August 24, 2003
By Raffique Shah
MANY years ago, I acquired some non-conventional wisdom from a very unconventional source, one Lennox Pierre. The veteran Marxist attorney, unlike many who went on to disavow their leftist allegiances when frequent-flyer trips to Moscow were the communist carrots, died with his "red" boots on. He said to me: "When you are the victor, always be generous to the vanquished."
That advice was not necessary for one like me who was schooled in the principles of warfare. Back in the 1960s when I was at Sandhurst, the Geneva Convention had meaning. We were drilled in its rules and their application in war, on how to wage war relentlessly, but once hostilities ceased, to treat with the vanquished as one would another human being. Pierreís advice, though, came during a particularly stormy time in the politics of the country, and it applied to that cut-throat arena in which there were few rules and no conventions.
Still, I remain thankful to this political "guru" who guided many like me, who instilled in us values that were alien to the jungle that was politics in this country. It is that principle that I took into consideration when I chose not to write about Basdeo Pandayís demise as a political force in Trinidad. Here is a man who would think nothing of kicking his floored opponent until he or she breathed her last political breath. And there was I, seeing him sinking faster than the setting sun, but refusing to comment on him and his party.
His die-hard supporters will deny that Panday was like that. I shanít go as far back as in 1977 when he did that to me, to George Weekes, Pierre, Allan Alexander and a host of other genuine patriots who had all faced persecution and prosecution in our earlier battles against the PNM. I shall mention, though, his verbal abuse of Hulsie Bhaggan that was so vitriolic, he could have exposed her to physical danger. That did not matter to him, even though he knew Hulsie was no threat to his political supremacy in the heartland. He did it to Winston Dookeran, to Bhoe Tewarie, to Sahadeo Basdeo and all other Indians who chose to remain with the NAR after the split of 1988. And masochist Kelvin Ramnath-well heís a glutton for punishment.
Today, the sun is setting on Pandayís political career, and it is happening in a way he could hardly have imagined, more so after he tasted the fruits of power. His party is in shambles, comprising nothing more than the ethnic core that would remain "apan jhat till ah die" (the PNM has a similar core) and straggling MPs who will do the masterís bidding until Bas hits the canvas and they could safely plant kicks on his behind. Simultaneously, his union is in its death throes, besieged by officers and members who, up to recently, would never dare challenge its leaders or the "supreme leader". Now, they are openly challenging Rudy Indarsingh whose main sin might be that he remains a Panday sycophant. Yesterday, that was a big plus. Today it could spell trade union and political death.
Looking at the demise of the UNC, itís easy to say that "opposition politics" has come a full circle--meaning that another incarnation of the PDP-DLP-ULF-UNC would emerge upon its death to fill the vacuum. One needs to ponder on why the only such party to have come to power lost it so quickly. The answer lies in Pandayís personal political credo: I am the party. Let me explain. Immediately after the 1976 general elections, we idealists in its ranks decided to make a full assault on the East-West Corridor even as we put down party structures in the heartland. We came up with the concept of forming "blocks" instead of "groups" and did a reasonably good job of putting some kind of structures on the ground.
When the time came for us to organise Couva North, Panday said to us: "Nah Donít worry about my constituency-itís one big block!" In other words, he did not trust us to enter into his sanctum. Any structure must be initiated by him and controlled by him. Much later, when the party had grown into a force that could challenge for power, there was talk of Sadiq Baksh organising the party on the ground. I donít know that he succeeded. If he did, it did not show in the last local elections when, in San Fernando, he could hardly put a hundred people at crucial public meetings. I suspect what he did was create an "elections machine" that came to life during an election campaign_and went back to sleep a few days later.
Panday has never believed in structuring a party, or, for that matter, his union. Everything must revolve around him. Trapped in the euphoria of power or "tabanca" for power, he failed to notice that the PNM was able to return to power twice after it was almost obliterated from the political map in 1986, only because it had some structures in place. This is not to say that the PNM is the best organised party in the Caribbean. But it was sufficiently structured to re-mobilise its forces after being routed in battle. In the case of the UNC, a tie in the 2001 elections exposed its disorganised underbelly.
Party die-hards will swear that then President Robinsonís appointment of Patrick Manning as Prime Minister was not just Robinsonís revenge, but it drove a nail in the UNCís coffin. I believe that even if Panday were appointed PM then, it would have made no difference to the results of fresh elections that were sure to come out of the impasse. Because besides its lack of proper structures, the party (read Panday) chose to add more dead-weight to its ranks. For all his intellect, Dookeran brought nothing to the UNC. Jack Warner was pure entertainment, Garvin Nicholas an over-ambitious political gymnast, Arnim Smith a rootsman-without-roots. So the UNC that faced the polls in 2002 was a shadow of the UNC that came to power in 1995-and that, by the way, was a political fluke of unstated proportions!
Unwittingly, Panday has been digging his grave from the day he entered politics. Even the great Eric Williams could not have remained in power for so long if he did not have a structured PNM and if he failed to tolerate dissent in his ranks. Panday learned little from the man he tried to emulate. When the end came, he blamed "Ramesh Ralph and Trevor". What utter nonsense!