Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Robinson in retrospect

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Mark Fraser

 Many saw Arthur NR Robin­son as a great man, but there was equivocation as to whether he was also a great leader. The ambiguity reflects what obtained in his public life and what the revisionist historian might say. Perhaps he was neither born great nor achieved greatness, but had greatness thrust upon him.

Let us look briefly at a few issues—other than the attempted coup—which tested Robinson’s mettle in his early years and about which not enough is known. 

Close examination of what was happening in the corridors of politics in those early years following Independence reveals that although Robinson was treasurer and deputy political leader of the People’s National Movement (PNM), he was neither the most loved nor trusted person in the party. To many, he was opportunistic.

To Eric Williams, he was the proverbial “traitorous deputy”.

His opportunistic bent was particularly evident in the face of the Black Power crisis. Robin­son sought to ride seve­ral steeds, the conservative establishment and the left-wing intelligentsia.

In doing so, he fell between two stools. During the crisis, Robinson met secretly, late into the night, with groups to whom he had been sending urgent messages, telling them about what Williams was doing or planned to do with the army.

The radicals also urged him to leave the PNM and take leadership of a revolutionary government. He, however, knew he was being watched closely by Special Branch. He was treated like a leper by some of his party colleagues, one of whom lifted the rear of her dress in disgust to let him know what she thought of his apostasy. 

Of interest was the claim made by National Joint Action Committee leader Makandal Daaga at a meeting sponsored by the South Chamber of Commerce that Robinson, accompanied by Alloy Lequay and Vernon Jamadar, came to see him. Their mission was to co-opt him to defeat Williams. Daaga declined. He told Robin­son he “would be nothing more than another Eric Williams. I also questioned his motives”. Daaga said he told Robinson he could defeat Williams, but that he was “not overly concerned about becoming the next prime minister”.

To his credit, Robinson declined the various offers, saying he preferred to win political power through the ballot box. Ironically, when the election was called in 1971, he surprised everyone, not least his party associates, by boycotting the election, saying the voting machines could be rigged and the elections were unlikely to be free and fair. In my opinion, Robinson boycotted the election because he feared Williams and the PNM would win it, notwithstanding the events of 1970-71. The revolution had counter-revolutionised the revolution. In the end, the PNM won all 36 seats and was thus able to impose a new Constitution unilaterally in 1976. 

ANR was also at the epicentre of another of the country’s most dramatic political crises of the 21st century: the 18-18 tie of the 2001 election. Before breaking the tie, he got both leaders to guarantee him another five-year term, assistance with the preparation of his memoirs, and “whatever else would make him comfortable”. These concessions were not too difficult to secure.

In reality, the tie-breaker was perhaps the most politically costly mistake of his career. Lloyd Best might say he made the “wrong mistake”. The decision split the country between north and south and, worse yet, did so on tribal grounds. Both sides felt deserving of the win. The United National Congress (UNC) argued it got more votes (3.34 per cent) than the PNM, while the PNM countered that it got two more seats than it had done before. In the end, Robinson chose the PNM, citing superior “moral and spiritual values as his point of comparison”. I thus supported Robinson’s decision, arguing the Westminster model did not guarantee that in the event of a “hung parliament” the incumbent would always prevail. Ironically, when there was a 17-17 tie in 1995 in terms of seats, and the PNM got more votes than the UNC (254,159-240,372), Panday was given the benefit of the doubt by Robinson who helped him to form a coalition. Robinson’s view then was that it was time for an Indian to become Prime Minister.

In 2001, UNC supporters believed they had not only lost control of the government and the perquisites of office but, worse yet, their spiritual values were denigrated epistemically. Mr Panday’s agony was acute; not only did he lose office; he also had to endure the agony of mournful and hungry colleagues who were convinced he had bargained badly, and had unnecessarily “given away” the government to Patrick Manning. What in effect seemed to have happened was that the crisis was used, perhaps unconsciously, to reunite the PNM, which had been fractured when he walked out in the rain in 1970. Robinson had, in the process, painlessly become a tribal hero!

In her recent comment on the 2001 events, the Prime Minister acknowledged Robinson’s decision inflicted a grave and hurtful wrong upon the Indian community; she, however, called upon the national society to consider whether the event might not be used as an opportunity to re-examine our constitutional formula. She advised that the society should “move on”.

How then to assess Robinson’s overall contribution? For me, the jury is still out. We need to give him credit for being a living example that leaders in states such as ours can govern without capitulating to the forces of corruption. The leaders must set the tone and show the way. In this, he and his ministers were not quite without social sin, but came close. The establishment of the International Criminal Court must also be put in the credit margin.

On the negative side must be put his inability to build and sustain coalitions. Even the “one love” National Alliance for Reconstruction coalition, which he himself had helped co-construct in 1986, lasted little over a year.

In many respects, Mr Robinson bestrode our world, not as a colossus, but as a man who was “in the midst of it”.

His footprints, like those of his namesake, Robinson Crusoe, were big and visible; but so too were his missteps.