Historian Prof Brinsley Samaroo says former prime minister Basdeo Panday’s contribution to the development of East Indians in Trinidad and Tobago should never be underestimated.
“The East Indian community felt a special pride at Basdeo Panday’s ascension to the prime ministership. It was the first time since Independence, we had a prime minister and this was, in the view of the East-Indian community, a recognition of the role that community had played in building the nation since 1845 (arrival of East Indians to local shores),” he told Sunday Newsday.
Samaroo said at the time of Panday’s ascent to Head of Government in 1995, even the trade union movement, from where he emerged, was very pleased because of his longstanding ties to the fraternity.
“It was the first time that a politician, who was born in the trade union movement, had attained the highest elected office in the country through the peaceful democratic process.”
Samaroo said Panday’s elevation also had strengthened the democratic process in the region where political instability, at that time, seemed endemic.
“So it was a very positive predictor for the future stability of the nation.”
On Panday’s contribution as PM, Samaroo said he was able o reduce significantly crime in the country through legislation and thorough police work.
“Crime was kept in control and isolated to particular places but after Basdeo Panday, it has become rampant and has continued to be so, even up to the present time,” he observed. Samaroo recalled Panday also had brought calm to industrial relations during his term.
“His major highlight was industrial peace despite the downsizing of thee sugar industry and declining oil prices,” he said.
“The situation was becoming increasingly volatile but the Panday administration was able to prudently manage the tensions and keep the economy going.
“During his tenure there was no tear-gassing of workers or jailing of leaders as had occurred before.
“Because of his antecedents in the trade union, he was able to use his experience to balance the scales between employers and employees, so that mass confrontation between the State and workers was avoided throughout the various periods that he served as prime minister.”
Samaroo observed that tensions have worsened after Panday as State mediation between employers and employees continue to deteriorate.
He also credited Panday with revolutionising the education system through the Dollar for Dollar initiative and the granting of secondary school places to all students who wrote the Common Entrance examination. “That was a significant achievement.”
On the downside, Samaroo said Panday’s government, like others, failed to diversify the economy.
“That was a major failure of his and other regimes. What we are now witnessing today with the serious economic decline we are having, is as a result of the failure of successive regimes to diversify the economy when we had the money to do so. And now we are making efforts to diversify the economy without the wherewithal that previous regimes had.” In his take of Panday’s leadership, political analyst Dr Bishnu Ragoonath said the former prime minister, made a mark in the labour sector.
He said as leader of the All Trinidad Sugar and Estate Workers Union, Panday was able to negotiate salaries for sugar workers which moved them from below the poverty line to above it.
“Many sugar workers in the 1970s credited him with being responsible for them to be able to afford “luxuries” such as fridges and televisions, In fact it was on that basis that he was able to lead the ULF (United Labour Front) into opposition in 1976.”
Head of the Department of Behavioural Sciences at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies, Ragoonath said Panday also was concerned about unifying races and the working class. He said Panday started this journey in 1975 by joining with other unions, which led to the formation of the ULF
Ragoonath said Panday’s philosophy of giving people with little or no education, the opportunity to make a contribution to the development of the country was commendable.
“Panday’s decision to make Dora Bridgemohan a senator, an East-Indian woman with no significant education, suggested that for him, one’s class, creed, race, gender and education, should not prevent one from aspiring to the highest officers of the country.”
As prime minister, Ragoonath said, Panday also elevated the profile of women in public life, placing them in critical positions.
“As prime minister, he placed women in critical positions for the first time. We had our fist female Attorney General (Persad-Bissessar).”
Panday, Ragoonath said, also demonstrated that money alone was not critical in governing a society.
He recalled that with oil prices at its lowest ebb ($9 a barrel) in the mid-1990s, Panday’s regime was able to manage the economy during the 1995 to 2000 era without instituting the serious structural adjustment measures which were imposed before him “and possibly will be instituted in the current economic environment.”