Wisdom and politics: Lessons for Bharrat Jagdeo

By Cary Fraser

Cary Fraser is a regular contributor to the Trinidad and Tobago Review and writes on international relations in the Middle East, American foreign policy, and Caribbean history.

The recent controversy occasioned by President Bharrat Jagdeo’s speech at Babu John in which he launched a strenuous attack on the PNCR candidate, David Granger, about the 1973 elections where PPP activists died in a confrontation with the military detachment led by Lieutenant J O Henry, has reopened questions about a very difficult era for the PPP. The elections of that year were conducted in the shadow of the fraudulent elections of 1968, and 1973 proved to be an even more glaring case of electoral irregularities that became symptomatic of  PNC governance from 1968 onward to its ouster in 1992. The death of the two PPP activists as a result of the futile effort to prevent the removal of ballot boxes from the polling places on the Corentyne illustrated the increasing resort to repression by Forbes Burnham in his quest for a legitimacy that had become increasingly elusive since the 1964 election which brought him to power. The 1973 elections confirmed that the PPP had not been able to devise an effective strategy for confronting the PNC at home and revealed its failure to establish international alliances that could open the way for the party’s return to office by way of elections. For the PPP, 1973 marked the depth of its isolation as a political force.

In effect, by the time of the 1973 elections, the PPP was itself facing a profound crisis of legitimacy. The PNC’s decision to nationalize the ALCAN bauxite-alumina operations in 1971, the establishment of the republican state in 1970, the PNC’s decision to establish full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the successful hosting of the Conference of Foreign Ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement and the inauguration of Carifesta in 1972, had led to the eclipse of the PPP in the international arena outside of the Soviet-bloc. The PNC government’s decision to join with other Caribbean governments to recognize Cuba in 1972 had also allowed the Burnham regime to marginalize the PPP in the international arena. The PPP’s adoption of a pro-Soviet posture had limited its room for manoeuvre at an international level and the PNC’s ability to control the electoral process effectively diminished the PPP’s challenge in the domestic arena.  By 1973, the PPP had become a party representative of the majority of the Indo-Guyanese community and had little credibility as a national force capable of building a serious multi-racial coalition that could unseat the PNC. The party’s decision to refuse the seats it was awarded in the 1973 elections was both symbolic of its recognition that it had no capacity to challenge the PNC and an intimation that the party was deeply divided over its future strategy.

President Jagdeo’s decision to invoke the memories of the 1973 elections seems to have been motivated by a desire to remind the PPP’s base that the party currently faces a crisis of internal legitimacy. The multiplication of candidates and would-be candidates for the party’s presidential nomination to succeed him, and disputes over the selection process, have unleashed ugly displays of the party’s internal tensions in recent weeks. Those disputes have also served as a reminder that the lack of transparency and accountability that had defined the party under the leadership of the Jagans has yet to be expunged from the party’s operational culture. Jagdeo has used the presidency to undercut the party’s control over the state apparatus and to secure his own political authority against challengers from within the PPP.

His popularity in the polls has been a consequence of the secretive culture of the PPP leadership which has maintained, until recently, a guarded silence about internal disputes and doubts about the quality, style, and consequences of Jagdeo’s leadership. The public airing of the tensions that underpin the relationship between GAWU and GuySyCo and the recent exchanges in the press among senior figures in the party have opened a window upon the scurrilous internal debates that have defined the party’s culture since the 1950s. The intractability of hitherto well-concealed tensions about the ethnic, religious, and class composition of the leadership cadre within the PPP, has opened questions about Jagdeo and the party’s leaders. Clement Rohee’s pithy comment that he had not been bitten by a goat, and was thus eligible to become a presidential contender, is laden with nuances about the political culture within the PPP. Jagdeo’s summary dismissal of Moses Nagamootoo as reported in the Guyana Chronicle on March 4  ([he] “would not like to waste his time dealing with losers”), and his attack on Navin Chandarpal’s frequenting of “rum shops,” was also representative of the casual conflation of political and personal differences within the party.

