President of all the people

Stabroek News
October 13, 1999

In a letter last week Indian rights activist Malcolm Harripaul took President Bharrat Jagdeo to task for ignoring what he described as "Indian concerns" on his recent visit to New York. Mr Harripaul said President Jagdeo ignored a resolution handed to him calling for an enquiry into the violence on January l2, l998 in Georgetown, ducked questions on ethnic tensions and attacked "extremists bent on dividing the people into ethnic enclaves". He said that though the PPP relies primarily on Indian votes it ignores Indian security concerns.

The argument is not a new one, it has been raised by Indian activists here and it does indeed highlight a dilemma that faces the leadership of both the main parties, the bulk of whose votes come from one ethnic group. If one shows sympathy for the "other side" or fails to react to the insecurities of one's supporters or their alleged representatives or sympathisers this is taken askance. This is essentially the trap in which the parties are caught. Pandering to it reinforces ethnic division, rising above it takes statesmanship.

The reaction we experienced to the letter from various readers was pride in the fact that President Jagdeo had refused to be pushed into a corner in New York or to be seen to espouse the cause of one ethnic group and had sought to portray himself as the President of all Guyanese. It took courage, we imagine, and it was a bold step, a step that would give hope to some and open new possibilities.

This dilemma lies at the core of Guyanese politics as now structured. Can one leader go out on a limb, so to speak, and break definitively with tribal politics? Will it cost more votes than it gains? How will the other party react to an attempt at redefining the rules of the ethnic political game?

When he was facing the logic of the numbers game as the ethnic leader of the minority group with the return of fair elections in l992 we had argued that it made absolute sense for then President Hoyte to consolidate economic and political reforms he had already made by overtly and explicitly defining his policies and programmes to make it clear as leader of the People's National Congress that he was not courting a particular ethnic constituency in the elections, that he was going for broad based voting support on the basis of his economic policies and that he should restructure the party, the party paper and its thinking to reflect this. He should be prepared to lose African Guyanese votes if necessary and gamble on gaining a broader constituency. It is not easy, of course, to do this. There are built in trends and habits, assumptions about behaviour and so on that make it extremely difficult for one tribal leader to stop playing the old game and strike out on a new path.

There is less apparent incentive for the leader of the majority ethnic group to act that way and take those chances though we would argue that that is only true on the most narrow calculations. For surely it is not enough, in the final analysis, to win elections in a deeply divided country where there is little give and take in the political process and instability can hamper the best policies.

The incidents of January l2 cannot be wished away nor can anyone doubt that there is serious insecurity over violent crime as Mr Harripaul states but this is not limited to Indians. The question really is how should these problems be dealt with. For example, there can be no doubt that the Economic Recovery Programme, introduced by Mr Hoyte, which has led to a considerable improvement in the desperate economic situation since l989, inevitably also led to some of the problems now being experienced requiring as it did the removal of subsidies, and a more efficient and less bloated public service, among other remedies. These measures impacted primarily on the urban working class, mainly African, which had already suffered from falling real wages over at least a decade. The PPP inherited these problems. The urban empowerment programme is some sort of effort to deal with the situation, as SIMAP had been under Mr Hoyte. But obviously it is not enough.

The job of the statesman is to find solutions to the structural problems by promoting investment and creating jobs. A hard line reaction may create more tension and not solve the problem. There is also, it is true, a purely political dimension since December l997 which it is hard to deal with and which contributed to what happened on January l2, l998. But the job of the President is to try to see the broader picture, not that of one constituency, however difficult that may sometimes be.

Can anyone break the ethnic log-jam? There will be enormous pressures against any such effort as quite a few have acquired a vested interest in the status quo and the negative and futile politics it has spawned. Yet an increasing number of people, including persons in both the main parties, recognise the trap we are in and the reactionary politics it creates. The statements by speakers at the recent GTUC biennial conference were a good illustration of this. That is certainly some kind of progress though how it can express itself politically is another matter.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples