PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (CMC) — Basdeo Panday, who served as Trinidad and Tobago’s fifth prime minister and who once told the country that “If you see me and a lion fighting, feel sorry for the lion”, has died. He was 90.
Panday had been ill in recent weeks, but the nature of his illness had not been disclosed.
In a statement posted on her Facebook page a few days ago, Mickela Panday, his daughter, wrote the “last two weeks have been a perfect example of that sheer strength and determination, mentally and physically”.
In her post announcing his death, she wrote that he died “surrounded by his family.
“In life and death he was a fighter. He passed with his boots on, keeping everybody around him on their toes with his wit and humour. He will live on in all of us, remembered as a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, leader, and friend.
“He was an inspiration to his family and everybody that knew him. We will continue to celebrate his life and treasure the time we were able to spend with him.”
Prime Minister Keith Rowley said he was saddened at the death of Panday, saying, “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.
“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. My condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues,” Rowley said.
Panday became prime minister in 1995 when he led the United National Congress (UNC) to defeat the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM). The UNC won 17 of the 36 seats in the Parliament and although the party received fewer votes, the UNC was able to form a coalition with the two-seat National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) allowing Panday to become the country’s first prime minister of Indian descent.
In the 2020 general election, the UNC won 19 seats of the 36 seats, but Panday’s government collapsed with the defection of three of his legislators — Ramesh Maharaj, Trevor Sudama and Ralph Maraj.
“This is no surprise, as it takes a truly exceptional person to withstand the level of persecution and betrayal my father has had to overcome throughout his political life,” his daughter wrote.
“From baseless, trumped-up charges of alleged corruption, aided and abetted by a biased media with an unholy agenda that lasted for almost 20 years before his name was cleared; to those he trusted the most, conspiring and plotting to steal the party he formed and worked so hard to build.
“The only leader and political party to beat the PNM on its own without a coalition. The past has taught us that in a desperate grab for power, the truth is often the first thing left behind,” she added.
In a message posted on her Facebook page, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad Bissessar, who served as the first woman to lead a government here and who replaced Panday as UNC leader, wrote:
“I am saddened that Mr Panday has passed away.
“I will always love him and be grateful that he was a significant influence in my life. He was a great leader and spent most years of his life helping the oppressed and poor. Mr Panday will always be remembered with love and adoration by all of us whose lives he touched.
“I express my condolences to all his loved ones. May his soul rest in peace. He will be missed but will always be remembered and loved,” she added.
Panday, an attorney, trade unionist, economist, actor, and former civil servant, first entered Parliament in 1976 winning the Couva North seat. He served as opposition leader on five occasions between 1976 and 2010 and was the founding member of three political parties including the NAR, an amalgam of opposition parties and the UNC .
In 2006, Panday was convicted of failing to declare a bank account in London and imprisoned. However, on March 20, 2007, that conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal and on May 1 he resigned as the UNC chairman, with the party’s executive refusing to accept his resignation. He lost the party’s internal elections on Jan. 24, 2010, to Persad Bissessar, who led the UNC into a People’s Partnership coalition that won the general elections that same year.
Panday’s political career began in 1965, when he joined the Workers and Farmers Party and an unsuccessful run for Parliament.
Panday said the Westminster system, with one of its most dominant features being the first-past- the-post model, “superimposed upon a racially divided country,” must be removed to engender a free people.
“I think that’s the greatest drawback. I would like to see the nation become free. The nation is unfree because of the political system,” he said, adding “until such time, freedom is a word in inverted commas. There needs to be a reform of the Constitution so that the people can have real power.”
He was well known for his wit and humour, and as prime minister reminded the population “anyone who attacks my government shall not escape unscathed.
Panday is survived by his widow, Oma and Mickela and other relatives, including Subhas Panday, a former minister in the Ministry of National Security.