Pursuing the quest for national unity

 

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Category: Trinidad Politics Date: 28 Jan 96


It is dusk. A pick up truck pulls up in front of a pale lilac and white house in Broome Street. A man, sixtyish, walks lightly up to the electronically controlled gate. He is dressed in cotton trousers, an open neck shirt and sneakers. His manner is boyish. Clive Pantin, the director of FEEL, has just come from Morvant. He is let in by a tall, large congenial doctor, Tim Gopeesingh.

 

Their involvement was crucial in the weeks before the general election and provided the first hint that a UNC/NAR coalition government could happen again after the fall out in 1988 when the political leader of the UNC was expelled from the merged party. They are the core group mandated by the Prime Minister to promulgate “national unity”.

 

We are in a comfortable office walled with medical books, a whimsical arrangement of dried flowers, a CD player. They sit side by side at ease. Their rapport is obvious; their laughter breaks simultaneously. Winston Dookeran could not make it to the interview. To recount the events leading up to their public support for the UNC government, Clive Pantin begins: “It was around the time elections were heating up. We were all sitting in this office when we got a call from the UNC office saying Mr Panday would like to talk with Mr Dookeran and myself.

“When he came here, he had just met the PSA and was very buoyed by it. And right here in Tim’s office, on the chair Tim is sitting on now, he told us the chances of his becoming Prime Minister were good according to the polls, but that he wanted to represent all people, not just one ethnic group. He said people seem to forget that for the sake of unity that he gave up leadership of a big party in central Trinidad to allow someone else, (Mr Robinson) to become the political leader (1986). He said ‘I asked my followers to accept him as the political leader. We all made sacrifices for unity. It didn’t work out then but I have always stood for unity.’ He came across so genuine and sincere.

“I was a little astonished because I went into the meeting skeptical. We said we would think about it. I told him I was a member of the NAR and could not appear on UNC platforms and he said he understood.

“He left and we spoke about it for a few days. Mr Panday then called a press conference and made a public appeal to us. We went into a huddle again and spent hours and hours discussing it. Over the years, the country has been divided politically into two major ethnic groups - I felt the PNM and formally the DLP tended to divide our country racially. That has always made me sick at heart.”

 

Tim nods, “The days of parochial ethnic politics are over. In the last three years, Clive, Winston and I have become convinced of Mr Panday’s heartfelt wish for unity. We decided we would accept his appeal.”

Clive Pantin leans forward: “I must tell you the media got me mad because we issued a press release stating our position and they made it look as though Dookeran and myself had gone over to the UNC. You check the headlines - Dookeran and Pantin support Panday - I got a lot of flak from my NAR colleagues. One of them said, ‘You know Clive I now know what I will play in Play Whe tonight,’ and I said ‘What is that?’ and he said ‘Dog’.” Everyone collapsed with laughter for a few seconds before he continued:

“We went into that with our eyes open: we know that there would be misinformation about it. We were called grass hoppers. But we had the purest of intentions, the unification spirit.”

 

And Dr Gopeesingh’s version?

“I felt very comfortable when Mr Panday issued his call to me in Aranjuez with Mr Wilson, Jennifer Johnson and Joe Toney in the bi-election of 1994 in Caroni. We took the NAR into a joint platform because we believe unity is the only route to national development. He was very disappointed that it didn’t work then and we saw that he needed to have it done again and we thought we would support him because he was so sincere. We sought to prevent the NAR from contesting ... we saw both parties as being supportive of each other. I appeared on a number of UNC platforms which culminated on Saturday when all of us, including Winston, pledged our support to Panday’s call for unity.”

 

They both could not stop grinning (was it triumph? some shared in-joke) when I asked them to explain the significance of Mr Dookeran appearing on the platform on the eleventh hour. Why so late? Dr Gopeesingh was about to respond again when Mr Pantin quipped, “He was thinking about it”. Then Dr Gopeesingh said, “There were a lot of discussions and it was decided that Dookeran would make the most impact on the last day.”

 

With a peculiar logic Pantin contradicted Gopeesingh and supported him at the same time. “If it was a master stroke it was accidental, many saw it as an election gimmick, because Mr Dookeran could pull a high number of votes and people have such a high respect for him.” Would Clive Pantin have responded to a similar call for unity if Mr Manning made it. He hesitated briefly. “Yes if I had felt he was totally sincere about it. But he made it clear that he was not interested, that there was already national unity in the PNM, he made a lot of blase statements, but I was never convinced that he felt there was any need for national unification. I think he’s afraid of it. I knew he (Panday) asked Mr Manning to participate in running the country but he was not interested.”

 

Dr Gopeesingh added: “The whole perception of the PNM over 30 years is that it was an Afro-Trinidadian based party. I have never seen anything tangible within the PNM to indicate that they were intent on broadening their base - there were areas of tokenism but you needed to see not only at the executive level but at the community level.”

 

Clive Pantin agreed. “It is an ethnic party. The PNM is broad based only in a very plastic manner. For me a statement made by Prime Minister Manning that he was finding it difficult to find Indians or Hindus to join his government sums it up. The absurdity was that he didn’t have Hindus or Indians in his party who qualified. Therefore it cannot be a national party. It may be the People’s Movement but it is not the People’s National Movement.” He stressed the word National.

 

Until recently political analysts called the NAR dead. Why did this happen? This to the former NAR Minister of Education.

“I was deeply saddened when Mr Panday and a number of his people were expelled in 1988. I thought it was the wrong decision. I thought we didn’t work hard enough and I was very disheartened. I missed my colleagues from Central. We wanted to revive the spirit of 1986. I realized that any form of unity would take a lot of work but the party suffered a tremendous setback in 1991 when it failed to win a single seat in Trinidad although it won the Tobago seats.

“When you are not represented in parliament in Trinidad it is difficult to move ahead. I was shattered when we lost. I thought the NAR Government did a good job.  When you think that a man like Selby Wilson who had done so much for the economy, hailed internationally...” He trailed off. “We realized that a lot of the people who voted for the NAR in 1986 went back to the roots - a lot of them were PNM and UNC voters. The opposition parties had done a fantastic hatchet job on the NAR as the oppressors, taking away their patrimony. The same people who accused the NAR of taking away BWIA immediately, sold it. I’m not bitter - just thinking out aloud.

“I think that what NAR needs to do now - a meeting on Sunday is coming up in Naparima Bowl prior to the convention - is a lot of soul searching, ask honest questions and give honest answers as to the future of the NAR as it stands. One of the reasons the NAR has been so depleted is it lost the A in the NAR. The alliance is no longer there - the alliance stood for the unity of the unity of two major ethnic groupings in our country and that A is not there in the NAR. You can’t pronounce NR. I hope that whatever decisions are made in the meetings will be done for the people of Trinidad & Tobago, and not have emotions creep into it, because the worst thing in politics is what I call emotional politics. You don’t think straight with emotional politics and your country always comes out second best.

“Trinidad must not be divided, cannot be divided, doesn’t want to be divided. I have always dreamed and prayed for the day to come when we will see the spirit of 1986 revive. I believe I have seen that day. People talk about divine intervention, But if it wasn’t someone from above telling people in Trinidad & Tobago - ‘you see this 17 -17, neither ethnic grouping is superior to the other.’ So it came about that the only party which promoted unity in 1984 made the decision as to who should run the country.”

Dr Tim Gopeesingh nodded his agreement.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur