November 10, 2002
By Raffique Shah
IN the final days of campaigning during the last general elections, UNC leader Basdeo Panday revelled in rhetoric pertaining to his retirement from politics. "I always said I wanted to go at 70!" he would tell party supporters. "Now, at 69, I am.....!" He wouldn't get a chance to complete the sentence. "Noooo! No Bas! Yuh cyah go and leave we!" flag wavers in the crowd would scream. Bas, wallowing in the adulation, would respond: "Alright, alright! Ah hear allyuh! I'll stay in office for one more term-when we win the election!" Then there would be loud applause from his sycophants on the platform and from his adoring fans on the ground.
Fast-forward now to mere weeks after the elections, after it sinks into his head that unless Patrick Manning shoots himself both in the foot and mouth, he, Panday, is destined to languish in opposition for his remaining years in politics. He now realises that his poke at Manning, "As long as you in charge of the PNM I will remain Prime Minister", has returned to haunt him with vengeance. So he sits in Parliament and pouts, says nothing of substance, and does nothing for those who voted for him. Instead, he now tells them to find a new leader: he would step down from his position as soon as they find someone to replace him.
As I watch this farce play out in public, I wonder why Panday's traditional and loyal supporters cannot, even at this eleventh hour, see in the man for what he always has been-a political con artist supreme. There he was, one eve of the elections, ready to serve for "another term" (presumably meaning five years), but as Prime Minister. However, now that he has been cast back into the wasteland of opposition politics, he cannot serve them for even one year. Isn't that insulting to those who stained their fingers for the UNC only because of Panday? That he could be their leader as PM, but not in opposition?
Therein lies a fundamental flaw in Panday's character that has always dictated the political direction he took along the tortuous course that took him into and out of power on several occasions. He must be the absolute dictator. He would settle for nothing less. Worse, as I have repeatedly written (and was roundly castigated and "cussed" for it), he would also not allow for smooth succession in any party he led. If anything, he would ensure that the UNC implodes so that history will record him as "the only man to hold the Indian vote together". Well, the only man besides Bhadase Maharaj, and interestingly, one who, upon entering sugar in 1973, was described by his former WFP comrade Krishna Gowandan as being little more than "an educated Bhadase".
So he has set up a committee to look at the issue of succession, headed by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who is herself a possible contender for leadership. It's a set up, I tell you. Because whatever he and other frontline UNC officials may say to the contrary, the party has already begun to come apart at the seams. Why does the party need a special committee to determine how and when Panday's successor would be chosen? If he'd had in place a proper executive with appropriate deputies, then succession would have been no problem. But he never allowed anyone to assume the role of heir apparent, so now it will be a dogfight-to-the-finish, who dead, dead. What will die, too, is the party.
Worse than "mashing up" the UNC, Panday, in making his exit from the stage he has been allowed to dominate for close to three decades, seems hell-bent of destroying whatever unity existed among Indians as well. In his speech at the Divali Nagar, which was anything but spiritual, he called on his Indians-only audience to seek out the "enemies from within". Who could he be referring to? It could not be Ramesh Maharaj and Trevor Sudama, who were bold enough to declare their positions shortly after the 2001 elections.
That's the kind of poison that Panday relishes in spooning out to people whose blind loyalty to the leader is no different to Jim Jones' 900-odd followers who collectively committed suicide in Guyana some years ago. Now, the blind will look at the blind in the party suspiciously, and any sign, any whisper that runs contrary to the leader's perceived wishes, could land innocent loyalists in deep trouble. Soon, those who followed the leader in "cussing up" Ramesh and company, those who laughed at Hulsie Bhaggan's "pancake face", will find themselves being targets for Panday's unbridled vitriol. Theirs will be a case of poetic injustice.
When he is in the "mash up" mode, Panday doesn't really care about anyone. Look at what he has done to the Shiv Shakti dance group. Having accused the group of "insulting my wife", he collaborated with the weak-kneed NCIC to have the nation's best known Indian dance group sidelined from the Divali Nagar. He even got an official of the group to go down on his knees and apologise to him and his dear wife-and still they weren't allowed on the programme. Maybe he thinks he is a divine combination of Ram and Shiva, a super-God to whom all must bow.
Panday, throughout his political career, has insulted too many people, among them many women who are the wives of other men. If they were to demand apologies from the UNC leader, he would spend the rest of his life, not to add his full "incarnation" period, apologising to people he has wronged. And his latter-day Sita-cum-Imelda has chalked up quite an "insult list" herself: ask the UNC women who were made to grovel at her "golden" feet, and ask Laventille activist Jimmy Singh.
So as he makes his exit from the stage, as the curtain comes down on a colorful and chequered political career, Bas seems bent on destroying both the party he built and the people on whose backs he rode to prominence. A few months ago the enemies were "Ramesh, Trevor and Ralph". Yesterday it was the Shiv Shakti dancers who felt his wrath. Today it could well be the Maha Sabha and tomorrow the very NCIC that prostrated itself at the feet of this human-deity. And amidst it all, rest assured that before the UNC dust clears as the party crumbles, many a loyalist will lie mortally wounded at the Master's feet.
Panday is no Ram, no Shiva: if anything, he is Kali Bap!
Copyright © Raffique Shah