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PNM, UNC, Self-Destructing?

July 08, 2001
By Raffique Shah

IT'S the acme of irony, this predicament of the UNC finding itself incapable of functioning in government except by replicating the PNM at its worst, and the PNM, unaccustomed to being in opposition, doing more harm to itself than to the ruling party. Many analysts see this as the beginning of the end of both parties. And those who are convinced that there is still room for a "third force", are gearing themselves to fill the vacuum they are sure will arise out of the current imbroglio.

It was not accidental that the NAR recently bought a new building to house its headquarters, boasting that "not even the UNC has its own building". Political leader of the once-powerful party, Anthony Smart, obviously sees a window of opportunity in the confusion that threatens to destabilise-if not destroy-both the UNC and the PNM. Smart must feel encouraged by the increasing number of people who turn up at the party's functions and meetings. But transforming double-digit membership into the six-digit support-base that is a pre-requisite to gaining power, is a daunting task.

One needs to cast an eye, too, at the disparate "independent" forces that have been coming together during recent times. The display of strength by the non-Natuc trade unions and other civic organisations at Fyzabad last Labour Day will have stimulated the taste buds of unionists like Errol McLeod, Jennifer Baptiste and David Abdulah, who have never given up on the goal of forming a real "people's party". But that, too, will remain out of reach of the "independents" for as long as the masses remain trapped within their ethnic enclaves. The "cross-fertilisation" that manifests itself in the midst of people's disappointment with the performances of both main parties, invariably gives way to primal instincts when elections are held.

Still, the instability that haunts the UNC and the PNM must be worrisome to Basdeo Panday and Patrick Manning. In the case of the ruling party, it is clear that newly elected deputy political leader Ramesh Maharaj is not about to roll over and die on Panday's say-so, or to be emasculated the way previous executive members were. Ramesh senses that the "lion" lies wounded by advancing age, if not declining health. And he does not want to wait for any unplanned demise of the leader to pitch him into battle for the top post. That explains his casual dismissal of orders that the executive must not meet or take action in the absence of the leader.

If anything, Ramesh has made a study of Panday's manipulation and wiles during the latter's rise to leadership of the opposition, and ultimately to Prime Minister. He has learnt that real power in any party lies at its roots, within its base-support that takes years to be built. When Panday moved to wrest power in the sugar workers' union from Rampartap Singh back in 1974/75, he did just that. He defied Singh's (and the executive's) ruling that he should not deal directly with the union's membership. Panday understood why: real power in the All Trinidad union lay at that level, and since Rampartap and his cronies had long been rejected by the members, there was a vacuum there waiting to be filled.

Ramesh realises that the party has drifted from its original moorings, and although it has won significant support in areas that it had little influence prior to 1995, the reality is that all will be lost if it loses its base-support. That has spurred him to firm up his base even if it means defying the leader: after all, Panday won't be around forever, and Ramesh wants to secure his flanks before he ventures beyond the front line. The big stumbling block to his aspirations, though, is Panday himself. I written repeatedly that if Panday cannot control something, he moves to "mash it up". Ramesh, who is no stranger to courtroom manoeuvres, clearly does not intend to allow that to happen.

In the PNM, Manning seems to have faltered in his handling of Keith Rowley's suspension from Parliament by Speaker Rupert Griffith. The "peace treaty" he hammered out with Panday has left large numbers of PNM supporters, and more than a handful of non-PNMites who found themselves in the party's corner out of common concerns, disillusioned. While diehard PNM members will remain committed to whatever "deals" the leadership has worked out, that core is a dwindling one. A significant number of the PNM's 268,000 supporters (those who voted PNM in the last general election) do not fall in the "diehard" category. They vote PNM if they believe it's a way of avoiding the Devil incarnate: but they will just as easily withdraw their support if they sense their hopes are being compromised.

Manning, like many of his colleagues, is conservative to the core. Rowley's suspension from the House by a Speaker who has no moral authority to sit in the chair, far less to suspend or expel an elected MP, offered the PNM an opportunity to engage the Speaker and the Government in street politics. But the PNM is unaccustomed to this kind of activity: its last militant march for anything was back in 1960 when Eric Williams led a "march in the rain" to Chaguaramas, demanding that the US naval base be returned to Trinidad and Tobago.

Rowley, who has made no secret of his ambition to lead the PNM, saw an opportunity to project himself as a 'new militant" in confronting Griffith with his supporters marching around the Red House. If the PNM was not so conservative (and I am not excluding Rowley here), it would have seized the opportunity to put the UNC's back against the wall with a massive demonstration of strength. Better still, even people who voted for the UNC last December have grown disillusioned by the many scandals that have rocked the ruling party. The NWRHA fiasco, for example, prompted a number of ordinary citizens to "go ballistic". The PNM could have capitalised, too, on the row in the NCC and what appears to be the widening rift between the UNC's "corridor backers" and the party's leadership.

Instead, Manning chose to negotiate with a beleaguered Panday. Time will tell whether or not that was his biggest political blunder. Without doubt, though, it has created serious divisions in the PNM. And those on the outside of the party who looked to it for salvation from the renegade conduct of the UNC may now look elsewhere. We may well be at the beginning of the end of an era in the politics of this country. Interesting times.

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