INTERVIEW : Diaspora political Leader 

Interview with Lenny K Saith

Deputy Prime Minister, Trinidad and Tobago

“We would like more Indians to explore our country”

Dr Lenny K Saith is a towering personality in Trinidad and Tobago and the West Indies. He has been a past chairman of the ruling People’s National Movement (the major opposition party being the United National Congress). PNM has a very large African base in a country where the majority (42 per cent) population is of East-Indian origin. He is also the country’s Deputy Prime Minister. In fact, he acts as the Prime Minister in the absence of the substantive holder of the post and carries on his Governmental duties as a Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister. An engineer with multiple degrees, including a bachelor’s and doctorate from the Roorkee Engineering College in India, he was in India in January to receive the prestigious Pravasi Samman Award from the President of India on the concluding day of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. He was also gracious enough to accept the Award for Lifetime Achievement at the INDIA EMPIRE NRI AWARDS (see details in cover story) on January 10. Soon after receiving his Award he was interviewed by Sayantan Chakravarty, the Editor and Publisher of the magazine. We present highlights from the interview:

As a Person of Indian Origin (PIO), you have significantly enough been a past chairman of the PNM and continue to hold a very high position in the party, that of Deputy Political Leader. The PNM has a large African base, as compared to the UNC which has a large PIO-base. You also hold a very high position in Government, that of Deputy Prime Minister. In some ways the mighty presence of a PIO in a party with a large African base blends in with the ancient Vedic philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, that of the whole world being one single family… 

I think it is. I don’t think consciously one approached it that way. Because the ancient philosophy is quite clear in its approach, that you cannot have a divided people to achieve anything. In any country that has the diversity of people that we have, with none of them in the majority, you cannot, in the end, have progress of the country if you are polarized completely along ethnic lines. There is, therefore, a need for people of different ethnic groups to find a way of working together. The other party (UNC) has people of African descent. I’d like to see more and more of that happening in both parties.

You are saying that in oneness lies the future…

Yes. There is a curious thing in Trinidad and Tobago, and that is the number of people classified as mixed is growing. These are the people more susceptible to being in either party. Since the time the two parties formed themselves, the levels of education within the population has gone up. In the 1950s and 1960s the level of education was low. The PNM has spent a lot of money on education. Now education is free at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. That also means that even by remaining within a particular ethnic group, people are more open to seeing the other point of view. The people also require performance from leaders for providing their continued support. 

Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs presents the INDIA EMPIRE NRI Award for Lifetime Achievement to Deputy PM of Trinidad and Tobago Lenny Saith. 
Present are Canadian MP Ruby Dhalla and Editor Chakravarty
Dr Saith and his wife Radhica Saith, Deputy Chairman of the Tourism Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago

You have undertaken many journeys to India, since your first trip in 1955-56 as a student to this country. Each time you’ve come, have you found a change, a growth, a more progressive India?

Yes. I think the progress between 1955 and 1984 was slow. But since then it has been very rapid, first when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister and then when Manmohan Singh became Finance Minister. I am not being critical, but there was a different structure to the economy in the earlier phase. It was closed and inward looking. It did not allow the Indian people to explore their entrepreneurial spirit. The system allowed a bureaucracy to breed, and allowed for licensing regimes. In all the years since the war, I did not see any change in the kind of cars India made. There was no innovation for a long time. They were of no use to anybody outside of India. The system was such that those who made those cars could sell every car they made, there was no incentive to improve. The Japanese, after the war, took a different view point. They innovated and became an exporter. Up to 1984, I did not see much progress, not the kind of progress you would imagine from a people that are entrepreneurs. But since, each time I come, I see tremendous change.

You have said on public platforms that you are engineer first, and at many places even now you fill up your form stating that you are a civil engineer. In terms of infrastructure do you feel the change…

I feel the change, I see the change. My favourite is transportation, highways. In 1955, in schools, engineering on roads was small. We spent more time on irrigation. Engineering of roads was how you took a boulder, how you got people to break it by their hands, how you excavated by people moving things on their heads. You could not make roads on a large scale by those methods. Even then I came from a country that used bulldozers. As an engineer, I can see that the whole system has been changing in India, especially when you see the work that is going on. It is kind of late, but never too late.

You were conferred the prestigious Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award. This is a recognition of your own status by the Government of India, and also of your Indian-ness. Does it increase your own USP within your own political party?

Well, it is a two-edged sword. I have never seen myself in the party as an Indian leader. I have seen myself as someone that subscribes to the tenets and policies of the party which, by the way, is a belief in multiracialism, multiculturalism. But at the same time I cannot deny my Indian-ness, even though I may not wear it on my sleeves. Given the nature of politics, someone of Indian descent has been able to achieve such heights in the party. Now I am a deputy political leader, I was chairman of the party. I am a senior Government minister, and when the Prime Minister leaves the country, I act for him. It indicates that there is room for Indians in this political party, and even the Government of India recognizes that role.

Thanks to High Commissioner Pundit Maniedeo Persad, Trinidad and Tobago is now part of the consciousness of Indian businesses. Travel and business has increased. What would you say are the areas for Indian businesses to focus on in your country?

Let me make the point that communication has become so easy. You could go on the net, and google any place and find things about Trinidad and Tobago. So I think the awareness is coming because of the ease of communication, it is also coming because of the growing middle class. There is, first of all, the opportunity for Indian capital to find its way to Trinidad. For example, L N Mittal bought his first steel mill in Trinidad after Indonesia. That is where it all started for him. You’ve had the presence of Bank of Baroda, New India Assurance. Essar Group continues to be in discussions over a major investment. There has been a lot of investment at the lower level with trade going on for a long time. We are continuing to see how we can trade back. Culture remains a readymade market and same is the case for Indian films, music and literature. We have chutney, which is international. We would like more Indians to explore our country.

And by extension these opportunities are available to the Indian Diaspora…

For people in the Diaspora in the West, who couldn’t go to India, it is an opportunity to come to Trinidad and explore our country.

Given the branding of Trinidad and Tobago as a result of the recent successes of the cricket team in India, it could be the right time for the country to pitch in here as a travel-tourism destination, a high-end one perhaps, but nevertheless a destination…

Yes. Definitely. They will see something different, and yet not something alien. A lot of Indians who come, and see, say that they feel very comfortable, they feel at home. There is room for that. We have to develop our tourism infrastructure. We need more hotel room facilities, we need more investment in hotel infrastructure, we need to strengthen links with Air India. The connectivity is better now, but a time will come when we do not have to necessarily go north to come south, and can fly straight to our respective countries. You are exotic in the eyes of those in Trinidad and Tobago. But to fly straight, you have to have the traffic. 


February 2010

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