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Raffique Shah


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Death rides a rejected horse

September 14, 2003
By Raffique Shah

BY the time he got around to forming the UNC in the run-up to the 1995 general election, Basdeo Panday had attained the goals he had set himself since 1974. That is to have a party that fully controlled the "Indian vote", and one that he absolutely controlled. One of his close senior associates (not Indian) said then: "Panday now controls all the Indians—he will never be removed from power." To give the UNC a multi-racial tint that was required to become politically acceptable, he found eager recruits among a number of non-Indians who had been alienated from the PNM, and some who had never supported that party.

The latter fell in several categories. For example, his biggest catch was the trio of Brian Kuei Tung, ex-PNM minister of finance Ishwar Galbaransingh, who, as a contractor, had been in the bowels of the PNM since the oil boom of the 1970s, and insurance magnate Steve Ferguson. Then there were many from the post-1970 period who were never diehard PNMites, and who may have genuinely believed Panday’s rhetoric on racial unity. And there were the outright opportunists, many of them avowed communists from the 1970s, who had never tasted political popularity, far less power. With the fall of the Soviet Union, it was opportune for them to ditch their "red" jockey shorts in the pursuit of power and material well-being.

On the ground, with the Patrick Manning Government facing economic conditions similar to what George Chambers and Ray Robinson’s governments had endured before, the demise of his government loomed large. Besides the parlous state of the economy, crime had surged and became a major issue on the campaign trail. In an all-out attempt to use crime to propel the UNC to power, Panday paraded Ramesh Maharaj as the nemesis of criminals in the country, and overnight Ramesh became a hero of sorts. He had also won over Ralph Maraj from the PNM’s ranks. And from the debris of the shattered NAR he had plucked the articulate Mervyn Assam.

So he had a formidable team with which to face the beleaguered PNM. More important, though, is what he had learnt during his stint in the NAR, the use of campaign dollars to swamp the electorate with media advertising that would virtually drown the opposing party. In 1995 he enjoyed considerable cash contributions from local businessmen and equal enthusiasm from the Indians in cities like New York, Miami and London. The UNC’s campaign in 1995, and later in 2000, saw Panday and the UNC having money to burn. Media propaganda was so intense, it won over many who sat on the fence. And so came the 17-17-2 results in 1995, and Panday, the ultimate "Prince", bowing at the feet of the man he had abused so many times in the past, Robinson. The latter, again driven by bitterness towards the PNM to which he once belonged, swung his two seats Panday’s way to enable Panday to become Prime Minister. So the "Prince" became "King"—finally.

But his castle was built on a very fragile foundation. In his first term in office, he had, of necessity, relied very heavily on Ramesh who became the virtual spokesman and "action man" for the party while the PM concentrated on "minor" issues, like how best to spend the oil and gas dollars that had finally begun to flow. Many people were unmindful that the foundation for economic recovery from the "bust" of the late 1980s was laid by the NAR and PNM regimes. That the inflows of revenue from oil and gas, the new downstream energy plants, had been conceived, and in instances even negotiated, well before Panday came to power. So executing projects that were in train under previous regimes became his platform of "performance".

Although he deliberately expanded his base of sycophants, the wily Ramesh slipped through the cracks. He was fast emerging as a possible successor to Panday. By the time elections came around in 2000, the "Prince" had kicked Robinson "upstairs" to the presidency. He had also disposed of the NAR like used toilet paper since he had snared PNMites Vincent Lasse and Rupert Griffith. And he retained Ramesh, which proved to be a fatal decision.

The UNC victory in 2000 gave Panday a larger-than-life ego that proved to be his undoing. He belatedly sought to structure the party through internal elections, but when he saw Ramesh rising over hand-picked creatures like Carlos John, he felt stung. Once more, after Ramesh’s slate won the elections handsomely, he invoked Machiavelli, with the "Prince" dismissing the "pretender". He was prepared to ignore any structures that existed and resurrect the "Messiah".

But times had changed, and even his very vitriolic campaign to "energise" the Indian constituency, to suggest it was under threat, failed. Because the party had remained unstructured for so long, there was nothing to mobilise. Everything revolved around Panday. With the "corruption" baggage weighing him down heavily, and the abandonment of his traditional base in favour of the "parasitic oligarchy", his slide had begun.

It was not accidental that the 2001 election turned into a nightmare for him. Ramesh, Ralph and Trevor had walked out of the UNC, and although electorally their votes did not count for much, the damage they had done to the UNC and to Panday was severe. With the 18-18 tie, he was compelled to now hold talks with Manning, once more eating humble pie and trying to manipulate the system to remain in power. But his sins of savagely attacking anyone he felt inclined to returned to haunt him. It was now Robinson’s turn to call the shots, and when he did, Panday could have died. He was out of power after six short years.

The UNC will not recover from that fatal blow. And to compound Panday’s woes, the dismantling of the sugar industry came at the worst time—when sugar workers could blame him for doing nothing for them when he was in power. This double blow has knocked Panday down—and out. It also signals the end of the UNC, except perhaps as an opposition party until something else comes along to replace it. Indians are again looking for a new "Messiah".

But no such saviour will emerge, not from the UNC anyway. The future, if there is one, lies in an "organic" multi-racial party, which was what the ULF had set out to be, but what Panday scuttled before it could creep. It is the acme of irony that his political death was written as far back as when he was politically "born". Karma? Maybe.