Kamla: Beyond the Glass Ceiling

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Review by Herman Silochan, courtesy Caribbean Camera, Toronto

Toronto: Aug 19, 2010: The election of Kamla Persad-Bissessar to the office of Prime Minister in Trinidad and Tobago last May is now being analyzed by regional political scientists. That the new incumbent is a woman, of rural background, of Indian descent, forces academics to work outside the traditional tool box of investigation.
First out the post is Dr. Kris Rampersad, a journalist, lecturer and political observer in her own right. Dr. Rampersad has brought out a selection of Persad-Bissessar’s speeches showing how the path to power was cut and maintained right up to the weeks before that euphoric night of celebration.
What gives the author’s book an insightful quality is that it was launched the week before Persad-Bissessar’s massive electoral win. Few guessed what the result was going to be because commentators, inured by decades of assessing a two-party system along racial lines, hardly bothered to look behind the scenes at a fluid seething electorate, many voting for the first time.
Dr. Rampersad’s opening essay to the book, titled “A Clash of Political Cultures: Cultural Diversity & Minority Politics in Trinidad and Tobago”, sets new interpretations for future elected office holders. This essay could be a good starting point for political scientists taking a new look at the twin island republic’s evolution into its now open accepted multicultural face.
“The whole perception of T&T society is that it is race-based, and projections coming out of this, are false,” she said in Toronto this week to promote her new book. “We inherited a Westminster style system and interpreters of the two party system it posits presents and represents that in terms of race and in the process overlook that Opposition politics was really accommodating elements of the country’s diversity that could not seem to find a place in the ruling party.
Both in terms of the physical presentations and in representations of the country as a whole, you get wrong interpretations of what this country is all about. Take for example, our Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates, they do not reflect, or represent the fullness of T&T society; not the kind of society we know of a place where we have moved beyond racial tolerance to a cacualnessand comfortableness with each other and as a result we don’t have the kind of animosities and antagonisms seen in other societies coming to grip with their diversity.”
Dr. Rampersad points out that one of the enduring myths is that in sections of Trinidad there are Indian-only villages, or African-only suburbs. She insists that from times as long as one can remember, there have been peoples of different races living side by side, sharing ancestral values, and cuisines, for examples. Then you have the inevitable process of racial mixing. But it’s more than African or Indian; there’s Chinese, Syrian-Lebanese, European and Taino/Carib/Arawak. “There is no race based community in Trinidad, all are diverse. You must understand this if you want to understand the political face of the Republic and it seemed that the politics of the last 30 years has been unable to catch-up with this reality.”
Dr. Rampersad states with conviction that the evolution to a diverse political representation became more and more evident in the 1970s when cracks began appearing in the People’s National Movement when key figures like Karl Hudson-Phillips and ANR Robinson abandoned the party. The victories of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) in 1986, and the United National Congress (UNC) in 1996 are the manifestations of a broad power sharing.
It was in this period that the young wife of a doctor, Kamla Persad Bissessar was thrust into the role first as alderman, then a parliamentarian, then Attorney General, then Acting Prime Minister. She might have come from a Hindu home, but her parents also had her baptized into the Spiritual Baptist Movement. During her law studies in Jamaica and otherwise, she expanded her cultural appreciation of other societies, strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, through the campaign and on election night, on stage, she danced to Bob Marley’s “One Love”, even as possibly a couple hundred tassa drums reverberated around the party headquarters.
Reading through this selection of speeches, you also see the wordings of broad representations, Persad-Bissessar’s loyalty to her boss, the Leader of the Opposition, and former Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday, in spite of jealousies and putdowns.
Remember too we are working in an outwardly machismo society, yet still inherently matriarchal. Feminists generally call this the “glass ceiling”.
Persad-Bissessar’s speeches, which represents over 60 years of the political history of the country and some 21 years of the political life of Mrs Persad-Bissessarshows she is no fluke to the nation’s highest elected office, that she had been addressing issues and problems when few cared to debate them. That she was not ever afraid to confront her allies or government ministers with blunt language. But she tempered her rhetoric with diplomacy, smiles and a sense of logic that was hard to refute; for example, her action confronting the Speaker of the House with his stupid decision banning laptops in Parliament when every other democracy in the world was incorporating them into the era of information led debate.
For lovers of Trinbago society, this is a good book to have, to appreciate the fullness of its roots, and as the author’s says, a good template for other emergent multicultural societies the world over.
The book is called Through The Political Glass Ceiling, Race to Prime Ministership by Trinidad and Tobago’s First Female – Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
Reprinted with permission of The Caribbean Camera, Toronto, Canada. http://www.thecaribbeancamera.com/home-page

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