Inspirational leadership may not be the most important factor in politics. But if there is one lesson to be learnt from the recent election results, it is this: inspirational politics – that ability to articulate the issues, to connect with and move the people – is definitely one of the most important requirements for winning in politics.
Examples of this imperative abound: The staid and reserved Herbert Blaize versus the personable and oratorically gifted Eric Gairy. The sociable and charismatic Maurice Bishop pitted against the stoic and brilliant Bernard Coard.
And in another time, when the Lord called upon Moses to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land, Moses knew that he himself was not an inspirational leader, not a good speaker, incomplete. The Lord agreed, and used the more articulate Aaron, Moses’ brother, to help him with the exodus out of Egypt.
For Tillman Thomas, there was to be no such Divine intervention to help the NDC. The general election results came as a major shock to the NDC and its supporters. They assumed that the principles of transparency, good governance, and accountability, when mixed with the gentlemanly demeanour of “Uncle Tilly”, were enough to ensure victory at the polls.
They were confident also that the party would be re-elected by the Grenadian people whom it had rescued from the excesses and alleged wrongdoings of the NNP in the previous election of just four years earlier.
But the party’s assumption was as wrong as was its confidence premature. A stunned NDC supporter was heard to say, “Not one boy! Not even one,” referring to the NNP’s clean sweep of all fifteen seats.
The voters, the young ones especially, were not in a gratuitous or patient mood. They had heard the allegations – of criminal wrongdoings, about “money in briefcase”, “Russian Mafia influence”, about the “call center” – allegations about “chicken farm” and registration fraud, many times during the last decade.
For many, these allegations would have been around for about half their young life. Yet the NDC, in power, blessed with a sympathetic press, and with all the legal machinations of government at its command, brought not a single charge of criminal wrong-doings against Mitchell or any of his political minions.
Too many voters, as they headed to the polls, cared little about these allegations. They had become skeptical and greeted the recycled charges with a great yawn – as if to say, “I’ve heard that tune before, enough already. So either put up or shut up.”
The NDC did neither, and the good Uncle Tilly was unable to convince the voters otherwise.
Much of the blame for what happened between the NDC’s taking over the reins of power in 2008 and its humiliating defeat at the polls can be placed directly at the feet of the morally devout Tillman Thomas and the rest of the party’s leadership. But good morals do not always make good politics.
At its core, the defeat was in part the result of the party’s own doing: a seemingly aloof, timid, disconnected, strife-torn and fragmented leadership; and failure to articulate the party’s accomplishments and solutions for the issues that Grenadians cared most about – employment and the economy.
This – the NDC’s repeated inability to forge common ground with the polity – was a major political shortcoming. Anyone aspiring for political office in Grenada knows that Grenadians, as other Caribbean people, are a stylish, flashy, and demonstrative bunch.
We like to see action and energy, especially in our leaders. But we are a reasonable and forgiving people too, and do not expect our politicians always to have the stirring oratorical skills of Bishop or be gifted with the shepherd-king qualities of Uncle Gairy. But they must be able to communicate effectively during unusual times. And these are unusual times.
Mr. Thomas is a lawyer by profession. During his term as Prime Minister he was painfully shy and inarticulate to the point of boring. His deputy, Mr. Burke, and his Minister of Education, Mrs. Bernadine, when they articulated the issues they did so as the educated professionals that they indeed are, and in language that was elevated and well parsed, but sadly uninspiring to the pedestrian Grenadian.
Missing in their voices was that tone of revivalist timbre that would have been so effective to inspire action and lure that critical mass of undecided voters into the NDC camp.
So the party, hamstrung by its candidates’ inability to deliver its message beyond its relatively narrow base of diehard NDC supporters, suffered. Its policies and accomplishments were too clumsily articulated. It was too crippled by internal strife, too immobilised with concerns of political purity; its politicians too far removed from the polity.
“They never came around”, was an often heard complaint from the voters in several constituencies, and sadly, in Tillman Thomas’ and Nazim Burke’s as well.
Feeling uncared for and abandoned – like motherless children – the voters made a stampeding dash into the welcoming arms of the opposing party.
In return, Mitchell and his NNP, like caring parents, gave them ready comfort. The voters in turn, expressed their gratitude and voted green. Where one leader was calm and reserved, the other, Mitchell, was passionate folksy and with a passion for politics. He was a practiced PR oriented politician who learnt his craft at the feet of some of Grenada’s most notable leaders.
He understood the value of political rhetoric, and he practiced it well. His political nose was always in the air, sniffing for opportunities to ingratiate himself with the people; and his feet were always on the ground, walking. He could smell where a pot of oil-down or “waters” was being cooked anywhere within his constituency. He knew about every community event, and would invariably show up: to enjoy the event, listen to the repeated complaints of hardship, and always to promise relief.
He not only walked the talk, he danced it too – the Mitchell shuffle. He knew where every cricket pitch was located throughout the island. He played on them. Once a regional bowler himself, he mastered the art of both games – cricket and politics – and delivered both of them at high speed, with a competitive spirit and with glee.
Many would say that the NDC’s failure to connect with the voters and to find common ground with them was the party’s greatest shortcoming. That failure – to project a united front, to tout its own horn loudly, to be more tolerant of dissent, and to engage and inspire its grassroots supporters – that failure, of basic political savvy and leadership, proved to be the NDC’s major undoing, at least, for the time being.
The NDC is down but not out. But to recover and remain a significant part of Grenada’s body politic the party’s hierarchy must do a realistic appraisal – a post mortem – of the reasons for its defeat. The next step is to implement the corrective and preventative actions that would heal its wounds, unite its leadership and ensure its rightful position as a viable alternative to the NNP.
The time for self-pity and wound licking is passed. The NDC’s immediate responsibility is to be the conscience of the nation and the mouthpiece for the thousands of its supporters who no longer have a voice in opposition in Parliament.
The next election is already less than five years away – a lifetime in politics. That is enough time for the party to begin expanding its political base and start the rebuilding process. It may have lost one hundred percent of the seats, but having garnered over forty-one percent of the votes (not an insignificant number) the NDC is still the most credible and meaningful party in opposition.
Its legitimacy thus established, its responsibility and its right therefore, are to be the realistic and critical alternative to leading and governing a disappointed, weary, yet resilient people.
And for that, and for the well-being of our body politic, we should bid the NDC, not adieu, but God’s blessings.
The Patriotic Eye