September 22, 2002
By Raffique Shah
BASDEO Panday and his UNC advisors have mistakenly resurrected the ghost of Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr and made him the central issue for the upcoming elections. It may well be that Panday took the headline in my last column-'Patrick In Trouble'-quite literally, that he did not read the full contents of the commentary. Last week I slammed into PNM leader Patrick Manning for associating his party with the Muslimeen, worst of all on the eve of elections.
That column was written before Manning hastily withdrew his offer of land to the Jamaat. The land was not the issue, in my view: that matter has hovered over the country for close to 20 years, and I agree with Manning that one way or other there is the need to have it resolved. What I did point out was there are tens of thousands of people, mainly middle-to-upper-class electors, who will have nothing to do with Bakr because of the attempted coup in 1990. By extension, these people will be wary of any party that is seeking their mandate but which has ties with Bakr. In the marginal constituencies where many such electors reside, any perceived relationship with Bakr could affect a party negatively. So Manning and the PNM were duly warned.
But having written that, I did not expect the UNC to make Bakr the main issue in the elections. In fact, for Panday and his team, Bakr is the only issue, since they hardly address anything else. And it's hurting the UNC so badly, I'm surprised that Panday has not noticed it. Last Thursday night in Couva, for example, the UNC attracted its poorest crowd ever, smaller than what the ULF did back in 1976.
Besides the crowd being comparatively small, it was also unenthusiastic. When Manohar Ramsaran opened the batting, he scored a duck, in that he did not elicit more than a polite applause from a small section of the crowd. The same held true for other speakers: they failed to ignite the party faithful in a town that was once the stomping ground of the ULF/UNC. If I were to put their performance in cricketing terms, they were bowled out for less than 100 runs!
It was when Panday addressed the meeting, though, that I scratched my head and wondered if we were witnessing the end of and era. In past elections, Bas will have noted the poor crowd response and in his inimitable style, set the town on fire. Instead, reading from a series of newspaper clippings from as far back as 1991, he wasted vital time quoting extensively from the many conflicting statements Bakr has made over the years. Who, really, is surprised that back in 1995 Bakr swore that Manning had known about the 1990 attempted coup, given that he was "riding with Bas" at the time? Or that he changed his tune a few weeks ago, seeking to implicate Panday this time around?
But people have long learned how to treat with Bakr's allegations and charges. The Jamaat lacks credibility, and that's that. So as a factor in any general or other elections, he counts for nothing. Yet Panday has latched on to him like the proverbial leech. For every ten words that emanate from his mouth, six are 'Bakr', 'Jamaat' or 'Muslimeen'. This must make Bakr feel re-energised, that he has once more become central to the politics of this country.
Personally, I am happy that Panday is training his mouth on Bakr: over the past two or three elections, I was the victim of the UNC leader's tart tongue. For reasons still unclear to me, he called my name on every platform, sometimes before Manning's. He was so annoying (hell, my name was not on a ballot-and I was not the only columnist who attacked him), my mother swore if ever she met him she'd whisper to him: the last word you will utter before you die is 'Shah'! I still get my share of blows from the UNC platform, but shamefully for me, this time it comes from pipsqueaks like union leader Rudy Indarsingh. Lord, ah reach!
But back to Panday's campaign. He started out by making crime the central issue, trading on the spate of kidnappings and other violent crimes that have wreaked havoc in the country. Then Manning's faux pas caused him to suddenly change focus. Sensing that his political fortunes were flagging, he literally jumped on Bakr's back, hoping that for yet another election he would ride the Muslimeen straight into Whitehall. He has transformed UNC meetings into history lessons on Bakr, which, really, no one, not even his supporters, is interested in.
So he has failed to ignite his supporters the way he did seven or seventeen years ago. That he has not yet caught on-and if his easy drive to the platform in Couva did not jolt him, nothing will-is a sign that Bas has lost it. Oh, not his core constituencies, of course. And if Manning does not get treatment for foot-in-mouth affliction, maybe Bas has hopes of actually pulling off an upset victory. But it seems certain he's lost his marbles, that senility is setting in. As it stands now, he'd be hard-pressed to retain his 18 seats, and he'd need more than a miracle to win the elections.
Look, I'm not about to play seer man: I have experienced more elections than I care to remember, and I know our electors are so fickle at times, one finds it difficult to assess what's happening on the ground. In any event, based on my observations at meetings I've attended, voting will be largely along racial lines. But the PNM platform deals with the issues, leaving Panday to rant and rave about a non-issue, Bakr. Manning in particular focuses on how our oil and gas reserves were exploited based on a plan hatched in his Cabinet back in 1992. And he tells his mainly youthful audiences of proposals to finally utilise the profits derived from these resources to address social issues and economic imbalances.
Some of his proposals may be 'pie-in-sky', and we have learnt the hard way not to trust the words and promises of politicians. Still, Manning is pointing his supporters in a direction that's appealing to them. Panday is taking his flock back into a past they'd rather forget. The fact that the once-wily Bas is not seeing his mistakes and re-focusing his campaign signals to me that he is well on the way to his political Waterloo. Siewdass Sadhu will surely embrace him.
Copyright © Raffique Shah