Friday, January 24, 2014

From our archives - Jan 24/2010 - Column: End of an era as Panday goes down to defeat

Political history was created Sunday night in Trinidad and Tobago as Basdeo Panday went down to defeat in the internal election of the United National Congress (UNC).

He will be passing the torch to Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the Siparia MP who had been one of his most trusted MPs.

It was a humiliating defeat for Panday who first came on the political scene in 1966 as a candidate for the Workers and Farmers Party (WFP) as a fighter for the people. It was that same fighting spirit that propelled him into government in 1995.

But he fell from grace under the weight of allegations of corruption and was never able to recover. In the end, the bickering in the party and the demands for change to revitalize the party to make it battle-ready to face the PNM marked his political Waterloo.

For those of us who have known Panday for decades (I first met him in 1972), it was a sad passing for a man who struggled for decades to uplift the poor, downtrodden and the dispossessed.

But it was an inevitable end given all the prevailing circumstances. The PNM’s persecution of Panday, his sentencing for failing to declare a London bank account and the propaganda surrounding the case, contributed to his political demise.

Had he followed his heart and not the advice of those around him he would have retired in glory, not in such a defeat.

When Panday entered electoral politics in 1966 the PNM was well entrenched in government. He shunned racial politics, ran for a social democratic party - The Workers and Farmers Party - in an Indian constituency and lost to the DLP candidate.

But he didn’t disappear from the national scene. In the early seventies he returned to service with the death of Bhadase Maraj and became the new Hindu/Trade Union leader in the Indian heartland in the sugar belt. Panday skillfully used the union as a base to build support for a political movement.

While he believed in a new type of politics, based on equality and respect for one another, regardless of race, religion or social standing, he would inevitably have to lean heavily on ethnic voting.

Still he believed national unity was the way to go. As an opposition senator in 1972 he placed on record a reality that was to guide his politics throughout his career.

"Ours is too small a country," he told the Senate on September 15th, 1972, "to try to discriminate against each other. We are too dependent on one another and once you discriminate against one another you damage the entire country."

In 1975 Panday’s sugar union joined all the country’s major trade unions in a rally of solidarity from which emerged a new political party, the United Labour Front (ULF).

In the General Election of 1976 the ULF made a significant breakthrough with 10 of the 36 seats in Parliament, replacing the Indian-based DLP. The victory was also a major disappointment for Panday who did not get the support of the entire working class, especially the predominantly black workers in the oil industry.

He told me in a recent interview it was because the nation was prepared to unite on labour and social issues it was not mature enough to do the same in politics.

Five years later he formed an opposition alliance with his ULF, Tapia, led by economist Lloyd Best and The Democratic Action Congress (DAC) led by A.N.R. Robinson, which had won the two Tobago seats in the 1976 Parliament.

In that year a new conservative party – the Organization for National Reconstruction (ONR) – led by former PNM Attorney General Karl Hudson Phillips became the main opposition challenger. With the Alliance and ONR as the opposition, the PNM scored an easy victory.

But it was Panday who went back to Parliament as opposition leader from where he continued his efforts to build a national party based on embracing people of all races, classes and religions.

The result was a unitary party comprising all the other opposition groups. Panday as the leader with the largest block of MPs in Parliament could have easily emerged as the leader of the new National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR).

But he was convinced based on his earlier political losses that the nation was not ready to accept an Indian leader as Prime Minister. So he handed the leadership of the infant party to the DAC leader Arthur N. Robinson.

In the general election of December 15, 1986 his dream became a reality when the NAR won a landslide with 33 of the 36 seats in Parliament, sweeping the PNM out of office after 30 consecutive years in power.

But it soon turned into a nightmare as conflicts developed within the ‘one-love’ movement based on race and policy conflicts. The massive majority gave Robinson the clout to ignore Panday, knowing that he would keep a majority even if Panday left.

And that is what happened, although some of the seats giving him the majority were rightfully those of Panday's ULF. Panday and some of his loyalists quit.

The others stayed, including Winston Dookeran, who later came back to Panday’s political camp, then left again and and formed the Congress of the People (COP), which was the movement that Panday blamed for the loss of the 2007 election.

The break with the NAR led to the formation of CLUB 88 (Committee of Love, Unity and Brotherhood) and the birth of the United National Congress (UNC), which Panday described as a movement that would attract people not because of the "colour of their skins but the content of their minds."

Panday’s nationalism – unlike that of Eric Williams, Robinson et al – had always been based on embracing Trinidad and Tobago’s diversity and celebrating its plurality.

Panday survived the political roller coaster and continued his struggle for democracy, freedom and justice on behalf of a constituency that still yearns for these fundamental human rights nearly 50 years after Trinidad and Tobago’s leaders pulled down the Union Jack and gave birth to a nation, seeking God's blessings for a land forged "from the love of liberty", promising equality for every creed and race.

His constituency comprised mainly those whose voices had been muffled in the din of political expediency.

Panday was the man who called the nation's attention to the injustices that workers suffered under the Williams PNM administration. He walked should-to-shoulder with George Weekes, Raffique Shah, Joe Young, other labour leaders and politicians on Bloody Tuesday – March 18, 1976 - to demand justice for the working class.

And though he was brutalized and jailed he remained committed to the same cause for which he fights today: freedom, equality and justice.

I was there on bloody Tuesday and saw him brutalized. Tonight I grieve that those who were so close to him allowed him to go down in humiliation.

Panday frequently reminded his inner circle that “his people” comprised everyone, people of every race, religion, class and colour, in every village and town. "Hunger doesn't have a colour," he once said, adding that poverty doesn’t have a religion.

His greatest passion had been for uniting the people, for building a meritocracy in which everybody would be a first-class citizen unlike the one that the late Lloyd Best once described, where "everyone felt like a third-class citizen."

Panday’s philosophy had always been the same - that any party that chooses to represent only one group is doomed because the nation’s plurality and diversity make it necessary for a government to include everyone.

When Patrick Manning assumed office in 2001 by presidential decree he tried unsuccessfully to push the UNC back to the sugar cane fields by taking the cane fields away from the UNC, leaving it without its primary constituency in the hope that instead of rising from the ashes, the UNC would retreat to a "comfort zone" of marginal politics.

But Panday refused to ride into the sunset and go away and continued his struggle with a renewed urgency and an even deeper sense of national unity.

And he wrapped up the 2007 campaign at the birthplace of the UNC in Aranguez, announcing that it would be his last political battle. He urged everyone to remain united and asked for a victory for the UNC-A.

"I remember my struggle to unite this country...I have no regrets. As I come to the end of a very long journey I ask you to send me off in a blaze of glory" he said."Stand all!" he declared, "Bow to no one."

The journey, it seems, is finally at an end. And those who love Panday must now let him retire in peace. He has earned it after four decades of struggle.

At the launch of the bitter campaign that ended in his defeat Panday had said he would leave with "joy in my heart" if the people rejected him.

He has not yet declared his next move, but tonight, the man who always said "When you see me and a lion fighting, feel sorry for the lion" is wounded and defeated one.

It is the end of a political era and marks a new beginning for the party that Panday founded more than 20 years ago.

Jai Parasram - Jan 24, 2010

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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