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Friday 20 October 2017
Politics

The political life of Basdeo Panday: I am no Indian PM

At a glance

* Basdeo Panday attended university in London, obtaining degrees in law, economics, and drama.

* Panday is married to Oma Panday (nee Ramkissoon) and has four daughters, one of whom, Mickela, also followed in her father’s footsteps, serving one term as Oropouche West MP.

* In June 2005, Panday became the first prime minister to spend time in jail, at the Maximum Security Prison, Arouca, on corruption charges for which he was eventually acquitted.

* On May 1, 2007, he opted to resign as UNC chairman but the party’s executive refused to accept his resignation.

* In March 2008, Panday was suspended from the Parliament for using his laptop for a debate.

* He lost the party’s internal election on January 24, 2010 to Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

TT has had seven prime ministers since its independence on August 31, 1962. Basdeo Panday, the country’s fifth prime minister shares with senior reporter Corey Connelly his views on the country today, and being part of its history.

He has had a colourful tenure in public life - one in which he faced off frequently with the media, was jailed and incurred intense flak over allegations of corruption in the now infamous Piarco Airport Development Project, which began during his government’s term in office and, arguably, remains a scar on that administration.

Yet, Basdeo Panday will go down in history as one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most dynamic and controversial post-independent leaders. As TT celebrates 55 years as an independent nation, Panday believes that while the country has achieved much, it has fared “very badly” in spite of the oil and natural gas resources which has been its economic driver.

“We have had several oil booms and we gave it all away,” Panday said in a Sunday Newsday interview as he bemoaned the country’s dwindling economic fortunes. “We have also failed to diversify the economy and prepare for the present situation where oil is no longer a mainstay in obtaining revenue.”

The 84-year-old lawyer and politician said, though, TTs most glaring shortcoming has been its failure to create a “free” people.

“I think that’s the greatest drawback. I would like to see the nation become free. The nation is unfree because of the political system,” he said, attributing the situation to the Westminster model of governance.

Panday said the Westminster system, with one of its most dominant features being the first-past- the-post model, “superimposed upon a racially divided country,” must be removed to engender a free people. The former PM said the situation could be reversed through constitutional reform, which he has long advocated.

“Until such time, freedom is a word in inverted commas. There needs to be a reform of the Constitution so that the people can have real power.” Born on May 25, 1933, in St Julien Village, Princes Town, Panday is TT’s fifth prime minister, having served as the head of government from 1995 to 2001 as political leader of the United National Congress (UNC). The former Couva North MP, known for his silvery-white hair and sharp wit, also held the position of opposition leader on various occasions between 1976 and 2010, prior to the latter year’s general election, which the UNC-led coalition People’s Partnership won.

In 2010, Panday lost the party’s leadership election to Kamla Persad-Bissessar, one of his protégés, who later became prime minister and served one five-year term in government. She is now the Opposition Leader and remains UNC political leader.

Although Panday’s political career began in 1966 when he joined the Workers and Farmers Party, it was his subsequent position as president general of the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers Trade Union, which laid the foundation for his ascent in local politics.

There, he advocated passionately for the rights of the working class, particularly among the East Indian population, many of whom had struggled in the sugar belt of central Trinidad during the turbulent 1970s. From a factual standpoint, Panday holds the reputation as TTs first East Indian prime minister, a feat which represented a major breakthrough for a significant portion of the country’s citizenry.

His tenure came after the People’s National Movement’s (PNM’s) 1991-1995 term in office, a traditionally African-based party, which led the country in an unbroken stint in government for three decades, from 1956 to 1986, when the National Alliance For Reconstruction won that year’s general election and lasted just one term.

Today, many years later, Panday told Sunday Newsday he never saw himself as an Indian prime minister.

“In my view, Trinidad never had an Indian prime minister. Only India has an Indian prime minister and I don’t think I was an Indian prime minister. I think I was a prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago actually.”

Still, there were some tumultuous moments throughout Panday’s stint as prime minister. In 2000, some 12 years after he founded the UNC, the party won the general election with 19 seats while the PNM got 17 seats. But the government collapsed after three of its MPs, Ralph Maraj, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and Trevor Sudama fell out with the party. The following year, Panday called a general election which ended in an 18-18 deadlock. Arthur NR Robinson, who was President at the time, appointed Patrick Manning as prime minister in December 2001, in what turned out to be a controversial decision.

Robinson said subsequently in his book, In The Midst Of It, launched in 2012, that Manning was the better man to lead the country by virtue of his moral and spiritual values. Robinson claimed, though, he had reached the decision after consultation with both Manning and Panday.

Of Robinson’s decision, Panday told Sunday Newsday: “First of all, I thought he (Robinson) was wrong and everybody thinks he was wrong because precedence would have shown that under that kind of circumstance what the President does is to call upon the sitting leader of the government, the Prime Minister, to form a government and if he cannot then he calls upon the Opposition to form a government. But Mr Robinson broke the rules. He gave foolish answers like moral and spiritual values. So he was totally wrong.”

