Fifty-nine year-old Kamla Persad-Bissessar swept to power on May 24th in Trinidad and Tobago in a historic election rearranging the balance of power in that country forever. In a country riven by racial tensions (40% of the population is of Indian origin and about 37% of African descent), where the latter group has dominated the political life of the nation this Indo-Trinidadian woman campaigned and won on a platform of multi-racialism and the promise of change. Her win was decisive, the coalition she led winning 29 parliamentary seats out of 41. The ruling party, headed by former Prime Minister Manning only managed to win 12 seats compared to the 26 it had previously held.
The 24th day of the month has proved to be a lucky one for Persad-Bissessar. It was only three months earlier that she bruisingly defeated Basdeo Panday, nicknamed the Silver Fox, the leader of the United National Congress, a party affiliated with Indian interests. On February 24th of this year Kamla Persad-Bissessar was elected political leader of the UNC and on March 24th she became Leader of the Opposition. On May 26th Persad-Bissessar was sworn in as Prime Minister on the Bhagavad Gita, a symbolically important act in this multiethnic society.
Though born into a Trinidadian Hindu family, at the age of 12 Kamla was baptized a Christian, making her, like many others in this fascinating island, a ‘Hindu Christian,’ that is, someone who is culturally Hindu who has also adopted the Christian religion for reasons of her own. After and during indentureship many Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago had to convert to Christianity to access education and other such benefits.
“I think Trinidadians are very comfortable with being bi-religious,” says Toronto-based sociologist Anton Allahar. “They see Hinduism more as a culture and less as a religion. Once you accept the central tenets of Christianity you could perform Pujas and other Hindu rituals and it wouldn’t be a problem.”
According to Trinidadian pollster Selwyn Ryan, Kamla Persad-Bissessar is ‘multi-faith’. She became a member of the Baptist Church at age 12 and her husband is Presbyterian, but she is a Hindu. “I consider myself a member of all faiths” she is reputed to have said. Ryan, an Afro-Trinidadian, previously a staunch PNM supporter and adviser, is now firmly in Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s camp as are many other stalwarts of that party.
In many ways Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s political campaign can be compared to that of President Barrack Obama’s. Her embodiment of different cultures, her ability to command the respect of all different ethnic groups and her argument against the old politics of divisiveness all stood her in good stead. Her personal charisma and well-maintained figure also did her no harm.
“In the 1980s I wrote a paper called ‘The Creolization of Indian Women’” said Patricia Mohammed, a leading authority on Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Trinidad. “I was talking about the way in which Indian women in Trinidad have turned the very weaknesses associated with them–submissiveness, subservience–into strengths.” According to Mohammed submissiveness is turned into endurance, passivity becomes a talent for negotiation and these married with intelligence, the product of their investment in education, can prove to be an unbeatable combination. “So what i see with Kamla Persad-Bissessar is a coming of age, to use a cliche, and to reduce her victory only to ‘the woman thing’ is to deny the importance of race and how important this has been for Indians here and Indian women in particular.”
Race and ethnicity may not have the same sway they have traditionally had, especially with the younger electorate, according to Gabrielle Hosein, a young lecturer and activist also from the Gender Studies Department at UWI. This may explain why traditional party loyalists were willing to switch their vote at the last minute to the UNC-COP coalition that Kamla Persad-Bissessar represented.
Crucial to her victory, according to Hosein, was the support of the COP, the Congress of the People, an influential group representing a diverse range of interests across race, ethnicity and even class. “If you went to COP meetings you saw working class people, both Africans and Indians who may have been fed up of both the PNM and the UNC. The COP was a palatable alternative. In my mind they gave a lot of validity to the UNC and allowed them to become the national party that they would never have been otherwise.”
Panday’s decisive defeat at the hands of Kamla Persad-Bissessar as leader of the UNC may also have played a role. “She fought an excellent campaign. It was so clean. Basdeo Panday was busy bad-talking her saying she was a drunkard, she couldn’t lead, how incompetent she was and she systematically praised him, saying he was her guru and she was his disciple…she ran the cleanest campaign. I was so proud of her.”
Despite her evident enthusiasm for Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Hosein, who is author of an outspokenly critical video blog called “If I Were Prime Minister” in which she had mercilessly parodied the mismanagement of the previous administration, says she will continue her vigilant monitoring of the new leadership. “I’m actually looking forward to making fun of Kamla because i think the blog is a no-holds barred statement of what we see that’s wrong around us and the need to fix those things.
If I Were Prime Minister, video blog by Gabrielle Hosein
“The blogs are not going to stop because what we’re called on now to do as social movements, and activists and citizens is to be hyper-vigilant because neither the UNC and the PNM–in fact no political part–is free from corruption, they all need to be held to account. I think the population needs to follow up on the vote by being active citizens and monitoring the processes of governance. I think the more people on the ground who are questioning and making demands of Kamla, the easier it will be for her to govern.”
PS: This piece was originally written for The Pioneer in India, which carried an edited version of it in May. In light of PM Persad-Bissessar’s visit to Jamaica to attend the CARICOM Summit i thought it might be worth reproducing here.
PPS: Kamla swept everyone off their feet in Jamaica both at the CARICOM meeting and elsewhere. Here are two write-ups of her visits, a Daily Express one from Trinidad and a Sunday Gleaner one from Jamaica.