Well, there I was on Friday afternoon attempting to put the finishing touches to an article I began two weeks ago for this column and struggling a little to polish it off when I received a WhatsApp message from my friend Josh Drayton. And [it was] a very simple message, but a powerful one nonetheless, because it had me rethinking the contents of my upcoming column. All it said was “So you have the election date. Ironic that the election in Trinidad in 2010 was also on May 24. Was the first time we elected a female PM”. Hmm, an idea! Well, why not spin a tale out of this one I thought. So, (for the second consecutive week), I jettisoned the article which had been causing me a little distress to focus on this one. Thank you, Josh!
Now interestingly, Josh and I wrote a chapter on The Indo-Trinidadian in Politics: Kamla ‘Kamla Persad-Bissessar (I had the minor role in this, so it was Josh Drayton with Cynthia Barrow-Giles) in my edited book Women in Caribbean Politics which was published in 2011. In that work, I also contributed a chapter on none other than Mia Amor Mottley, which I titled Mia Amor Mottley: Divine Right to Rule or Change Agent? We know that many persons have challenged her on her political ambitions because she has embraced the idea of being the Prime Minister. I say kudos to her and more women ought to follow in her footsteps to show that they are as politically ambitious as Mia Mottley.
These two women may be ethnically different, and more than a decade separate them, but they are great friends. Both of them penetrated and navigated rather successfully the domain of one of the most male-dominated institutions in the Caribbean; the political party. Not only did they navigate, but they dominated, successfully reaching the pinnacle of power at the level of the party. In the course of that journey, they both confronted internal party hostility and a challenge from their predecessors. In the case of ‘Kamla’, it was from former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday and in the case of Mia, it was from former Prime Minister Owen Arthur. They are also coincidentally both lawyers though that in itself is important given that we are constantly told that successful women politicians often come from the legal profession.
The core of the chapter on ‘Kamla’ rests on the phenomenal challenge that an Indo-Trinidadian woman had to confront given the deep patriarchal nature of the Indian community and the resultant dominant-subordinate relationship between Indo-Trinidadian men and women. Josh wrote that when compared to the Afro-Trinidadian community, the Indo-Trinidadian woman is viewed primarily as a mother and a wife. Further, it is also argued that Indo-Trinidadian women often had to face violence from men which was used as a tool to curb the spirit of the Indian woman.
But ‘Kamla’s parents harboured deep hopes for their daughter and so education was emphasised. It was this insistence which would later contribute to her breaking the status quo with respect to her political and public life. Having first gained vital local government experience, ‘Kamla’ was elevated to the parliament as a senator in 1994 and in that same year she successfully contested the general elections. In 1995, she was appointed attorney general, minister of education in 1999, and briefly held the post as Leader of the parliamentary Opposition, leader of the UNC and then, following the overwhelming victory in 2010, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
Mia Mottley has often been accused of having achieved political power because of her class background and her family connections. There is no doubt that she was born in privilege and that politics has been a family affair for the Mottley’s. Though dynastic politics cannot be ignored, as I argued in 2011, Mia Mottley is not just a logical successor to her grandfather’s and father’s legacy. She would, however, be the first to admit that her paternal grandparents and her Uncle Elombe Mottley, were powerful influences on her life and her political career. We cannot also deny that her early social and political environment (she sat at the feet of many leading political figures in Barbados from a tender age- including Dame Billie Miller) were critical shapers for the young Mottley. But Mia is more than just a member of a privileged social and political class, groomed for political power. She was not handed power, she had to grasp it and hold on to it as most successful political leaders have done.
In other parts of the world, we have seen women and men who have been nurtured and groomed for political office. Indeed, Asia and especially India have what can only be called dynastic politics. So, for instance, we have Nehru, first Prime Minister of India and his daughter Indira Gandhi and her children, grandchildren and daughter-in-law. Now that is a dynasty! Beginning with Nehru, the family produced three prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India into independence; his daughter, Indira Gandhi, assassinated in 1984; and her son Rajiv. Rajiv himself had been preceded in parliament by his brother Sonjay who died in a plane crash in 1980. Following Rajiv’s assassination, his widow, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, became the chairperson of Congress in 1998 and twice led the Congress Party to election victories in 2004 and 2009. And now there is Rahul. But this is not just confined to Nehru’s family. In 2009, more than a third of the members of the Congress Party’s members of parliament came into politics through a family link, as did more than two-thirds of the members Parliament from all parties.
Dynastic politics is not limited to the national government as it is also replicated at the state level and is seen most clearly in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Punjab, Kashmir. The ruling elite in regional political parties have ensured that their successors follow in their footstep. Nearer to the Caribbean we have the Kennedy’s [and] the Bush’s of the USA for instance.
But back to Mia. Mia’s first foray into electoral politics met with defeat in 1991, but since 1994 she has won every election and represented the constituency of St. Michael North East. She was appointed Attorney General of Barbados, later given the portfolio of Education, and in 2006 assigned to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. During this period, she accumulated tremendous political and governmental experience which can only serve her well should Barbadians give the BLP a victory on May 24.
Seven years ago when I interviewed Mia for the book chapter, she unconsciously acknowledged that she wished to be Prime Minister. I saw nothing wrong with it then and I see nothing wrong with it now. Why should she deny this when she has a vision for Barbados? It may well be that that vision is not acceptable to all Barbadians; it may well be that certain party officials and former officials do not support that vision or her leadership, but she articulates that vision, and it is a vision which is rooted in a belief in the value of regionalism, (one obviously not shared to the same extent by her friend), economic enfranchisement and development and the cultural liberation of the region. Yes, she is tough; yes, she is vocal; yes, she is forthright; yes she is confident and yes she can appear to be impatient, no-nonsense and arrogant. But all of these must be tempered by the fact that she has a plan. As one of her former regional male colleagues stated “Within a male-focused milieu, she holds her own and unlike some women who are involved in politics where there is some deference to men, she exudes a confidence equal to her male counterparts… Mia is one of the first persons I would want to stand by me in battle because she commits”. Is this not what is lacking today in leadership?
Unfortunately given patriarchy and gender role expectations, historically, very few women have exercised leadership power in their own right. So when we ask silly questions about whether Barbados is ready for a female Prime Minister, it is partly because women like Mia Mottley represent anomalies within our heavily patriarchal political structures. But Mia has seized every opportunity presented to her [and] she has attempted to showcase her public image as an unapologetically strong, and capable individual.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)