Tribute to Basdeo Panday (1933-2024) - The wired Prime Minister

A woman holds a flag of Basdeo Panday as she waits for the arrival of the body of the late prime minister in a funeral procession at the Southern Academy for the Performing Arts, San Fernando on January 9.   PHOTO BY Roger Jacob - Roger Jacob
A woman holds a flag of Basdeo Panday as she waits for the arrival of the body of the late prime minister in a funeral procession at the Southern Academy for the Performing Arts, San Fernando on January 9. PHOTO BY Roger Jacob - Roger Jacob

In 1996, I was granted a short audience with Prime Minister Basdeo Panday to discuss some comments he had offhandedly made about learning Hindi using a computer. He entered the room cautiously with an equally wary and alert aide. Even as he sat, it was clear that he was ready to get up and leave if he thought he was going to be blindsided by a reporter who had used a subterfuge to get access.

Instead, the aide had to keep reminding the PM that he had other appointments, so engrossed did he become in discussing his computing adventures. It came as no surprise to me that he would be the first Prime Minister to authorise the removal of duties on the import of computers. Mr Panday was many things, but he was absolutely a computer nerd.

Basdeo Panday passed away on January 1, 2024. BitDepth#47 was first published in mid-1996.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Like everyone else, I had read of his plans to learn the Hindi language from a computer tutorial and I had been impressed with his new IBM Thinkpad, the ultimate portable computing accessory for the successful executive. He does, after all, have our nation’s ultimate job description, a mandate to lead us all to glory and fortune and I looked forward to meeting our first visibly computerised Prime Minister.

“I was hungry for information about this new technology,” said Prime Minister Panday, his voice an enthusiastic growl. “I had become increasingly aware of the pace of progress and computer development and I realised that I would have to become a part of it.” Hardly out of character for the man whose passion for information was clear ever since his childhood in Princes Town. Four years ago, while part of the Opposition, he began pursuing his new education in earnest.

He began by working with a word processor, a move that immediately improved his approach to Budget Speech replies and brought great relief to his family.

“I would get crazy when it was time to prepare my reply to the budget speech. My family would steer clear of me for days. I’d be working eighteen hour days, writing everything out by hand then waiting for it to be typed, then revising it.” At this point, Mr Panday sort of blanched and twisted his face tightly at the memory.

“Once I became comfortable with the word processor, everything changed. I’d begin writing the reply weeks in advance, using information that was public knowledge, just waiting for him to deliver the actual numbers in Parliament. From that point on, I’d say my productivity increased by at least a hundred and fifty per cent.”

Today, his family doesn’t just enjoy a happier patriarch, they too are involved with computers. There are four computers available in the Panday household, used in rotation by Oma, Mr Panday’s wife, and his daughters.

There’s an ageing 386 which was originally outfitted with the Hindi language programme, but the language software has a hardware component which filled the sound card slot. This did not sit well with a family using CD ROM titles regularly and in the long run, the sound card went back in. The Hindi programme is to be installed in a new Cyrix chipped tower, which has lots of room for peripheral cards.

Meanwhile, our fifth Prime Minister is learning Spanish from a CD ROM, no doubt preparing for serious and strategic Latin American initiatives, but enjoying the learning process immensely, fascinated by the ability to hear correct pronunciations and pace his progress.

Today, the Prime Minister balances the demands of his day job with an ongoing desire to learn more, but he has learned to temper that enthusiasm with a clearer understanding of what he faces in the vast and seductive body of computer knowledge. I knew I was in the presence of a real computer buff when we got around to talking about his word processor of choice, WordPerfect.

“I had been using WordPerfect version five when I decided to upgrade to version six. Ooohhh!” he hummed, his lips pursed in an incredulous ‘O’. “That was a major change! I realised I’d have to upgrade myself first and then start using the software!”

Having a chauffeur proved to be a blessing. “I can read and write while a car is in motion, so I often get a lot of work while I’m in being taken from place to place.” The idea of our Prime Minister drafting important proposals while on the way to a ribbon cutting ceremony seems so…productive.

When he wore other caps, Mr Panday took the opportunity to become familiar with other programmes. As a result, the UNC’s members are now organised with a readily accessible computer database, as is the membership of the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers’ Trade Union. As the editor of the Union newspaper, he became familiar with PageMaker, loading the final file for the entire newspaper layout onto his computer and editing the copy in place, page by page.

Still, he has had to set limits for himself. An early fascination with binary code was quickly dropped and Mr Panday still views CorelDraw warily, the size and learning curve of the graphics suite demanding more time than the nation’s leader can spare right now. His daughters are avid Internet users, but the Prime Minister hasn’t been able to allocate enough time to go ‘surfing’ yet, limiting his Internet interaction to a private email address.

“I’ve considered a public email address, but to do it justice, I’d have to have staff to handle it.” For now, the Prime Minister can just about keep up with his private email. “It’s proven to be a great tool. I can quote the heart of a message in my reply and deal with most messages in just a few sentences. It’s made it possible for me to deal with a fair amount of mail quickly and still keep it personal.”

“What games are on the Prime Minister’s machine?” I asked in closing, anxious to know that our leader knew when to take a rest.

“I’m partial to Solitaire. I’m a Vegas Three Card man,” said Mr Panday.

I wish I played cards. I’ve got a feeling there’s a deep insight into our Prime Minister buried in that statement.


"Tribute to Basdeo Panday (1933-2024) – The wired Prime Minister"

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