Trinidad's PM breaks the cultural mould
- 24 June 2010
- From the section South Asia
Barely 24 hours after she was sworn in as the first woman prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar donned a life jacket and waded into the flood waters to tour areas affected by torrential rains sweeping across the Caribbean.
A devout Hindu, she swore on the Bhagavad Gita - the Hindu holy book - to do her duty to her people.
Even as congratulations poured in from around the world, she remained focused on "dealing with the people's business".
It was the most important task at hand, she told her 1.3m citizens during the live televised address of her historic swearing-in ceremony.
A descendant of Indian indentured labourers who came to Trinidad to work the sugar plantations from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar between 1845 and 1917, Ms Persad-Bissessar grew up with traditional Indian values and strong religious ties.
The landslide victory of the coalition led by her United National Congress (UNC) party in last month's election has brought a sense of euphoria and feeling of hope to this incredibly wealthy republic.
Trinidad and Tobago has sailed smoothly through the global recession, cushioned by a sea of oil and natural gas.
The squandering of billions of dollars by the former government and alleged corruption helped bring this 58-year-old grandmother-of-two into power.
She unseated former PM Patrick Manning whose People's National Movement (PNM) party had governed the country for 42 of the 48 years since its independence from the UK.
An attorney by profession, Ms Persad-Bissessar is no novice to politics having been the MP for her area Siparia, a rural town in the south of the island, since 1995.
In the last 15 years she has weathered many political storms, even as she broke gender barriers.
Former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday (1995-2001) appointed her attorney general and education minister during the UNC's first stint in office, and she even acted as PM.
But in 2007, in the lead-up to a general election, when it was clear that she was the best person to lead the party, Mr Panday refused to resign.
Ms Persad-Bissessar, who is married to a doctor and has a son, swallowed the humiliation, even giving a famous speech to the theme of Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry, in which she declared her undying support for her political guru.
But all that changed last December.
As then Prime Minister Manning became increasingly unpopular, Ms Persad-Bissessar saw a golden opportunity for the opposition forces to unite to topple the ruling People's National Movement.
But as she launched her bid to take over the UNC, Mr Panday unleashed an attack on her reputation, suggesting that she was an alcoholic.
Ms Persad-Bissessar called the accusation "total falsehood".
"It is a smear campaign of lies, half-truths and innuendoes. Smear campaigns do not win elections. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words cannot hurt me."
Indeed, they did not.
On 24 January, Ms Persad-Bissessar became leader of the UNC with a landslide victory.
When Mr Panday refused to step down as leader of the opposition, she dealt with that too - persuading his loyal MPs to cross over to her side.
After she was appointed leader of the opposition, she hired the strategist who worked on Barack Obama's presidential campaign to assist her.
After a blistering, hugely expensive campaign that used high-tech, slick advertisement in all the media, including the internet, Ms Persad-Bissessar and her coalition emerged victorious.
And on 24 May she became prime minister.
Ms Persad-Bissessar has shown admirable political savvy in the last few weeks, openly courting the media and reacting swiftly to public opinion.
In her 30 May Indian Arrival Day speech she touched on "soft" issues such as race, gender and class inequality.
"As a child in the rural district of Penal I remember sharing meals from the same pot with neighbours of different racial, ethnic, social and economic backgrounds," she said.
"We all managed. If one had, then all had. Because then we were intuitively and instinctively our brother's keepers.
On her terms
"Time and circumstances have allowed many factors, including the divisiveness of some politicians, to keep us apart. But to go forward, we must go back.
"We need to rekindle those values, those strengths as a nation and as a people… And we must do so as one people with one goal."
She is intensely aware of the chance she has to make and change history on these islands.
She has already shown that she will be a prime minister on her own terms.
She declined the opportunity to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because parliament had not yet been convened.
She graced the catwalk at Trinidad and Tobago's annual fashion week at the end of May.
And she also made an appearance with local chutney musicians at a show.
Ms Persad-Bissessar, who graduated top of her class from law school, also confronted the delicate issue of gender tensions.
"Looking towards the future, one of the most important issues the national community must face is the widening gap between the liberated, modern, independent women and our traditional men who are being left behind," she said.
"Women are outperforming men in almost every sphere of life in our society and the women of east Indian ancestry are no exception to this rule. They have broken the cultural mould," she said.
No-one as much as her.