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PETER WICKHAM: Kamla’s dilemma


PETER WICKHAM: Kamla’s dilemma

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There can be no question that former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has written her name on the page of Trinidad and Tobago’s history and largely in a good way. She was one of only two people that led a coalition government successfully into office in Trinidad and Tobago and of course she was the only woman to have done so.

These factors of uniqueness alone are important to her political biography since her elevation will represent what is possible for so many young Trinbagonian boys and girls. Years ago, a North American (Caucasian) student of mine who was partial to the Republicans, argued that he would cross party lines and support Barack Obama in 2009. His logic was simple and similar to that which I have applied to Persad-Bissessar.

Obama was a “decent” politician whose achievements gave hope to a substantial component of the population which often feels disenfranchised. These persons are part of the family of America and as such entitled to equal access to important national offices. Similarly, I have argued that as so much of Trinbago’s history was dominated by the People’s National Movement and largely Afro-Trinbagonian rule, a majority of its citizens might not feel fully invested in their county’s development, and that can create social stress.

Basdeo Panday’s election addressed this perception since as the first Indo-Trinbagonian prime minister he demonstrated that it was indeed possible for an East Indian to lead the country successfully. However, he did lead the United National Congress (UNC) and not a coalition, which carries entirely different connotations. In the case of Persad-Bissessar, she successfully led a coalition into office, which was as inspirational as ANR Robinson’s coalition victory in 1986, especially as he was himself a Tobagonian, which is another marginalised political sub-group.

As Persad-Bissessar set about her task it appeared as though she was determined to defy the odds and last more than the one-term that the National Alliance for Reconstruction did (1986-1991). She embraced political interests that she technically did not “need” to maintain her majority such as the labour movement and Tobago interests. She also gave prominence to the Congress of the People, which delivered a section of the population critical to her political survival.  These moves demonstrated an understanding of the task at hand and an appreciation of the extent to which her meteoric rise was not a singular effort, but rested on several pillars, the foundations of which needed to be maintained.

Persad-Bissessar encountered problems and her tenacity was not lost on me. She will go down in history as the Caribbean leader who tolerated the least “nonsense” from her ministers.

This is of course a conclusion about which there can be substantial discussion; however, there can be little disagreement that she acted in response to behaviour that appeared improper even to the extent that she damaged herself politically in the process. She fought valiantly to the end and in so doing attempted to articulate a narrative consistent with a new approach to politics in Trinbago which is badly needed.

Notwithstanding all this, her loss at the polls signifies a rejection of her project, with all that such a rejection entails, and it is clear that the implications have been lost on her.  She does not yet understand that the People’s Partnership losses were a reflection on several mistakes she made. Significant among these is the perception that she was preferred to Dr Rowley. This was clearly a fiction perpetrated by those with a vested interest in keeping her in power. Such a perception was never manifested in the CADRES pre-election poll and even if it were, the fact that Dr Rowley prevailed, makes it difficult to argue successfully that a majority of Trinbagonians really prefer her. The aura of “Tanty Kams” has therefore been shattered and the associated political brand is of very little utility going forward.

Persad-Bissessar therefore has a simple political choice: either exploit her legacy of success as outlined above or immerse herself in futile political battles within the UNC which will focus attention on her weakness and proclivity to ignore the obvious. As the UNC begins the task of rebuilding, it makes more sense for them to invest in someone else, since it is unlikely that she will have two bites at the political cherry she sampled in 2010.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email [email protected]