It’s always political

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 16, 2023

“Democracy is not maintained by legal and constitutional texts alone.”

—Attorney Kiel Taklalsingh

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeA few days ago, the Prime Minister defended his Government’s choice of Christine Kangaloo for President of Trinidad and Tobago. He argued that those people who objected to the Government’s nomination were indulging in “nothing but pure politics… There are people in this country who set out deliberately to mislead the country, and I go as far as to say, incite the population”. (Express, January 9.)

This is an unfortunate position. The Oxford dictionary describes politics as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power”. Any debate that revolves around the selection of someone to the highest office of the land invariably involves how power is shared and how that appointment conduces to the deepening of our democracy. The nominee should also be able to contribute to the social coherence of the society.

Challenging the suitability of the Government’s or the Opposition’s candidate for the presidency is neither “pure” nor polluted politics. It goes to the heart of how we define ourselves as a nation. Citizens should suggest the names of candidates and be given time to discuss the objectives of the office and the qualifications of the candidates.

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson makes two persuasive arguments about the social and political essence of any nation. He says the nation “is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each [citizen] lives the image of their communion… Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined”.

He also argued that “the nation has no basis in empirical reality, but is instead a purely political innovation that constructs a shared identity binding strangers from different communities together—usually on the basis of a shared language, history, culture, religion or ethnicity. Thus, although a nation may consist of tens of millions of people—nearly all of whom will never personally know or even meet one another—nationalism allows each individual to think of themselves as a member of a singular community with a shared identity”.

In other words, whether a nation consists of 1.4 million people as in T&T, or 1.4 billion people as in China, it takes an act of imagination to envisage that society in its totality. Thus, in seeking to build a nation one must consciously envisage the whole population in one’s imagination and work towards its social coherence.

T&T consists of several races (Africans, Indians, Europeans, and others) and several creeds (Christianity, Hinduism, Islamic, Orisa, and others). Since our current political order honours a first-past-the-post system, a major section of the citizenry is effectually disenfranchised when their party fails to get the requisite number of seats. Given the racial composition of the political parties, Indo-Trinbagonians are virtually disenfranchised when Afro-Trinbagonians are in power. A similar thing happens to Afro-Trinbagonians when Indo-Trinbagonians are in power.

This situation is not sustainable over the long run because it creates permanent social fissures that eventually lead to conflicts. Apart from the constitutional/legal powers that the President possesses and the powers that s/he carves out for himself or herself, s/he must fill this glaring political void.

When Williams conducted his PNM party school, he perceived the office of the presidency as being independent from the elected arm of the state. He felt the president should act as a buffer between the impulses/extravagance of the ruling political party and the rights of all the people.

He also felt Independent senators (those who are selected by the president) should be representatives of civic, religious, and trade union groups rather than individuals who represented their own views. Since a president cannot negate the mandate of the elected party, s/he should always be ready to defend the rights of the underdog. Williams’s motto was always political and social balance.

In an insightful article, attorney Kiel Taklalsingh wrote: “The person who holds the office of the President must be an exemplar, manifesting unquestionable integrity, strength of character, intelligence and patriotism.” I would have added that such criteria are the necessary qualities that a president of this nation should have. They do not constitute the sufficient conditions of a president of T&T, particularly at this time of our social development.

A president is not a place-holder in the republic. He or she is the glue that holds the republic together by virtue of his/her intelligence, probity, intuitiveness, generosity and knowledge.

S/he sets the tone for the nation. S/he must be the voice for the voiceless, the eyes of those who cannot see, and an oasis of calm that stabilises the nation. We should refrain from thinking that lawyers are always the best people for the job.

The President must ensure that every group (in this case, creed or race) feels that it is included in the social whole; and act as a buffer between the elected representatives and disenfranchised minorities. His/her guiding wisdom should be: “No equity; no social balance.”

In this context I agree with Reginald Dumas who suggested that we ought to elect a person of the Hindu faith who meets the qualities that I have outlined above as our president. Such a person offers the necessary social and political balance at this time.

“Nations and national communities are constructed identities.” (Anderson.) The election of a president constitutes an important element in the construction of our social and political edifice that should be able to withstand the vicissitudes of time.

—Prof Cudjoe’s e-mail address is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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