August 23, 2001
By Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah was a co-founder of the ULF in 1976. It was the first political party led by Basdeo Panday. Shah was also the first in a long line of men and women who fell out with Panday and paid the price of being cast into the "political cemetery", as Panday has often boasted in the past. In this article, Shah examines the current crisis in the UNC and looks back at the split in the ULF and its relevance to what's happening in the UNC today.
PRIME Minister Basdeo Panday has decided to rid himself and the UNC of the party's newly elected deputy political leader, Ramesh Maharaj. Marked for political death, too, are Panday's friend from as far back as 1966, Trevor Sudama, as well as the man who was often credited with devising strategies that moved the party from opposition to the corridors of power, Sadiq Baksh. And Ralph Maharaj, who was among the first high-profile ex-PNMites to "cross the floor" to the UNC, thus prompting rank and file PNM supporters to switch their support, is also set to bite the political dust.
Two weeks ago, when Panday laid down the gauntlet by branding those who dared to challenge him "Judases" and "corbeaux", I immediately sensed that the end was nigh. In 1977/78, when he took a similar decision regarding those of us in the ULF who had brought his conduct as a leader under internal party scrutiny, he branded us "the after-birth of the party that must be thrown away if the baby (ULF) is to survive". So those who experienced Panday's descent into the gutter whenever he was in the "mash up" mode several times in his lengthy political career, will have recognised the smoke signals of destruction that emanated from the Rienzi Complex.
In 1977, mere months after the ULF formed the official opposition following the 1976 general election, Panday began behaving strangely. Or, as we would later learn, his true character began manifesting itself. He had used us from 1975 to gain national recognition. Those who to this day buy Panday's lie that he "brought Shah (and others) into politics" need to answer this question: where was Panday during the 1970 Black Power revolution? During that turbulence that propelled people like me onto the national stage, Panday was nowhere to be found-not as a defence lawyer, not political activist, nothing.
So how could a man who was nobody in 1970 "bring into politics" people like George Weekes, Joe Young, Clive Nunez, Lennox Pierre and Raffique Shah? If anything, we acquiesced to his pleas to get involved in electoral politics by agreeing to join with him and form the ULF. But in forming the ULF, what with our revolutionary ideals of the period, we also sowed the seeds of destruction of the "party of the working class". Because having condemned "doctor politics" that ensured "not a damn dog would bark" in the PNM, we weren't about allow any dictatorial tendency in the ULF.
That was how the notion of collective leadership came about. It was written into the party's constitution, and thus it was expected that the four leaders-Panday, Weekes, Young and I-would consult on any matter that was deemed important. But we were realistic enough to recognise that because the party had replaced the DLP, hence cornering as its base the Indian support that was once the province of people like Rudranath Capildeo and Bhadase Maharaj, Panday was, therefore, first among equals. And we treated him with the respect that went with that rank-for as long as he was prepared to abide by the other principles that we considered sacred.
The 1976 election saw the demise of the DLP, the party that, in two incarnations between 1956 and 76, had commanded the "Indian vote". I myself had volunteered to go down to Siparia (leaving my natural constituencies of Couva North and South) and do battle against Vernon Jamadar and Alloy Lequay who each led a faction of the DLP.
(Incidentally, whatever I write about the internal affairs of the ULF can be backed up by minutes of meetings held at the time. Copies of these minutes were held by two persons: Dr James Millette, the party's first secretary, and Ramesh Lutchmedial, who became secretary of the "Shah faction" after the split in the organisation).
When the dust cleared on the night of the election, the ULF had won 10 seats: for a party that was formed less than one year before the election, that was a creditable performance. But it was not enough for the idealists in the party who saw that as the first step to bridging the gap between the East-West corridor and Central/South Trinidad. It was, however, sufficient for Panday, who could now rid himself of the "leftists" in the party and consolidate his pre-eminence among Indians.
