Ready to be leader
Q & A on a Sunday
with Sasha Mohammed
Sunday, January 3rd 2010
Kamla Persad-Bissessar is convinced that come January 24, she will be elected the new leader of the Opposition United National Congress (UNC). The Siparia MP and UNC Deputy Political Leader took time out of her busy campaign and holiday festivities last week to talk with CCN’s Senior Multi-media Investigative journalist, Sasha Mohammed.
Q: Do you believe in New Year resolutions? Did you make any?
A: Yes. My New year resolution is the same as the one I made weeks ago when I decide to enter the contest for Leadership of the UNC. A Resolution for Revolution- to be the best leader of the UNC and the best Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago
Revolution meaning turning around. T&T needs a turn around, a change in direction. Cosmetic changes, changing of the guards, changing of the messenger without changing the message and holding on to the status quo are not options. We need revolutionary change. Slowing down or stopping is not enough, we must change direction and turn in the forward direction. We must revolve or we will dissolve. We need revolutionary change now.
That sounds like ’gun talk’ to me. Now that the holidays are over and we can imagine that the campaigning for the January 24 UNC internal elections shifts into high gear, are you ready? Do you have a strategy?
I have been ready from the day I made the decision to enter this race. And yes I have a strategy. But other than telling you that my campaign will not indulge in mudslinging, the strategy stays with my campaign team.
In the recent weeks, there were stories in the media about various MPs supporting current political leader Basdeo Panday by putting their names and signatures to letters stating so. Also there were reports that the Women’s Arm was also supporting Mr Panday. What do you make of this?
With regard to the endorsement by the MPs and Senators, I have already issued a statement on that and I stand by that. The essence of that statement is that 15 legislators alone won’t determine the result. I have faith in our members and they will elect me. And remember Senator Lyndira Oudit didn’t sign that statement and she is supporting me. On the Women’s Arm matter, I have now discovered that the statement to which you refer was not a bona fide decision of the women’s executive. Four of the seven executive members are saying they don’t know anything about that document and are supporting me.
But it goes further than that, you must admit. Do you believe, based on the MPs public endorsement of Mr Panday, that if you win, you are in for tough times in an executive/Parliamentary team stacked with Panday loyalists? Already, people like Dr Roodal Moonilal have said in news report that you will not have their support for Opposition Leader. What happens if there’s a repeat of the Dookeran faction scenario? Will you form a new party?
It’s part of their (the Panday team’s) strategy to win. Unfortunately whoever is managing that aspect of the campaign didn’t expect people to stand up for their rights and beliefs. Look at what happened with Senator Lyndira Oudit and the members of the Women’s Arm executive (who broke ranks and came out publicly in support of Persad-Bissessar). In every campaign people take sides. That’s their right. In any event, those are expressions from arms of the Party. But (sic) it will the body of the Party, the over 40,000 persons who will decide on January 24.
I trust the people and I am confident that they will elect me leader. I am sure that once the election is over we will all work together to focus on dealing with our internal issues and on getting ready to win a general election. The people in our party are there to serve the nation. I have every confidence that when I win this election we will all get together as a party and deal with our problems. That’s the way we have done it in the past. And then we’ll deal with the national problems, first of which is to get Manning to call an election and we’ll win that election because the people are fed up with the Manning regime. The issue of forming a party is totally irrelevant because you are assuming I will not win. I have no time to dwell on that because it is irrelevant.
But how do you respond to statements by political analysts like Dr Selwyn Ryan (Sunday Express, December 27) where he stated that if you win, you may not be allowed to lead the party? You being ostracised by the rest of the party is a real possibility. Further, do you honestly believe you can bridge the race gap that continues to be the obstacle for the UNC getting into Government?
I noted that in that column Dr Ryan raised a number of questions about the future of politics in T&T without Mr Panday, which is almost an acknowledgement that I will win. We cannot predict the future.
However, what I do know is this: we have passed the stage of ethnic polarisation in our politics.
Of course there are allegiances based on race and that will never disappear entirely. But the post-70s generation has changed. This is the 21st century.
The electorate is more alert and more demanding. Technology has transformed political communication, so I don’t expect a fragmented opposition like that. The United Labour Front in 1976 changed the political paradigm. Look at where we are today. People want a united opposition and that is why they encouraged me to run. I want a united Opposition and I know that all of us who are deeply concerned about the state of our nation will get together to vote the PNM out of office. I sincerely believe I am the only leader today who can undertake that task and win. I agree – this is not an easy task, but in the end I will win. This belief will guide all my actions post January 24, but for now, I’m concentrating on winning. I’ll deal with the hiccups when they arise but I repeat- I will not engage in speculation, however real they may seem.
