Interview of the month: Winston Dookeran

“There is so much to learn from India”

In April, Winston Dookeran, political leader of the Congress of the People (COP) in Trinidad and Tobago, and a former acting Prime Minister of that country, was in India as part of a study tour organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). The COP in alliance with the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led United National Congress (UNC) is now seeking to wrest power from the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) in the general elections in May. He spoke to Editor and Publisher Sayantan Chakravarty during his visit:

Please tell us about your trip to India this time…
Essentially my trip was to visit a number of universities and to deliver a number of lectures. I started out in various universities in Delhi, then went to Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata. My lectures focused mainly on Caribbean political economy. It was a fascinating trip, an insider’s trip, it was gett ing to understand the real issues of development and politics. There is so much to learn, that at the end of it I feel inadequate. This whole experience has been like a teaser. 

So what are the impressions of India that you’ll carry back…
From what I saw, India is now on the brink of a take-off stage. There are of course a lot of challenges to be resolved, challenges of those in the hinterland that want their voices to be heard and recognized. It appears to me that there is no stopping the process, there are a lot of good things ahead of India. I enjoy reading newspapers in India, and I see that the Government is bringing in deep social measures, and they are responding to the hinterland by looking at right to education, right to womanhood, issues of healthcare. The Government is attempting to rise to the need of the hinterland as a social programme. The real independence is here, it cannot be stopped any longer. 

What do you take away from the Indian political system?
It has proven resilient over 60 years. There is a fundamental respect for authority, a deep feeling of gratitude for the founding fathers of India, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, 
Rabindranath Tagore. During the last sixty years or so after independence we have asked questions at our end on how India could hold together, because there are so many different Indians. Now I have a better understanding of the Indian spirit. We ourselves benefited in the Caribbean from Indian independence, ours came some years later. There is a feeling of pride for India, and we are only beginning to see the real development of the people, the next five years are going to be critical.

You have said in one of your election speeches in 2007 that one must know how people will behave in the future by how they have behaved in the past. Can you elaborate? 
Well, in our country politics has been without a fundamental philosophical base for a long time. For instance the issue of governance is compromised by the issue of criminality, and that should not happen in a democracy. The issue of unification of state, people, society is compromised by divisions of ethnicity. The issue of institutions that govern the nation have all had to make concessions to narrow political objectives. We need to fix politics, and to do that we need to establish a politically harmonious society in which state is not compromised by criminality, and institutions maintain their common goal and they are not allowed to be subverted by political agenda. 

COP’s Winston Dookeran and his wife with Chakravarty

You have spoken of an equal opportunity legislation in your country, implying that such opportunities do not exist overall…
I think it has been an issue for a very long time that people do not have the confidence that the system will treat everyone equally. We have the Equal Opportunities Commission but it is yet to become effective because there is a growing disbelief that society will treat all equally. 
The state has been charged too often with discriminatory practices, the good thing is we could resort to the judiciary for redress, and we’ve had to do that on many occasions. In a normal democracy, that should not have been the case. 

It does surprise many of us in India that the Indians who are in majority in Trinidad are not in power. Logically they should have been. The PNM has over two successive elections managed to draw upon the Indian votes…
I think Indian society is essentially more focused on individual and family connectivity rather than on societal connectivity. That apart, the political system just does not cater to plurality. It was devised from the British system that was predicated on divide and rule. And those who inherited it found it beneficial to divide and rule. My own feeling is that we should introduce some political reform in our political institutions by having a mixed system. In a discussion I had recently with Shashi Tharoor on proportional representation, he threw up an idea that I thought I’d pursue. He said the Upper House could be selected on the basis of proportional representation, not just on the basis of candidates of different parties, but on the basis of preference to women, and particularly to young people, because they feel totally disconnected. They must have a meaningful role in participative governance and not just be given lip service. Sometime you make the error of seeing the country in terms of plurality.

Your party, the COP, received nearly a fourth of the total votes polled at the last general elections. That is a significant number. Your party did not win any Parliamentary seat, but the 148,000 plus votes count. What is your party’s vote bank? Who are these people you think that are voting for the COP?
Yes, we got those many votes within one year of being established as a political party. Essentially they are those who wish to have good enough governance. There are ethnic insecurities in society that have created political vehicles and allows people to stay on and do away with good governance. A political commentator from Britain said after the last elections that the Trinidad and Tobago Government had failed in all the indicators of good governance, and had yet been re-elected. The question was asked, “do you have a preference for bad governance?” We see that governance is not about ethnicities alone, even though you must understand ethnic issues and respond to them. Good governance has a system that is transparent, accountable, and one that can deliver. After one year we got 24 per cent of the voters saying yes, that is what we want. But ethnic insecurity was so strong that they were not too sure if they wanted to give up what they already had. 

