaves) who, following the abolition of slavery in British territories in the 1830s, were similarly imported as a laboring force. Indians first arrived in Trinidad in 1845: “Arrival Day”, which marks the emergence of Indians in Trinidad, is now a national holiday. The remaining 18-20 percent of the population is comprised of mixed races, creoles, Lebanese, Chinese, and whites.

The Indian presence in Trinidad’s electoral politics was felt for the first time in 1986 when the ruling party, the People’s National Movement (PNM), which had reigned supreme since Trinidad derived its independence from British rule in 1962, lost to a coalition of the United National Congress (UNC), led by the trade unionist Basdeo Panday, and the National Alliance for Reconstruction. The Alliance’s A. N. R. Robinson was swept to power, and Basdeo was placed in charge of the Finance Ministry at a critical moment in Trinidad’s history when the IMF had called for drastic economic reforms to avert what it described as economic collapse. In 1991, the PNM came back into power, but in 1995 Panday achieved what would have been considered absolutely improbable a decade ago, namely outright electoral triumph. Thus, 150 years after Indians first arrived in Trinidad, an Indo-Trinidadian, whose ancestors came from the plains of north India, ascended to the office of the Prime Minister.

Having served out his five-year term, Panday appeared to have consolidated the UNC’s place in Trinidad’s politics when he again led the party to victory in late 2000. The UNC captured 19 seats, and the PNM 16 seats; but dissension in the ranks of his party, which deprived Panday of his majority in Parliament less than a year after he was sworn into office for his second term, led him to dissolve Parliament and call for early elections. Among those who quit Panday’s cabinet was Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, who stated that he no longer had confidence in his government’s ability and will to deal with corruption. Manning and his PNM, which has historically attracted Afro-Trinidadians much as UNC derives most of its constituents from the Indian population, campaigned against corruption in the government; Panday argued that his party was best calculated to lead the oil-rich nation into further prosperity and economic growth. The December 2001 elections, however, resulted in a stalemate: the UNC and the PNM, still led by Patrick Manning, each captured 18 seats in the 36-seat Parliament. The three dissenters from Panday’s party, though constituting themselves into a new political party called Team Unity, failed to win any seats.

Following the stalemated election, Panday proposed a power-sharing agreement between the two parties, but his proposal was rejected by Manning. Subsequently Panday and Manning agreed that Arthur Robinson, who had been elevated to the largely ceremonial Presidency in 1997, would choose the head of government, and that new elections would be held at a date agreed upon by the two parties. On 24 December 2001, Robinson chose Manning to form the new government. For the Indian community, puzzled that incumbent Prime Minister Panday should have been overlooked, this was perhaps calculated to revive memories of the domination of Trinidad’s politics by those of African descent. Panday declared himself unable to accept Robinson’s decision, on the grounds that it had not been made in accordance with the provision of the Constitution. Following a party meeting on 2 January 2002, Panday issued a statement describing the government of Manning as “illegitimate, unconstitutional, contrary to the rule of law”. Manning, for his part, issued a statement on January 3 laying claim to the government and denouncing Panday for “disregarding the rule of law” and “engaging in action designed to inflame the minds of followers.” “Poor Mr. Panday, I feel sorry for him”, Manning said. “Some people have difficulty adjusting to new arrangements. He doesn’t realize that he’s not the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, that there’s a new prime minister and he has difficulty adjusting to that. But I think over time, he will adjust, so let us be patient and kind with him.”

Manning had surely spoken too early, since the political stalemate never disappeared, and the country’s political business came to a standstill in the absence of a Speaker in the House of Representatives. Manning, consequently, asked for the dissolution of Parliament and asked that the country go to the polls yet again. In the most recent elections, Manning led the PNM to victory with 20 seats. Basdeo Panday, nearly 70 years old, made it known that he would be contemplating retirement from politics, and some UNC leaders are, in the event, certain that the party’s fortunes cannot be revived with Panday at the helm of leadership. Allegations of corruption, some concerning Panday’s own undisclosed wealth and assets, are thought to have weakened the attraction that voters might previously have had for the UNC. Nonetheless, Pandey took an oath as Leader of the Opposition. It remains to be seen whether the PNM represents only the Afro-Trinidadian party, or whether the country has moved, at least in part, towards surmounting the racial cleavage that has been at the heart of Trinidad’s electoral politics.

See also on MANAS:

Indians in the Caribbean (four-part series published in The Hindu, 1995), by Vinay Lal

Articles (The HINDU)

Reflections on the Indian Diaspora.
Freedom in Chains.
At Home in Trinidad.
The Future of the Indians in the Diaspora.