Vasant eyes UNC leadership
THE race for leadership of the United National Congress (UNC) yesterday turned into a three-way battle following a decision by former Trade and Industry Minister Vasant Bharath, to throw his hat into the ring and contest the post of political leader. The other two contenders are incumbent leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal.
By Feroze Hosein
November 08, 2015
Vasant Bharath has been said by quite some people to be a good contender for leadership of the United National Congress, but there are questions far too serious that could make him a non-starter if he enters the party’s internal electoral race.
These questions can prove such a hindrance that his best option if he has leadership ambitions, would be to hitch his wagon to one of the present leadership contenders…for now.
Aside from the fact that these comments in support of Bharath are coming in large part from supporters who are not actual voting members, the first and most important question is on his current Parliamentary status.
He lost his bid for the St Joseph seat in the last general election, and while the legitimacy of the election is now in question and before the courts, he holds no membership in the House of Representatives. He is a Senator appointed by the discretion of the Opposition Leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, an appointment which is generally based on a pledge of support and loyalty to carry forward to policy and political positions adopted by the Opposition Leader.
Members of the UNC remember far too well the party’s messy demonstration in 2006 of what happens when there is a divergence between party leadership and Parliamentary leadership. In fact, Bharath was the Vice Chairman of the UNC at that time in 2006, and was one of the central figures in the division between what was then Chairman Basdeo Panday and Political Leader Winston Dookeran.
Many will recall the leadership contest in 2006 where Panday gave way to Dookeran, opting to run for Chairman of the party.
As it turned out, Panday never intended to exit the political stage despite broad dissatisfaction with his leadership. When Dookeran was elected Leader unopposed, Panday shocked the party by insisting on continuing as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives.
Convention and Westminster tradition shows that that the Political Leader always commands the party, as well as the Parliamentary members by direct and present leadership. This is why such a chaotic situation was triggered off, complete with deep divisions within the party, rippling far and wide in the membership and eventually causing the formation of a new party, the Congress of the People.
By the 2007 election, both the COP and UNC had taken to deriding each other publicly, with the COP’s growth being directly driven by a haemorrhaging of UNC membership and the support of middle class, floating voters. Both parties lost to the Patrick Manning PNM that year.
It took a tough fight for the Political Leader in January of 2010 for a leader, Persad-Bissessar to emerge with landslide control of the UNC both in the executive and in the Parliament.
The UNC membership is now gun-shy, with recent memory of that chaos still being fresh in the minds of most. And this is what will drive the hesitation in electing a Vasant Bharath-led slate for Political Leadership of the UNC.
Incidentally, 2006 was not the first time that Bharath opposed a Political Leader; it also happened in 2010 when he sat as Member of Parliament for St Augustine and refused to sign the petition for Persad-Bissessar to be appointed Opposition Leader. Despite this second rebuff of a party leader, he was brought into the Cabinet when Persad-Bissessar won a landslide victory in the May 24th elections of 2010.
Today therefore, for anyone to attempt to run the party’s administration and direct the Parliament by remote control, without being a sitting Member of House of Representatives, will be to set off another protracted period of division and infighting in the UNC.
All of this is not to say that Bharath is a bad candidate. In fact, he is very much a contender for future leadership, with superior executive credentials and creditable performance as a Government Minister.
But leadership won’t happen without a tremendous amount of work to meet the base, endear UNC members and articulate a clear vision.
As it is now, there is general agreement that Bharath commands great respect among middle class voters nationally. But the leadership of the UNC will not be determined nationally, it will be decided by the party’s membership and this contest requires him to have earned the trust of UNC members. Earning that trust will take time, especially because of his reputation of having twice opposed the Political Leader of his own party.
And this is where many have gotten it completely wrong. To earn the trust of the UNC membership means that contenders must first see and accept that the party’s membership is still protective of Kamla Persad-Bissessar, and still holds deep affection for her and confidence in her leadership.
This being the case, Bharath will have a tough time and will soon find it impossible to lead the party without being able to directly lead the Opposition in Parliament.
Bharath’s best move in 2015 will be to attach himself to a senior post on one of the slates of the present leadership contenders. Given the expected move by the vast majority of the UNC membership to protect Persad-Bissessar and pave a strong path for her continued leadership, he may be best off presenting himself as candidate for Chairman, or Deputy Political Leader.
Will he? Or won’t he? No one wants to see Bharath leave, and after weeks of struggling with a decision, we hope that the one he finally makes is the right one.