On that note, how do you respond to confirmed reports that Manning’s right hand man – Jerry Narace – met with one of Panday’s right hand men – Vasant Bharath – at Bharath’s home on Christmas Day? Do you think there is a ’Manday Accord’ between the leaders of the PNM and UNC to prevent you from getting into power? If so how do you propose to deal with this powerful obstacle?
There are three separate issues that you raise. First about the campaign and rumours of deals. We can’t let fear guide us in this battle. I have faith in our members and they are the ones who will decide who will be the next leader of the UNC. Of course an incumbent in such a situation has certain advantages, but people lose elections, you know, even powerful people. And that’s because there is no force that is mightier than the will of the people. I believe in the people and I trust their judgment.
I am not bothered by the meeting between Mr Narace and Mr Bharath. First of all both of them used to be business associates and they both said they met to share drinks as friends.
Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt…their meeting is not one that causes me any anxieties or concerns. If they were talking about deals, then it is a sign of desperation and a sign of strength in my campaign.
And with respect to the so called Manday deal, that is all speculation and ole’ talk for now. First things first. We have an election on January 24 which I will win. Then we go on to rebuild our party and get back into government.
Politicians are undermined by three standard tactics-accusations of alcoholism, promiscuity and corruption. How do you believe that these allegations, which are reportedly being done on the ground against you already, will affect your image? Do you think you can survive? What are the concerns for family and personal repercussions?
I don’t subscribe to your political theory. What I know is that people use propaganda in a variety of ways to try to defeat an opponent. I expect people will try to derail my campaign in the same way. But let me make it clear that I am an honest, dedicated person who wants a better Trinidad and Tobago for all of us. I have started by running for the leadership of our party so I could restructure the UNC to win an election. Some people object to that because I am a woman; some of them because they believe it is their divine right to lead the UNC and others because they have private agendas. I have faith and confidence in our members who are the ones who will decide on January 24 who will be the new leader of the UNC and the next prime minister. But let me say that I do not think that my colleagues of the Party of the Rising Sun are capable of descending to the low levels of gutter politics or to reach for cesspool weaponry. They are men with values and families and they will not risk tarnishing the image of our Party
It’s not my political theory-it’s a political fact. In fact, Dr Ryan in his column said: ’I am also told that there is an entente discordiale between Panday and Ramesh Maharaj designed to block Bissessar at all costs. It is likewise being said that Manning is doing what he can to help Panday retain control of the UNC. All the talk about CEPEP ghost gangs may be just rumour, but it is a fact that all three men have a vested interest in her defeat.’ So my question is, what if the men in your party surprise you and resort to this ’dirty ground campaign’, what will you do?
Everybody seems to assume there will be a nasty campaign. Perhaps there will be but not from the Kamla campaign. We are more constructive than that. I have survived. I am a survivor. Women are survivors. We are strong, we are invincible. My family is fully behind me. But if I may use the war analogy, in battle you do have a choice of bullets, you will be struck down or injured by the choice of weapons of the opponents. That is the decision of others. Those are moral choices. Let me reiterate that I will not descend to those levels and will not be distracted from the noble cause of saving the nation. My job is to prevent or clean up dirt, not to produce and spread it. The slings and arrows, dirt and slime will not stop me and will not stop the People’s Revolution. Political pollution will not halt the people’s revolution.
To take up on your point about women being strong – what about the gender factor in this elections. So far one female Senator (Lyndira Oudit) has publicly endorsed you.
As Dr Ryan in his column notes ’Kamla’s current momentum is sustained by the gender factor. Many women believe that the time has come to cash in the dividends which they have earned. They are next in the queue.’
Do you believe you have the winning edge as a woman? In 2007, in the famous ’No Woman, No Cry speech’, you spoke of the pains of being in politics as a woman. Do you think the tide has finally turned and now it’s the Time for Woman?
I am sure that I will get the support of many women, but not only because of my gender. The support of the Women’s Arm of party is a clear indication that women are paying attention. I don’t believe that my gender is what is giving me the edge; on the contrary I believe it is the fact that people – members of our party in particular are saying it is time to get out of opposition and they see me as the person who can do it.
And let me make it clear that I don’t see myself as a female leader as opposed to a male leader. I am a leader and leaders have certain characteristics, regardless of gender.
Tell me a bit about what inspired that historic ’No Woman No Cry’ speech, which one can trace back as the true initial declaration of your independence from the status of ’bridesmaid’.
