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Non-Indian will never lead UNC

Express - April 29, 2001
By Raffique Shah

I FIND it amusing, bordering on hilarious, this sudden surge of interest in a successor to Basdeo Panday as leader of the UNC. The man has been leader of the party and its predecessor organisations in whatever incarnations for close to three decades, and during that lengthy period he has had many a deputy leader, but never an anointed successor.

So why the sudden rush to find someone to “fill his shoes”, as my colleagues in the media seem intent on peddling? Is it that Panday and others around him have finally discovered that the man is a mere mortal, that given his heart ailment he could make his exit to the hereafter quite suddenly, leaving the UNC headless?

The Panday I knew had no use for a deputy, for an executive, for any kind of party structure, or, indeed, for supporters, except when an election was in the offing. So the current deputy leader, attorney Dave Cowie, whose name is not being mentioned among possible successors, is not even window dressing in the “House of Mr Bas”. In fact, Cowie’s profile is so low, if it gets any lower he’ll need to dive at least six feet below ground level, which was probably what Mr Bas had in mind anyway when he accepted him as his invisible deputy.

So those who are declaring their hands as possible successors to Mr Bas may well be writing their political epitaphs while they are alive. I read that Carlos John and Trevor Sudama were due to launch their campaigns for deputy leadership this weekend, the former somewhere in Nariva, the latter in Penal.

That in itself is instructive. Because it serves to underscore my view on the issue, which is that the UNC has lost its Panday-defined moorings and is drifting aimlessly while trying to portray itself as a national party when it is in fact a 21st century version of the DLP.

When Sudama addresses his supporters at Penal, consciously or otherwise, he will be appealing to tribal instincts, which form the cornerstone of the “House of Mr Bas”. Back in 1976, when Panday first entered the political arena, he had joined with people like George Weekes and me for the specific purpose of broadening the traditional opposition base. We had long eschewed the PNM-DLP race syndrome that had characterised the nation’s politics up to that point, and the Black Power slogan of “Indians and Africans, Unite!”, was uppermost in our minds. It was politically expedient then for Panday to go with the flow, to use us. But after the East-West corridor voted heavily for the PNM and he realised that working for national unity was much harder than replacing the DLP and the politics of race, he jettisoned us and settled for a new-look DLP.

And that’s what the UNC, almost 20 years later, remains, an Indian party with a trickle of non-Indian support. Sudama is acutely aware of this. That’s why he has chosen Penal as the place where he’ll throw down the gauntlet. He knows exactly what buttons to press, what will stimulate the party faithful into defending their turf, into bringing back the ship they built to its Indian moorings.

The emergence of a group of non-Indians at the highest levels of the party (and government) within recent times, and more so because of the zeal Panday has showed in courting them, has misled Carlos and others into believing that the centre of UNC power lies in Jack Warner’s Centre of Excellence. He will discover though, that even if Panday gives him his blessings, if Panday is trying at this 11th hour to undo the racial polarisation of the society he helped to keep intact, it just won’t work. No Afro-Trinidadian will ever be accepted as leader of the UNC, and John and Warner can put that in their chilums and smoke it!

I don’t know how many people have been reading between the lines of the vitriol that is spewed on a weekly basis by Indian supremacists. While they defend the UNC Government and Panday in particular, they have been voicing concern, even alarm, at the number of non-Indians who are being appointed to high offices in both party and government. These elements are not numerically strong. But they use places of worship and other forms of personal contact to peddle their poison. And because Panday’s call for national unity is as hollow as it is hypocritical, these elements are striking the right chords in the right places.

But Sudama, while he will be considered the UNC stalwart best qualified to replace Panday, will fall victim to a PR blitz by Carlos that is sure to market the latter as the best politician to have emerged on the local scene since Eric Williams.

Sudama must have seen what Carlos and his backers are capable of during the last election campaign. Sudama has to also watch over his shoulder at Kamla Persad-Bissessar. She has long shed her NAR clothes, so much so that many UNC supporters forgot that she fought against the UNC in 1991. Then there is the gender factor that women’s groups will exploit, giving her an added advantage.

In the end, though, whoever wins the post of deputy leader will be a sitting duck in a shooting gallery. Because if he (or she) takes his job seriously and starts taking party matters in hand, he would be seen as a threat to Bas, and his goose is as good as cooked. If he follows the path of his predecessors, keeping an invisible profile, then he would be lost when the real battle for succession starts. And if Carlos were to win against all apan jhat odds, he, too, would discover that he is acceptable to the party faithful for as long as Panday is alive, not a minute more.

In other words, Panday does not want any identifiable successor, whatever rhetoric he may voice to the contrary. Like Eric, he will leave his seedless lieutenants in limbo, and only after he closes his eyes (if that happens while he’s in office as PM) will someone be named to succeed him. That’s when the real bacchanal will begin, when the absence of a structured party will be exposed, when “cobos” will come out to fight over the carcass.

The question that should engage our attention, therefore, is not who will replace Panday, but what. The position of deputy leader is but a fatal attraction, as he who wins it will learn. It’s the kiss of death that will be delivered, Mafia-style, long before the Don breathes his last. And he who escapes the Don will hardly get past Kali Mai. Poor sods.

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