By Dr Vishnu Bisram
My association with Basdeo Panday dates back to 1978 when he was Opposition Leader and continued during the period when he was PM from November 1995 thru 2001 and Opposition Leader again (2002-2010) and until till his death. Panday and I had a warm, respectful relationship during multiple personal engagements (in Trinidad, New York, Guyana, India) and countless phone conversations even when we did not share political viewpoints on his leadership and decision making, especially his handling of dissension within, and the future of UNC; he made several mistakes. Had he accepted advice he would not have lost elections or removed from office and T&T would have been the envy of the region in terms of development.
We spoke recently on contemporary politics and the future of the party he founded. We spoke after his 90th birthday last May and again after the September CPL final in Guyana. I followed up on his planned writing of his political memoir, and he informed me that he was working on it. I was aware that my friend Samaroo Siewah was finalizing the draft on Panday’s political biography that will be released in May; I read parts of it. In the last conversation, he indicated that he would continue his advocacy for constitutional change in his quest to effect lift socio-economic, political and cultural change in T&T and advised I do same for Guyana. He had given up hope in the UNC, the party he founded in Trinidad, returning to government. He assailed Kamla’s leadership and very early (in mid-2011) stated she would not be re-elected in 2015. He repeated that prognosis for 2020. And before his passing said UNC will not win in 2025 as long as there is no leadership change. He has been right so far. Panday and several other founders of the UNC were alienated and excommunicated from the party and are not supportive of it. Several have resigned from the party.
There is much to be said for the compassionate attitude Panday demonstrated throughout his daily life and dealings with all persons since his return from UK and plunging in politics in 1965. He was also terse and did not mince words on issues and assessments of individuals, but he remained witty and spoke with wisdom bringing in his experience while serving as MP or in government. He spoke fearlessly about issues and the PNM government and UNC opposition.
Bas and I engaged in intensive discussions thru 2000; he never turned down a request to meet or chat. He was the most charismatic and wittiest person I ever met with no comparison in the history of the Caribbean or elsewhere. As someone penned, God, destroyed the mould after he made Panday.
Panday and I developed political differences in 2001 related to internal party executive elections and his handling of internal party conflict but remained respectful and friendly. He was advised not to dismiss three dissident cabinet MPs critical to the survival of the government that had 19 MPs to the opposition 17. He rejected the advice resulting in the being out of the cabinet MPs. He was also advised not to call snap elections and instead to reconcile with the dissidents because he would not win as per several opinion surveys. He became very upset when polls I conducted (as a neutral, objective professional) and published showed the UNC tying the PNM in the December 2001 elections. President Robinson suggested that he and PNM leader Patrick Manning meet and recommend a solution to the tied elections. Panday erred when he rejected advice not to sign a document authorizing President Robinson to choose the PM. Two UNC lawyers (Ministers) in the government advised Panday to sign the document assuring him that Robinson would select him as the PM. Authorizing Robinson to choose the PM was the political death knell of Panday. To his disappointment, and that of his supporters, Robinson selected Manning as PM when Panday, as the incumbent, did not lose the election and should have been sworn in to lead an interim government pending another election. It exposed the political immaturity and lack of legal skills of the lawyers associated with and advising Panday.
Panday became even more enraged when subsequent polls I conducted and published revealed the PNM would win the October 2002 elections unless Panday reconciled with former cabinet and parliamentary colleagues. He was also told that unless he accommodated the dissidents, he would lose and never see the PM’s office again. Polls showed re-united UNC would win the elections and lose otherwise. Independent brokers brought Panday and the 2001 dissidents together in POS for reconciliation. Panday agreed to their return as candidates and changed his mind after discussions with financiers for the election who advised to break the agreement. He accepted that unsound advice. The consequences of it and breaking an agreement with the dissidents are now well known. He lost the October 2002 elections.
Differences between Panday and I were short lived. We reconnected at social events and met multiple times between 2003 and 2010. He was his usual self very cordial and jovial. He accepted advice to reconcile with 2001 dissidents when his leadership of UNC was threatened from 2003. Embracing dissidents of 2001, he was able to retain control of and OL through 2010. He was informed that polls showed he would lose to Kamla in the leadership contest. He was also frankly told multiple times that the UNC would not return to office under his leadership post 2001 in much the same way that analysts have been saying since 2016 that UNC would not return to office under present leadership and dispensation. Panday also forecasted that the PNM would win 2020 elections and it did not. Almost everyone in T&T, including almost all of the MPs, is of the view that the UNC can’t win the next general elections unless there is complete transformation of the party. Latest surveys reveal UNC will not return to office in 2025 without major reforms.
Panday said today’s UNC is not the party he founded in 1988. Many UNC founding members and former stalwarts had approached Bas to rescue his party, but he did not show much interest. And he felt that internal elections in UNC are not democratic and is a futile exercise participating in them to challenge incumbent executives.
He had agreed that a new political force away from PNM and UNC under current dispensation is needed for transformation of the country. He feels a new united force of mini parties under transformational visionary leadership can defeat both parties. When asked whether he would be willing to bring together parties and organizations or lead such a force, he said age is against it. When told that retired St Lucian former PM John Compton returned to the hustings at age 80 and won, he wittingly remarked the PM also died shortly thereafter in office. Regrettably, Bas died as talks are underway to bring together politicians alienated from UNC and minor parties. A new force will impact the outcome of the next elections.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.