The Challenge Of Kamla’s Populist Politics

Converting Love Into Productivity


Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar

It may be the usual post-election honeymoon, but it seems that since the May 2010 general election, the population has begun to exhale.  The galloping national anxiety over the high-handedness of the Manning regime has given way, at least for now, to a sense of ease that comes from the self-confidence of a people who have proven to themselves that when it matters, they are capable of acting in their own interest and defence.

The population is maturing. In deciding to transfer their mandate from the Manning administration to the People’s Partnership, the people stepped in and regained control of their destiny, creating room to change course and chart a new direction with a government that offered itself as one willing to partner with them in the process of national development. In response, Kamla Persad-Bissessar has made a point of reaching out as a kinder, gentler- even maternal- leader. The first- and possibly the most important- achievement of the Kamla-led government, therefore, has been to make people relax and feel loved again.

As the political careers of Eric Williams and Basdeo Panday would show, love between leaders and their people is not something to be under-estimated. The challenge, however, is to harness public love and goodwill into quantifiable elements of productivity and output for the purpose of national development.

On Saturday 12 June, 2010, Finance Minister Winston Dookeran made this very point as he launched his Tunapuna People’s Partnership, declaring that releasing the positive energies of the people through volunteerism was one way of dealing with the parlous state of the Treasury.

The task calls for a combination of populist politics and strategic management- which is not beyond Kamla Persad-Bissessar who brings to her portfolio an enormous ability to multi-task.

After graduating with a first degree in English Language and Literature (1974), she embarked on a career of work and study while being a wife and mother. Whilst teaching at St Andrews High School in Jamaica, she studied for her Bachelor of Education degree (1976) and whilst teaching at UWI and at Lakshmi Girls High School in St Augustine, she diligently pursued law studies, gaining her Bachelor of Laws degree in 1985 and her licence to practise law in 1987.

During this time, she also entered politics with the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) beginning in 1985. More recently, whilst practising law, being MP for Siparia  and, in 2006, being Leader of the Opposition, she was able to complete an Executive MBA at UWI.

She brings to the job, therefore, not only her multi-tasking ability but a sound academic background in the English Language, in practical and theoretical teaching approaches; in legal expertise and in management .

Added to these attributes is her long and challenging political journey, from Alderman in the St Patrick County Council (1987-1991), to her unsuccessful contest  (1991) for the Siparia seat  as a NAR candidate; to her repeated side-lining by the male-dominated political hierarchy (both UNC and PNM) which relegated women to what Eric Williams once famously referred to as his “kitchen cabinet”.

These political experiences have given Kamla a good sense of timing and a clear understanding of the madness which afflicts men in their quest for dominance. Her maternal aura has certainly been an asset in promoting healing along party lines, both before and in the immediate aftermath of a bitterly fought general election.

The new hands-on leadership style was clearly demonstrated on the very day of swearing-in when the Prime Minister stopped the partying to go and look after flood-stricken residents. In doing so, the PM immediately drew a line between the leadership style of her predecessor in office and herself. She has continued in that vein, touching people and, in so doing, giving life to her credo that those elected to office are the servants of the people. Some of her ministers have followed this example: Vasant Bharath with the cassava farmers in Caparo and Prakash Ramadhar among flooded-out residents in Oropune among others. The Prime Minister’s self-confidence, honed by hard knocks, can be seen in the manner in which she has opted to bring strong individuals into her government, rather than neophytes who would owe their political existence to her.

In fact, she has sent a strong message about qualitative leadership in reducing the trappings of office. Witness her offer of the PM’s residence to the President; the removal of the nation’s coat of arms from the PM’s car and the gentle toning down of the police presence around her as she seeks to maintain touch with the media and with Tom, Lisa and Harrylal.

So, one can say she’s off to a promising start:

• She has a Cabinet that is beginning to settle in

• She has dented whatever anxieties might have existed about race and gender in the immediate aftermath of the elections

• She has created no situations, thus far, to give credence to the fears about the ability of the People’s Partnership to cohere in office.

But while this phase may very well set the tone for her government into the future it is after all, just the opening phase.

The proof of the pudding is going to come in the months and years ahead as the electorate judges her leadership by her ability to improve the quality of their lives.

In this regard some of the key markers ahead would be:

1) The Parliamentary Agenda: What are the Govt’s legislative priorities and what impact will it have on  enhancing the lives of the people? More than anything, people want to see an end to the kicksin’ in parliament and that those elected to represent them are serious about the people’s business. So the restoration of not just dignity, but purpose and democracy to Parliament are critical.

2) The Budget: The Minister of Finance has inherited the task of making good on a range of platform promises that have to be kept. One doesn’t envy his job, given his report that things are much worse than expected at the Treasury. There is going to be a tremendous job of communication to be done by the leadership in helping the population to understand how the choices are being made and why. This is never an easy job. It is not going to be good enough to say the Treasury is empty. The people expect that those who offer themselves for office know these things before they get there. So, they will want answers. The PM and the Minister of Finance will have to have the courage to take the country into their confidence. The population is mature enough to be leveled with and to be trusted with information. We want to know the real state of our economy, and we want to know the solutions that they are bringing to whatever challenges that exist. If it makes sense to the people, the people will themselves become part of the solution.

3) Then, there are also a number of issues regarding Leadership:

a) Strength: The Opposition has already put that on the table by accusing her of weakness and warning about the powerful forces insider her cabinet. And indeed there are some pretty powerful personalities and interests, both inside her cabinet, and outside. What kind of leader will she show herself to be? Well, we already see a tendency towards consensus- which is good. But the effective consensual leader has to have the ability convince people and win support for the difficult and important decisions of the day. Otherwise, consensus could become a case of taking the line of least resistance- which would be the sign of weakness.

b) Diligence: The leader’s job is all-encompassing. She delegates but still has to stay on top of everything- even as she has to be out and about among the people. In this regard, she will require serious professional capabilities around her. Many a leader has fallen prey to the good intentions of sycophants and other supporters with less than professional or discriminating capabilities. A good leader can be tripped up by the painting of false realities inside the echo chamber in which power resides. So more than anything, she has to have her own ability to sift reality, as well a professional team that is willing and able to speak truth to power.

c) Time Management: A people person, as the Prime Minister has already shown herself to be, runs the risk of having to be everything to everybody, everyday. No leader can be effective if they don’t master the art of discipline with flexibility.

d) Good Health: The best intentions of any leader can be derailed by the limitations of their physical condition. Adequate rest, a good diet, effective avenues for stress relief, a harmonious family life, good friends…. All these are vital to maintaining an alert mind, a sense of well-being and personal peace- all critical in order to deliver at one’s best.

A key point that the entire administration needs to note, is that government is a going and projects are reviewed, the business of government must continue. Stasis is dangerous- not just to the national economy but to national self-confidence.

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