Theodore Lewis

Professor Theodore Lewis

Those who pay attention to pop culture would recognise the title of this column as the plaintive refrain in a song by Destiny’s Child, in which the lead singer, Beyoncé, is speaking to her lover on the phone but he is tentative. He is fumbling—“err! uhm”! But she is on to him. Something is not right. He is not alone, she can tell. She is street smart and decides to put him on the spot. She gives him a practical test. “Say my name, say my name”, she challenges the caller. “Why you acting shady, calling me baby? Like you running game? Say my name!”

This song was helpful as I read Selwyn Cudjoe’s column in the Sunday Express of August 28, titled “Great is the PNM” in which he speaks about the PNM “base”. He warns: “If the PNM wishes to be successful in 2020, it must solidify its base.” And he goes on: “PNM should solidify its base as it prepares for the next general election rather than make forays into unconquerable territory” (such as in Chaguanas). He wrote: “The party must open more organising centres in the North and the South where its supporters are concentrated.”

Cudjoe provides clues as to where the PNM base could be found, but he does not say who they are. They are invisible. They do not have distinguishing characteristics. He mentions Laventille twice.

It is always a weak argument when your example is the quintessential case instead of the typical case. Yes, Laventille is always there for PNM. They were there in 1986, holding ground in the face of the NAR landslide. They were there again in 2010, when the People’s Partnership dislodged Patrick Manning. But in these two sobering cases the base had crumbled all around. The PNM had lost Tobago, Toco, and Tunapuna. They even lost the capital city. Laventille was there, but the party had been voted out.

In the last election campaign I told Maxie Cuffie that the PNM had to target Africans and he scolded me. No, the PNM is for everybody.

Okay. Okay.

But that is for when you are governing, not when you are fighting election. Realpolitik requires parties to be smart in the way in which they deploy scarce resources during election campaigns. On this point I agree with Cudjoe. But there is a PNM notion that the African vote is there, and doesn’t have to be specially courted. They are dead without that vote, but they act more like if it’s a vote they expect by some special right. There is an arrogance about the party on this count.

The PNM may act like if the base is invisible. But all of those schools that have failed or are failing in PNM constituencies, especially up and down Laventille hill, are not invisible. They are real schools with very precious real black children. The press calls attention to the crime, but dysfunction in schools is a more serious problem because it has an inter-generational character. It is crime waiting to happen, and we don’t have long to wait, as the remand yard shows—young men barely out of school. In While Gods are Falling Earl Lovelace cautioned in the 1960s about this intergenerational cycle of poverty and violence in Laventille, and the valley below it, quintessential PNM territory. Here we are in 2019.

Those schools are not going to be able to provide the national scholars that Franklin Khan wants to train to take over, manage, and own our energy resources. They could, but somebody must have this as a priority.

So back to this question of party base. There is still a great buzz and excitement in the US about the victories of Barack Obama. How did he do it? He had to identify his base. In a 2014 article in the Washington Post titled “The erosion of President Obama’s base”, Phillip Bump was able to dissect the elements of the Obama base, as he tried to make his point. He looked at age (millennials and young people), race (especially Hispanics, blacks and Asians), education (those with a university degree compared to those without), politics (liberals versus conservatives), income level (low and medium versus high), and gender. If you do not define and target your base, they may stay home on election day.

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Most of the trouble in our politics comes from the fact that the main parties—the PNM and the UNC—pretend in different degrees not to be race-based parties. It is as though they are ashamed of advocating for their own people. But this leads to inauthenticity. It leads to two-faced canvassing. You say, “We shall rise” and you win, and then you say “is we time”.

In Malaysia, a plural society like us, the political parties are formed openly based on race. An article in the Asia News Network pointed out that Malaysia has been run for most of its life as an independent country under coalition rule, where the three main ethnic groups, Malays, the dominant indigenous population, Chinese and Indians first formed race-based parties, then came together as the Barisan Nasional (BN), founded in 1973. This coalition comprised of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

The Barisan lost the last election to another coalition party, the Pakatan Harapan. This party is headed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 94, who says that his new party, PPBM (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia), is a “Bumiputera” party, meaning its base are the Malays and other indigenous people.

Now I am not a big fan of Raffique Shah, but he is an incisive observer and analyst, and has written that Indians always vote where the leader is housed. Now that is an original bit of insight. The Indian voter asks, “where is my leader?” And where the leader is, there he or she goes.

I don’t think that the African voter sees things that way. I think Africans ask a different question. Africans have twice left the PNM leader standing high and dry. But what is that question that the African asks? As they used to say on John Street in Marabella, that is for me to know and you to find out. At least the African voter should be recognised by the PNM as visible and having a name.

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