We are accustomed to the spectre of terrorism in this part of the world, something that is not known in today’s Trinidad and Tobago. And yet, you as the Acting Prime Minister in 1990 had to deal with possibly the first, and perhaps the last, terror uprising. Take us through that one week crisis, and what were your thoughts. It is stuff books are made of…
Well, I agree with you and hope that is the last. As someone said after that, we’d lost our virginity. People were able to walk into Parliament, there were two policemen at the door, one of them was not paying attention and it was possible for anyone to carry anything inside. Since then we have been subject to the scrutiny of checks. In that sense, we had lost our virginity. We were not an easy going nation from that point in time. About my own role, in the 6 days that we were under seize, there were 114 people who walked in to Parliament undetected, with guns. I had to first of all diffuse the enormous tension that had developed. You were now operating in an environment of violence and blood. If they had succeeded, Trinidad would now have had a past with a violent takeover of Government. It was what I term is the darkest period in the history of Trinidad and Tobago. There were temptations to deviate from the rule of law and get rid of the insurrectionists. But we did not get tempted. We allowed the legal course to take over, but some quirk of the legal system did not promote results we were expecting. But that is something for the law to decide. It was unbelievable to me that we as a nation could have been under seize, and that things happened the way they did. I liked what the Times of London said in an editorial, that it was an act of humility by a small nation by diffusing what could have been a potentially dangerous situation. And you are very right, compared to what goes in this part of the world, we feel we are in a zone of peace. 

You have said that Trinidad in the past has had to deal with negative growth. You had been Governor of the Central Bank, and also Minister of Planning and Mobilization. How did you deal with the crisis?
It was a real challenge in the 1980s, when we came into office. I and my colleagues worked to remove the lack of pace in the economy. We started to privatize. When (L.N.) Mittal bought over a steel plant in Trinidad, one could see the change in direction. We had developed earlier a huge state apparatus which we needed to dismantle. We had to focus on restoring growth. We economists are trained to think that way. As an economist I think we are still open to more exposure. Our economy is now more dependent on the energy sector which makes it a strong economy but one with a weak future. And that is contradictory. It also means that the confidence of people on whether we can sustain level of per capita growth remains a question. We have energy reserves ranging between 12 to 20 years. In a nation’s future that is a small number of years. The ability to shift towards agricultural development and food production remains an illusion. The competitiveness of the economy in order to exploit the internal sector remains something that is a real challenge. That makes one feel that the future is weak, and then you have the political situation.

UNC has just seen a change in guard, does it make it more amenable for you to talk to your old party in some ways?
Oh yes, definitely. I think the change in leadership in the UNC has opened up possibilities for finding the right formula. I hope the right wings of the UNC will not dominate the thinking. And I hope the moderate, liberal elements will dominate, so that we can all come together under the mantle of good governance. To bring that in, psychologically we would have made a contribution to the politics of Trinidad and Tobago. Things I have learned from India during this trip are how to bring big confidence and inclusiveness in society. It is your greatest strength. How do you establish the mix between growth and equity, which is a challenge for you? When I visited your business incubator unit, I saw great potential for transferring that to Trinidad and Tobago. It would bring ownership of development to the underprivileged in the society. And we have to learn from that. When I looked at your IT development and how you access the outsourcing in the world, we can learn from that, because neither size nor distance is important any more in today’s world. There is the death of size and the death of distance. In the past we always felt that we are too small, and we are too far to make any real impact. When I was a student many years ago we would never dream to overcome our size, and overcome our distance. 

Tell us something from your days at the University of West Indies where you taught for 15 years…
V S Naipul whom I had invited 25 years ago to the UWI told me once that there are only two indices he would look at when he goes to a new country, and not at what we economists tend to look at, things like GDP, per capita income and so on. He told me about the Crane Index, which is an indicator of physical development. Then he mentioned the Conversation Index, which is about what the people are talking. Wherever they are, if people are talking about the future, then you know the country is in the right path. If they are consumed in their own survival, then it is another story. The best place to feel this is at the university because people are paid to have conversations. I see in India that people are agile, they are talking about the issues of tomorrow, they are now beginning to realize the power of India as a re-emerging nation. 

Please explain to us why the Indian identity in the West Indies remained subverted for years, and the Caribbean largely became known as a place made up of Africans, even though East Indian majority was established through indentureship in many of the countries?
There are two reasons. The power structure in the country did not facilitate the plurality of the political voices. My name is Winston, I was named so by my parents as it allowed me entry to an English school. My grandson’s name is Dhruv, and those things do not matter anymore. The structure of society was such, that is why identity became a big issue. The Indians saw themselves as victims, not shapers of society, and the Africans captured political power. They felt they had the power of the state. What is required now for the Indian community is to be the legitimate shaper of the New Society. When we talk about Indian identity, we need to talk in terms of Caribbean identity. The time has come when the Indian community must now shape the society for all so that they can offer that leadership.

May 2010

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