I'm not God

 

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Category: Profiles Date: 24 Dec 95


Ira Mathur talks with Basdeo Panday

 

An interview with the Prime Minister was fixed for the Friday before he complained of chest pains. Not being too familiar with the PM’s house, I swung in at the posh entrance where guards brusquely told me to “go round to the back.” In the grounds, hundreds of children were being taken out of the rain into the enormous striped tents. Speakers blared Christmas music. Sticky ice-cream cheeks were offered to Mrs. Panday for a kiss in return for a gift. A cup of orange fizzy stuff went flying across a table. A flushed Prime Minister, was kneeling down smiling broadly at a little boy in a wheelchair. They had come in bus loads from homes across the country, St. Dominic's Children’s, Home Penal Special School, Princess Elizabeth Home ...in their best clothes for their Christmas party hosted by the Panday’s.

 

We set up inside the drawing room - festive, overwhelmingly peach, the ribboned flowers matching the fat ribboned Christmas tree. The doors thrown open to reveal a very English arcade wound with flowers and leaves. On the other side, we could see the swimming pool. Big enough only to paddle. The Prime Minister came in as exuberant as the children he was entertaining, ready to do the interview. I asked if he’d had a look at the questions. He barely glanced at the crumpled faxed paper and said “ask me anything” and then wandered off to find his jacket. As he settled down in front of the camera, he said “I don’t know how the Manning’s lived here. It is too hot to entertain in this room,” adding “positively plebeian.” Then in a lower, confidential tone, “Uma doesn’t want to move you know. She much prefers our home in the South.”

 

He fielded questions on the parasitic oligarchy and alienation and his meeting with the Jamaat with ease, in a series of usable sound bites. He is by turn complex and blunt, cliched and earnest. But you can’t pin the man down to say he is this or that. He eludes categories. Even as you shoot a question in one direction he spins into another. This is frustrating and interesting -  kind of like the CD rom computer game Mist. It comes with no rules. It leads to all kinds of places and we click the mouse, not quite knowing where we are heading.

 

And being a dramatist, he never fails to provide comic relief - even if it is at your expense. Half way through the interview, while a minor change in lighting was taking place, I began to sweat. It really was hot. Trying to cover up my discomfort, I said patting my shiny face “You must forgive me - it is not everyday that I interview a Prime Minister.” The silver fox pounced, “Well, you never had that problem when I was Opposition leader.” Who tell me to say that? The television interview over, I asked him if he minded answering a few personal questions. He was amenable. It went something like this. What kind of teenager were you?

“Miserable, cantankerous, all kinds of bad things...”

What were your ambitions, dreams?

“I was born in 1933 in extreme poverty and dreamed of going to England and studying. In those days you did either law or medicine. I had done humanities: Latin, French, Spanish, and the natural choice was law.”

How did you feel about England?

“I didn’t feel anything. I just wanted an education. I arrived in England with 20 pounds in my pocket, a hundred dollars. I worked as a labourer, electrician - worked and studied. Nine years later I had done the bar, had a degree in Economics and one in Drama. I was coming home to see my parents because I had a Commonwealth scholarship to do my Ph.D. in political science in the Delhi School of Economics. I really thought I would end up an academic.

“When I returned Stephen Maraj and C.L.R. James were engaged in a struggle over the Industrial Stabilization Act. I got involved with them and plunged in, feet first, where angels fear to tread, and never turned back. Strangely enough that very act led to the formation of an Industrial court. With my background in law and economics, I became legal advisor to the Oilfield Workers Trade Union in 1956. Being the kind of character I am, I couldn’t help but become personally involved with workers’ strikes. I marched with them, got arrested and so began to develop a reputation as a labour leader myself.”

Did a youthful kind of idealism and rebellion lead you to the Trade Union movement?

“I thought I was doing the right thing, that’s all. I was involved, struggling and fighting, being beaten up with workers. So I ended up as leader of the All Trinidad and Sugar Workers Union. It just happened I guess.”

How did you enter Politics?

“In 1966, I contested elections in the Workers and Farmers party led by C.L.R. James and Steve Maraj. The object was not to support the racism of the DLP and the PNM because we thought that was ripping the nation apart. So we formed this party which we thought would appeal to people across the racial board, a party based for workers - along class lines. We fell flat on our face - we lost our deposits because the country was steeped in racial politics.”

So how do you think your parents would react today? You being Prime Minister?

“They would have been happy. I’ll never forget my dear father who told me in 1966 (he lights up the way older people do when they remember their parents, even now revelling in his father’s humour which he obviously inherited), ‘I will vote for you but only because you are my son’.”

Tell me about your relationship with Dr. Eric Williams.

“The first time he called me was 9.00 in the night. I got a message saying the Prime Minister wants me to contact him. I called him back and said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘I want to see you on a certain matter.’ I left San Fernando and came to Port-of-Spain, and in this very house, Dr. Williams said, ‘I want to reestablish the constitutional convention of discussions with the leader of opposition on matters of national concern.’ I replied that I would see him whenever he wanted to see me, only if he would agree to see me when I wanted to see him. He agreed. So whenever anything bothered either of us we would meet here, or in the parliament tea room. I think he realized that his job was to run the Government and mine was to replace him. I would do my best to get him out and he would do his best to stay there. We had a tremendous relationship.”

What went wrong with Hulsie Bhagan?

“I think Hulsie had great potential. But she had the weakness of over-ambition, and was misled by people who told her she was Prime Ministerial material after being in politics for two years. I’ve been there for 30, like Williams and even Manning who has been in it for a long time. Somebody blew her head and told her she could be PM after two years.”

Any hope of a reconciliation?

Now he was exasperated, expostulating the way he does, “I don’t know the future. I’m not God.”

Does the child in you sometimes wake up in the morning and say, “I’m Prime Minister?”

“No when I was leader of opposition I’d go to bed at different times - but once I hit the sack, the grass could grow on me.

“Now I find myself waking up at 2:00 a.m., worrying about unemployment, vagrancy....and my nights have become sleepless.”

 

Thirty-six hours later he was taken to Mount Hope for angina pains.

 

The lights were taken off, The Prime Minister hugged the camera-woman, daughter of the late George Weekes Genieve, asked after her mother, shook hands with the rest of us, looked around and inquired, “I could go?” Then he tiptoed across the room as we wound up  our work.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur