ANR Robinson did not build on the racial harmony started by Panday

Dear Editor,

Reference is made to your editorial titled ‘ANR Robinson’ (Apr 11). This was a balanced appraisal. However, I wish to point out that Robinson disappointed Guyanese for failing to deliver on his promise to those of us involved in the struggle in New York to put pressure on the PNC dictatorship to hold free and fair elections.

As SN pointed out, Robinson was praised by the nation for his heroic action (as Prime Minister) standing up to the Muslimeen insurgents who carried out an attempted coup, and he was derided for breaking parliamentary convention (as President) when he appointed Patrick Manning as Prime Minister over Basdeo Panday. The latter act hurt race relations between Indians and Africans in Trinidad. Indians accused him of marginalizing them, although some did praise him for removing Panday as PM because of Panday’s arrogance.

Robinson was also involved in other controversial decisions that led to uneasy race relations and resulted in Indian angst that would trigger his humiliating defeat. He had been in a unique position to build harmonious relations between the two races when he was Prime Minister, the first and perhaps only African Prime Minister (in December 1986) to receive massive support from Indians, but he opted instead in 1987 to destroy the racial one-love unity that had been built between himself and Panday.

Robinson served as deputy to Eric Williams in the PNM and when the two had a falling out in 1970, the former formed his own party and led a no vote campaign in 1971 over voting machines. According to author Samaroo Siewah, in 1961 and 1966, he did not oppose use of voting machines, although opposition groups said they were used for rigging purposes. In the 1961 election, for example, Robinson obtained more votes in Tobago than the actual number of votes cast – in the tradition of a Burnham type election. Robinson convinced the opposition not to participate in the election if voting machines were used. The PNM won all the seats in 1971 in the no vote campaign that saw a minuscule turnout.

It is well known Robinson would not have been Prime Minister or President without the support of Basdeo Panday and Indians. Panday said he would not be attending Robinson’s funeral. Panday got support for his snub of Robinson with supporters pointing out that the latter had botched and mismanaged the almost unanimous mandate given to him by Indians in December 1986 when he marginalized them.

Panday, after losing elections in 1966, ’76 and ’81, recognized he could not topple the PNM from office without a coalition of other groups. He formed an electoral alliance with other groups (ONR, Tapia, etc) in 1983 and won local elections. And in 1986, he was instrumental in bringing the groups together under a grand alliance (NAR) to contest the general elections. Panday made Robinson the leader of the alliance when he was the natural choice. Myself, Vassan Ramracha, Trevor Sudama, Kelvin Ramnath, etc, opposed the measure without “guarantees and commitments” for Panday’s supporters in a NAR victory – pointing to an Israeli precedent of guarantees in coalition arrangements. Panday told me that making Robinson leader of NAR was necessary to win over African support in the badly divided society because he was convinced Africans would not vote for him. Panday overruled the dissenters saying one must “give trust” – a position he would later regret. The NAR won big. (I felt NAR would have won even if Panday had been the leader. But Panday was convinced that his constituents would have controlled any new government under a marginal victory. A landslide victory of 33-3 spoilt matters for him and his base.) Ravi Dev, Depoo, Ramracha, myself, among others in NY, provided substantial funds to the alliance in its election campaign. In addition, when I was President of the Graduate Student Council at CCNY, I hosted several of the party leaders to speak at the campus and granted them honorariums. The leaders of the NAR promised to assist us in our struggle for free and fair elections in Guyana but they broke all their promises. Panday told me when he served as Foreign Minister, he was helpless on the Guyana situation as Prime Minister Robinson was not willing to put pressure on Hoyte to free up the political process. But Robinson did agree to grant an amnesty to illegal Guyanese residing in Trinidad. Robinson moved to expel the Indian leaders in the NAR convinced he could win an election without Indian support. When Panday demanded reasonable resources for his supporters, he was told, “Take your Indian base and go,” convinced the NAR would replace the PNM as the party of Africans, and Indians would be in the opposition. It was a gross misreading of the politics. When Panday refused to leave, Robinson expelled him and his supporting MPs from the NAR. Panday went on to form the UNC in 1988 with almost the entire Indian population rallying with him at the Aranguez savannah in a pouring thunderstorm. The NAR was subsequently trounced in local and by-elections by the UNC and PNM. And in general elections in December 1991, the NAR was completely wiped out, losing all of its seats in Trinidad. Robinson was dethroned playing the race card. Had he built on the racial harmony started by Panday, Trinidad would not have had the serious ethnic problems it has faced since 1988.

Robinson made up for the lost love between himself and Panday when he joined the latter to form a coalition government in November 1995 during the 17-17 tie using his two Tobago seats to make Panday the PM. In exchange for his support, Panday promised to make Robinson President. Two PNM MPs defected joining the UNC government with Robinson’s two seats no longer needed in the coalition. But Panday honoured the agreement to make Robinson President.

Conflict developed between the two with Bas calling President Robinson an enemy. Following elections in 2000 when Panday won a majority, Robinson took days before reappointing the former as the PM. Political pressure from Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj forced Robinson to invite Panday to form the government. Robinson also initially refused to swear in several of Panday’s appointees as ministers; again Ramesh forced the President to execute the appointments as required by the constitution.

Conflict developed between Panday and Ramesh over the latter’s insistence that corrupt ministers be investigated, creating an opening for Robinson to get rid of Panday as PM. Also, Ramesh and Panday fought over control of the UNC in internal executive elections furthering the internal rift. This was further compounded when Ramesh’s slate defeated Panday’s slate of candidates in June 2001 for control of the UNC executive. Panday refused to accept Ramesh as his deputy against the vote of party members. Ramesh continued to demand an investigation into corrupt ministers, and Panday fired him in October. Two ministers resigned in protest and joined Ramesh. Party members called for reconciliation so the UNC could remain in office, but Panday expelled Ramesh and his supporters from the UNC and dissolved parliament, triggering elections. Ramesh formed a new party and contested elections not winning a single seat but pulling enough votes away from the UNC resulting in a tied election 18-18. Robinson urged Panday and PNM leader Patrick Manning to work out an agreement on government formation. Panday unwisely signed an agreement with Manning authorizing the President to choose the PM when as the incumbent he was the automatic choice as PM. So Robinson was not completely to be blamed for bypassing Panday, who received bad advice to sign a foolish agreement. Robinson got his revenge appointing Manning as the PM.

One UNC supporter blamed Panday for his own political demise, describing him as “reckless” for causing the break-up of the NAR and for expelling Ramesh and calling early elections that led to his defeat. He noted: “Had Bas used wisdom, the UNC would have remained in power and not lost valuable years [1988-1995] and [2002-2010].”

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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