For the third time in five years, former trade and industry minister under the People’s Partnership government, Vasant Bharath is contesting the leadership position in the United National Congress (UNC’s) internal elections.
Three days after the party’s incumbent leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced the internal elections would be held on December 6, Bharath officially announced his candidacy.
But he is not new to the leadership race.
He and Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal both challenged Persad-Bissessar in 2015, after the UNC’s loss at the general election to the People’s National Movement. Persad-Bissessar held on to her portfolio, getting over 18,000 votes. Bharath got approximately 1,500, while Moonilal got approximately 1,800 votes.
In 2017, Bharath once again challenged Persad-Bissessar for the post, but backed out before the polls, saying the party’s election process was flawed.
Persad-Bissessar once again retained leadership of the party.
After the 2020 General Election, UNC activists turned on Persad-Bissessar, accusing her of leading the party that has been losing election after election.
With just five weeks left to go before a new leader is selected for the UNC, the Sunday Guardian sat down with Bharath in an interview at his San Juan office.
Who is Vasant Bharath and what are you bringing to the table?
Well, I am someone who has grown up in a political household, my father was the member for St Augustine from 1966 to 1971, so I have been around the political world since I was a child. I have a very strong academic record, I won a scholarship, I came in the top five in the 11 plus and I have excelled since, both in the private sector, where I ran several large organisations, both locally and internationally. I have a strong background of achievement which I brought with me in government in 2010.
I held the portfolios of Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Trade, Minister of Communications, chaired the National Food Council, the National Health Council and a member of the National Security Council from 2010 to 2015.
I juggled several portfolios and I want to assure you they were not given to me as any favour.
Why should UNC members vote for you as the leader in the party’s upcoming internal elections?
I think that members of any organisation want to be successful, and I don’t think that by any stretch of the imagination any member can say the UNC has been successful in the last ten years. The records will show we have continued to lose election after election, I think it was 11 at the last count. People who are part of an organisation want to succeed and they know in their hearts the current configuration cannot win them a general election, so they’ve got to decide whether they want to get into government in the next five years or they want to stay in opposition for the next ten years.
What have you been doing over the last five years to support the UNC’s mission to return to government?
There are limited ways anyone can help the party, you have to be a member of the national executive or be brought in as an ex-officio member in some form, be a MP, a senator or brought in as an adviser.
But I have been helping the party indirectly in many ways, fighting against the Government, including the cause of the St Augustine nurseries, I fought the issue of property tax single-handedly for a long time before the UNC got involved. I was told by several members, including Ramona Ramdial that the UNC’s position was ‘They vote for that, let them take it now.’
It was only after I got involved and started to get the traction that the UNC got involved. I helped UNC MPs with their briefs for Parliament, I help farmers with praedial larceny, to get outstanding money, etc.
Why didn’t you publicly support the party’s leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and take an active role in the UNC’s 2020 General Election campaign?
That’s not true, I actually reached out to her and offered to assist her in the 2020 election. I called her, there was no response and I then wrote to her. I had a delegation of MPs come to me and say, ‘I think we are going to lose this election and we need to do something.’ Based on that, I wrote to her offering my help and there was no response.
What was your decision for joining the PNM Government’s road map committee?
My nationalistic perspective on what is best for T&T. If you look at what every developed country is doing, trying to bridge the gap that crosses politics and trying to ensure they have the best minds and hands on deck to wrestle with the problem of COVID-19. I was quite prepared to put aside party affiliation and be able to assist. Generally, across the board, the citizens of T&T will benefit from the work of the roadmap committee.
You were accused of supporting the PNM’s candidate for Moruga, Winston “Gypsy” Peters. Is this true?
I didn’t join him on his campaign trail. Coming out of the roadmap committee, I had a discussion with someone who told me they import two containers of pineapples every month. I asked why they didn’t use the supply from local farmers and they said the local supply was unreliable. I went to Moruga to meet with the Pineapple Farmers Association and Gypsy was on the campaign trail and he stopped by. I made it very clear that Gypsy and I are former Cabinet colleagues, we are not enemies but we sat on two different sides of the political divide. I was not there to speak about politics nor was I there to support the PNM or Winston Peters.
What is it about the qualities of the party’s leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar or the direction that the party is taking that you are not comfortable or happy with?
I really don’t want to become personal, but there are certain leadership attributes that all leaders possess, they lead from the front and they lead by example, and these are things that are sorely lacking at this time.
If you do not win the leadership race in the party’s internal elections what is your next move, are you going to stay with the UNC or form your own party?
I will continue to be an activist for reform in the organisation. As I said, the only reason I am challenging is the current format and formula we have has proven to be unsuccessful and will continue to be unsuccessful. I will continue to help people who reach out to me, but I will continue to agitate for change in the organisation once I continue to be a member of the party. It is very difficult to sit by, understand the potential the party has, understand the suffering members go through and do nothing about it.
There is no consideration to form a new party, T&T is a two-party system. What we have to do is reform one of those parties to make it attractive to a wider grouping of people.
If you win, how are you going to function as an effective political leader of the UNC if you are not an MP or senator in the House of Representatives?
The Opposition remains the same as it is, the parliamentary aspect remains the same as it is, that will resolve itself in due course. Our focus is on rebuilding the party. There is nothing in the Constitution of the party that suggests that these officeholders have to be the same person, we understand there is going to be some tensions but I think as mature leaders in our own respects, we will be able to resolve those issues for the benefit of the party.
Which constituencies are backing you?
I cannot say at this time because I do not want to compromise any sitting MP, but I have been in discussions with some of them.
If you are successful at the polls, will you engage party stalwarts, like Jack Warner, Basdeo Panday, in your efforts to rebuild the party?
There is a reason why Mickela Panday left the party and formed her own, simply because there was no room in the party for her. Mr Panday has openly stated the UNC today is not the UNC he knows and built. I see no reason why those stalwarts of the party, once they are welcomed back, will not be willing to contribute to the continued growth of the party. To make it the party they envisaged it to be: fighting for the working class, for those who socially and economically displaced, fighting for justice and equity for all.
What is the UNC’s membership figure?
Prior to the Local Government elections last year, I found out the membership is 100,000 strong. A relatively small percentage of that number is likely to come out to vote. In the last election of 2017, about 20,000 people voted. We are hoping because of the urgency of change, we can encourage a larger turnout of members. But we don’t know exactly how many members and that is one thing we will be requesting as a matter of urgency, so my team and I are not put at a disadvantage.
There have been claims of the rigging of the internal elections in the past, do you have concerns about this?
The party was very vociferous about demanding outside observers in the general election. In light of the many allegations made about the internal elections process (in the UNC), I will be advancing an argument to the party and be asking for information about the election process. I am hopeful that the party has learned its lessons in addressing the irregularities of 2015 and 2017, understanding that one of the reasons they continue to lose election after election is because of a lack of trust from the national community in the way they conduct themselves.