The party's over, Bas
August 20, 2006
By Raffique Shah
Last Wednesday I found myself following Ramesh Maharaj's march. Ramesh will not have seen me, so he may well say, "Shah is a liar!" Before I am so branded, let me explain. I happened to be travelling in a maxi-taxi going south when I saw traffic and some commotion in the area of Petrotrin's refinery. As the maxi snaked past, I saw scores of policemen and maybe around 40 marchers, matching the traffic's snail's pace, proceeding north. Behind them traffic piled up for around a mile. It struck me that I, too, would be trapped in that since I would soon return home, having to pass Maharaj's marchers.
It took me close to an hour to get past the march, which by then had reached the St Margaret's junction. On the way, I saw a few cars parked aside, no doubt victims of overheating. Motorists and passengers were cussing Ramesh for causing them unnecessary torture. The police had a huge task to keep traffic flowing in both directions as the marchers ambled on towards Couva. I detected little enthusiasm among them, and even less among those who looked on. There was no cheering, no honking of horns. In fact, the thing looked more like a funeral procession of yesteryear.
I wondered what got into Ramesh's head to cause him to organise this march that was intended, among other goals, to galvanise public support over perceived injustices in the country, and more specifically to stop Alcoa from building its smelter plant. But one does not achieve such goals with 50, even 100 people, marching or shouting from the rooftops. And while Ramesh touted it as "all inclusive", meaning not partisan, I wondered where his newly-rediscovered UNC friends were? Basdeo Panday was there in an earlier leg, and with him came the usual sycophants. Then Jack Warner joined on another leg. But where were the others?
As I write (Friday morning), Ramesh and his tired bunch will be heading into Port of Spain where the march will culminate with a meeting "of thousands and thousands of people", to quote the leader. I shall be more than surprised if he gets 1,000 to join him in Tamarind Square-unless he distributes free meals to all and sundry at the "Vagrants Quarter" of the Lara Promenade. Ramesh has led long marches before, as has Panday. I rather suspect they do this when they think they need a good physical workout, although I can tell them the cardiovascular benefits from ambling, as distinct from brisk walking, are almost zero.
As the person who led the first "real" march that breached the law that prohibits public demonstrations without police permission, I know a lot about marching and public meetings and how one can gain or lose from such exercises. Ray Robinson is recorded as the person who first challenged this law when, back in 1971 or 1972, he led a candlelight procession in Marabella. He and others were arrested and charged, but that was no real march. The real McCoy came when Winston Leonard and I led thousands of cane farmers through the streets of San Fernando in early 1974, blocking High Street, and getting ourselves arrested in the process (along with Sam Dowlath, then a UWI student, now CEO of NAMDEVCO).
Now, that was "march fadder"! It was spontaneous, it showed strength and unity among the farmers, and it won them the biggest increase in cane price they'd had up to then. One year later, the famous ULF march that police broke up with unmitigated violence, gave birth to the party that has survived to this day in another incarnation. I suspect that Ramesh and Panday are hoping that the march will yield benefits to the UNC at its congress (held yesterday) that was intended to deal finally with the Winston Dookeran challenge. Interestingly, I heard Wade Mark and others marketing the party's congress as if it were a summer concert: come and hear ex-St Vincent PM Son Mitchell (what the hell does this relic have to do with our politics?); hear Ato Boldon speak! I mean, if it was Ato attempting a new world record, maybe thousands will have turned up to see him run. But talk?
Seriously, I think Ramesh, Bas and the UNC core supporters have lost their political bearings. The march served more to infuriate people who were inconvenienced by it, than win hearts and votes. The party's bi-weekly meetings address the core. They are not winning new supporters, as can be easily determined by the number of empty seats in small halls or classrooms. The Dookeran factor has caught up with Bas-in-decline, and it will take more than an overflowing Rienzi Complex at yesterday's congress to boost its flagging fortunes.
No, Bas, the party has not just begun. I think the party's over. May it rest in pieces upon the lofty ideals and youthful enthusiasm of the tens of thousands that first spawned it 31 years ago.