Reflections on Panday’s legacy: Man of the people

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Former prime minister
Basdeo Panday

Former prime minister Basdeo Panday related keenly to people at every social level – a reality that was reflected by the wide array of people who visited the Red House rotunda throughout the day on Thursday to salute his life, honour his memory and sign the condolence book opened by the Parliament.

Foreign diplomats, government ministers and ordinary folk came in a steady trickle to express their appreciation for Pandays lifetime of service and also their sympathy to his family.

The rotunda opened from 1-6 pm on the first day of signing for Panday, 90, who died on Monday after medical treatment in the US.

His body arrived on Wednesday night at Piarco Airport from Florida, with his widow Oma Panday, daughter Mickela Panday, Foreign and Caricom Affairs Minister Dr Amery Browne on hand to witness the arrival and transfer to a hearse of the coffin, which was draped in the national flag.

On Friday, Panday’s body will lie in honour from 10 am-5.30 pm at the Red House rotunda, and on Monday at SAPA, San Fernando, from 9 am-5.30 pm, ahead of his funeral a day later at SAPA.

Two diplomats reflected on Panday’s life, while three female public servants told Newsday of their own recollections of how he had improved the lives of their parents and themselves, largely by better education and job opportunities.

He made a difference

A woman giving her name as Ms Lamy said she had worked at the Prime Minister’s residence during Panday’s tenure and she felt strongly moved to give of her time in order to sign the book.

“So it was important to share that I understand this loss. It is not just a loss to me but it is a loss to my country. For he was a man of the people. He made a difference…an impactful difference.

“What I remember more importantly than anything else is that he gave the children an opportunity to go to school,” Ms Lamy said as she reflected on the “no child left behind” policy under Panday’s administration, which saw all primary school students getting a guaranteed place in secondary school whatever their Common Entrance exam results.

“I remember before Mr Panday, a lot of children who didn’t do well in their Common Entrance were sent home, and he said no to this.”

A female public servant from Couva who did not wish to give her name said she had turned up at the Red House an hour before the 1 pm public opening of the condolence book.

“We came to sign because of his performance, because of his humility, because of his energy and what he gave to the country, and his full heart which he dedicated, which no one else has ever done.

“That man was a real prime minister. The poor people, the working-class people, those were the people who he focused on.

“People were very appreciative. The whole of Trinidad appreciated him very much, from generation to generation. He put people first, he put country first.”

Newsday spoke to another woman who was also a public servant and also from Couva.

“I will be the second generation from the sugar-belt people whom he would have fought for, so I’m very proud of that, as the second generation.

“I am here today to represent my parents. He would have been able to give us sugar workers a home in central Trinidad to enable us to have a shelter. My parents always told me about this and I am very proud.”

She said many people in the Caroni area had only been working part-time, but Panday fought for them to get permanent, full-time jobs, and obtain loans and housing. “It is something the people will never forget.”

Gordon mourns

Businessman and former media magnate Ken Gordon told reporters that after his libel lawsuit against Panday, the two men had later made up.

“I am very saddened by his passing. I have known him for a very long time.”

The two were Cabinet ministers in the 1986 NAR government.

“We have even crossed swords as you know, but he was a very special type of leader.

“He and I did have a problem in the courts.”One evening about three or four months after the judgement, I was walking out of St Mary’s College from a function there and I just felt this person grab me from behind and say, ‘Ken! Ken! We are friends!’“It was him and that was his way of saying, ‘Let bygones be bygones.’

“So I am deeply saddened, genuinely so. We shall all miss him.

“He was special. Even for his own era he was special, because he related to people.

“We shall all miss him. I know of few people that would have the overwhelming popularity as a politician that he had,” Gordon said.

Former media magnate Ken Gordon signs the condolence book for Basdeo Panday at the rotunda, Red House on Thursday. – Photo courtesy Office of the Parliament

Radio broadcaster Robert Amar told reporters, “It is a sombre moment for me, because Mr Panday was the person who granted me an opportunity to serve in the Senate after the 1990 insurrection.” He recalled Panday as “a person who really listened.”

“I have some fond memories of him because I had the opportunity to travel with him – when I was chairman of the Small Business Development Company – to India.

“I remember quite a lot of nice things that happened.” Amar related a funny anecdote about being on a political platform with Panday in a by-election (after the death of Diego Martin Central MP Leo des Vignes in the 1990 attempted coup.)

A guy was riding a bicycle, Amar related, and as he passed by he shouted, “Panday!” and Panday said, “Yes, brother!”

“The man said, ‘You dog, you!’ and Panday coolly replied, ‘That is why I call you brother.’”

“When you think of the wittiness of the man…” Amar said in a reflective mood.

‘A bit of UK in Panday’

US ambassador Candace Bond told Newsday, “It is with a heavy heart but also we extend our condolences to the legacy and leadership of the former prime minister. So happy to be here to represent our country and embassy.”

Bond said she had once met Panday very briefly at an official function. “But I had the opportunity to study him and also to read quite a bit about him. I heard from many of the people who reside here about his leadership. So we are here to definitely honour him.”

US Ambassador to TT, Candace Bond, signs the condolence book next to a photograph of former prime minister Basdeo Panday in the rotunda of the Red House on Thursday. – Photo by Faith Ayoung

British High Commissioner Harriet Cross told reporters, “I think some people imprint themselves on the consciousness of a country, and I think former PM Panday did just that in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Now, he was a man who had many different roles in life and I have been fascinated to read about his life, particularly his life as an actor. He was such an interesting man.”

Cross said Panday had acted in three British movies, quipping, “So there’s a little bit of the UK there.”

She said, “I had the great pleasure of meeting him in this very building, in the Red House, and having a really interesting conversation with him about politics.”

Cross said while some people see politics as “black and white, right and wrong,” Panday had a more realistic view.

“I think he had a really nuanced sense of how to make progress and he was really somebody who built a lot of bridges.

“I think those are the types of statesmen and stateswomen we need in the world today.”

Cross said that was one of the reasons she wanted to come and pay her respects personally and on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom.

“It is an important time to reflect, I think, on what politics means and what politicians can do and the impact they can make.

“This is a really good opportunity to do that.”

Asked about his legacy, she said the fact of his being TT’s first PM of Indian origin was and is important.

“That is part of the history and story of TT. He will never be forgotten for that reason, but also for the way he conducted himself and for the international partnerships he created while he was in power, and also for the relationships that went on afterwards.

“Again, I think people like that are really fascinating and they create lots of links into lots of different communities and I think he was a perfect example of that.”

Diplomats signing the condolence book came from South Korea, Cuba, the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force, Nigeria, UK, PAHO, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Panama, Dominican Republic, Australia, Japan, Peru, Turkiye, Germany, the Association of Caribbean States, US, UN, and ECLAC.