By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 11, 2022
One is always flabbergasted by how democracy functions (or malfunctions) in Trinidad and Tobago. Recently there was a Cabinet reshuffle in the Government. Clarence Rambharat, the Minister of Agriculture, resigned. He expressed his desire to return to Canada to be closer to his family and yet one week later he was named or, as the Express describes it, “rocked back” into power. (Express, April 3.)
In a rather dramatic announcement, the Prime Minister named Rambharat as part of an entity called the Single Point Land Management Authority, an agency that “does not yet exist, which is to be set up to address a mandate that is not yet clearly understood by anyone outside of Cabinet”. (Newsday, April 6.) The Prime Minister told his astonished audience: “I have a Cabinet Note on my desk to ensure that the Single Point Land Management Authority will come into being.”
One is amazed at the alacrity with which such a note comes to the Cabinet. But such are the powers of the king: he can name anyone he has anointed to anything, existing or yet to come. Rambharat does have some knowledge of land management. Afra Raymond, a knowledge source on these matters, attests that Rambharat is quite versed in the area. He says, “I first encountered Clarence about 25 years ago when we were advising Caroni Ltd, and he was its Corporate Secretary. He went on to be its acting CEO, so he is very knowledgeable on land areas in general and Caroni in particular.”
While the king is enchanted with Rambharat’s special abilities, the public twice rejected Rambharat’s attempt to hold public office. He has been Minister of Agriculture for seven years, but has little to show for his efforts. We wait to see how well he would perform and how much he would be paid in this new position if it is approved.
But more is at stake here. A democracy requires more than holding a national election every five years. It involves having “effective state power in the hands of the masses”. It seems that here, after a national election, the people have no say in what takes place in the state. The elected leader can do whatever he pleases without having to answer to the public. In fact, one test of democracy is how the people of a state respond to the arbitrary diktat of their political leader.
In fairness to Rowley, this problem has challenged us from the inception of our democracy. In 1964 the Mighty Sparrow critiqued Dr Williams’ dictatorial powers when he reappointed Dr Patrick Solomon as Minister of External Affairs after the latter was forced to resign from his position as Minister of Home Affairs when he rescued his stepson from police custody.
Sparrow mimicked Williams when he sang:
“This land is mine, I am the boss / What I say goes and who vex loss / I say that Solomon will be Minister of External Affairs / If you ain’t like it—get to hell outta here!…
“Who the hell is you to jump and quarrel? / Look PNM is mine, lock, stock, and barrel / Who gave you the privilege to object? / Pay your taxes, shut up and have respect.
“I am a tower of strength, yes, I am powerful but modest / Unless I am forced to be blunt and ruthless. / So shut up and don’t squawk, this ain’t no sky lark / When I talk, no damn dog bark.”
Sparrow, a big fan of Dr Williams, knew instinctively when the democratic tendency of the state was being crushed by the dictatorial posture of the leader.
We, in T&T, must be careful of what contemporary political theorists call “illiberal democracy” in which citizens are cut off from “knowledge about the actions of those who exercise real power”, even though they regularly vote in national elections. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most members of Parliament knew the Rambharat stroke was coming before the Prime Minister announced it. But this is only speculation on my part.
The essence of democracy lies in how collaborative a leader is with his people and how well he responds to their needs. It cannot be that he relieves someone today because that person misses his family but rehires him tomorrow without any plausible explanation for the urgency of such a change.
In this context, one is reminded of the famous saying of Louis XIV of France: “I am the state and the state is me.” Herbert Rowen noted that this phrase implies “an administrative monarchy equated with the person of the king”, that the king was “the proprietor of the state” and that the state exists to serve his function rather than vice versa. In other words, the leader must always keep in mind that he is a servant of the state rather than the embodiment of the state.
A few days ago Viktor Orban was re-elected Prime Minister of Hungary. Orban runs what some people call an illiberal democracy. Tibor Kalman wrote: “Democracy is not static, nor entrenched in stone. It must be fought for tooth and nail.” If our response is silence every time the king makes his pronouncements, we are likely to end in a situation where the king’s voice remains supreme, silences the voices of the citizens, and embodies the doctrine: “I am the state and the state is me.”
As a young state we must struggle to build as vibrant and democratic as we would like it to be. We must always flag all authoritarian practices if we wish to maintain our democracy. If we do not, we may end up with oligarchy which can creep up on us without our knowing it.