These last weeks, political commentators have focused on the dramas of the campaigns and candidates; the meanings of voter sentiment and turnout; the ebb and flow of a dispersed but decisive ‘third force’; brouhahas over Mayorship and correct ballot counts; the fates of party elites, misuse of funds and media time, and so on.
As a political analyst, strangely none of these tugged my interest. There wasn’t much new in any of it.
My interest was finally peaked, after the dust settled, by Virmala Balkaran’s resignation from the post of Chairman of the Youth Arm of the Independent Liberal Party (ILP).
On Facebook, one man I know decided that Virmala resigned because Jack’s “star is on the decline, and she is disassociating herself”.
Yet, we miss bright points of light on the political horizon if young women like Virmala, only 21 years old, Indian, and who historically have not taken these public risks, are simplistically ignored or dismissed.
I observed Virmala while collecting data during Chaguanas West campaigning. She was optimistic and, like many others in that moment, gushing about Jack Warner. ILP youth believed Jack’s early rhetoric and many were fed up with the UNC Youth Arm. They seemed naïve to me, but as young people that’s their right, to learn like all of us along the way.
I came of age in the youth movement, getting mentorship from women’s NGOs, unions and articulate youth who were organizing on issues from reproductive rights to community violence. I grew into political consciousness, meaning an understanding that citizens must challenge unequal power relations, by taking young women and men’s vision and voice seriously. In those days of civil society involvement, I often interacted with youth from the PNM and UNC.
Early on, it was clear that these parties mobilise their youth without empowering them too much, rewarding those who play the game of loyalty, whether that meant silence in the face of undemocratic dealings or sexual harassment. Similarly for their women’s arms. There are smart and experienced youth and women in all of these, but their power to demand accountability, challenge hierarchy, secure youth and women’s rights, and be more than warm and compliant bodies is another story.
Small me, feminist, committed to fighting homophobia, unapologetically pro-choice, taking cues not from platforms, but from Haiti, Cuba and Grenada, and uninterested in stroking older men’s egos just so I could one day make Minister, could never last a day in those youth arms. They would have resigned me for inciting women’s arms to be a women’s advocacy army.
I respect those committed citizens working within political parties. Still, over all these years, I don’t remember one Chairman of a Youth Arm ever resigning on principle, even articulating personal principle against the party line. In her letter, Balkaran spoke against the recycling of UNC politicians, mud-slinging on the platform, and the failure of the party to nurture independent thinking, individual responsibility and true participation of youth in decision-making. This is the talk that should define Youth Arms’ reality.
Given that things have not been so different in any other parties, how many young people’s, or young women’s, or even an adult politicians’ voices, have we ever heard say ‘no’ publicly?
Once in a while, youthful idealism that insists on what Youth Arms should be allowed is more newsworthy than sashaying Ian Alleyne, compromised Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Janus-faced Jack Warner because such critique is rare, interrupting our cynicism like fresh breath in fetid air. The past youth activist in me hopes this shows budding political integrity to nurture in a new generation out there.