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Raffique Shah


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Dusk falls on 'maximum leaders'

April 24, 2005
By Raffique Shah

THE late Dr Eric Williams entered the politics of this country in 1956, a time when colonialism had all but set the stage for the emergence of the "maximum leaders" in all its colonies that were about to win or be granted independence. By design more than chance, the colonial powers had groomed leaders at institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and Sandhurst in the case of Britain, and their equivalents in the other "mother countries", who would take their respective countries from colonialism to neo-colonialism, not to true political and economic independence. That's one explanation why, 50 years after self-government, and until very recently, we continued to export crude oil, bananas and raw sugar, instead of exploiting the value-added, downstream side of our natural resources.

On the political front, these leaders were akin to messiahs in their respective parties and countries. When Williams "let his bucket down" here, he was almost deified by Afro-Trinis and Tobagonians who saw in him a champion of the "black oppressed". Besides, he was very bright, very eloquent, witty, and had developed the acumen to "ground" with the grassroots when it mattered most-during elections. In a short time Williams came to embody the PNM, the party he had founded. His grip on the PNM became so strong, ministers dared not whisper (far less utter) disagreements with anything he said or did. So when Patrick Solomon freed his stepson from a police cell and a big stink broke out, Williams simply shifted him and said to those who saw it as morally wrong: who don't like it, get the hell out of here. Later, he boasted (of his hold on the PNM): when I say come, he cometh, when I say go, he goeth.

Indeed, his closest associates were so afraid of his wrath that, even as he lay dying, they refrained from calling in a medical team because he did not authorise them to so do! To be fair to the PNM's party structure, though, it was those at the grassroots who bucked Williams when the chips were down. In 1976, for example, when he rejected five nominees for constituencies and ordered the party groups to "find new candidates" (he had branded the five "millstones"), the groups bluntly refused to so do. Williams was forced to eat humble-party-pie and field the "millstones" as candidates. He also lived to see the "children of the PNM" come out in force against his neo-colonial policies in 1970, and a few bold men walk out on him, chief among them ANR Robinson and Karl Hudson-Phillips.

The iron grip that Williams wielded over his ministers and senior party officials was the envy of other political leaders, who all tried to emulate him. Bhadase Maharaj, who led the opposition PDP in 1956, used guns and goons to get the desired results. When that failed, he imported Dr Rudranath Capildeo, who did not last because I suspect he could not cope with this primitive aspect of local politics. By the time Basdeo Panday arrived on the scene in 1974/5, the "Indian constituency" was badly fractured. In the ULF, we young idealists tried to forge a new political culture. We were innocent to the point that we thought the concept of "collective leadership" could work as a buffer against the emergence of a "maximum leader". That, and our insistence on focusing on a multi-racial, class-based party, proved to be fatal in a political culture that was steeped in "one-manism".

So when the confrontation in the ULF came, Panday had already decided to fall back on the "Indian constituency", jettison any semblance of unity (except for the handful of non-Indians whom he used as window dressing), and settle for what the DLP had left behind. It was not much: he won only ten constituencies, lost many votes, but he was "chief honcho" of his own party. Everyone had to toe the line or be kicked out. Those who fell victim to his dictatorial attitude were not only people in the party, in the political arena. Many are the corpses he left behind in his own union, starting with the man who was his first vice-president, and ending with the faithful Sam Maharaj. In between, hundreds of activists, many of them loyal-to-the-bone, were chased from the party.

Panday continued along this path because he understood two fundamentals in local politics. One, there will always be people who will do anything, sacrifice their manhood, for office any office. And two, the mass of party supporters are so steeped in the "maximum leader" syndrome, for them he could do no wrong. Whoever stood up against "de Bas", mattered not whether they were right or wrong, in the eyes of the "tribe" he, Panday, was the party. How dare you challenge "de Bas", betray the party? It never occurred to them that Panday could be wrong, that those who dared to raise important issues could be right.

The difference today, though, is that there is an awakening among the masses, not just UNC supporters, but PNM diehards as well. The day of the "maximum leader" is coming to an end.