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To whom will UNC turn? Sheila Rampersad reviews a party at a crossroad

During an interview for the Industrial Court’s 50th anniversary publication, Journey to Gold, Basdeo Panday told me that ‘Indian people’ tend always to search for and support a pahalwan—a wrestler, gladiator or strongman—to fight on their behalf.

‘Bas’ himself was finely suited. He was a real wrestler donning the presidency of the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Union (ATSEFWU) after the death of his predecessor pahalwan, Bhadase Sagan Maraj, in 1972.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Basdeo Panday (right) shares a joke with then Cuba president Fidel Castro during the closing ceremony of a CARIFORUM meeting in 1998.   (Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto SCchmidt)
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Basdeo Panday (right) shares a joke with then Cuba president Fidel Castro during the closing ceremony of a CARIFORUM meeting in 1998.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto SCchmidt)

Assuming Panday’s analysis is insightful, it would appear that the contemporary nuance of the pahalwan cultural phenomenon is that the pahalwan could be man or woman.

It would seem, further, that political leader aspirant, Dr Roodal Moonilal, is imaging himself as the 2015 pahalwan; the outspoken and sometimes rabid defender of the United National Congress (UNC), loyal to the sugar cane beginnings of the working class Indian population, unexpurgated and constant.

“Take me as you see me,” he declared, at his campaign launch. “No one will attack the UNC and remain unscathed.”

The UNC finds itself in a defining historical moment.

Once he was elected president of the ATSEFWU, Panday told me in that interview, his destiny was set.

“The moment you became a boss, so to speak, in sugar, you couldn’t avoid being in politics because the sugar area constitutes a block of constituencies. Once you were a popular sugar leader, you have at your command a certain block of seats.

“So once I became president of All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Union, I couldn’t escape politics.”

Sugar, Caroni (1975) Ltd and the numerical and political strength of sugar unions are no more. Understanding there is no political party without a base, what then is the UNC’s post-sugar base?

Photo: Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) strikes a pose with rival, Dr Roodal Moonilal, in tow.
Photo: Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) strikes a pose with rival, Dr Roodal Moonilal, in tow.

The easy and obvious answer is ‘Indian people’. But ‘Indian people’ have never been a monolith and are even less so without the unifying fulcrum of the sugar estate.

In religion, culture, demography, class and gender relations, Indians do not constitute a coherent, uncomplicated whole, an obvious reality with which the UNC—by whatever name—has never fully grappled.

The taste of the benefits of high political office still fresh in its mouth, the party is forced into overdue acknowledgement that it cannot return to government with the support of ‘Indian people’ alone.

Dr Moonilal was sure to call attention to the religious, gender and ethnic diversity of his slate and interpreted as a measure of UNC greatness the fact that the UNC has spawned four political parties—MOP, COP, ILP and Team Unity.

It is rather a denouncement of the UNC that so many have expressed dissatisfaction to the point of forming competing political vehicles.

Standing like a wall in front of the UNC, therefore, is the task of expanding its ideology beyond the sugar estates; building a membership beyond ‘Indian people’; identifying messages that resonate on the East-West corridor, Tobago and elsewhere; and defining its very raison d’etre.

Photo: Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) and former Chief Whip Dr Roodal Moonilal. (Courtesy Baltimore Post)
Photo: Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) and former Chief Whip Dr Roodal Moonilal.
(Courtesy Baltimore Post)

And to whom does the party turn to help in its relocation?

In 2010, the People’s National Movement (PNM) was in a position not dissimilar to where the UNC is today. Patrick Manning had stamped on the goodwill of supporters on the path to fashioning himself as executive president and emperor of all.

PNM MPs and ministers kept a silent tongue, stayed in their creases and genuflected to his authority.

But there was one major difference—Dr Keith Rowley openly and loudly challenged his prime minister, suffered his inevitable fate and fought his way out of political damnation. When the moment of decision came, PNM members and supporters had the option of someone with moral authority to win leadership.

The UNC did not lose the 2015 election because of its election campaign any more than the PNM lost in 2010 because of its campaign. The UNC lost because of the five years leading to 2015, those years of wrong-and-strong, of egregious errors and wrongdoing that its membership, drinking from the potion of power, was happy to leave unacknowledged and uncorrected.

Neither Vasant Bharath nor Dr Roodal Moonilal stood up, neither uttered anything but fulsome praise for their political leader, neither distanced himself from burlesque political morality.

Photo: UNC political aspirant and former Agriculture Minister Vasant Bharath.
Photo: UNC political aspirant and former Agriculture Minister Vasant Bharath.

Riding into office on a wave of optimism, the UNC leadership had endless opportunities to build a new base, represent itself as a truly national party, redefine its ideology, demonstrate respect and political sophistication, and prepare to offer itself to the electorate on September 7 as a deliberately constructed unit.

For five years, it was unable or unwilling to grasp those opportunities. It is difficult to believe that it could do so now. For this, UNC leadership and membership are equally culpable.

It falls to the membership to determine who they are, what they want and whether they will turn to one of the three or just turn away.

About Sheila Rampersad

Sheila Rampersad
Dr Sheila Rampersad is a member of the current MATT executive and the Women Working for Social Progress. She is a veteran columnist.

