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The last ‘pahalwan’: T&T says farewell to era of maximum leaders

The battle for leadership of the UNC has ignited a discussion on leadership in a broader context, with the party’s founder, Basdeo Panday, weighing in on the issue.

According to my columnist colleague Sheila Rampersad, Panday told her that Indians tend to seek a “pahalwan”—Hindi for warrior or strongman—to lead them. Rampersad cited Panday himself as an example of the phenomenon.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Ministers Basdeo Panday (left) and Patrick Manning have a chat at a Presentation College reunion. (Copyright Taran Rampersad/Flckr)
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Ministers Basdeo Panday (left) and Patrick Manning have a chat at a Presentation College reunion.
(Copyright Taran Rampersad/Flckr)

In 1973, he succeeded Bhadase Maharaj as leader of the sugar workers’ union, and in 1977 he succeeded in transforming the only organic inter-racial party ever—in my view; and I was a co-founder—the ULF, into an Indian party.

Bhadase, who was not averse to the use of violence in conducting business, running the union, religion—he was a founder of the Maha Sabha—or leading the Indian party, the PDP, was, in his heyday, a man more feared than respected.

What Panday seems to suggest is that the UNC today is looking for a new pahalwan, the presumption here being that it remains an Indian party, hence the quest for a strongman—or woman—to resurrect it.

While I agree that the UNC remains an Indo-based party, it has attracted some non-Indians. And I do not agree that the strongman phenomenon is characteristic only of Indians. Every race, every religion and every region, if not country, has had what I prefer to call its maximum leaders, who were also populists.

From Latin America (Peron, Castro) to Africa (Nasser, Mobutu, Kenyatta, Nyerere), Asia (Marcos, Mao, Lee Kuan Yew) to Europe (Churchill, de Gaulle, Hitler, Stalin), the world has known scores of strongmen who graduated from being popular to absolute, who were adulated by the majority of their people, but who eventually were reviled, and in instances, hounded out of office.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Basdeo Panday (right) shares a joke with then Cuba president Fidel Castro during the closing ceremony of a CARIFORUM meeting in 1998.   (Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto SCchmidt)
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Basdeo Panday (right) shares a joke with then Cuba president Fidel Castro during the closing ceremony of a CARIFORUM meeting in 1998.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto SCchmidt)

Many of them morphed into tyrants.

But the day of the strongman has ended. Maximum leaders who cultivate the personality cult, find themselves rudely confronted by populations who have gone past that era.

Panday did not seem to recognise this development, and he paid the ultimate price when he was roundly rejected in the 2010 internal elections. His claim that the process was rigged rings hollow.

In any event, besides the pahalwan image that he adopted early in his career, he had other qualities that ensured his longevity in politics even as he lost many elections. These include oratorical skills, his training as an actor that he used effectively, ruthlessness, and yes, charisma.

Unfortunately for the UNC, by the time the membership got around to spitting out Panday, it had little to offer as successor. Nothing close to Bas. Like all megalomaniacs, Panday did not believe in succession planning.

So Kamla Persad-Bissessar succeeded, but she was no orator, was not endowed with intellect—oh, she’s bright, but that hardly counts—and had no vision for re-engineering the party. She offered only charm.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. (Copyright AFP 2014/Frederic Dubray)
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Frederic Dubray)

She fell woefully short of what was required to transform the UNC into a modern political force.

But she was lucky. Patrick Manning, overcome by hubris and bungling his way, was a disaster waiting to happen. And Winston Dookeran and his COP—as well as other entities that did not count much by way of votes, but which presented a facade of national unity—came together at an opportune moment in our electoral history.

Post-2010, Kamla, stricken with hubris in believing that hers was the face and personality that launched 400,000 votes, adopted the cult of personality. Everything was Kamla, Kamla, Kamla.

Her face was etched on mugs, plates, copy books, key rings, buttons, buntings. The discerning among the electorate, who had made the difference in the 2010 general election, frowned upon these excesses.

But rather than take note and take corrective action, instead of consolidating her leadership through inspiration, she descended faster and farther into the abyss.

Every time she travelled abroad, the entire Cabinet turned up at the airport to welcome her home. I can’t think of another leader in the world today who exhibits such delusions of grandeur, or put crudely, such crassness.

Photo: Ex-Sport Minister Anil Roberts (left) pays his respects to then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
Photo: Ex-Sport Minister Anil Roberts (left) pays his respects to then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

“Kamla 2015”, the theme of the UNC’s campaign, was the ultimate insult to the intelligence of the above-average elector: to paraphrase a famous de Gaulle quip, I am the party.

