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Raffique Shah


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The last 'pahalwan'

By Raffique Shah
November 23, 2015

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, strongman-to lead them. Sheila cited Panday himself as an example of the phenomenon. 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 (my view…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, every region if not country, has had what I prefer to call its maximum leaders who were also populists.

From Latin America (Peron, Fidel) 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.

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 succeeded, but she was no orator, was not endowed with intellect (oh, she's bright, but that hardly counts), had no vision for re-engineering the party. She offered only charm.

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.

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.

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

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