The PNC at 55:

Ideology, identity and the destiny of the PNCR

The People’s National Congress Reform celebrated its 55th anniversary a few weeks ago in October at the centre of a five-party political partnership. The coalition is in the eye of a political storm in the National Assembly and the target of a series of High Court challenges to its parliamentary actions. Earlier this year, retired Brigadier David Granger who became leader of the parliamentary opposition late last year ‘doubled up’ as the Leader of the PNC after having been elected to the post.

The PNC is the single largest component of APNU and that, arguably, is the most important political change to have occurred in Guyana recently. No less important is that APNU, together with the Alliance for Change, holds a single seat majority in the National Assembly. The is not a circumstance with which the ruling People’s Progressive Party/ CIVIC administration is comfortable. Winners of elections in Guyana have grown used to taking the whole nine yards. There are those who argue the recent development in parliament has shattered the myth of the PPP’s electoral invincibility and shaken its misplaced faith in ‘winner take all’ politics. Others wonder whether what now obtains is not simply a short-term aberration.

David Granger

The PNCR’s new leader faces several challenges. He will have to balance the exigencies of an evolving and sometimes unpredictablepolitical environment against the expectations of continuity in a Party with its origins in the pre-Independence era. He will have to calculate the consequences of change while conserving his party’s identity. He will need to try to consolidate the PNCR’s position on the political landscape, to transform his party into a partner and to enlarge its programme to promote ‘inclusionary democracy’ as promised and prescribed in its manifesto. Add to that  David Granger is new to the leadership of a political party whose members have evinced more than a fair share of restlessness over the loss of yet another election and it becomes clear that for him, the way forward is bound to be a difficult one.

For Granger, the value of the party’s 55th anniversary reposes in its recapturing of the spirit of community and continuity and identifying itself with the ideas and ideals of its founding fathers. At the same time he says that the Party has also adumbrated an ideology afresh which enjoys the confidence of the majority.

Forbes Burnham

 Unsurprisingly, the centrepiece of the celebration was the launching of the Burnham Education Scholarship Trust – BEST – and the distribution of bursary awards to students who excelled at the 2012 National Grade Six Assessment examinations.  The BEST initiative, Granger says, signalled the Party’s faith in the future while acknowledging the legacy of the past. He quotes from Burnham, asserting that the Trust coincides with the ‘founder Leader’s injunction that “the object of the People’s National Congress will be to develop the resources of Guyana, both natural and human, for the good and happiness of the Guyanese people; to increase the productivity of Guyana; to ensure the fair distribution of the wealth and produce of our country; to give security to all and to establish real equality of opportunity. For us, education is the cornerstone of equality and one of the chief instruments for the abolition of snobbery, the removal of discrimination, the development of creative beings and the production of a race of men who will never surrender to mediocrity or dictatorship of any kind.”

Granger says that the need “to establish real equality of opportunity” is as dire today as it was 55 years ago. BEST’s mission is to encourage excellence in education and to assist young people to serve and develop Guyana. BEST and its bursary awards scheme are seen as examples of the Party’s commitment to Education. The party’s mission is to make Guyana an ‘education nation’once again.

The PNC’s anniversary, Granger points out, was also an opportunity to re-examine its ideological origins and to chart ‘the way forward.’ “The PNC was founded by Forbes Burnham on 5th October 1957. This was a little more than two and a half years after he, Joseph Lachhmansingh and Jai Narine Singh broke away from the original People’s Progressive Party. All three had helped to establish the PPP in 1950. All three had been ministers in the short-lived administration which was expelled by the British Government in October 1953. All three were elected – Burnham, as Leader, Lachhmansingh, as Chairman and Singh, as General Secretary of the new PNC at its first Congress,” Granger, a historian, points out.

Burnham, was the youngest of the troika. Lachhmansingh died shortly after the Party was established and Singh left the next year to establish the Guiana Independence Movement.The influence of Burnham’s ideas on the early PNC was evident. The new party’s policy emerged in an article by Forbes Burnham entitled “Where Do We Go from Here?” was published in the Burnhamite PPP Thunder in April 1957.  Defining his policy, he wrote:
 This party started as a working-class party and will never give up fighting for the workers. We will never and can never forsake them. The moment we do, we had better arrange for our political funeral…But the fact that ours is a worker-based party must not prevent us from having the intelligence to learn from the history of other countries and other liberation movements.  We must be able and prepared to draw our strength not only from the workers but from all sections of Guyanese– workers, farmers, businessmen, intellectuals and civil servants, regardless of their race.