There were many people who felt then that I could lead the party to victory; others didn’t and as a loyal member of the party I accepted the verdict and remained loyal. I did not betray the party as Dr Ryan pointed out. I stood in the sea of men and fought a noble fight. Now people are looking again and saying ’perhaps we made a mistake in 2007, let’s not do it again’.
On the topic of strange endorsements-there’s the strange issue of Jack Warner’s complete about turn in his endorsement of you. Is he financing you?
No. As I’ve said before, my financing comes from friends, family and supporters.
How do you honestly feel about his endorsement? I detected aloofness, caution and even skepticism in your initial response.
That’s unfortunately is not how I see it. I said I welcome his endorsement and am happy for the support from Chaguanas West. And I wished him well in his campaign.
But now you have to deal with charges by people like Ramesh Maharaj that you are a COP/PNM agent?
I don’t think I need to respond to every bit of propaganda from people who want to distract me from my goal. The record is clear. I have always been loyal to my party. Check your records and you’ll see my loyalty. You’ll also see Mr Maharaj conspiring with Manning and the PNM to overthrow our UNC government. The records are there.
How do you respond to charges of not having a track record of leadership, of not being consistent as someone who one day endorses Panday and then the other jumps ship? After all, there were many who were willing to wager that there was no way that you would ever dream of running against Mr. Panday? What changed your mind? Why did you do it?
There are a few things here that require clarity. First of all, I am not running against Mr. Panday I am running with him. We all want to see who is the people’s choice. We are all engaged in a democratic process. I don’t want Kamla’s voice to prevail, I want the People’s voice to come out loud and clear. Vox populei,Vox Dei. This is democracy at work. I am not fighting anyone. That is why I decided to run, it was in response to the call by the people. I have also told you earlier that I am well positioned to bring people together to defeat Mr Manning and usher the new era of revolutionary change to turn things around. My track record is there inside and outside of parliament for all to see; people will judge that record on January 24. And I’ve said before – this is not about Mr Panday but about the country.
To come back to your relationship with Mr Panday, I must ask -Why challenge your mentor who you said has been the best Prime Minister? Why not honour him and your Parliamentary colleagues by withdrawing from the race?
I believe that I have already addressed this point but let me go a bit further. Love, honour, sentimentalities, gratitude and nostalgia for the good old days are important to all of us in our relationships. That’s what’s happening in some quarters. However, they are not the criteria for determining strategy for defeating the PNM and addressing the future. This is not about emotions, this is about pragmatism. This is about what it will take to succeed at the polls.
People in South Africa have feeling, gratitude and affection for Nelson Mandela but they would not impose on him the task of heavy lifting and routine political duties, they have an honoured place for him. That is how Elders are respected in all cultures.
But why you? Why not Ramesh Maharaj? Why not Basdeo Panday? Are they not well equipped and experienced leaders who can lead the UNC. Again I ask, why you?
The general ability to lead is not in question here. It is the ability to UNITE the Opposition forces. Lord Macaulay said ’one man may lead a horse to water but twenty cannot make him drink’. I believe that the horses are more likely to respond to me. Not only do I have the ability and potential to lead but I am already showing effectiveness as a magnet for unity. We want to win an election, not just to win affection.
You speak of new leadership-what are some key policies you would implement as a Prime Minister? Give me a brief Kamla manifesto.
One step at a time completes the longest journey. The focus today is on the leadership of the UNC. First I am going to win that campaign and then move on. You ask about policies. Policy is something that is not to be taken lightly. It requires careful consideration, consultation and so much more.
As a leader I have no intention of unilaterally outlining policy without consultations with my political colleagues, advisers and key stakeholders in this nation, including the so-called ’little people’ who are too often ignored by policymakers. That will come at the appropriate time.
Well, then, what would be your highest priority after winning the UNC leadership?
I will immediately embark on a healing process within the Party to re-group and re-deploy our resources in a formation to defeat the PNM. The healing process and Unity project will not be confined to the Party or parties but will be expanded to embrace the Nation. Our revolution is for revolutionary change from a nation of stealing to a nation of healing.
What will this history books say about you in 100 years after this fight?
It’s unlikely that any of us will be here to read them. But it really depends on who’s writing the history.
The best way to start writing that history is for journalists to be fair and honest in reporting what’s going on. That’s all we ask. And leave the rest to the historians. If we get it right in the first place in the media, chances are the historians would also get it right. And you know what? I think they will say Kamla Persad-Bissessar was a great leader, a humanitarian, a person dedicated to service for her nation.
And they would say she made a bold move, became the first female Prime Minister of T&T and that she saved Trinidad and Tobago from ruin.
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