On the first day of 2024, former Trinidad & Tobago prime minister Basdeo Panday dies

Former Trinbagonian trade unionist and politician Basdeo Panday. Image adapted and remixed from a photo by Trinidad News on Flickr, (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

At just about 7:00 p.m. local time on New Year's Day, Mickela Panday, daughter of former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, announced his death on social media; he was 90 years old but had had heart problems for some time, recently travelling the United States for medical consultations.

Born on May 25, 1933, in south Trinidad, to a family that had been brought from British India to Trinidad under indentureship, Panday graduated from the prestigious Presentation College, San Fernando, and worked for one season weighing sugarcane at an estate close to his hometown before taking a job as a primary school teacher. He also worked as a civil servant at the San Fernando Magistrate's Court.

The experience left an impression on him — in 1957, Panday left for the United Kingdom to further his education. He first obtained an acting diploma from the London School of Dramatic Art, followed by degrees in both law and economics from Lincoln's Inn and the University of London, respectively. To support himself through his tertiary education, he took on several odd jobs — everything from acting to manual labour — until 1965, when he was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship to pursue a post-graduate degree in economics and political science at the Delhi School of Economics. He turned down the opportunity, however, opting instead to return to the newly independent Trinidad and Tobago and practice law.

Panday soon became involved in the labour movement. Buoyed by his natural charisma, he emerged as a key leader in the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers’ Trade Union, where he tirelessly advocated for workers’ rights, and was associated with the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, as legal advisor. In the words of Trinidadian commentator Ken Ali, “Basdeo Panday in the sugar belt of the 1970s was poetry in motion.” He “reflected labour militancy embellished with street theatre, substance and style, bravado and battle,” Ali explained, and “merged labour combativeness with political ambition and a delivery manner that revealed his flair for the performing arts, which he had honed during his years of study in Britain. He [created] labour and political history and [became] one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most compelling post-independence figures.”

Ali listed some of Panday's accomplishments during that time, including challenging then Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams’ “boast of keeping oil and sugar workers apart, a coded term for divide-and-rule politics” (understood as based around racial lines, with the oil workers being predominantly of African descent and the sugar workers, Indian), securing a 100 percent wage increase for sugar workers as well as low-cost housing for employees, and having child labour abolished.

“We have to turn the labour struggle into a political struggle,” Panday said at a Labour Day function in 1975, a decade after his own political career had begun. He had joined the Workers’ and Farmers’ Party — co-founded by the renowned writer and activist C.L.R. James — which made an unsuccessful bid for parliament, but by 1972, he was appointed as an opposition senator for the Democratic Labour Party, which occupied the opposition bench until 1976.

With rising discontent on the labour front, however, in February 1975, Panday met with fellow union leaders and founded the United Labour Front party, which won 10 of the 36 seats in the 1976 elections — enough to secure its place as the main opposition to Williams’ governing People's National Movement (PNM), with Panday taking the role of opposition leader. It was a role he would occupy with great aplomb over the years.

Always one with his finger on the pulse, Panday would go on to co-found other political parties, including the Trinidad and Tobago National Alliance, which later became the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR). Led by A. N. R. Robinson, the party won the 1986 general elections; it was the first time that the governing party had changed since the country became independent in 1962. Things soon unravelled, however, with Panday accusing Robinson of autocracy and discrimination, and Robinson eventually expelling Panday and a few of his supporters from the party in 1988.

They immediately formed their own party, which tried on new names before finally settling on the United National Congress (UNC) in 1989. Having occupied office post-oil boom, the NAR instituted austere policies in the face of economic decline and simmering racial tensions. The pot boiled over in 1990 when there were demonstrations against the government's policies, followed by a coup attempt. Insurrectionists stormed the country's parliament and held the Cabinet hostage; Robinson was beaten and shot but survived. Despite the public respect he gained for the patriotic manner in which he handled himself during the ordeal, the NAR was voted out in the 1991 general election in favour of the PNM, with the Panday-led UNC becoming the country's opposition.

