Rum and Roti still flavor the island’s politics

Egbert Gaye

On Wednesday, September 9, Dr. Keith Rowley was sworn in as the 7th prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. In fact, after a faux pas in the swearing-in protocol, he was sworn in twice.
In the end, it was all good for a man whose character was trashed in what was probably the most brutish campaign in the history of T&T, during which detractors labeled him a pedophile, accused him of having a child with an “outside” woman and of multiple instances of sexual harassment.
The vote was held two days earlier, on Monday, September 7, and about 600,000 voters had their say. The majority of them, 51.8 %, offered Rowley a much stronger vote of confidence than expected.
His People National Movement (PNM) won 23 seats and dislodged the ruling United National Congress (UNC), which was only able to capture 18 seats.
The UNC, which governed as The People’s Partnership in a coalition with a handful of splinter political parties and groups, held power for five years after easily trouncing the Patrick Manning led PNM in the 2011 elections, 29 seats to 12.
But the PP quickly lost favor with a large chunk of T&T voters due to a series of political gaffes and a running gamut of corruption allegations, which opened the way for a resurgent PNM under Rowley in the September 7th vote.
However, even in the face of this decisive defeat, Persad-Bissessar and the UNC were still able to retain much of their base support among East Indian Trinidadians, who make up about 38 % of the population. While the PNM maintained the support of its core followers, which comes from Trinbagonians of African descent, who comprise about 36% of T&T.
In Trinidad, they call this unconditional loyalty between the two dominant racial groups for the two political parties “rum and roti politics.”
It might have had its genesis in the machinations of two of the nation’s foundation politicians, Dr. Eric Williams, founder of the PNM and Dr. Rudranath Capildeo, founder of the Democratic Labor Party, many of whose supporters are today’s UNC people.
Both Williams and Capildeo were notorious for attempting to curry favor with their followers and keep race as an intrinsic part of Trini politics. However, because Williams and the PNM held power over an exceedingly long period of time, from 1956 to 1981, he had become quite adept at forming coalitions and bringing people of other races under their governing tent.
In her early days in office, Persad-Bissessar showed promise in being able to build similar coalitions and fostering more diversity in her government.
But by the end of her tenure, when confronted with the challenge of all political leaders to determine who gets what, when and where, she wavered and resorted to the nasty behavior of pandering to her base and directing a lot of government resources toward a certain segment of society.
Before long, the prime minister was being accused of insulating herself within a cabal, a small group of East Indian politicians and power brokers who wielded far-reaching influence in the nation.
Whether perception or reality, the accusations struck a massive blow to Persad-Bissessar who disappointed many because she had an opportunity to usher T&T away from the “rum and roti” mentality after building coalitions with influential Afro Trinidadians, Mandakal Daaga, leader of NJAC and Errol McLeod, a former high ranking labor leader.
But evidence of the old social division was glaring when the September 7th votes were counted.
The voting map showed the yellow of the UNC covering the central and south-central belly of the country where the bulk of the East Indian communities can be found. While patches of red extended across the east-west corridor and much of the southern edges of the country that is mostly populated by people of African decent.
The result also compounded another undeniable revelation in modern T&T politics, which is Rowley’s continuing dominance of Persad-Bissessar on the electoral playing field, having soundly defeated her in at least four other local government and by-elections.
For her part, the former PM was not elegant in defeat, refusing to call and congratulate Rowley until about a week after the elections.
Also, her UNC party stated its intention to go to court to have the elections annulled because of “irregularities”, although a team of Commonwealth observers deemed it fair and run well? executed.
The new T&T parliament will convene on September 23.