Asked why he had dismissed Maharaj, who was the attorney general, Sudama and Maraj, Panday said: “The attorney general was guilty of certain things which I will reveal in my biography and because of that I removed him as attorney general. When I removed him, he somehow influenced Sudama and Ralph Maraj to join with the PNM in voting against the government. And they began to do so on every single act that we were trying to do in Parliament.

“Anything we tried to do they voted against it. And so we couldn’t pass any laws and do anything. When that happened, I said to myself I was elected to run this government and serve the people and if I cannot do that, then I will go back to the people. And that is exactly what I did, I called an election, which resulted in 18-18.”

Panday said he harbours no ill will against the three men. “My relationship with them is the same as it is with everybody. I have no enemies. I do not have a spiteful bone in my body. I speak to everyone. I hate no one.”

Panday, at the start of his administration, also clashed frequently with members of the media. In one of his more bitter encounters, he clashed with former television journalist Natalie Williams over allegations of corruption and nepotism in an agreement between the Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (TTEC) and a company once known as Inncogen over the purchase of an electrical plant. The deal was alleged to have been brokered by a close associate of Panday, who ran an automotive business in the US and had a history of involvement in power generation.

When Williams had asked Panday about the deal, he responded: “That’s insulting. That’s insulting!” Panday’s misgivings about the ability of certain members of the media to carry out their function effectively gave rise to the drafting of a Green Paper on media reform during his government’s term. To this day, the controversial document has not seen the light of day. Panday said the Green Paper was intended to engender fairness in the industry. “I believe that many people believe that the media can be quite biased.”

He recalled that Ken Gordon, then publisher of the Caribbean Communications Network, whom he called a pseudo-racist and had to pay a hefty sum for defamation, once said the media had an “untrammelled right to publish.”

“But I replied by saying they (media) do not have an untrammelled right to publish with lies, half-truths and innuendos. And it is on that basis that an Act was being drafted to prevent people from putting lies, half-truths and innuendos in the media.”

Regarding his relationship with media as PM, Panday said: “It happens all over the world. Some were biased and some were not and they tried to be sensational.”

Panday gave two examples. He recalled he had once said, “No one will attack my government unfairly and escape unscathed.” The reporters, he said, left out the word ‘fairly.’ On another occasion, he said, someone had asked him a question about Robinson and he replied, “The PNM had been in power for some 30 years and I would have slept with the devil in order to remove the PNM.” He said the reporters changed his words to ‘Panday will sleep with the Devil.’ “Why they do it? Some of them are personally biased and the media has an axe to grind.”

In March 2007, Panday got a feather in his cap after the Court of Appeal overturned the conviction against him for failing to declare a London bank account, based on the likelihood that he would not have received a fair trial. Three Court of Appeal judges found there was a real possibility of bias by the Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicolls in his April 24, 2006 ruling, which had found Panday guilty on three counts of failing to declare the London bank account to the Integrity Commission for the years 1997, 1998 and 1999, contrary to Section 27 (1)(b) of the Integrity in Public Life Act 1987.

On the Piarco Airport scandal, Panday said there was “a lot of misinterpretation about that issue.” Referring to claims that a window for a structure on the airport had been purchased for $75,000, Panday claimed his government had no role in such a decision but had placed the project in the hands of the National Insurance Property Development Company Limited (Nipdec).

“Nipdec was building the airport, not the government, and therefore, whatever issue came out of that was of no corruption of the government,” he said. “The government was in no way charged with corruption in the airport. Nipdec was actually charged because the issue with Piarco was bid-rigging. The government had nothing to do with bid-rigging.”

During his tenure, Panday claimed his administration was able to reduce crime to the lowest it had been in 15 to 20 years, and also made the education system more all-embracing.

“We brought back in to the schools thousands of children, who, every year, were dumped on the dung heap because they did not have access to secondary education,” he said. “We abolished the Common Entrance examination, built schools to accommodate them and brought all of the children leaving primary school into a secondary school. The idea was to ‘chorale’ them, so to speak, so that they were not on the streets and many of them coming out of the primary schools didn’t have the necessary qualifications to absorb the secondary education. We knew that once we got them in schools, we were able to identify them and bring them up to standard to accept the secondary education.” Panday lamented his government was not able to complete the initiative after it came out of power in 2000.

Saying his regime also managed to reduce unemployment from 18 per cent to between ten and 12 per cent, Panday felt his administration’s effort to unify the country was, perhaps, their biggest achievement.

“We tried to unite the nation in the peak of its historical antecedents of racism and division.” This focus, he said, was manifested in the granting of a national holiday to the Spiritual Baptists on March 30, the donation of 25 acres of land to members of the faith in Maloney for the construction of an African Spiritual Park and the granting of land in Trincity for Pan Trinbago to build its headquarters. (which today remains a partially built structure overgrown with vines off the Churchill Roosevelt Highway). Regarding unfulfilled aspirations, Panday said he would have liked to make a more significant impact on crime, which was at the top of his government’s agenda.

“I would have liked to deal more with crime since it cannot be solved in one sentence. It has to do with unemployment, poverty, all kinds of things. And in order to deal with crime, those are the areas where you must begin,” Panday said, adding he would also have liked to see more unity among the ethnic groups. Although he has left representational politics, Panday remains a sought-after resource on matters of national interest.

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