Panday, along with the leader of the opposition Patrick Manning, was absent from parliament when the coup attempt took place. He said at the time, “Wake me up when it’s finished.” The flippant comment fuelled speculation that he might have had prior knowledge; however, a commission of inquiry noted in 2014 that there was no evidence to support allegations that either Panday or Manning knew of the coup plot, despite Robinson having suggested to the commission that a Panday-led faction sought to bring down his government.

By 1995, Panday's political career was on a new trajectory. The PNM government called an early vote, but misread the temperature of the electorate. The result was that the PNM and UNC (government and opposition) won 17 seats each; the NAR, two. However, the UNC and the NAR — still headed by Robinson — formed a coalition, ushering them into power and making Panday the country's first prime minister of Indian descent. He and his party also won the 2000 election, with Panday serving as prime minister until 2001. During this time, he implemented various social and economic reforms, addressing issues such as education, healthcare, and poverty.

This is not to say that there were no challenges over the course of his leadership. He briefly faced sexual harassment charges, which were dismissed. He had a fraught relationship with the press, with Express newspaper editor Keith Smith noting, “Recent polls have indicated that the two issues that cost the administration popularity [and] votes are corruption and attacks on press freedom.” There were also allegations of massive government corruption in the construction of the country's new airport, but the charges against Panday in this regard were eventually dropped.

The damage to the party had already been done, however, with several ministers resigning, leaving the UNC with a parliamentary minority and forcing Panday to call a new election in 2001, which resulted in an 18–18 tie between the UNC and PNM in the 36-seat parliament. This prompted a constitutional crisis: A.N.R. Robinson, who was president at the time, appointed PNM leader Patrick Manning as prime minister. In protest, Panday refused to accept the position of Leader of the Opposition.

Voters would again go to the polls in 2002 — the country's third general elections in less than two years — in an attempt to resolve the political deadlock. The PNM were brought back into power, and the UNC became the opposition, launching Panday's third stint as opposition leader. He held this position until 2006, when he was found guilty of failing to declare assets to the country's Integrity Commission and sentenced to two years’ hard labour and a fine of TTD 20,000 (just under USD 3,000). Panday appealed the decision. Following the conviction, his positions as both Leader of the Opposition and party leader were revoked, but he was eventually reinstated as UNC leader after the Court of Appeal overturned the conviction, clearing him of the charges. By 2010, however, he failed in his re-election bid as party leader.

Since then, Panday's only foray into politics was supporting the formation of his daughter Mickela's new political party, though he remained a sought-after and trusted voice regarding both the country's political system as well as general social issues.

Once Panday's passing was announced, tributes began to pour in on social media, with journalist Judy Raymond saying, “Another giant gone […] there was no one like the Silver Fox.”

Panday had earned the moniker thanks to his grey hair, and always remained a very accessible figure.

Describing Panday as a “Warrior, nation builder, history maker, philosopher, mentor, Caribbean man, icon, champion of the poor, trade union leader extraordinare [sic], [and] Prime Minister,” former UNC senator Kevin Ramnarine felt that a “colossus of the Caribbean has departed.”

Facebook user Rishi Harrynanan, meanwhile, remembered Panday as “a great man” who was “loved by most,” and whose “wit and humor [were] second to none!”

As if in testimony to Panday's uncanny ability to rise above political differences, Prime Minister Keith Rowley paid him tribute: “This is a man, a citizen, whose impact was felt at every step of the way as he made his mark so indelibly on the people of our nation. Having served the nation for so long and in so many different ways, with such resolve and panache, he can only be recognized as a true believer in this nation and its potential.” He continued, “Now that he is no more, we are called upon not just to mourn but to celebrate his life and endeavour to be worthy colleagues of his legacy.”

As singer Raymond Edwards said, quite simply, “Rest well Sir. Your contributions will never be forgotten.”

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