Mrs Janet Jagan’s passing will undoubtedly evoke a broad range of opinions and analyses on her role in this country since setting foot here in December 1943. However, she is perceived and wherever she is finally located in the gallery of those who have made major contributions to the advancement of the rights of the people, Mrs Jagan will be considered to have provided a lifetime of service to her adopted country.
Adored by her supporters, she incurred feelings of similar intensity from those who opposed her. It was that paradox that back-lighted her greatest moment of triumph and at the same time perhaps the greatest mistake of her political career – her decision to run for the presidency and the series of events that it triggered.
In the aftermath of the death of President Cheddi Jagan, Mrs Jagan readily took on the mantle of ensuring that her party remained in power and the preservation of the legacy of her late husband. Her comprehensive triumph at the 1997 elections – no easy task for a woman of her age and fragile health – spawned a series of crises related to the election and her subsequent private swearing-in ceremony. Her noted hardline outlook and the automatic clash of personalities with the then Opposition Leader Mr Hoyte made for a dire situation as was evidenced by the subsequent demonstrations and unrest that ended with the January, 1998 Herdmanston Accord and subsequently the July, 1998 St Lucia Statement.
Even with some measure of political quietude, Mrs Jagan was not able to do more to steer the country out of choppy waters. The following year saw the full-fledged confrontation between the government and the Guyana Public Service Union, culminating in the 57-day strike that almost brought the country to a halt and enervated her and her government. After a bout of illness, she invoked the terms of the `A’ team formula that she had unveiled in 1997 when she agreed to run for the presidency.
Therein resides one of her greater successes insofar as the PPP is concerned. By engineering the `A’ team formula, Mrs Jagan adroitly obviated any fractious battle in the party to succeed President Jagan. And there were many contenders and pretenders to the throne raising the distinct possibility that in an election year the PPP could have been riven and spent by internal rivalries. Her gambit resulted in, as far as electoral politics are concerned, two comprehensive wins for the PPP/C with President Jagdeo at the helm of the ticket.
Mrs Jagan was a tireless campaigner alongside her husband both in the independence struggle and subsequently in the years of the political wilderness where the party fought against the hardships of rigged elections and dictatorship. She exhibited courage and fortitude that inspired the people who supported the ideals she espoused, suffering the indignities of imprisonment, restrictions to the city and such like.
In the years of the dictatorship she expended her energies as a journalist and editor with the party-aligned Mirror doggedly editing and enduring along with her party the Burnhamite restrictions on newsprint importation and other hindrances.
And while Dr Jagan persisted in his quest to harness the winds of change and re-invent himself with the collapse of the communist world and its ideological underpinnings it was always with the support of his wife with her formidable organizational skills which he paid tribute to in The West on Trial. His triumphant ascent to the presidency in 1992 would have been worth all the effort to Mrs Jagan.
As with all other Marxists of the period, Mrs Jagan and her party were never able to overcome the paradox between the quest for fundamental human rights in this country with their silence on the flagellation of those exact rights in the satellites of the Soviet empire particularly Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia, 1968 and certainly modern-day Cuba. This doctrinaire support of Soviet hegemony stands out as the greatest contradiction in the lives of the Jagans and won’t ever be surmounted.
Whatever her faults and mistakes, for the 66 years Mrs Jagan spent here she was never afraid to speak her mind and in recent years the vehicle for this became her weekly column in the Mirror newspaper where, of all the leading lights of her party, she first signalled her opposition to her government’s cut-off of state advertising to Stabroek News in 2006. She called for an end to the boycott, acutely aware of how such an act by the government would erode its historic battles and the standing of her party, only to be shunted aside by President Jagdeo’s description of her views as those of a “private citizen”.
It was this feistiness and chutzpah that endeared her to the faithful as in the famous tossing of the marshal’s court order in 1997 at State House after she had already been sworn in. Writing in the Mirror of June 28-29, Mrs Jagan restated that she had meant no disrespect to the judiciary and ended her column this way “Yes! I threw away the papers that would have prevented me from taking the Oath of Office as President because I had already taken the Oath of Office, not at a secret ceremony as alleged, (can over 35 people be secret?) but done legally in order that my party would not again be denied justice!”
Her passing now officially ends the era of the Jagans in the PPP and leads to the ultimate question of who will lead the party and in which direction. It is an open-ended question and one which in the middle of its present term will clearly test the party.
The party and its government would do well to give real expression to Mrs Jagan’s publicly declared stance against corruption in public life. There have been too many cases in the life of the administration where such cases have simply been swept under the carpet and, in particular, the major questions that remain over the rampage of the death squads.
Politics aside, Mrs Jagan lived a frugal life, shunning the trappings that would usually accompany the roles of President and Head of State. Prior to her becoming President she drove herself for many years and would appear in public without any fanfare or ceremony. She was also possessed of the common touch and was prepared to venture far and wide within her constituency. She was charming and engaging and a great patron of the arts as evidenced by her unremitting work on behalf of Castellani House and a variety of other worthy causes.
No doubt as far she was concerned the greatest tribute that could be paid to her would be in the words of her late husband in The West on Trial.
“My wife and I fought as independents. Janet was extremely popular in Georgetown, but was reluctant to stand. Somewhat of an introvert, she does not like being in the limelight. Nor does she care about possessions and is always willing to go out of her way to help others. She accepted without reservation my responsibility to give higher education to my brothers and sisters and never hesitated to allocate whatever financial outlay was necessary”.
Her efforts on behalf of the country must be properly recognized and put into perspective.
Stabroek News extends its sympathy to her children, Joey and Nadira, the rest of her family and to the PPP. May she rest in peace.