If general elections were called now the United National Congress (UNC) is not in a position to win, says Vasant Bharath, former St Augustine MP and sole challenger to UNC political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s leadership.
“It is clear that the party has almost retracted itself into its base support. Because if an election were called today, despite how bad things are in the country, I don’t think that the UNC is properly positioned to win the elections.
“Because (the UNC leadership) has not done work on the East West Corridor. I know they have not done any work on the base. And therefore the days of a party that is just a mass mobiliser for an elections is gone.”
Bharath was speaking with Sunday Newsday last week at his home in St Augustine. He has put his hat in the ring to contest the UNC National Executive elections on November 26. There was controversy following Persad-Bissessar’s decision to call the elections a year before they were constitutionally due with UNC MP Ganga Singh, other MPs and even UNC founder Basdeo Panday questioning the decision. This week the UNC national congress voted unanimously for the early election.
On the controversy surrounding the UNC internal elections, Bharath, 60, said it was symptomatic of the unforced errors the party continued to make which led to unintended consequences.
“And that is a lack of responsibility in my opinion and a lack of professionalism has caused the party to fall out favour with the electorate.”
He described the campaign against then People’s National Movement political leader and current Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley in the 2015 general elections as “ill conceived” and “absolutely backfired.” He said people were repulsed by the campaign and it showed a lack of judgement from the party leadership.
“We continue in Opposition to make faux pas. And this (election controversy) is just another example.”
He said the party is broken into factions and unification is needed and this division is shown by the letter from Singh and others openly dissenting.
“It runs a lot deeper than just those two people I can assure you. Those are the two who have decided to come out.”
Asked what were the unforced errors committed by the party, Bharath could not name any offhand but said the fact the party ended up in Opposition showed this. He pointed out the party came into office with an overwhelming mandate of 29 seats and then suffered five humiliating losses in five elections.
“Clearly something went drastically and dramatically wrong.”
He said the electorate lost faith with the party’s ability to govern and the issues were not corrected when they came out of office but instead they blamed the media, African people and the Elections and Boundaries Commission.
“We were not analysing the real issues why we failed.”
He said there is a need to rebuild the party and restore trust and present it in a manner that is attractive to the population.
Returning to the UNC internal election, he said he sent a letter to UNC general secretary Davendranath Tancoo asking that certain fundamental standards of transparency and accountability to prevail in the electoral process including producing a list of eligible voters. He pointed out the incumbent leader has the advantage of knowing the list having compiled it and puts them immediately at a disadvantage.
He also recalled during the 2015 internal election, which he also contested, Oropouche East MP Roodal Moonilal spoke about electoral fraud and ballot papers floating in a river in Debe. He said this is why he was asking for independent verification of the entire exercise by a firm of auditors in this election.
In the previous election, Persad-Bissessar won by more than 15,000 votes, Moonilal received about 1,800 while Bharath received about 1,500. Asked how he will overcome this wide margin on this occasion, Bharath said he has been working on the ground since January meeting with activists and supporters throughout the country.
“The level of disenchantment and dissent is rampant throughout the heartland constituencies and predominantly because people believe they have been excluded from the entire process, they have been abused, they have been kicked in their words, they have been sidelined by the party, they don’t have a voice. And they are only ever required when an election rolls around they are required to vote or bring people out to vote.”
He said things have gotten worse and people are questioning whether it is worth making personal sacrifices to get involved.
He said there is a large amount of disillusionment even among the base and he was looking to be part of making and change and the rebuilding process. He said there are no functioning party institutions and the party never really had proper institutions other than ones that operated in a loose, informal way.
Bharath has said he has support from people including MPs but they have been silent. Asked why this is, he responded the system of politics people are beholden to the political leader for their seats and though MPs may assist him it is unlikely they will out openly and say so.
Asked why he changed from supporting Persad-Bissessar to now challenging her, Bharath said the five elections lost and that the decision-making in the party is not conducive to lifting the debate in the organisation.
On the brief campaign period of three weeks, Bharath responded, “It is what it is” and it is at the political leader’s discretion.
He said as political leader he will bring the change where people can express their opinion which was how he operated while in the corporate world.
Bharath, who held ministerial portfolios in both agriculture and trade, said his record will show local farmers describe him as the country’s best agriculture minister and while trade minister the country was praised by the World Bank as one of the top 10 reformers in the world in terms of ease of doing business.
He lamented the country has fallen from 96 to 102 in terms of ease of doing business.
Asked about claims he was a “knife and fork” and “pinstripe” politician, Bharath said this was meant to divide people. He said the people making those claims about him drive BMWs, drink champagne and play golf. He said this rhetoric would have no effect on the population which is far more discerning now than it was 20 years ago.