September 15, 2002
By Raffique Shah
WINSTON Dookeran, a man I hold in high regard, needs Basdeo Panday and the UNC as much as he needs a hole in his head. In fact, when I heard that he was being wooed by Panday to help the latter mend his Swiss-cheese image and caulk his sinking political ship, I thought that the old "Dooks" would have been sensible enough to steer clear of a man who has used him, abused him and spat him out like the proverbial "dry plum seed". But politics makes for strange bedfellows. Like the PNM putting Arthur Sanderson to run in Fyzabad, and Patrick Manning consorting with Abu Bakr on the eve of the elections. Really, does Manning need these liabilities at this critical point in what he himself has described as the "the most important elections"?
The UNC "backroom" boys have known for some time now that Panday is a liability, what with so many blue flies hovering over his head. He is yet to explain to them, and to the country, details of the London bank account that allegedly has several million dollars in it. Added to that he is mired in a cesspool of alleged corruption, with many of his closest associates being named in deals that stink. Revelations at the ongoing inquiry into the Piarco Airport project are damning, to say the least. And his top aides like Carlos John are finding it increasingly difficult to convince sober citizens that they amassed hundreds of millions of dollars through clever business deals.
So the party had to look around for someone-or something-to give it a fillip as it entered the elections fray. None of its current members excite anyone outside of the party's fanatical core supporters. Even the introduction of "battleaxes" like Gillian Lucky and Carol Cuffie-Dowlath, educated incarnations of Laventille's Dorothy, failed to ignite the floating voters that Panday had hoped to attract the last time around. They are good acts in the campaign circus, providing comic relief with their vocal antics in between some rather dull speakers. But they failed to improve on the party's "vote bank".
So if female brawn failed, then why not try male brain? Which is where someone like Dookeran fits in neatly. As a man who stood for principle when the NAR was rent asunder by the departure of Panday and his colleagues in 1988, he won his integrity spurs during that long, nasty war that saw the NAR booted out of power. But sa the battle between Club 88 and the NAR raged, Panday waylaid Dookeran at every turn. "Dooks" became the bete noir, the ultimate "neemakharam", to the extent that Panday put up Hulsie Bhaggan to cut him down to size in the 1991 elections.
What reason can Dookeran give for returning to Panday's side-except that they are both Indians? Nothing else! Panday has not changed from the acid-tongue ogre he was back in 1988, or as far back as in 1978. If anything, his behaviour has degenerated more rapidly. Ramesh Maharaj and Panday's long-time friend, Trevor Sudama, were forced out of the party because they dared to challenge the leader to deal with allegations of corruption. Panday nailed them to the Om (well, I can't say 'cross'-that's likely to offend many), only to find that he had painted himself into a corner from which he could not get out. In fact, he lost one seat and close to 36,000 votes (when compared with the party's best-ever performance in 2000). The PNM gained two seats and lost just over 9,000 votes.
Dookeran has been brought back for one reason: to shore up the image of a flagging party and a leader who is in his political death throes. After the elections, more so if the UNC finds itself in opposition, he will become expendable. And should the UNC win power, he'd be mired in a bitter battle to succeed the Bas, with venomous vipers of all types snapping their fangs at him. I don't know that "Dooks" could survive such a siege. In fact, I think he has already committed political hara kiri, and by the time Bas is finished with him he would have little of his integrity intact. But that's for Dookeran to ponder on, not me.
Regarding Manning, why does he believe that he needs Sanderson-unless he has given up Fyzabad as a safe UNC seat? The former NAR MP may well be a "big noise" in parts of Fyzabad proper. But beyond those narrow confines he counts for nothing. Worse, having openly taken an Afro-centric stand, he has alienated many Indians. And if Fyzabad is to be keenly contested, the PNM needs someone who can straddle both sides of the race-divide. Sanderson will only serve to widen the gap between the races and cost Manning the few Indian votes he might have attracted in that constituency.
As for his association with the Muslimeen, one wonders what madness drove him in that direction. Look, as someone who took up arms against the military high command, and by extension the government, I know how people view rebels. They hardly forgive and never forget. Many still harbour fears about me 30-odd years after the fact. In Abu's case, memories of July 1990 are fresh in their minds, along with sundry allegations against the Muslimeen post-1992. Bakr sees himself as a "kingmaker" of sorts, claiming credit for the defeat of the NAR in 1991, the UNC's entry into the East-West Corridor in 1995, and later for the demise of the UNC.
I do not believe Bakr can influence more than a few hundred voters, and those are limited to areas that are strong PNM constituencies anyway. In contrast, there are many "floating voters" who will have nothing to do with any party that associates itself with the Muslimeen. Manning may choose to defend his position by pointing out the active role the Muslimeen played in the UNC's 1995 campaign, or the fact that when Panday became PM, the first group he met with was the Muslimeen. He may add that in the first UNC administration, the Muslimeen were very active in the URP programme and provided muscle for the UNC in the North.
But has Manning forgotten that the Muslimeen claimed, back in 1995 (or was it 2000?), that he had had previous knowledge of the 1990 attempted coup? For many people, he has never properly responded to that allegation. Now, he may well find that in his bid to "corner every vote"-his words-he's digging his own political grave.
Copyright © Raffique Shah