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A tall order for young Jagdeo

Express - March 25, 2001
By Raffique Shah

WHILE congratulations are in order for young Bharat Jagdeo, leader of the PPP/Civic coalition party that won last week's general election in Guyana, and now President of the Republic in his own right, really, I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. The results of the election verified what most people have always known: the Guyanese society is severely fractured along race lines. Guyana is a society waiting to explode into wholesale racial warfare a la Bosnia, and with it the concomitant atrocities that would churn the stomachs of those who believe that we live in a civilised part of the world.

There was never any doubt that the PPP would win the election, albeit by a not-too-wide margin. Given the racial configuration of Guyana where Indians marginally outnumber Africans, it was clear that once the polls were held in relatively free and fair circumstances, the PPP would triumph over Desmond Hoyte's PNC. The latter ended up polling just over 164,000 votes to the PPP's 209,000. With an overall electorate of 440,000 (according the Elections Commission), the turnout was unusually high-around 88 per cent.

Guyana being such a vast country, I have my doubts about the accuracy of the Commission's numbers. Guyana's population has been listed as 800,000 for many years, and even with its high level of emigration, it seems to me there must be more than 60 per cent of its population who are over the age of 18. Added to that, because of its spread (83,000 square miles in contrast to our puny 1,800), there must be communities that are not reached by those who conduct censuses as well as those registering eligible voters. And, of course, there were the usual polling day hiccups, although the number of disenfranchised electors was small.

The end result, though, is that the PPP/Civic won and will form the Government. I do not understand the basis for the PNC's legal challenge to Jagdeo being sworn in as President. It's not as if the PPP won by 1,000 votes or less; that was a decisive victory. And all parties that contested the election agreed there were some polling day irregularities, but nothing so serious as to alter the results. So what's Hoyte's beef? Maybe he has contracted foot and mouth disease, in which case he should shut his mouth and hot-foot it out of the PNC, if not Guyana!

But Hoyte is hardly Jagdeo's biggest problem. I expect the PNC will move shortly to replace this relic of the dark days of Forbes Burnham with someone more au courant with the current needs of Guyana. You see, even if the PPP were to steal the election "blind" (as the UNC is alleged to have done here in last December's poll), Hoyte and the PNC have no moral authority to cry foul. He, as Burnham's vice-president, and others like the then PM, Hamilton Greene, were part of the PNC frontline leadership when that party raped democracy in the vilest manner. I shall not dwell further on their many sins, which, based on their being part of the Burnham Government, included race riots, naked brutality against opponents of the PNC, and the murder of others.

If, today, therefore, the PPP has emerged as the party that commands the support of the majority of Guyanese, the PNC cannot complain. Worse for Hoyte's party, it has been cut to pieces with its own blade-in a manner of speaking. It was the PNC that collaborated with the British Government and Washington to introduce proportional representation to the country. At the time, it worked in their favour because Indo-Guyanese were not yet in the majority, and Burnham teamed up with Peter d'Aguiar to rob Cheddi Jagan of his rightful place as Prime Minister of Guyana.

Jagdeo inherited Jagan's throne at a very early age-his mid-30s-in political terms. But he also inherited a party that, for all its claim to have been socialist (that was premised mainly on the ideology that Jagan and his wife, Janet, were advocates of), it really never rose beyond the boundaries of race. In other words, the PPP was (and I suspect it remains) an Indian party. True, like his counterparts in other multi-racial societies, Cheddi did try to woo non-Indians: Brindley Benn and Eusi Kwyana were the two most prominent Africans who joined with the PPP.

But I know of what I write. In 1976 I went to Guyana and accidentally ran into a PPP youth arm convention. The full house was 99 per cent Indian, and because of my reputation here following the events of 1970, I was viewed as "an Indian hero" of sorts, and the delegates demanded that I address them. But in the few days I spent in that country, I was convinced that while Cheddi held lofty ideals, all the Indo-Guyanese wanted was the removal of the PNC and the Afro-Guyanese from power, and their ascension to office.

That situation has hardly changed. If anything, the dividing line between the two main races is more marked although it is far worse than what obtains here in Trinidad. That is the real challenge that Jagdeo faces. He cannot govern a country in which almost one-half the population does not trust the other half. Such divisions will always be exploited by the racists on both sides of the divide. Jagdeo comes from a generation that should see people first and race afterwards. Unfortunately for him, his predecessors, Burnham in particular (London and Washington cannot be exonerated from this cardinal sin), worked hard and well at widening the race-gap.

Still, I believe he has the wherewithal to lead Guyana away from this highway to self-destruction. He first has to deal with his own supporters, to bridle their racial prejudices, and then reach out to win the hearts and minds of the younger Africans. He will never change the old, Indians and Africans. And he must steer very clear of the bigots, some of them who are based in Trinidad but go to Guyana to promote their mischief.

It's no easy road to reconciliation, to realising equal treatment for all, to uniting Africans and Indians in order to lift Guyana's ailing economy to where it can exploit its full potential. But if Jagdeo can avoid falling victim to arrogance, and if he is ready to walk the tough walk, then I have no doubt he would bring stability to that "cussed" land. It's a tall order for a young man. But it goes with the political office to which he has been elected.

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