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Maximum time for maximum leader

September 09, 2001
By Raffique Shah

THE cult of the Maximum Leader—the politician who uses charisma, and very little else, to win and maintain popular support among the masses—is something we have lived with for many years. It is not a phenomenon that is unique to this country. The last century was replete with such men (and a few women), from larger-then-life characters in developed countries to their mimic men counterparts in developing countries. Their brands of dictatorship disguised as democracy thrived in an era when the masses left the thinking process, and governance, to the leaders' absolute discretion. And it worked for them, and in many instances, for the countries they straddled.

But the success of that type of leadership spawned its demise. If we take our country as an example, Dr Eric Williams was the first successful Maximum Leader. From the formation of the PNM back in 1956 to his death in 1981, Eric reigned supreme. Younger people may not recall some famous incantations of the man who is widely accepted as the "father of the nation", but which tell the story of his supremacy. In refusing to dismiss Dr Patrick Solomon from his Cabinet, he thundered at those who were calling for the minister's head, "Who don't like it can get to hell out of here!" By 1971, he boasted of his powers this way: "When I say 'come', he 'cometh', when I say 'go', he 'goeth'."

And, as happens with party supporters who are ever eager to grovel before the Maximum Leader, there are those who would sink into the sewer to show their total loyalty. In Dr Williams's case, it was one of his aides, Irwin Merrit, who said at a political meeting, "And now I introduce to you a man, the latchet of whose shoes I am unworthy to tie." I personally saw big men like Kamaluddin Mohammed, Errol Mahabir, Selwyn Richardson and Cuthbert Joseph behave like proverbial "puppy dogs" in the presence of His Exalted Highness, Dr Williams.

Ironically, though, Dr Williams paved the way for the demise of such leaders. Because he placed heavy emphasis on education, he and his government created a whole new generation of thinkers who were quite unlike the blind followers their parents were. Which explains why, barely 14 years after he came to power, Dr Williams was faced with mass rebellion from the children of the PNM, who formed the bulk of those who were part of the Black Power revolution of 1970. By 1971 the PNM had lost its absolute control of the "African vote", and although it retained power until 1986, its grip on this "constituency" loosened considerably. Today, the PNM has to fight to win the Afro-vote. There is no longer blind loyalty, and there is no Maximum Leader in the ranks.

Basdeo Panday must have been a secret admirer of Dr Williams all along, since, from the moment he entered the political arena in 1976, he attempted to emulate the man. When the idealists in the ULF sought to build a new type of organisation that was properly structured, and which could withstand the demise of the leader or other political calamities, Panday was not in the least interested. Because he had charisma and the gift of the gab, he believed that that was all he needed to rule supreme among the Indians in the country.

And he was correct to a point. Dr Rudranath Capildeo, who had led the DLP between 1961-68, was a messiah of sorts, but an absentee one (he was a lecturer at the University of London). So his appeal to the masses dissipated with the fracturing of the DLP, and along came Panday and the ULF. Using his Actors' Handbook, Panday was able to fill the slot of the Indian messiah in short time. From that point in 1978 where he wrestled control of the "Indian vote", he never thought he would need anything more than his presence to wield absolute control over this group. He successfully did this election after election, until in 1995, when it was able to bring him within spitting distance of power. Ray Robinson provided the "spit", and the rest, as they say, is history.

What Panday did not bargain for, though, is that by the time he assumed office, the era of the Maximum Leader was coming to an end. All around him they fell like ninepins: Williams, Forbes Burnham, Michael Manley, Cheddi Jagan, Vere Bird. The legacies they left had little substance, especially when it came to party structures. I have already pointed out that Panday never had any regard for well-structured organisations, confident that his personality would transcend any deficiencies. Today, with his party wracked by serious internal convulsions, he is learning a bitter lesson about the folly of maximum leadership.

If he is to retain power, not just in the party, but in the country, he needs to convince his followers that "De Bas is still king." But "De Bas" first has to conquer petty problems like the flu, old age—hence diminishing energy, and an increasingly intelligent electorate. His physical limitations meant that over the past few weeks, when, as Maximum Leader, he should have been on the ground doing battle with Ramesh Maharaj, he was confined to bed, a sick man. So he had to deploy neophytes like Manohar Ramsaran, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Carlos John, Harry Partap and Mervyn Assam to bat for him. Ramsaran ran into a barrage of heckling at a meeting in Woodland. Ramesh went into Kamla's constituency and held a successful meeting: she (or any of the others) could hardly go into Couva South with the same success.

Panday has become the latest victim of his own formula for success—maximum leadership. If he is to retain control of the party, he, not anyone else, must go out there and lead the fight. He can't, because of his physical state. Sending second string sycophants will hardly excite his loyal supporters. For years he has had them feed off his presence, his flair, his flamboyance. Now more than ever he needs to play those cards. But age and infirmity have dealt him a "bad hand" at this critical juncture. So he is now condemned to sitting on the throne and watching his personal empire crumble.

Many people may not recognise it, but we are witnessing the end of an era in local politics. The day of the Maximum Leader is over. Even if he survives this challenge, and maybe he will, Panday will have lost stature and office. The question now is not, "Who we go put?" It's,"What will replace megalomania?"

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