In retrospect, we saw when and where he made his early moves to achieve these aims. Following the 1977 local elections, when the party went about selecting candidates, and later aldermen, Panday ensured that he proposed some of the very frontline DLP persons we wanted to distance ourselves from. We reluctantly agreed-only for the sake of unity. Then he quietly jettisoned collective leadership by arbitrarily making decisions that ought to have been brought before the party's central committee. And as if to rub it in our faces, he proceeded to get drunk and misbehave at a number of public functions. Kelvin Ramnath's wedding was one such occasion: he used the slur "nigger" so many times, I had to forcibly remove him from "the scene of the crime".
That day, I knew that the end of a dream was nigh. All the hard work we had put in to build a multi-racial party that would replace the polarised PNM and DLP was coming to nought. Within a week, at the first central committee meeting after the incident, Panday branded as liars all those who recounted the events at the wedding and called on him to show some respect for the office he held, and for his colleagues. There was no animosity at that meeting-which was chaired by the late Professor George Sammy-until he dubbed us all "liars". At that point, all hell broke loose and Panday only escaped "unscathed" because of the paternal intervention of Weekes.
Even so, though, we attempted to heal the rift, understanding clearly the implications of any break up. We were well on the road to structuring the organisation and had begun our initiative in the East-West corridor. I know, because I was put in charge of that operation. We had envisaged that by 1981 we would be ready to take on the PNM in a toe-to-toe battle for the corridor, for political power. But Panday had other ideas, prime among them being his ambition to take full control of the party without the fetters of "collective leadership" or being accountable to any executive or central committee.
As the weeks went by, we held meeting after meeting, but Panday refused to attend any. Instead, he had started meeting with "party blocks" (as we had designated the party groups) in the all-Indian areas. There, he preached racism openly ("dem fellas selling out de party to de niggers"), and soon he had mobilised sufficient personal support to render us harmless to him. By the time we realised that we were faced with a choice between asserting our manhood and complete submission to him, he had already poisoned people's minds against us.
We opted to retain our manhood at the expense of our political future. People like Ramnath and Nizam Mohammed were more pragmatic, one might even say opportunistic, intent on holding on to their seats in the House at any cost. With Panday refusing to attend important party caucuses and instead going into communities twisting the truth every which way, we were forced into taking action against him. So on August 9, 1977, less than one year after we had formed the official opposition, the central committee of the ULF took the decision to remove Panday as Leader of the Opposition and as a member of the party's executive.
It was a fateful decision that we consciously made. We knew that Panday had already used his charisma to win over the "Indian constituency". We knew, too, that our support outside of that was very limited, although it was growing by the day. And we knew that in any split in the ULF, he'd walk away with the bulk of the party's support and we would lose out. Still, we stuck to our guns. The rest, as they say, is history.
Panday won and we lost-at the level of parliamentary politics. But most of us who stood up like men than had no regrets, since we valued principles higher than seats in Parliament or careers in politics. Days before the 1976-81 House was prorogued, Panday approached me in the corridor of the Red House saying, "Raf, I need you. We may have our differences, but you are important to the future of the ULF. Name any seat and you'll have it." My response: "Bas, let us remain friends. Politically, we are like the North Pole and the South Pole. The two shall never meet." He shrugged and walked off, no doubt realising that my revolutionary fervour had not dimmed in the years since 1970, that I could not be bought with a seat in Parliament or however many pieces of silver.
Between then and now some 24 years have elapsed. But "the Bas" has not changed. En route to the current crisis in the UNC, he "licked up" Ramnath, Nizam, Hulsie Bhaggan, Winston Dookeran, Sahadeo Basdeo and many more, from prominent persons to ordinary party officials. When he says that the political graveyard is littered with the bones of those who dared to run afoul of him, it's no idle boast. Now, he's preparing for another kill, with Ramesh being the main target: the others will be written off as "collateral damage".
There are many differences between what happened in 1977 and what's happening today, I need add. But some things of importance have not changed. For example, while Ramesh undoubtedly has ambitions in the political arena, he has openly stated that Panday's leadership is not being challenged. In '77, no one wanted Panday's position (again, the minutes of meetings will show how I resisted being named Leader of the Opposition). All we had asked of him was that he conformed to a standard of behaviour that was expected of our leader.
