Animated discussions and light imbibing at the ‘parliament’ and elsewhere in Linden a few weekends ago brought up some interesting questions which attested to the fact that the Guyanese political imagination and participation are alive and well. Two interrelated questions arose which warrant some consideration. How significant is it that His Excellency Donald Ramotar made an inaugural address to the 10th Parliament of Guyana that was both lacking in vision and devoid of a single mention of Cheddi Jagan?
Firstly, although this does not answer the question as to the significance of the absence, President Ramotar was not the first to leave the ‘founding father’ out of his inaugural address. He was also absent from former President Jagdeo’s 2006 speech. Secondly, this concern about vision has been – in my opinion sometimes unfairly – the standard critique of the PPP/C since it came to government; so much so that although former President Jagdeo’s 2006 presentation has a section headed “The Vision” it came over as “The Mission” and thus attracted similar criticism! Indeed, President Ramotar’s speech was hardly over before Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine was on the radio calling it visionless, and since then many persons have made similar comments.
Arguably, Cheddi Jagan remains the nearest thing to a neutral leader this country has ever had, and since his death in 1997, on almost every occasion when the PPP/C has had to rally its supporters, Cheddi’s name has been invoked, so its absence from the Jagdeo and Ramotar inauguration speeches is hardly accidental and deserves comment. One view in Linden was that it was thought (with good reason) that having used Cheddi’s name in the elections campaign, one should not risk tarnishing his image by associating it with extant government policies!
Political vision is important but to be adequately anchored it requires historical referencing, the appeal to nationalism, revered national institutions and personalities, the invocation of moral principles, theatre, national cohesiveness, etc. In my view, while President Ramotar’s address contained the concrete elements found in all such presentations, it lacked the historical backdrop. As a result it came over as simply an expression of some concerns and the listing of a number of present and future projects. (In passing, I should say that on such occasions one should refrain from the use of questionable history and data and the president did not do that!) As a result, the speech was devoid of the capacity to excite and drive us towards a more secure, prosperous and collegiate future, unlike President Obama’s last State of the Union address:
“We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common-sense ideas. I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.”
My view is that although over-reliance on the past and deceased politicians should be avoided, Mr. Ramotar’s address was almost ahistorical: it is as if we exist but have had no exemplary history upon which the president could have successfully pegged a story that transcended communities. After all, it was his first major opportunity to demonstrate that he was the president of all Guyana. But if the PPP/C deliberately excluded the Jagans, its traditional historiography could find no expression, hence silence!
I believe that President Ramotar’s inaugural address can be equated with President Obama’s in terms of the former’s place in our political process. As such, he was required, as President Obama attempted – and in my view succeeded – to lay before us a powerful vision of our possible future if we hang together, and, as Obama put it, “watch each other’s back.” Before I face a deluge of objections, I am not attempting to compare or equate our president with the US president in relation to these matters; I am simply attempting to provide an example of what, in my view, our president’s inaugural address should have contained.
The opportunity was not even taken to devise and synthesize our most pressing contemporary concerns in a conceptual framework. Listen to President Obama again as he gives a précis of his vision in what was labeled “The America within our Reach.”
“Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.
A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. \
An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded. …. We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.”
Regardless of what we may think of Forbes Burnham, he was good at this kind of thing; not conceding even to hopelessness! This was not impossible for Mr. Ramotar but he would have had to do what the PPP/C traditionally does not do.
To make his appeal national he would have had to embrace many other Guyanese political stalwarts: Forbes Burnham, Peter D’Aguiar, Balram Singh Rai, Ptolemy Reid, Winifred Gaskin, etc., and have included our successful struggle against slavery and indentureship; our capacity to work together in cooperatives; the machinations of imperialism that have divided us for so long; our abundant natural resources upon which we have failed to deliver and this new political opportunity to move our country forward, and the endless possibilities before us.
What a picture that would have made! Perhaps President Ramotar has all this in mind and is only now making tentative steps. Theory invariably comes before practice, but sometimes it has a way of running too far ahead and I may be moving too fast! We shall see.