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Panday gambled and lost

January 31, 2001
By Raffique Shah

SO what was "Uncle" Basdeo Panday's real game-plan in last Monday's Tobago House of Assembly elections? It most definitely could not have been to win control of the THA, although, from his perspective, it would have been nice to have control of both the Central Government and the affairs of Tobago. That, however, was somewhat stretching reality since the UNC did not have a toehold there and its point man there, Morgan Job, is a loose cannon people love to hate.

If the UNC knew it couldn't win, not even one seat, then what else could it expect to achieve? After all, the party did plough considerable resources into its campaign, including, as it did in Trinidad, State resources like the might of the Ministry of Works and Carlos "Paverman" John, who ran into Hochoy "Heavy Roller" Charles, the latter stopping him dead in his tracks on the Milford Road. It also printed and distributed "jerseys" that will keep Tobagonians clothed for some time to come, and many more chose to take the cash and free lunches offered to them–and proceeded to vote for some other party.

Also, it should be noted that it ferried a phalanx of frontline party spokesmen–all Africans, I should add–which would have cost another tidy sum of money but for the generosity of financier Ishwar Galbaransingh, at whose hotel I presume most of them will have stayed. In this regard, the absence from the platform of men and women like Sadiq Baksh, Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Ganga Singh showed that the party was not unmindful of the racial realities in Tobago. Note, too, the heavy presence of NBN/TTT personnel on the island during the campaign, another UNC expenditure that will be accounted for under the heading "taxpayers".

The party did, therefore, hastily plough considerable resources into the THA elections, and people who understand the island's politics wondered why. Even before the elections were announced, most observers saw it as a fight among the NAR, PNM and PEP. Based on the results of the last general election, the PNM seemed to have picked up steam on the island in a way it never did since the 1971 general election (some commentators say it was 1976, but that was the year in which it lost Tobago to Ray Robinson). Tobago's NAR, quite distinct from its Trinidad counterpart, retained its foothold although it lost ground, and one seat, to the PNM. And Deborah Moore-Miggins' PEP appeared to have lost its way before it could really make an impact on the island's politics.

In that scheme of things, the most the UNC could hope to do was to garner a few votes in each electoral district. That became patently clear from the time it selected its candidates. Firstly, there was a mad rush to find people who were brave enough to canvass under the banner of the Rising Sun. In the melee, the party failed to field one candidate in Bethel/Patience Hill where Moore-Miggins was the incumbent. I suspect the UNC could not find a candidate who was willing to run. As an excuse, however, "Uncle" Panday said he didn't want to win "all 12...we leaving one for the opposition".

That was absolute crap, of course. But because the no-show was in Moore-Miggins' district, and worse for her, PEP was viewed as being in some sort of collaboration with the UNC, a lapse by Panday's Tobago scouts cost her the seat and caused her party to be routed at the polls. And the selection of Barrington Thomas, a house-breaking and larceny felon of note, was not deliberate as Panday wanted people to believe, but a gross oversight done in the party's haste to field candidates. Clearly, Thomas would have had hell doing basic things like house-to-house campaigning!

So Panday's game plan was never to win. It was not even to gain a toehold, which, if the UNC is to promote itself as a national party, would have been important. I think the UNC's foray into Tobago was a last-ditch effort to destroy the NAR, and in the process, pull the rug from under President Robinson. You see, for almost three decades, Tobago was Robinson's country, much the way it had "belonged" to APT "Fargo" James in the period before the advent of the PNM. In fact, it was Robinson's retention of the two Tobago seats in 1995 that gave Panday the opportunity to become Prime Minister.

Now that Robinson is giving Panday hell in Port of Spain in his bid to assume full control of government following the controversial December 11 election, what better way to get back at him than to seize his base? Or if that was not possible, to cause the Tobago NAR to lose the election, even if that meant a PNM win? In other words, in spite of all the largesse he bestowed on Tobagonians, Panday did not really believe he could win Tobago: he just wanted to get back at Robinson.

What the Prime Minister fails to understand is that Robinson's support for his stance against Panday's failure to observe certain conventions (for which you do not need laws, but common decency) has spread throughout the country. His constituency is no longer Tobago. The President, in his twilight years, has become a national hero, an honour he enjoyed only once before, in 1986 when he led the NAR to its 33-3 victory over the PNM. Today, support for Robinson has spread: last Sunday, at the annual Clico Marathon, when I announced his arrival, he was applauded even more heartily than when Pamenos Ballantyne hit the tape some 15 minutes afterwards, registering an unprecedented five back-to-back victories.

I suspect that as the impasse over the naming of seven losing candidates as senators continues, the Prime Minister will become more desperate and Robinson will grow more popular. But more and more people are learning to respect a few good men who put their lives and careers on the line on the basis of principle as distinct from the many who choose expediency and greed to fuel their passion for power.

And that, I believe, is where Panday bounced his head in diving blindly into Tobago. Okay, so the UNC has won some votes there, and I suppose he will now declare it a truly national party. But even the NAR loss won't hurt Robinson at this point. Nor will it cause him to change his mind on the constitutional impasse. Indeed, the blow Tobagonians dealt Panday will serve only to lend resolve to "ah we boy", Robinson. If Panday achieved anything in the elections, it was to have destroyed Moore-Miggins, probably the most promising and exciting politician to have arisen on the island since Robinson.

The results of the THA elections will, therefore, not change Panday's stocks vis a vis Robinson. The President may in fact feel buoyed by the results. The PNM most definitely will have its tail high in the air. Besides PEP, only the UNC last lost ground, and that, I suspect, will have a negative psychological effect on the party's supporters in Trinidad, even as court battles that could see it losing its razor-thin majority in Parliament rage.

In more ways than one, Panday has gambled and lost. One of my favourite fiction writers wrote, "When you go into battle with revenge on your mind, take two coffins with you." You know whom the second one is for...

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