Ramesh is not challenging Panday for the office of Prime Minister. Instead, he is seeking to enhance his own image, which was badly scarred by his activities before he became active in politics, by moving to root out corruption in the party and government. And he is stressing on "succession" based on the results of the UNC's internal elections. Panday sees that as a direct challenge to him, since he refuses to admit that corruption does exist among some of his key aides. Ramesh wants to have a party that functions at all times, not just an "elections machine". Panday never did like structured organisations. He always perceived them to be threats to his supremacy.
So, the die has been cast. Panday, once he starts frothing from the mouth, spewing venom every time he speaks, is not about to back off, to attempt to heal any rifts in the party. He is going for the jugular, as he often boasts. And it matters not what the consequences may be-the destruction of the UNC, the return to power of the PNM, even his own political death. He is in the "mash up" mode, so those around him, friends and foes, will do well to prepare themselves for the demise of the UNC.
In the "Ramesh camp" there is a feeling that Bas is now an old "battleaxe", that while he may have the (bad) mind to "mash up" the party, he no longer has the muscle. They believe they can beat him at his own game this time around. We shall soon find out whose assessment of the UNC's internal political climate is correct. There is no doubt that Ramesh commands significant support among the rank and file of the party. It's not so much support for Ramesh as it is a rejection of Panday's dictatorial tendencies. I have sensed it as I move into the "belly of the beast", from Penal through Barrackpore, Couva to Caroni. I often hear UNC supporters say: "He (Panday) tell de man (Ramesh) to run for election, and now dat he win, Panday blanking him. He (Panday) is nothing but a damn dictator."
Of equal importance is the awakening of the more enlightened in the party, and among Indians generally. When I first hinted at this in my writings, party officials and political analysts scoffed at it. Now, they are reading and hearing it from the horses' mouths, in a manner of speaking. Worse for Panday, the "floating voters" who drifted to the UNC between 1995 and 2000 to give the party and edge over the PNM are reassessing their commitments in the face of an ugly crisis in the government. This latter fallout signals the loss of the marginal constituencies to the UNC.
Can Ramesh defeat Panday on the ground? Most analysts believe that Panday will make mincemeat of the entire "gang of four". I do not concur. I think that Ramesh-and his colleagues Trevor Sudama, Sadiq Baksh and Ralph Maharaj-has garnered sufficient grassroots support to trigger a major split in the party. So whereas in 1977/78, during the crisis in which I was Panday's target, the latter commanded more than 90 per cent of the ULF's Indian support-base, I will hazard a guess that Ramesh and company could win at least one-third of that support. And, depending on how the AG plays his cards, this support could grow over the next few weeks.
A snap election could prove to be the undoing of both men, however. Because it could result in Ramesh-assuming that he is booted out of the UNC before the election-not winning sufficient votes to win seats. But he can do enough damage to ensure that Panday is once more relegated to the Opposition benches. If that happens, then short of Patrick Manning self-destructing, it would spell the end of a long and chequered political career of Panday. Because one place we shall not see Panday again, he having tasted the fine wine of power, is in opposition. In such case, though, it will also signal the end of Ramesh's political career.
I expect this latest political conflict to come to a climax before 2002 dawns on us, and the UNC will implode. There is no way anyone can save the party now. What some may need to do in order to survive is to distance themselves from the party before the filth hits the fan. For someone like Finance Minister Gerald Yet Ming, who is more a backroom boy than a political animal, the next few months could prove to be traumatic. And, of course, there are party officials and ministers whose hands are dirty and who must be wondering when they should book tickets to Panama, much the way Boysie Prevatt did in 1986.
Whatever happens, I think the sun is setting very rapidly on the UNC as a party and government. This is not cause for celebration. It exposes once more the tragedy that is politics in Trinidad and Tobago. Panday's penchant for political gimmickry fooled many people into believing that here was a man who could be trusted with power. Nearly a quarter-of-a-century after we exposed his hollowness, he continued to win rave reviews from academics, racists, analysts and the general public. Now, as he and Ramesh lock horns, if he does not meet his political Waterloo, he is sure to be stopped in his tracks at Carapichaima.
Copyright © Raffique Shah