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Monday night fo’ rum

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Election Sketch
UNC supporters display placards during the party's Monday Night Forum at Debe Junction. Photo: RISHI RAGOONATH

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar entered her, or at least the UNC’s, hometown of Debe, in an entirely different set of the empress’ new clothes. The Keith Rowley-and-Faris Al-Rawi-bashing outfit from earlier this month vanished, replaced by a more statesmanlike Kamla P-B.

Mrs P-B’s actual voice also changed to match, mixing the Standard English that working class voters admire so much in their superiors and the dialect in which they must be addressed if they are to feel connected. Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s predecessor, Basdeo Panday, the best exponent of the art, segued from Oxbridge to cow-pen seamlessly. On Monday night, the kinder, gentler, more-prime-ministerial-than-Keith Rowley Mrs P-B switched from the Queen’s English accent befitting Queen’s Counsel to something closer to local dialect. “Man could born and die in 35 years” she called out, “but them never build a single hospital in all that time.” Sadly, it is difficult for someone who naturally speaks as well as the Prime Minister to speak badly at short notice, but she tried gamely – even if Keith Rowley or, indeed, anyone else, would have said, “Man could born and dead in 35 years.” 

The attempt to straddle both linguistic worlds sometimes resulted in oratorical bumps between the caring, statesmanlike Kamla and the bragging, look-how-much-we-did-for-you Kamla. “Healthcare is important,” she declared, “because, if you’re not alive, you can’t enjoy the road or the university or the nursing academy we built!” The listener, at that point, could be forgiven for recalling supermodel Brooke Shields’ observation that, “Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.” 

At what might have been the night’s most crucial moment, though, the packaging of the new Kamla seemed more like repackaging: specifically, the recasting of former Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s pet Waterfront Project in Port of Spain into what she hoped might be taken as a new UNC idea – to have a Waterfront Project in San Fernando. The waterfront project – the San Fernando/UNC one – would, the PM insisted, bring “bottom line, bottom dollar, money in your pockets as you get jobs.” 

 “I see,” went on the PM, before correcting herself to “statesmanlike” mode and declaring, “My vision for Trinidad & Tobago” included the Chaguaramus boardwalk and the National Cycling Velodrome. Both projects, she said, were “first class, world class,” which sounded a bit too much like Patrick Manning for perhaps even Patrick Manning’s own comfort.

The night’s big selling point, though, was less about world-class attractions than local house-and-land dispersals. Under the Act she helped to pass in 1988, the PNM gave out fewer than 1,000 certificates of comfort to people illegally occupying land. The UNC, she boasted, has given out 7,000 in the last five years alone, with more to come, if the electorate should only be discerning/house hungry enough to reelect the UNC. 

In her closest sally at wit, Mrs P-B declared that the PNM wanted the UNC to cut public spending but “won’t tell us what to cut. Maybe they have some barbers in that party.” The UNC simply will not cut jobs or the social safety net – perhaps an implication that the necessary cuts might come in contracting out less state work at lower prices to friends of the party, making the night’s biggest untruth also its only unspoken one. The “prophets of doom and gloom” she declared (channelling her inner George Chambers), were clamouring that the oil price was dropping and the country going bankrupt but, “in the first quarter of 2015, we have a surplus of revenue.” 

The Prime Minister then fixed the camera firmly in the eye and avowed that a surplus “doesn’t mean you run out there and spend all your money” – the posh, sophisticated packaging of the old Trinidadian adage that “Indian money might run low but it doesn’t run out.”   

Abruptly, Mrs P-B declared it was getting “little late” and everybody should get home safely, but even she appeared to be surprised by her sudden ending of the night’s proceedings: she almost forgot to play her high cards, one of which was a promised “Marlene-gate,” a reference presumed to be to PNM MP Marlene McDonald, and the other of which earned her a genuine Bravo; specifically, Dwayne, the T&T and West Indies cricketer dropped from the team for leading the Indian Tour Mutiny, a friend of new Sports Minister and old Soca Warrior, Brent Sancho.

The last, perhaps most memorable image of the night was Bravo (wearing a bright blue long-sleeved button-down shirt, not a yellow T-) clasped in a big hug.

Perhaps Mrs P-B could be forgiven for hoping that the connection between them does not reveal itself to be that they should both, at the end of a strongly, indeed bitterly, fought campaign, lose their jobs. 


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