The trajectory of Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s political career is a cautionary tale to any who would assume that gender presupposes good governance.
In the months before the 2010 election, there were valid queries about questionable construction projects and a frightening escalation of the crime rate under then leader of government and the People’s National Movement (PNM)—now deceased Patrick Manning.
Additionally, there were Manning’s tyrannical tendencies and overweening arrogance.
The then People’s Partnership, a coalition of political entities led by the honourable Persad-Bissessar, promoted the concept of ‘new politics’ as the antidote to the outdated PNM/UNC partisan culture. Added to this pitch was the fact that the campaign was led by a woman.
To many, this was a good thing of itself and a sub-campaign was formed promoting Kamla on account of her gender—with the reasoning that it was imperative to support a woman in a male-dominated forum. Of course, this is correct.
Demographics that have been systematically disenfranchised should be supported within those systems. This is a necessary move towards equity.
However, the problem here is, as with anyone else, the continued support of someone who has not performed adequately, especially if more effective options are present. The situation is more pronounced when this person’s performance impacts on matters of national interest, with long lasting and far reaching effects.
Persad-Bissessar was mentored within the once formidable National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR). Throughout her political career, she referred to this as a point of validity for her leadership role.
She ascended through the ranks of the United National Congress (UNC) and was the first female attorney general of Trinidad and Tobago. I remember that day in 1996 when she was replaced as AG by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj.
As a young feminist I saw this as a misogynist act by the then government. Notwithstanding her qualifications, she was made to look as though she was simply standing in for a man.
I remember the indignation I felt looking at her subsequent televised address. As she approached the platform, Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’ played.
By that time, Kamla had already developed a strong emotional connection with the public. Her struggle for recognition within a patriarchal political system reverberated with the story of every woman—including mine.
It is understandable to me, therefore, that many held the vision of Kamla dear. If what happened in the 2020 General Election was a case of Persad-Bissessar being held to higher standards than her male counterparts or unfairly critiqued on the basis of gender, we’d be having an entirely different conversation. This is not the case.
If anything, Kamla continued to receive the benefit of doubt from many in civil society and the wider public because she is a woman.
Part of the legacy of Kamla’s term in office is a slew of poorly conceived and managed fiscal policies that benefited her supporters and left the country in a dire economic state.
Even more damaging was the 2011 State of Emergency—questioned for its legality—which saw the suspension of citizens’ constitutional rights and a curfew with the state granted authority to detain people without query. To date there is no reliable report to measure the effectiveness of this campaign.
Six districts were labelled ‘hot spots’ and remain the targets of police persecution, marked by race and class.
In 2017, I was deeply troubled by the Kamla-led Opposition’s refusal to back an amendment to the Marriage Acts to discontinue child marriages, which disproportionately disadvantages girls. Trinidad and Tobago’s first woman prime minister and opposition leader chose instead to indirectly support an institution that robbed girls of the full potential of their lives.
In this historic moment, Kamla failed to exercise her political will in the interest of the most vulnerable in her gender demographic. From 2010 to now—and more acutely in the months before the 2020 general election—the duty of care that should be given to domestic policies and international diplomacy appeared to have exited the scope of Kamla’s politics.
This led to doubts about her goodwill towards the nation and weakened her stewardship as the leader of the United National Congress, which remains one of the country’s most established and impactful political parties with a venerable history of representing previously marginalised communities.
In the build-up to the 10 August election, racist blogs and social media posts flourished, as a slew of reprehensible UNC advertisements ran for weeks on television, social media and in national newspapers.
In these, African heritage personae were presented in deplorable economic and social conditions.
The People’s National Movement (PNM) has its own history of race baiting, with Dr Eric Williams’ ‘recalcitrant minority’ speech or, in more recent times, the ‘Calcutta ship’ reference or the sari skit. But there is a difference in accountability between the two parties.
In a pre-election rally, Kamla referred to Prime Minister Keith Rowley as ‘the black man’. However, although a recording of the speech was available, she later insisted that she said ‘blank’ and tried to elude responsibility for her statement. (‘Blank’ might even be worse as it seems to erase the humanity and personhood of the subject.)
Further to the racist campaign were Kamla’s Trump-like remarks when addressing the most immediate and presently most consequential matter of public health: Covid-19.
Her unscientific claim about sunlight and other homeopathic remedies as a foil to the virus, showed a dismissal of official information coming from the World Health Organization (WHO) and contradicted measures urged by chief medical officer Dr Roshan Parasram.
Surely, with such an illustrious career as an attorney at law, she should understand the implications of equating months abroad, through closed borders, in the interest of public health to slavery and indentureship—a system of forced labour and systemic oppression on the basis of race, or another system of labour characterised by terrible working conditions and socio-political marginalisation.
Like Trump, Kamla appeared to be appealing to race and emotions and catering manifestly towards a misinformed electorate.
Following the election on 10 August, she questioned the veracity of the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) and had to be coaxed into a concession, which had a critical omission. She failed to resign with immediate effect as political leader, even as she voiced this ironically timely reflection:
“[…] One must accept responsibility for mistakes made whether you were aware of them or not, whether you had any control over them or not… some of them you make on your own.”
Kamla was not only the first woman prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago but also the first woman prime minister of Indian heritage outside of India and other southern Asian countries.
Now, her legacy also includes racist campaigns and a stream of political defeats. Once eloquent and poised, she has become a rambler—her words slurred. Her brilliant image of ‘new politics’ was destroyed.
She has become a caricature: Kamla the drunk. Kamla the racist. Kamla the puppet.
Worse than her past and present misjudgments was her threat of the future, as she prepared a new foundation with characters of questionable reputations who would have become government ministers.
Kamla belongs to a demographic that has historically been on the receiving end of reduction. She should understand the marginalisation, festish-isation and sensationalisation meted out to women, as our country struggles in the post-Independence era to move past racial stereotypes of Indian and African heritage women.
Indeed, women of all races are suppressed on the basis of gender. But Kamla cannot justify support by virtue of being a woman alone.
The trajectory of Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s career as a politician is one that anyone who assumes public office would do well to heed. It is my ardent hope that the current leadership of the United National Congress will be replaced with critical thinkers, who understand and respond sensitively to the complexities of our culturally heterogeneous nation.
Without prejudice, may 2025 bring fresh faces, progressive ideas, focused debates, just policies and tactful diplomacy in the interest of all citizens of the republic.
A luta continua!