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Raffique Shah


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The house that Eric built

March 26, 2006
By Raffique Shah

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, this country's first Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, gave up the ghost-voluntarily, in my view-and went to the Great Beyond, wherever that might be, if it does indeed exist. I can speculate about both his death and his final destination not because I knew the man personally. But being an ardent student of history and politics, I had a unique opportunity to observe this larger-than-life leader from close-up. For several years I sat in Parliament directly across from him, I heard him address the House, I saw him interact with his PNM underlings, and I was even at the receiving end of his tart tongue on more than one occasion.

Eric was a man of many moods and modes, which probably made him the consummate politician. One day he would be jovial, chuckling, enjoying himself at the expense of his own, or better still, Opposition Members of Parliament. Another day he would sit pouting, dealing gruffly with anyone who came close to him, including his senior ministers. What can be said of the way he ran his party is that he ensured that when he spoke or ruled on any issue, "not a damn dog bark", as he himself said on a public platform.

One had to be there and be observant in order to see how he subtly enforced subservience in all his ministers. I saw deputy leaders of the party like Kamal Mohammed and Errol Mahabir cringe in his presence, although I must admit the other deputy leader who would later succeed him, George Chambers, always appeared cool, never ruffled by Eric. On one occasion, when AG Selwyn Richardson was on his feet addressing the House, he suddenly stopped, sat down, and turned to Eric, as if to ask: "What, Sir?" Eric had a hearty laugh at Richardson's expense: he had in fact mumbled something to another minister who sat close to him.

But Richardson merely heard the man's voice, and "jumped", as Brother Alpha sang a few years ago. It's one facet of Williams's leadership style that I could not come to terms with: I was young and rebellious and ready to take on the biggest political "badjohn", be it Eric or Basdeo Panday. During the split among ULF parliamentarians, a row took place between the Panday faction and mine. Eric intervened (to confirm that Panday visited his house on certain nights, and that he served him "the best scotch"), only to find himself on the receiving end of a barrage of cuss from an infuriated Paul Harrison. The PNM bench looked on in awe: here were some young radicals tearing into a man they worshipped. Eric scampered for safety when he found the going too hot to handle.

I recall these incidents and observations because it is said to this day, fifty years after he founded the PNM, that it remains the "best structured party" in the country. To an extent it was, and probably still is. Within its structure, though, the leader was not first among equals, but leader supreme. There were members of the party's executive who would question his supremacy, of that I am sure. I remember Patrick Solomon in the 1950s and Karl Hudson-Phillips in the 1970s were among those who dared to speak out and who inevitably incurred his wrath. Even members of constituency councils bucked the Maximum Leader. In 1976, when he asked that five nominees be withdrawn because they were "millstones", these groups sent him back a strong message that he dared not buck: these are our candidates and you must accept them. He backed off. But he also distanced himself from the "millstones", reducing them to strangers in their own house.

That Eric was a strong leader is beyond question. And given the nature of politics in this country, strong leaders are probably what we required at the time. In fact, today more than ever we need men and women of substance. What we did not need then, nor do we need now, are mini-dictators. I remain convinced that had Eric encouraged greater democracy within the PNM and among the population, the PNM might have been an even stronger party today. Its members may argue that it is, and testimony to that is that it has survived 50 years, ten of them in opposition.

What PNMites fail to understand, though, is that the party appears to be strong and enduring because the opposition is in disarray. It might well be that Eric's greatest political legacy was his ability to exploit instability in opposition parties. He toyed with Bhadase Maraj and Rudranath Capildeo, ensuring that the DLP was never a force to be reckoned with. He played with Panday's penchant for power by helping him ditch radical elements in the ULF. Today, 25 years after his death, I can imagine him breaking into loud guffaws as he looks at opposition fragmentation reaching a nadir from which it may never recover.

Meanwhile, his PNM lives to fight another day or election.