October 28, 2001
By Raffique Shah
THE alternative to the PNM in government, the late Dr Eric Williams boasted many years ago, is chaos. At the time, many of us laughed at the notion that the PNM was the only organised political party in the country, that there was no other group that was capable of building a political structure that could be democratic and could endure. Today, decades after he made that statement, we need to ponder on his psychic-like prediction. Or, if I may put it another way, we must examine the deficiencies of the politicians who followed Williams, all of whom seem to have deliberately set out to prove him a veritable prophet of doom.
I recall this often-quoted Williams statement against the backdrop of what's happening in the current political scenario, which can best be described as being close to chaotic. Indeed, ever since the PNM was almost annihilated in the 1986 general election, we have seen Eric's successors work hard to make the PNM look good. The NAR, an amalgam of disparate forces whose only goal was to remove the PNM from office, crashed in less than two years. True, the alliance-it was never really a party-boasted of lofty goals like "uniting our rainbow people", of fighting against corruption that had thrived under PNM rule, and of promoting good, democratic governance.
That close to 400,000 out of 577,000 who voted in that election believed in the ideals promoted by the NAR, said something about our people yearning for unity, for an end to the politics of race. Interestingly, the man who almost single-handedly dismantled the NAR was one Basdeo Panday. Because he could not have his way in the Cabinet, he took up his marbles, meaning most of the Indians who supported the alliance, and walked. The NAR soon crumbled, falling victim to an attempted coup and a return to racial polarisation. In the 1991 election, the party polled 127,000 votes, 25,000 less than Panday's newly formed UNC. But like the ONR in the 1981 election (that party attracted 91,000 votes to the ULF's 62,000), it failed to win a seat in Trinidad.
In rapid succession after that, we saw Eric's prediction come to pass. His own PNM, under the leadership of Patrick Manning, dismantled itself from government in less than four years after being returned to office. Which leads me to ask if Eric, in making his famous statement, had not meant, "After me (and not the PNM), it will be chaos." Manning made a number of blunders, and by the time he was forced into calling an early election in 1995, he had lost ground, and was ousted from power by a coalition between two enemies-of-yesterday, Ray Robinson and Panday. That sweetheart "contract" lasted as long as a sno-cone in the hot sun, and only the defection of Vincent Lasse and Rupert Griffith from the PNM saved Panday's neck.
Today, six years after he had brokered a deal that saw him achieve his life-long ambition of becoming Prime Minister of the country, Panday's party is in shambles and his future in politics looks grim. Over the next few days, he'll be fighting to retain the UNC's name and symbol. In the meantime, some of his key ministers are literally fighting over the allocation of ETP (formerly URP) 10-day jobs, proving what political observers had known for quite some time. The ETP, like all its predecessor programmes in which patronage is dished out, is a potent political tool over which ministers will trade blows if they feel short-changed. And with an old brawler and boxing promoter like Arnim Smith sitting atop this manure heap, Panday could well end up pulling larger crowds at his free-fist-fights.
In the meantime, rumblings in the ranks of the PNM are threatening to undermine the core support of the party. The perception among the party's 270,000-odd supporters is that the delay in confirming Colm Imbert for Diego Martin East and Fitzgerald Hinds for Laventille, is linked to differences between Manning and Keith Rowley (who, incidentally, was confirmed as the candidate for Diego Martin West). So once more, even as the PNM is being offered power on a platter, there seem to be people in the party who are working overtime to ensure that its already disgruntled supporters stay away from the polls. And while, thus far, there have been no defections from the Ramesh Maharaj camp, power is yet another potent weapon in Panday's arsenal that could make the morally weak buckle at the knees.
Back in 1958, after only two years in power, Williams told PNMites: "We have to build our party organisation from the bottom up. We have to reorganise our system of education so that, through the party, it penetrates into the deepest masses of the people." Without doubt, Williams failed in his mission to build the well-structured party he had envisioned in those early days. Until the day he died, he had himself used power and patronage to perpetuate PNM's domination of local politics. But at least there was something the PNM had that other parties did not, and this came from work done by committed party activists who ensured that constituency groups and other organs of the party functioned.
In the run-up to the 1976 election, Williams had branded several of his sitting MPs "millstones", and when they were nominated, he had the nominations returned to the respective groups, asking them to find new candidates. The constituency groups bucked Williams, insisting that their nominees be accepted (a point Manning should note very carefully). The great Williams, a small-time dictator in his own way, bowed to the will of the party. The five men were returned to office, although Williams snubbed them thereafter.
On the eve of what will be the 11th general election since Williams entered the political arena in 1956, we are sitting on the edge of a political precipice. And it's all because no one or no group has taken the time to properly structure a party. Today, Panday holds what he has dubbed "an assembly" of his party, which he intends to expel Ramesh and company from the UNC. That "assembly", however, is really a free-for-all, a crowd that will have some legitimate members, but many more freeloaders who ride with the political wind. It's the political tragedy of our time that almost 50 years after Williams put his curse on those who opposed the PNM, no one has proved him wrong. And the irony of it all is that only Manning has the power to so do.
Copyright © Raffique Shah