According to Trinidad and Tobago political scientist, Selwyn Ryan, “She (Kamla Persad-Bissessar) has changed the nature and direction of politics in T&T.” Yet in the context of the Caribbean, before Kamla Persad-Bissessar took the reins of government in Trinidad & Tobago, there were Prime Minister Dame Eugenia Charles of Dominica, (21 Jul 1980 – 14 Jun 1995); President Janet Jagan of Guyana (19 Dec 1997 – 11 Aug 1999); Prime Minister Portia Simmons of Jamaica (30 Mar 2006 – 11 Sep 2007 and currently); Premier Donna Cox of Bermuda (October 2010 to present time) and Prime Minister Michele Pierre Louis of Haiti (5 September 2008 to 11 November 2009).
Not to be excluded are the following Governor Generals: Dame Minita Gordon (Belize 1981 to 1993); Dame Nita barrow (Barbados 1990 to 1995); Dr. C. Pearlette Louisy (St. Lucia 1997 to current time); Dr. Ivy Leona Dumont (Bahamas 2001 to 2005) Dame Louise Lake-Tack (Antigua & Barbuda 2007 to current time). Also there is Deputy Prime Minister Girlyn Miguel (St. Vincent & the Grenadines (December 2010 to present time). The question therefore is this: how is the Kamla Persad-Bissessar phenomenon different? The answer: because it ushered in significant changes in the body politic of Trinidad & Tobago, changes which did not accompany any of the afore-mentioned female politicians.
One manifestation of this change, according to T&T media columnist Martin Daly, is the “restoration of civility in the conduct of public affairs.” Another manifestation is the jettisoning of racial politics. In fact, the success thus far, (amidst much skepticism and in spite of the doomsayers) of the multi-ethnic coalition known as the People’s Partnership, the composition of the Cabinet and the many other appointments that reflect Trinidad & Tobago’s myriad hues, certainly bespeak a refreshing multi-racial approach to politics and governance on the part of Ms. Persad-Bissessar.
Yet a third change is the elimination of the ’Hindu’ image that branded the United National Congress (UNC), the political party that gave birth to Bissessar. In its place has arisen a political partnership that transcends religious hegemony although Bissesar has displayed personal courage in holding firm to practicing her religion, rather than subject her convictions to the swirling winds of politics, even when she was criticized in some quarters for bowing down to the feet of the Indian President – a practice that indicates one Hindu displaying reverence for the achievements and status of another.
A fourth change has been the ease with which this modest East Indian woman of Hindu persuasion, has been able to win the support and confidence of strong, powerful men across the race and cultural divides, both locally and internationally. In fact, she was able to infect others with her passion and her social sensitivity, which became campaign strengths, thereby shattering gender role prescriptions given that these attributes are traditionally considered weaknesses. In short, as one T&T commentator puts it, “a new meritocracy transcending race and religion, color or ethnicity has quietly slipped into our political space”. Additionally Persad-Bissessar’s accession to political leadership has brought to an end the paternalistic, maximum leader concept, which has been replaced by cabinet members who have real authority and decision-making powers, as well as the freedom to make personal public statements that do not necessarily reflect those of either their party or government. Simultaneously, the Prime Minister has placed emphasis on holding members of her government to a high level of accountability and has not been amiss in firing a number of them who failed to stand up to the levels of performance and leadership she demands.
However, perhaps the defining change is the fact that Persad-Bissessar’s ascension to the top has not only paved the way for other female political leaders but it has actually transformed the political psyche of Trinbago voters who, within the last few months, have catapulted women to leading positions in the various political parties.
Just over two years after inaugurating its first woman prime minister, T&T saw the following women being elected to the substantive political positions: Carolyn Seepersaud-Bachan as chairperson of the Congress of People (COP); Nicole Dyer-Griffith as vice chair of the COP; Pennelope Beckles-Robinson, as vice chairman of the People’s National Movement (PNM). Additionally the PNM also saw Jennifer Primus-Baptiste elected as Labor Relations Officer and Yolanda George-Reid as Youth Officer.
After winning the election to her party’s top post, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan immediately extended a hand of inclusion to the defeated candidates. Some would argue that this inclusionary approach is a page out of the playbook of Kamla Persaud Bissessar. Meanwhile Vice-Chairman of the PNM, Pennelope Beckles-Robinson, wants more attention to be paid to helping people cope with the daily stresses of life, according to the T&T Newsday newspaper. Some would say that too is a page from Persad-Bissessar’s playbook. Nicole Dyer-Griffith expressed a similar perspective by indicating to the T&T Newsday newspaper she was raised to ask, “What can I do to make things better for other people?”
T&T exhibits pride of place in the Caribbean, in the significant elevation of women to positions of political leadership, cognizance must be taken of an earlier female politician who probably set the tone by taking on the hitherto male dominated cabal that was entrenched in the UNC. In 1995, Hulsie Bhaggan dared to challenge political icon, Basdeo Panday for the leadership of the UNC. After being soundly rejected by male centric politics, which was of the order of the day, she launched her own movement, which too became a victim of the male centricism.
But the seed had been planted and the tree flowered when Persad-Bissessar won the leadership of the UNC and then the prime ministership of T&T. Of course there were those before Hulsie who were part of the political status quo: Isabella U. Teshea was Vice-chairperson of People’s National Movement 1956-61 and Norma Lewis-Phillip in 2000. Jennifer U. Johnson was Secretary General of the short-lived National Alliance for Reconstruction. Joan Yuille-Williams acted as Prime Minister on four different occasions and has been Deputy Leader of the People’s National Movement since 1996. Linda Babolall was Chairperson of People’s National Movement 1996-2001 as well as Deputy Head of State and acting State-President on many occasions. Dr. Daphne Phillips-Gaskin was Acting Prime Minister in 2001.
Now with Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Nicole Dyer-Griffith, Pennelope Beckles-Robinson, Jennifer Primus-Baptiste and Yolanda George-Reid, not only are the fruits becoming visible and viable, but young women have more role models to look up to as well as the recognition that politics at the leadership level can never again be the domain of only males.
Yet with the Lower House of T&T’s legislature having just 12 women out of 41 MPs, or just 29 percent and The Senate only seven out of 31 Senators are women, or just 23 percent, there is still a far way to go towards equity on the political landscape of Trinidad & Tobago. However, that Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissesar was featured in Time Magazine as one of 13 women globally to hold the reins in their respective nations and ranked by Forbes Magazine at 27th on the list of the 100 Most Powerful Women, would have indicated that the stage is well set for more women to ascend to political leadership in T&T and that T&T is now paving the way, in that respect, for other Caribbean and developing nations.