This dotishness was endorsed, encouraged, applauded by the very people who are challenging her today and frontline supporters who were flag-wavers yesterday but who today cuss Kamla in the vilest manner.

Can any pahalwan rescue the UNC from the political wilderness into which its mass of supporters wandered, eyes wide open, but blindly following the maximum leader?

I should think not.

The sun has long set on the strongman—and the conceited woman.

Photo: UNC political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar celebrates victory at the 2010 General Elections. (Copyright Frederic Dubray/AFP 2015)
Photo: UNC political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar celebrates victory at the 2010 General Elections.
(Copyright Frederic Dubray/AFP 2015)

This might well herald a new dawn, a reincarnation of that organically-integrated dream that died prematurely in 1978, murdered by the last pahalwan.

About Raffique Shah

Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah is a columnist for over three decades, founder of the T&T International Marathon, co-founder of the ULF with Basdeo Panday and George Weekes, a former sugar cane farmers union leader and an ex-Siparia MP. He trained at the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was arrested, court-martialled, sentenced and eventually freed on appeal after leading 300 troops in a mutiny at Teteron Barracks during the Black Power revolution of 1970.

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34 comments

  1. Detailed, insightful, accurate and thought provoking. Love Mr Shah’s perspective and writing style.

  2. Khalid these men aint check the red house boy

  3. The experiment that is called mass democracy is a mere 53 years old here in T$&T . if we look at Britain it is just about 100 hundred years old ( women were not able to vote until about 1920’s ). The so-called bastion of democracy, the USA , did not pass their voting rights act until 1964 and even now in some states they are trying to roll it back. So the experiment continues. The experiment is based on something called mass education, in my opinion. Mass education does not mean “thinking ability ” and really a lot of the maximum leader types really do not want their population to have ” thinking ability ” as it will undermine their hold on the masses. So don’t despair, as people get to realise that the Education system and industry does not equip them to think they will try something else. Now this will take time and there will be setbacks, but who knows, maybe in another generation we will be able to truly have democracy as opposed to demockracy. Many thanks.

  4. Too many gnomes and too much frigging chocolate. Also they’re not very nice to migrants.

  5. Here, you can send up any crapaud or hairdresser to win their seat as a MP and then unleash the “advisors” to really run the show after everyone votes.

  6. Is the Dutch system the best in theory you think Mark Wilson? Where there will be consultations about even where to put a street light and everyone wants to ensure they are heard?

  7. Yes mark democracy is a mirage in trinidad

    U see it from far but you never quite reach it

  8. I’m a bit iffy about overall emphasis on “leadership.” As in “young leaders” etc etc. So the rest of us are to be “followers?” All sounds a bit der Fürher, il Duce, and not much like participatory democracy. Not just here, it’s widespread internationally.

  9. I fraid to comment on the evolution of our style of governance for fear of those who would use it as an opportunity to derail the thread into an “America the Great Satan” doesn’t have a perfect style of governance either type of conversation! Hahaha

  10. Raf, a couple comments: (1) I know yours is not meant to be an exhaustive list but how could you omit Francisco Franco who kept Spain in the 19th Century until his death in 1974?
    (2) You say the “dream (…) died prematurely in 1978, murdered by the last pahalwan.” But evil only triumphs, they say, when good men are silent. I think you need to say more about this, if only in SELF-DEFENCE.
    (3) “Like all megalomaniacs,” you say, “Panday did not believe in succession planning.” I wonder. I don’t have to tell you that Mikela was said by many to be the heir apparent. Might it not be that the pahalwan’s succession plans were scuttled by history?
    (4) Finally, with all due respect to Sheila, I submit that your column today underlines the chasm that yawns between the scholarship that is so often on offer in the local media and the pragmatic realism that is provided by the school of hard knocks which life down in the trenches runs..

  11. I agree. Our politics needs to evolve a bit. We cannot expect politicians to not try to make political capital out of everything. But one thing they can gift the nation is to reduce the ratio between using office to self- and party aggrandise and actually spend time tackling the seriously debilitating issues like a letting the civil service develop a real professional cadre/system that can do the job. Hamper and home allocations and handshakes can only go so far. We not serious.

  12. I think our style of governance where all MPs are expected to toe the party line at all times and the PM has absolute power in deciding his Cabinet lends itself to a maximum leader.
    I’m not so sure that era is finished at all.

  13. Cyah quarrel with that analysis. What a palaver with all de pahalwan. One can only hope we do move on.