September 30, 2001
By Raffique Shah
IT'S the question most people are asking in the face of the imminent collapse of the UNC Government. How did the wily Basdeo Panday find himself positioned like a "hog" in a game of draughts, cornered by Ramesh Maharaj, incapable of making any move other than one that would almost certainly spell his political death? Because if he fires Ramesh and the rest of the newly elected members of the UNC executive, he risks losing his razor-thin majority in Parliament, and consequently the office of Prime Minister. And if he fails to move against them, they would continue to publicly punish and humiliate him, to expose scandals that would make his Cabinet look like "Bas Baba and the however-many thieves".
How, indeed. Most analysts are looking at political theories and precedents to explain Panday's predicament, and I am sure there are some lessons to be learnt here. There is, and has always been, in Panday's political career, the notion that the maximum leader, ruling party and people with an iron fist, is the basis for a strong political party. What Panday, an Eric Williams copy cat, failed to realise, is that the maximum leader can only command a strong political base, not necessarily a strong party. I have dealt extensively with that side of Panday (in a previous column), his penchant for so personalising his politics, there is only room for blind supporters and spineless sycophants.
I believe, though, that there is another reason for Panday's date-with-fate, one that might sound more mystical than logical. If Bas is a true Hindu, he would know what "karma" means. According to the scriptures of that religion, a person may live his life in whatever way he chooses, commit sins aplenty, lie, steal, destroy others, either literally or otherwise, and in the process amass fame and fortune. But there comes a time when these acts of malfeasance, most of them long forgotten by those who worship him like Bhagvan, return to haunt him, to bring him crashing down to earth. And that, I believe, is where Bas is in his current incarnation: he is a man facing his "karma", an unpleasant and unpredictable future, which is frightening for someone who has lived his life believing he is omnipotent.
I have been accused of delving too much into history when it comes to trying to interpret the present and peer into the future. I hold, though, that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeating costly mistakes. Others will follow Panday into political office as he rides some hapless donkey (or maybe a pack of jackasses) into the political sunset. And it is important that they know and understand why the most popular politician since Dr Eric Williams has come to this sorry pass. Because they, too, will be tempted to ride roughshod over others, only to discover at the end of the day that they are mere mortals doomed to suffer a similar fate for believing they are gods.
Panday has often boasted of how many of his opponents he cast into the "political cemetery" en route to becoming the maximum leader of his party and Prime Minister of the country. Most people begin the "head count" with your humble scribe, who is often referred to as his first "victim". That is far from the truth. The "body count" in his trade union is probably bigger than that of the politicians he has crushed. He crowed when he outmanoeuvred the man who made him president of All Trinidad, one Rampartap Singh. Singh, a protégé of the then deceased Bhadase Maharaj, like his mentor, was no saint. But there is something called honour, even among thieves. Panday showed no such qualms when he moved to cast into oblivion the man who had held his hand and brought him into trade unionism, and by extension, into politics.
And so he would rule the union with a kind of despotism that any officer who dared to question his whims fell victim to his craving for absolute power. From Sonnilal Sookhoo, his first vice president, to Sam Maharaj, his last secretary, and countless of others in-between, he savaged and humiliated them, and sacked them at will. Only those who were prepared to do his bidding survived. His conscience probably got the better of him (for once) recently when, having helped boot Sam out of the union, he eventually made him a judge in the Industrial Court.
In the political arena, his savagery was even more pronounced. My colleagues and I who were foundation members of the ULF were the only ones (up until now) who had the guts to kick his butt before he got around to mauling us politically. Thereafter, he dealt savagely with those who rubbed him the wrong way. The "body count" reads like something from Count Dracula's memoirs, so I shan't even try to name his victims. But it is necessary for Panday to reflect on his sins, on what he did to people whose only crime was their patriotism, whose commitment was to building a party that would survive its leader.
He impaled the likes of Winston Dookeran, a decent man except for his sycophancy, in the aftermath of the split in the NAR. He talks today about Ramesh disrespecting Kamla Persad-Bissessar: has he forgotten how, in jamette fashion, he assaulted Hulsie Bhagan in the vilest manner, after he had used her to trounce Dookeran in the 1991 election? The sanctimonious Kelvin Ramnath, grovelling "keeper of the setting sun", he who had some nasty things to say about Panday when they fell out, was applauded by Bas and company when he debased NAR minister Gloria Henry in Parliament. And I'll never understand how Nizam Mohammed, another Panday "punching bag" and a professed Muslim, reconciles his mongrel-like behaviour with the tenets of Islam.
In the midst of this political "La Basse", through the years, stood one Basdeo Panday. He was in his glory when he saw patriots bite the dust on his political say-so. He revelled in the mob mentality he generated among his blind supporters, as they spat and shat upon anyone who dared challenge "de Bas". Well, it's pay back time now. Karma. Some of the very sycophants who terrorised his enemies have turned their fury against him.
Panday's demise holds a number of important lessons for whoever succeeds him as Prime Minister, humility being prime. Power, though, is a strong opiate. And politicians seem never to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. Which means they, too, will write their own epitaphs unless they are ready for radical changes in their leadership styles.
Copyright © Raffique Shah