The generation of staunch Jagan loyalists who were bypassed to facilitate the elevation of Jagdeo has become increasingly uneasy about his legacy for the party’s image and its future. While support within the party’s base communities is likely to remain strong for any new leadership, Jagdeo has pursued a high profile role on environmental and regional issues that might have offered a post-presidential career as an ‘elder statesman’ – comparable to the role of Shridath Ramphal. Unfortunately, the Roger Khan episode has not helped Jagdeo’s reputation abroad and the recent airing of the party’s dirty laundry suggests that the party leadership is bitterly divided and Jagdeo’s contribution to that process will inevitably tarnish his reputation once he leaves office. In effect, his popularity is of questionable value – even at home.

In 2011, since Jagdeo’s two terms are over, the party is facing the challenge of winning an election without the automatic popular appeal of the Jagans, and its image has been badly tarnished by the Roger Khan episode and other instances of corruption – real or perceived. Bharrat Jagdeo, notwithstanding the dubious distinction of being compared to Forbes Burnham as an authoritarian leader, has entered the fray of the party’s search for a new leader and has become a polarizing figure in the party and the wider society.  He has increasingly shown himself as unwilling to step away from the limelight of public life. The extravagances that are apparently part of his planned retirement package at the public expense suggest that he will be a destabilizing factor in the PPP’s internal politics. Those emoluments cap a career that has been marked by controversies around the institutionalization of organized crime and unprecedented criminal violence in Guyanese public life, the erosion of the legitimacy of agencies of the state, the cavalier disregard for transparency in matters of government business in both the legislature and the executive branches of government that has been facilitated by the maintenance of a dysfunctional constitutional framework of governance, and the callous contempt displayed by the government’s leadership for those marginalized by the crass opportunism that has defined the PPP’s trajectory since the death of Cheddi Jagan.

In effect, the PPP today is a mirror reflection of the PNC in its heyday in 1973 – a party tainted by an authoritarian leader, an image of increasing corruption, and an extraordinary insensitivity to the complex ethnic realities that shape the society. As the PPP heads into the 2011 election campaign, these images have become entrenched and Jagdeo’s successors will have to rise to the challenge of rehabilitating the party’s reputation. For several of the party’s candidates, the task will be to separate the image of the party from the image of Jagdeo – in effect, those candidates for the party’s leadership will have to run against both Jagdeo’s legacy and the opposition. It is not a comfortable space to occupy and the 2011 election campaign will be a critical bellwether for the future of the PPP.

In the aftermath of the 1973 election, the PPP experienced a major split when several of its leading members, including Ranji Chandisingh, Vincent Teekah, and others deserted the Jagans to seek an accommodation with the PNC. In turn, the Jagans decided to adopt a policy of ‘critical support’ for the Burnham regime as it moved to the left in rhetorical terms. Caught between the increasingly corrupt and authoritarian PNC, and the political futility and fragility of the PPP which compromised itself by its support for the PNC, many Guya-nese after 1973 escaped their predicament through increasing migration to the Caribbean and North America. The PPP by 1973 had embraced a politics of failure that lasted almost two decades until its return to office in 1992. The year 1973 was a decisive turning point in Guyanese life marked by both the evident failures of the PPP and the increasing corruption of the PNC. It also occasioned a decisive shift in Guyanese sensibility about the quality and future of national political life. Guyana had entered a period of decline from which it has yet to recover.

Jagdeo’s invocation of 1973 in his recent critique of David Granger as the PNC presidential candidate in 2011 is a reminder of My Bones and My Flute – Edgar Mittelholzer’s absorbing tale of the ghosts of Guyanese history that haunt the present. Perhaps, his retirement at a relatively young age may lead him to acquire the wisdom that will help him to contribute to exorcizing the traumas that his own era of governance brought to a fragmented society.

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