Kamla maintains a steely cool

 

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Category: Trinidad Politics 12 Feb 12

 

On the morning of my interview with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar I glimpsed a cinematic image of her. She was lit at the podium at NAPA during the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Caribbean launch in a snappy purple beige-lined suit. Under her, in the front row, were members of her Cabinet—all men. I had to repress a giggle at this rare reversal of traditional roles—alert schoolboys under the queen bee. That image is her abiding legacy to our daughters, of clearing their way in a still very unequal world.

The woman I met last Thursday in her office in the Parliament on Wrightson Road was more than her one-dimensional image: the triumphant Prime Minister; the glam globetrotter; and to some, the out-of-touch queen. I expected her unfailing politeness that varied from warm to icy, and her quick riposte, reminiscent of her former leader and nemesis, Basdeo Panday. Beyond the salmon pink lipstick smile, I saw she was all there, in charge. Her public persona may be at times crudely populist, the lady with the hampers, the lady launching “Colour Me Orange.”

I met an A-type overachiever, one eye on a blinking blackberry, (she reads all our papers online) is academic, literary even, with a photographic memory. Her hilarious but brutal talent for mimicry shows she can dissect people with surgical precision. She’s gutsy, rather than emotional, and maintains a steely cool under the harshest of criticisms. After our two-hour interview she briskly, on an empty stomach, took off to Parliament at 9 pm. This is the first of a two-part interview with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

Q: Madam PM, you have become a fashionista, your office seemingly overshadowed by your profusion of hats, saris, suits, dresses. One critic recently dubbed you the Imelda Marcos of the Caribbean. Aren’t you afraid of being trivialised, dismissed as a pretty face?

A: (Laughs) Imelda was about shoes, wasn’t she? I have two favourites, one which I am wearing. People will always talk. If I look dowdy people will say Kamla mashed up, gone through. If you look at old pictures of me I have always dressed well. Not as a thing apart but as an extension of who I am, 100 per cent Trini woman. I like dash and flair. It’s me. My heritage of five continents shows in my hats and suits, to saris, African or Chinese wear. I don’t have a stylist, my sister buys my clothes. When I wake up in the morning, like every working woman, if I feel to wear red, blue or black I do just that. I embody multiculturalism. What’s wrong with that?

It’s been almost two years since your May 24, 2010 general election victory. Your personal popularity hasn’t waned, but there is definite disappointment from a nation who had high hopes of change. From fissures and cracks within the coalition, to the perception of a stagnant economy, to perceived racial imbalances on state boards, to allegations of corruption, and finally, crime, you are dogged with problems. Have you got a handle on it?

Firstly, the coalition. We do have differences of opinion. That’s how we came together in the first place. To bring diversity to the table. You have a five-party partnership within one party so naturally there are differences of opinion. We thrash things out and build consensus. There may be cracks or fissures but there are no precipices, canyons, no great divisions. Our ministers pull together on core issues. Sorry, but I don’t see us mashing up.

Jack Warner did a volte face on the hanging petition. Did you give him a rap on the knuckles?
You have to ask Jack that. Regarding the economy, if you listen to the Finance Minister now in Parliament as we do this interview, he is giving us a global picture of a global recession, of the European countries which have virtually shut down, of slowing economies in Asia. In this global climate we have achieved stability. Don’t knock it. Stability is a miracle, especially for a tiny nation like ours when continents are bending under global pressure. When we came in the treasury was almost empty. Now we are stable. That’s huge. We have a long list of achievements. We are very good at not communicating what we have done. We are too busy working to keep this ship afloat.

Thirdly, regarding racial imbalances on the state boards, go through every state board in the past 15 years and you will be amazed at the past imbalance. This is the most representative T&T government we’ve ever had of our diverse peoples, on the bench, in Cabinet, senators, MPS. There are those who are bent on dividing the population. That’s their job, to create and feed that perception. It’s pathetic they are willing to give up the country’s stability for personal political gain. Fourthly, I will not tolerate corruption in Government. I have had no evidence of it despite many farfetched allegations, and if it’s there we will deal with it with the full force of the law. That’s why the procurement legislation to help fight white-collar crime is so important and why the decision to pull out, the volte face, by the Opposition in the 11th hour is hypocritical and damaging to the country. We have no choice but to complete the bill with or without them, take it to Parliament, let the people decide.

Opposition Leader Keith Rowley said your “kissing the foot” of the Indian President Pratibha Patil during your recent visit there while representing T&T as Prime Minister was an act of subservience, demeaning to our people.

I met her Excellency Pratibha Patil the day before she presented me with the award. We developed an immediate rapport. I respected her, felt an affinity with her on many levels. She’s a warm human being and reminded me of my aji, my paternal grandmother. I saw that she was not just a figure head. She would have to have been a tremendously courageous and brave woman to go into politics in India at just 29. Her brave struggles took her to the highest office in India today and in some small way, reminded me of my own struggles. At the official function of the Indian Diaspora function, Pravasi Bhariya Samman embraced me first, then put the Diaspora award the medal around my neck. I didn’t plan it, I bent down spontaneously in the ancient gesture of respect to touch her feet. It was totally the right thing to do. I’ve done it all my growing up years in Trinidad to older people.

You don’t “kiss a foot.” As soon as you bow down in this old tradition, they lift you up and embrace you and that’s what happened. People made a mountain out of a molehill. All gestures of humility of bowing in Japan, of kissing the ring of the Pope, of receiving the robes of an African chief with grace, are about respect which don’t ever take anything from us, but add to us as a people. Maybe we need a return to those lost values. No, I added to our dignity as a people. Nothing was taken away.

The former prime minister Basdeo Panday has begun screening for a slate for “Generation Next” ostensibly “to ensure that the party is representative of all its members” for the upcoming March 24 UNC internal elections. Will this see the rise of Mikela Panday? Are you threatened?
No. At the recent UNC celebrations in Couva 30,000 people showed up to show their support. I told them then you own this party, not the leader or any member of Natex—our national executive and I maintain that. Generation X, Mikela, anyone is entitled like any other member to contest positions but I am disappointed that Basdeo Panday is not courageous enough to contest. I was looking forward to beating him again, this time 40 to one.

Residents of Siparia recently protested at your perceived neglect of your constituency—bad roads, poor infrastructure—by lighting tyres and blocking roads with debris. They say their complaints at the constituency office have gone unanswered, that you are never there. Do you see this as a portent of loss of support countrywide?

It was not a protest of the whole constituency but a group of residents some of whom have apologised for blocking the road and inconveniencing other residents. People are free to hold peaceful demonstrations. The constituency office is open to them as a better alternative. I share the concerns of the residents. We’ve had a history of neglect. A lot of things need fixing. All can’t be done all at once. Progress has to be shared. It’s happening. I can provide you a list from increased water supply, to school being repaired in Siparia.

Much as I want to, due to budget constraints I cannot fix every road, every school, build every bridge, in every constituency all at once. It’s a double-edged sword having a prime minister as your MP. On the one hand, you are accused of not serving your constituency, and on the other if I concentrate all my efforts on my constituents I will be accused of doing so at the expense of the rest of the country, of being unfair.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur