June 10, 2001
By Raffique Shah
THE dust has not settled, the acrid stench of human-generated cordite sits like heavy fog over the battlefield, and corpses waiting to be cremated, but whose owners are quite unwilling to quietly lie down and face their fates. That's the scene in the UNC camp one week after what party leader and Prime Minister Basdeo Panday described as the "real mother of all battles"-elections for a new executive-took place. Now, as Panday ponders over the future of both the party and government with him at the helm and brand new deputy leader Ramesh Maharaj breathing down his neck, the PM must have nightmares that he can share with no one else.
If the scenes I painted in that first paragraph appear to be something I plagiarised from a work of fiction, let me assure readers they are not. Recall carefully the events of the past few weeks, especially since we are justifiably branded a society with "a 24-hour memory". If Panday is honest, he will tell party members that he did not want Maharaj as his deputy for many reasons. It was not a slip of the tongue that prompted the PM to utter the irrevocable statement, "Let the nation see what fools they are....they will never lead this party!" It couldn't be Education Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, since she was a one-woman team, and those who latched on to her skirt were part of the harmless "women's platform" of the party.
Panday could not be referring to the Carlos John "All Inclusive" team, too. If John was a fool, it was only with respect to his rank amateurism in a game that is designed for cutthroat professionals. He did not seriously expect to jump into the UNC and in less than two years be catapulted to a position that's a heartbeat away from becoming Prime Minister. Worse for John, he really believed the party's platform rhetoric that there was a place for every race in the House of the Rising Sun. Sure there is. But each race must know its place, and, as I have said before, while Afro-Trinidadians are welcome to join the UNC, none will lead the party. When I wrote that at the start of the campaign, I was tarred and feathered by the same Indians who, as a John victory loomed large (in their minds), called for the establishment of a new "Indian party".
So if Panday's "fools" were not in Kamla's camp, nor were they in John's, then where were they? Any "model school" student will correctly conclude that Panday was referring to Ramesh, or to others on his "Team Unity" slate. At the time, Ramesh and his top aides, Trevor Sudama and Ralph Maharaj, were tearing into the "opposition" with some very scathing accusations. Besides the "Johnny-come-lately" tag that was applied to both Carlos and Kamla, "Team Unity" slammed the influence in the party that its financiers wielded. The UNC, they intoned, must not fall in the hands of "money power", but remain firmly in the hands of "people power".
What must be even more disturbing to Panday is the fact that even after he read the "Riot Act" to the combatants, the Ramesh platform refused to budge in its biting criticisms of the others. Indeed, Ramesh himself went further, accusing unnamed party officials of causing "this Gypsy and Chaitan thing" which, he added, would never have happened had the party's executive been functioning properly. Sudama was even more uncharitable: "Dey say I old, he told audiences; but the Prime Minister older than me! Dey damn farse!" And so the daggers were unsheathed and plunged deep into the backs of those who dared to oppose Ramesh.
Now, the only thing standing between the controversial Attorney General and the CCEO's (Chief of Chief Executive Officers) chair is a frail, quadruple by-pass Basdeo Panday. For the first time since 1977/78, when Panday scuttled the original ULF, he is faced with a man and a team that are not scared of criticising the way the party is being run. And whereas then the party was in its infancy and in the void left by a defeated DLP, the room was wide open for a new Indian leader (which he readily filled), today the equation has changed considerably. It is clear to anyone with a modicum of sense that with the PNM losing its solid African support-base, and the UNC's Indian base split between the "All Exclusives" and the "All Inclusives", no race-based party will ever win a comfortable majority in the nation's Parliament.
Ramesh must, however, feel a sense of personal strength within the UNC. He openly bucked the leader, he barely stopped short of "cussing" him, and almost every member of his team, baggage et al, beat their opponents. Sudama's loss to Roodal Moonilal was probably the big surprise, but not as big as the latter's ego. Now, having lambasted "Team Unity", he finds himself the lone "enemy" in Ramesh's camp. That must be a chilling thought for the man who has been described as an upstart. Ramesh, if he runs true to form, would move to dismiss Fazal Karim as general secretary of the party. That will mean that Panday no longer controls the party's internal machinery.
Bear in mind, too, that Ramesh's victory signals that the party's supporters, especially those in the UNC's heartland, have said to "the Bas" that he is no longer the infallible, never-to-be-challenged Pope of the UNC. In two ways, Panday's past misdeeds have caught up with him. Firstly, the all-Indian party that he opted for in 1977/78 has returned to haunt with. The ULF supporters whom he told then that "de niggers trying to take over the party" are the ones who are ensuring that "de niggers" never come to power, not in the UNC. And it was he who knowingly foisted Ramesh on the party, that after planting his boots on Kelvin Ramnath's behind. Ramesh has turned out to be his biggest nightmare, not Patrick Manning's.
Today, you'd hardly believe the elections are over. There are calls for recounts, charges or irregularities, and even allegations of "voter padding". The smiles and hugs you see in public conceal the daggers and the vengeance that those who were victorious are waiting to exact from their detractors.
Yes, many moons ago, Basdeo Panday sowed the seeds of racial politics in the minds of tens of thousands of Indians who were on the brink of breaching the race bogey. Today, he is reaping the whirlwind from that reckless act of opportunism. I can't say I'm sorry for the man. But I weep for the country.
Copyright © Raffique Shah