Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Feature: The Aranguez mandate – 24 years later

The weather forecast was for storms and heavy rain accompanied by flash flooding. There was also another storm building that day – October 16, 1988 – a political storm that was to reshape Trinidad and Tobago's politics. And the man in the eye of the storm was Basdeo Panday. 

Less than two years earlier Panday and the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), led by A.N.R. Robinson, had created history with a landslide victory against the People’s National Movement (PNM) in the general election on December 16, 1986, winning 33 of the 36 seats in the House of Representatives. 

The PNM had been deeply hurt by corruption and a bankrupt treasury. It’s fall was compounded by cabinet minister Desmond Cartey’s declaration in Laventille – “All ah we tief”. That and the rising tide of discontent in every sector helped create the political tsunami that ended the PNM’s unbroken 30-year reign.

Panday’s previous attempts at coalition building had finally borne fruit in the One Love movement.

His work started in earnest with the United Labour Front in 1976 based on the premise that ethnic politics had no room in Trinidad and Tobago although he had been around much earlier, having fought and lost as a candidate for the Workers and Farmers Party in 1966.

By 1986 he had joined with Robinson, Karl Hudson Phillips and Lloyd Best to form a unitary party to challenge the PNM. And it was Panday who took the bold decision to hand the leadership to Robinson.

He admitted to me in an interview in 2009 that that was his biggest mistake but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do because despite his efforts at embracing the country’s diversity he felt Trinidad and Tobago was not ready for a Prime Minister of Indian origin. He eventually made it to Whitehall in 1995 in a coalition with Robinson.

Panday’s most important experiment in coalition politics worked to effect the political change for which the nation had been clamouring. But it turned out to be a mirage. The political union of convenience began to come apart almost as the votes were being counted.

Panday remarked on that fateful December night that he felt he had lost and his vision blurred by the magnitude of the victory. He was right. The right-wing elements within the NAR had an absolute majority. That was the beginning of the epic personality and ideological battle that culminated in Robinson kicking Panday out of office in the Presidential coup in 2001.

Panday and Robinson were cut from different political cloths, their political thinking poles apart. Unlike the present People’s Partnership, there was no room for compromise and accommodation – it was one party. And the stresses and strains had been present even before the people voted. Almost immediately after the NAR took office both Panday and Robinson were fighting over everything.

There was an uneasy undercurrent as well was that there were “too many Indians” in high office, a fallacy spawned by those who were reluctant to accept the country’s ethnic diversity and the political relevance and contribution of people like Panday and some of their followers.

Some elements of the media fanned the flames of divisiveness that would eventually consume the NAR and cause the departure of Panday and some of his loyal colleagues from government.

That was also the birth of CLUB 88 – the Caucus of Love, Unity and Brotherhood – on March 16, 1988, chaired by Dr Rampersad Parasram, who shared Panday’s views and political philosophy.

A small group, including Panday, Parasram, Trevor Sudama and Kelvin Ramnath, had been meeting since early 1987 to discuss the budding political upheaval within the NAR government. CLUB 88 was the response to a number of events that started with the public declarations that exposed a significant rift in the government and the governing party.

Prime Minister Robinson made the first move in October 1987 and fired John Humphrey, who was Housing Minister and the MP for St. Augustine. A strong advocate of political unity, Humphrey paid the ultimate price for criticizing Robinson. Sudama, who was already grumbling about what he deemed Robinson’s autocratic style of governing, had been ready to walk long before that.

Panday cautioned his loyalists not to react to Humprhey’s dismissal and leave cabinet. By February 1988 Robinson settled the matter; he kicked out Panday and Ramnath.

It seemed to solve his problem but in reality it created a groundswell of support for Panday that neither Robinson nor Panday anticipated. Robinson's action was the basis for the formation of the United National Congress (UNC) and the eventual demise of his own party.

The media had been generally supportive of the administration and blamed Panday for wrecking the stability of the NAR and by extension the government. Panday’s response had been to go to the people based on the philosophy that the people are stronger than the government.

Panday and his inner circle took the issues to the people through 57 public meetings and 110 cottage meetings at private homes over a period of seven months. It was inevitable that the emotion attached to the political developments would attract a partisan ethnic following.

Panday did not encourage it but he was powerless to stop the tidal wave of support from those who had always embraced the opposition, which had its roots in the sugar belt. There was also a significant amount of support from the non-Indian sector, which felt that Robinson had overstepped his mandate and treated Panday unfairly.

On October 16, 1988 more than 20,000 supporters stood in the rain in Aranguez and mandated CLUB 88 to form a national political party.

The resolution to form the party - the Aranguez Mandate - was presented by Govindra Roopnarine and seconded by Rev. Raymond Pallackdharrysingh, both of whom were members of Parliament who had walked out with Panday. One of the tens of thousands standing in mud was a young man named Roodal Moonilal.

At that event, Panday predicted that "People will join this crusade because of the strength of its morality and its nobility, not because of the colour of the skins of those who are in it."

It took another few months before the party was officially launched at the National Stadium on April 30, 1989 with Panday as its founding political leader. The rising sun became its symbol, showing faith and hope in a new dawn.

Panday had cast down his bucket on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed. For him poverty had no race, hunger no religion. That is the principle that guided his work during his long career; the movement he led was neither racist nor divisive.

A few years later, respected political scientist Dr Selwyn Ryan, had this comment about the man who fought for those elements whom he considered social and political underdogs in a society.

“His rhetoric is flowery and emotional. That rhetoric may annoy those who do not share its premises and values. To call it racist is, however, a gross falsehood, and those who do, say more about themselves that the person they label."

Today, exactly 24 years since the historic Aranguez Mandate, the UNC and its allies in the People's partnership are now firmly in charge of the government of Trinidad and Tobago.

The membership of the party has handed Kamla Persad-Bissessar the responsibility to carry the torch and keep the flame of hope alive for all those who believe in equality, justice and freedom.

In taking charge of the party earlier this year, and during her campaign for the leadership, Kamla paid tribute to Panday’s vision, his dedication and his commitment to the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

Kamla’s victory in the January 2010 leadership election and her subsequent landslide win in the general election is a realization of the dream of Panday and a loyal team of men and women who worked hard to create a truly national party, a big tent where there is room for everyone.

Getting into government is one part of the struggle; the real crusade for equality and justice that inspired the thousands who gathered in Aranguez in 1988 continues. And how the People’s Partnership governs will determine if that dream will become a reality.

Trinidad and Tobago is optimistic, seeing promise in each dawn that comes with the RISING SUN.

Jai Parasram - with files from Dr Rampersad Parasram,
Chairman of CLUB 88, First chairman of the UNC

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai