STORIES by RAVI BALGOBIN MAHARAJ
Basdeo Panday is the greatest Prime Minister in this country’s history to date. I know many people may dispute this fact, however, they are all wrong.
But looking back at his political career, especially the manner in which he managed the parties that he led, you begin to notice a pattern of reckless behaviour that not only led to his eventual fall from grace and ousting from the UNC, but also the legacy that he left behind is a fractured party far removed from the one that got elected to government on the promise of national unity. As we prepare for yet another General Election campaign in this country, it is important for the UNC not only to take stock in where they are today, but also how they got to this point, if they are to overcome the obstacles that are laid before them.
Many would already know about the dissolution of the NAR government which led to the creation of Club 88 and subsequently the United National Congress. What many may not remember however, is that only one election prior to 1986, the ULF had already begun to show signs that of waning popularity, when the ONR, led by the late Karl Hudson-Phillips, caused them to lose two seats to the PNM, by splitting the votes.
In fact, the ONR, in their very first election in 1981, was able to capture more votes than the Alliance of parties which was made up of the ULF, DAC and Tapia House, despite not winning any seats that year. With their popularity growing, with the simultaneous decline of all other political parties, the ONR was poised to supplant the ULF as the second party in T&T. It was the forming and prompt dissolution of the NAR coalition that stymied this momentum and allowed Basdeo Panday to emerge as main successor. As a result, the ONR support base was left disillusioned and splintered off into relative obscurity for the better part of two decades.
What does this have to do with the UNC today? Understanding the rise and fall of the NAR coalition in 1986, one begins to see parallels with the People’s Partnership government in 2010. Most notably, the path of the Congress of the People mirrors that of the ONR to a staggering degree with the main exception being that while the COP was born out of the UNC, the ONR splintered off from the PNM. But in both cases, you have a movement formed, and which movement gains a significant number of votes in their first election, but no seats, then join a coalition to form a government, and while in office suffer a decline in popularity which allows the UNC to emerge as a sole dominant
History and legacy are helluva things
How is Basdeo Panday responsible for this? As much as I supported the Kamla Persad Bissessar led administration, anyone who subscribes to the idea that history will always repeat itself would know that it was doomed to fail from the start.
Coalition governments rarely work, mostly because the individual parties represent ideologies that would conflict with that of the others, which leads to either compromise or conflict, neither of which is sustainable in a government seeking re-election in five years. However, this was mostly avoidable had Basdeo Panday allowed Winton Dookeran to lead the UNC after handing him the reins in 2005. Had Mr. Dookeran been able to attract those same supporters who he would eventually lead to form the COP, to the United National Congress instead, there is a chance that the UNC could have won the 2007 General Election and governed the country through the economic crisis of the late 2000’s. But more than that, Winston Dookeran might have been able to unite both the ONR and UNC supporters under one party, which would have been strong enough to defeat the PNM on their own
History and legacy are helluva things today because we can choose how we look back on the past and what we want to remember. While it is not my intention to tarnish the reputation of Basdeo Panday, I also believe that it is necessary to acknowledge his flaws and mistakes if we are to avoid repeating them. Because while Mr. Panday is responsible for the formation of the ULF and UNC, he also led them to their lowest points and is the longest serving Opposition Leader for a reason.
And when you think about it, he is also the only founder of a major political party to be rejected by the membership and voted out as Political Leader for his miscalculations.