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49 comments

  1. The UNC is done. At least this version. No party can win with its ethnic base alone because not everyone of its kind think along racial or religious lines. Therefore they have to canvass on the ‘other side’ in order to expand. This UNC has attacked, disrespected and ostracized potential members who are not of their kind. They are still not getting that message because they have not reigned in their hurt supporters who continue to engage in open racism. Good luck to them because monkeys and stupid niggers ain’t gonna be coming on board.

  2. Not a flattering photo at all!

  3. Have they? I’m not sure. It is the perfect time for the COP to poach UNC supporters. But nobody takes them seriously.

  4. The COP is no more an independent party than Mongolia is an independent country.

    It’s been completely reassimilated into the UNC from which it was spawned!

  5. Prakash can hardly afford to give anyone tips about internal elections eh. :-/

  6. Please allow me to digress… Where is the COP? haven’t heard of them in a while.

  7. Dont understand why they feel they have to air their dirty linen in public.

  8. This is one time the UNC diehards should vote NOTA.

  9. They don`t even have the smallest idea how shameful this looking but when you only have M. P. on your mind nothing else could come in between. MP means Money & Power.

  10. “It falls to the membership to determine who they are, what they want and whether they will turn to one of the three or just turn away.”
    Really, Sheila? Does the membership have the option of just turning away? I think not. But Lloyd used to say that the definition of crisis is that whatever choice you make is a mistake so the best you can do is make the right mistake. Methinks that is where the UNC finds itself today, forced to choose between three mistakes.

    • Lasana Liburd

      That is a profound statement. Choosing between mistakes is a common part of life though. I won’t say UNC is alone there. Maybe it is a sign of how far they have fallen that those are their only choices.

  11. Their support from DLP days will be there for them , for a long time to come

  12. Whoever idea it was to use that pic real wicked!

  13. On a 60% turnout, you only need 31% of the voter’s list to win an election.

  14. Sheila hit the nail on its head with this piece. You now have an opportunity to build your party after a GE defeat but you going backwards only reaching out to “your people”. You sat down there only 2 months ago and praised your leader now you’re saying she’s no good, where was your voice, where were your balls back then? Someone please share this article with the unc leadership because they seem lost.

  15. What she didn’t say is that they will have to do this again before the next General Elections because none of their candidates is electable.

  16. We have been in the post sugar era since 2000.
    There is no struggle to identify the UNCs base. If you:
    1. Believe in ethnic purity.
    2. Believe that Hinduism and Hindu culture is persecuted and reviled.
    3. Believe that living South of the Silver Bridge qualifies you as rural…and you equatr being rural with dispossession.
    4. If equating ppl resembling Sandy with apes comes easy to you.
    5. If blaming ppl resembling Sandy for all crime comes easy to you.
    6. If you believe PNM=Black and bice versa.
    7. If you cussed everything that sneezed too hard at the last govt.
    Then you are part of the UNC’s base.
    What remains to be seen is how they distinguish between the three versions of Kamla being paraded as possible leaders.

    • The UNC couldn’t survive on such votes alone. But surely they would not have gotten so many seats if that list equates the vast majority of their support.
      I know for sure that those people exist because I see evidence of them. But I have to believe there is something else too that draws them to the UNC.
      I want to believe that those people are the fringe that exist in every party and there are other more rational reasons to be in that party.

    • The article refers to the base. The base gives them the same 16 seats everytime. There are other voters who come out for other seats. The UNC is yet to lure them in. They use coalitions to get those votes.

    • In 2010 the UNC got non-base votes because ppl assumed that the other members of the coalition would keep them in check: collective responsibility blah blah blah.
      Their base has not changed. And it stopped being comprised of mostly sugar workers a while now. Sugar workers went into the industries in Plipdeco or private business. We also saw many heading into the govt service or into Cepep and construction contracting. A random visit to any UNC meeting from 2000 to 2015 would have established that. But the myth of Caroni holds powerful sway.

    • Interesting. I will have to look at the demographics in voting over the years.

    • I know our politics is split among along racial lines. But that is just too sad to admit sometimes. I pray there can be something more nuanced so that either party can get votes for other reasons.

      • Lasana, I think apart from race there was a lot of geographical tension during the election campaigning… Before the “bright” idea of the No Rowley campaign, I remember the North vs South was a serious issue and Sat Maharaj made it worse with his North of the Caroni statement and wanting to change the capital of Trinidad from Port of Spain to San Fernando????

        To me that was organic tension because there was animosity between different locations on our map however…. Rodney Charles and company just had to come and throw the race card and play dirty…. No they’re all suffering for it!

    • The PNM, pre 1986, was well represented with the non Hindu east Indians. Ellis Clarke’s decision to choose Chambers over Kamal for PM was the beginning of the erosion of that support. What Bas was able to do was keep the base intact, but also pull the non-Hindus along with him. (‘Is we time now’ in 1995). Now, there is an opportunity for the PNM to ‘reclaim’ the non-Hindus as a result of the cabal’s behaviour and mistrust of third party politics in TnT. The big problem is for the first time (except probably during the Panday-Raffique Shah battles) there is a genuine split that none of these people may be able to heal. It’s now about observing if they are going to morph into different factions or just wait for arrival of a new ‘uniter’ (cough cough Mikela).