How relevant Burnham’s formulation is to present-day reality is perhaps the key issue on which the PNC must decide. The new Leader says he spent his first 100 days visiting villages and encouraging members to rally to what is now a jaded institution, a far cry from Burnham’s ‘vanguard party.’ He says that his own ‘Declaration of Vreed en Hoop, is aimed at strengthening the PNCR and consolidating its place and role within APNU. He begins by urging Party members to rekindle pride in the accomplishments of the PNC during its tenure in office. He reminds that it was the Soesdyke-Linden highway, the  reconstructed coastal road network from Skeldon to Parika, bridges on the Canje and Demerara rivers and the sea defence system, the international airport at TimehrI, the Mahaica-Mahaicony-Abary agricultural development scheme, the countrywide low-income housing schemes, extended rural pure-water supply and electricity and telephone service all saw ‘the light of day under the PNC administration.

Congress 2012

More than that Granger asserts that the post-Independence PNC administration expanded educational opportunities by creating the University of Guyana and the Cyril Potter College of Education campuses, building multilateral, primary, secondary and community high schools in rural and hinterland regions, inaugurating a comprehensive programme of scholarships; by increasing the number of school places; and producing and distributing textbooks as part of a programme of free education from nursery to university and by introducing free education from nursery to university.

Granger says he subscribes to the adage that “all politics is local,” emphasizing the fact that many difficulties facing villagers can be ameliorated within the regions. He wants villagers to strengthen local democracy in order to enhance governance and improve their quality of life. This, he says, would be the best response to complaints from villagers about unsatisfactory drainage and irrigation, poor infrastructure, youth unemployment and shrinking economic opportunities, especially in crop farming and animal husbandry, in the rural regions. Part of the solution to some of rural and agrarian problems, he says,  “lies in intensifying villagers’ participation in Neighbourhood Democratic Councils” though he is concerned that “these, are being dismantled by the People’s Progressive Party Civic administration.” He insists that the PNC “has to be ready to restore grass-roots democracy by fortifying the local government system, countrywide.”

Reflecting on the PPP/C’s two decades in office Granger says that the ruling party’s failure to alleviate or to eradicate poverty is one of its gravest failures. “The gap between the very rich and very poor has widened and the number of persons falling into poverty is increasing. The PPPC administration had damaged the rural economy of several regions. Complaints about unsatisfactory drainage and irrigation, poor infrastructure, youth unemployment and shrinking economic opportunities – especially in crop farming and animal husbandry – all pointed to the need for the PNCR to pay greater attention to the rural and hinterland economy,” Granger adds.

Granger believes that members of the Party “and Guyanese as a whole need to become more enterprising and to seek economic independence to improve their livelihood.  “You have to be educated and ensure that your children are educated so that they could become entrepreneurial businessmen and women or to find gainful employment,” is his advice to the Party faithful.

Granger says that under his leadership the PNCR is “committed to ensuring equality for all and protecting citizens’ fundamental rights.” He called to mind what he said was “the brutish treatment of persons at Agricola and Linden,” adding that the PNC should define itself as an advocate for social justice and the “defender of fundamental rights. It is a citizen’s birthright to have his or her basic needs met. The PNCR, therefore, must continue its assault on inequality of opportunity and must remove impediments to equal access to public services.”

Granger says that the PNC wants to rebuild its relationship with trade unions asserting that over the past two decades the bargaining power of the Guyana Trades Union Congress and the larger public sector unions had been gravely undermined. “The PNCR now had the responsibility to restore the integrity and viability of working people’s organizations,” he says.

“The PNCR is committed totally to achieving national unity and will continue to build bridges to all communities and interest groups. The Party Leader promised to work towards promoting inclusionary democracy in A Partnership for National Unity by sitting down as Guyanese nationals to solve problems and by setting aside ethnic prejudices.”

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