Former presidents in democratic societies, particularly those who have relinquished power voluntarily and within the construct of constitutional provisions are always looked upon as a reserve of moral authority and as elder statesmen who in times of crises and societal tensions can be relied upon to help bridge divides. They are supposed to become repositories of the wisdom gleaned during their years at the helm and as figures capable of reaching out to all sectors. This is particularly so of ceremonial presidents but there is no reason why in our unique system of governance our former presidents cannot play a similar role.
It doesn’t seem, however, as if former President Jagdeo sees such a part for himself. Indeed, from his most injudicious and unseemly remarks on Thursday at the funeral of Pandit Reepu Daman Persaud he appears to have a totally different view of his role i.e. to whip up societal angst in the interest of the PPP’s electoral fortunes and for his own purposes.
When he rose to speak he made a clear reference to the continuing lawsuit that he brought against the KN columnist, Mr Freddie Kissoon, its Editor, Mr Adam Harris and the company that publishes the newspaper. The former President said “…Recently 38 persons, because their names (are) of East Indian-descent, were used in a case to say that the People’s Progressive Party, because they [are] employed in the public service, is practising discrimination; that we are giving people of Indian-origin preferences. Now, a lot of those people have served either 30 years in the public service, some joined the public service even when we were in the opposition; but the only reason their names were in that list that [Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr. Roger] Luncheon is very familiar with, because he faced the brunt of it, is because of their origin, their East Indian-origin”.
He added that there seems to be “in the mean politics of Guyana, a resurgence in a hidden way” of feelings against Indo-Guyanese and then the coup de grâce “What is the message to people of East Indian origin? If you’re PPP or PNC, if you are Christian, Hindu or Muslim, if you’re a sugar worker or a professional, once you’re of Indian origin, you should keep your children home, don’t send them to school. The same colonial message! Because, if, heaven forbids, they become qualified and they get a job and the PPP is in office, then it has not to be because of our merit but rather our race.”
Why he would sully the solemn proceedings for Pandit Persaud with an overtly divisive, race-based allegation which comes across as vacuous and contrived is unfathomable. What is even more astounding is that former President Jagdeo clearly feels strongly about this matter yet he has steadfastly refused to testify in his own cause. Why? Surely if he was confident enough to have this case brought in the High Court he must have felt strongly about his chances of winning a victory and should have relished the prospect of entering the witness stand to testify. Mr Jagdeo never turned up and one of the respondents in the matter is now on the witness stand. Failing to testify on his own behalf, Mr Jagdeo now takes a potshot at the respondents in this matter.
Speech related to the race problematic that has existed here for decades has to be well thought out, contextualized, cognizant of the antipathies that can be unnecessarily fomented and delivered in a manner that doesn’t compound the matter being complained of. Mr Jagdeo observed none of these injunctions despite undoubtedly being aware of the risks.
As to the substance of his arguments he has no leg to stand on. There may undoubtedly be cases where some persons have been favoured over others on the basis of race but that radiates in all directions depending on who is in charge whether in government, a ministry or a private sector office. Mr Jagdeo’s case in court did produce riveting testimony about the inexplicable absence of a certain group from the foreign service which was hurriedly corrected by the government; a sign that it recognized that there was clearly something amiss. Does Mr Jagdeo expect anyone to believe that in today’s Guyana, influential sections of the non-Indian segment of the population are of the outlook that Indo-Guyanese must not seek to go to school or professionalize themselves and all in keeping with the “colonial message” as he put it? Wasn’t Mr Jagdeo able to professionalize himself and gain employment at the State Planning Secretariat under the PNC administration of Mr Desmond Hoyte? Neither he nor thousands of others were excluded on grounds of their Indianness during that period. Does he expect the public to believe that under 20 years of consecutive rule by the PPP/C that the situation has deteriorated to the extent that in the year 2013 there is a view that Indian-Guyanese must not gain an education? Mr Jagdeo’s argument was nonsensical, beneath the office of someone who served as President of the country for 12 years and purely self-serving.
Mr Jagdeo should desist from this ill-advised course which will be perceived by many of those who know better as trying to deepen divisions for the purposes of electoral gains. He is not the first of the present crop of PPP leaders to do this and he won’t be the last.
If there was indeed sentiment against the professional Indo-Guyanese certainly Mr Jagdeo’s long tenure as President would have left a legacy of assertive institutions capable of handling any distress of this type. Instead, Mr Jagdeo has left his country bereft of this form of institutional strength and framework for addressing these issues.
What Mr Jagdeo wants to cover is the growing questions that have arisen over his decisions to select certain groups to the detriment of others. The decision in the last days of his presidency to hand out licences and frequencies to certain individuals including to the relatives of a minister remains a prime unresolved matter. That decision crystallised what has transpired over a significant period of his presidency when he faced no inhibitions. Questions have quite properly arisen over this and other decisions. It is the lack of a plausible explanation that has motivated Mr Jagdeo to utter the senseless and divisive statement he made at the funeral. It also serves well the PPP’s agenda to gee up its constituency for the purposes of trying to restore a parliamentary majority.
The ease with which public figures like Mr Jagdeo separate themselves from rationality and considered speech in the interest of expediency and naked political gain is disturbing. It would be interesting to hear what President Ramotar – who was present when the statement was made – thinks of it. Whatever his thinking, he should redouble his own efforts to ensure that constitutional checks and balances are in place and strengthened to defend the populace from any possibility of the matter complained of by Mr Jagdeo.