By Dr. David Hinds
My letter, “After 23 years African Guyanese are being asked to vote for an Indian Guyanese Presidency,” published in the January 27 edition of the Stabroek News, has drawn varied responses from several quarters. This is to be expected. The central issue I raised in the letter has been and will continue to be the proverbial elephant in the room that most analysts, commentators and politicians tend to avoid like the plague. In such circumstances he or she who dares to raise the matter of race not in the bottom houses or in the privacy of like company, but in the open space and in a direct way, is bound to be maligned. It is a punishment I have long resigned myself to.
In this particular case I am confronting a seemingly growing mindset that has been shaped by the arrogant and heartless governance of the PPP. The PPP seems to have excited a deep feeling of popular alienation and frustration which manifests itself in a politics of expediency, “short-cut” and zero-sum horse racing, particularly among our elites. There was a similar mindset towards the end of the PNC regime almost three decades ago. Mr. Ralph Ramkarran has correctly pointed out that the particularities of the two situations are different. But difference in circumstances does not necessarily amount to the absence of likeness of the larger challenges. I am contending that the challenges ethnic societies face after a long period of governance by one ethnic party are almost identical whether it’s under a dictatorship or a democracy.
Of the responses in the media, I found those by Sherwood Lowe, Abu Bakr, Freddie Kissoon, Eric Phillips and Ralph Ramkarran to be probing. I do not propose to answer every question directly or indirectly posed to me. Rather I would uses this space to make some further observations on the issue at hand and perhaps in the process clarify some earlier ones.
First, ethnic groups in all societies frame their “ethnic reality” to use Mr. Ramkarran’s term, in response to three major considerations–their perceived threat to the group’s honor (dignity, pride, worth), the threat of disenfranchisement (the right to elect their leaders, to self-determination and to the equality of their vote) and the threat of dispossession of the economic, political and cultural resources of the country.
Second, I have seen no evidence of any election in Guyana, rigged, semi-rigged, mildly-rigged or non-rigged, since 1957 where the contest did not ultimately become an ethnic struggle for power between African and Indian Guyanese, both at the level of the leaderships and followers. In such circumstances the two ethnic communities have shown scant interest in voting for a party or leaders outside of their ethnic group. I pointed out in my initial letter that I reject one of the premises of some supporters of the Indian-led APNU-AFC ticket that African Guyanese are more likely to vote for a candidate other than their own. It is not supported by evidence; both groups have been stubbornly anti-cross over. That’s the very basis of my whole thesis.
Third,one newspaper, who sees me as a threat to their narrative and agenda, has editorialized at least three times in one week that I believe Africans are more likely to vote for a leader outside of their group.If that were the case I would be enthusiastically cheering on the proposed AFC-led ticket. All I can say is, “Forgive them Lord.” They are salivating at the prospect of a two-way horse race with two Indian Guyanese candidates for obvious racial reasons.
Fourth, it is wrong to believe that Guyanese have not voted on issues. That is a falsehood that all of us have peddled for decades. Guyanese have noted on issues, but they have married those issues to their ethnic interests. In a situation of extreme ethnic competition, this is inevitable. There is an old African Guyanese proverb that is grounded in this reality—“Every cow cry for he own calf.”
Fifth, opposition to political wrongs of either political elite tend to engender ethnic solidarity. Because they are fighting against a common threat and not directly for something tangible, solidarity is easier to achieve. But when it comes to elections where the outcome is something tangible, that solidarity gives way to fierce competition as we saw in 1992. The WPA learned that lesson the hard way. The instinctive mass motivation is always the need to keep the other side out in order to prevent domination and to preserve the honor of the group.
Sixth, however well-intentioned the proposal for an APNU-AFC pre-election coalition is, it must take into considerations the above points. Any attempt to disregard them would produce a scenario that is bound to come up against that ethnic brick wall.
Seventh, the AFC’s pre-emptive public position that its candidate must lead the coalition, immediately, before the talks, soothes Indian Guyanese ethnic sensitivities but not African Guyanese. The former is given a powerful incentive other than getting rid of the PPP—we have the choice of voting between a disgraced leadership and a decent leadership of our own. On the other hand Africans have to choose between a disgraced and a decent leadership not of their own.
Eighth, I have received scores of emails, calls and inboxes chastising me for not mentioning the fact that the AFC’s nominee was until three years ago part of that disgraced Indian leadership. I explained that I do not hold that against Bro Nagamootoo in the same way I do not hold it against those who were part of the pre-1992 PNC leadership. But I raise it to say that it is a very strong element in the African Guyanese collective response.
Ninth, whatever formulae arrived at has to be sold to the two ethnic communities. As Freddie Kissoon pointed out if Nagamootoo is at the head of the ticket, it is African Guyanese leaders who will have to convince that group to vote outside of its traditionally entrenched frame. And the same goes for Indian Guyanese leaders if it’s a Granger-led ticket. Remember, while Indian Guyanese seek deliverance from the corrupt of their own, African Guyanese seek deliverance from ethnic domination by the other. In the case of the Indian-led ticket, one would be asking David Granger to go to African Guyanese who have invested in his leadership—their Joshua—to say to them that he is incapable of delivering them and their deliverance lies outside of their own leadership. That, I can assure you would be a tough sell, even if sold as a short term arrangement. In such a scenario, my leader whom I would campaign and vote for any day, any time, Rupert Roopnarine, will be perceived by many not as a standard-bearer for ethnic justice, but as one rooting for his own. We African Guyanese activists have for the past two decades had to endure the accusatory finger and tongue-lashing of African Guyanese for fighting down an African government and replacing it with an Indian one. That is the ethnic reality we face.In an acutely ethically divided society, the symbolism and realty of a horse race where the two horses are of one group will take a lot of selling. You are taking this proposal to a people who have historically been told they are not good enough, they are not capable of producing much beyond sports and entertainment. Even the revered ethnic conciliator, Walter Rodney, would have problems selling that one. I am merely stating the obvious that some conveniently or tactically ignore.
Tenth, under normal circumstances the PNC and latterly the APNU have struggled to get enough African Guyanese to the polls. It is estimated that the vast majority of the approximately 120,000 voters who failed to vote at the last election were African Guyanese. Can somebody tell me if Black leaders cannot convince enough Black voters to come out to vote for them, how will they convince them to come out and vote for an Indian leader? Bro Ramkarran posits that ethnic reality says that for an opposition alliance to win it has to be capable of winning votes from the PPP. True. But, I am adding to that—such an alliance have to also be able to get traditional PNC voters to the poll. And that is a big challenge for a ticket not led by an African.
Eleventh, I am not convinced of the logic that says electoral defeat of the PPP must first be achieved before any political advance or solution can occur. Unless the would-be PPP successors win with a two-thirds majority,fundamental changes such as constitutional reform would not automatically happen.
Finally, Bro Ramkarran, who I think would help to win more PPP votes if he gets into the trenches whether on an AFC/APNU ticket or on an AFC ticket (a Nagamootoo-Ramkarran combination would be a serious challenge to the PPP in the Indian Guyanese community), asks what is the point of proposing a post-election alliance in which someone of the opposite group is the President. This is a two-phase process—voting and formation of government. My emphasis is on the first phase—voting, whereby ethnic communities vote not only to win an election but to strengthen themselves and their leadership in a post-election scenario. Ethnic voting is also an act of self-determination and self-affirmation, which are critical factors in a group’s sense of itself and which should not be taken lightly.This, I think is what African Guyanese did in 2011—they responded enthusiastically to the APNU’s battle cry for a Government of National Unity. I think once each group registers its votes and the elections are over then Guyanese people of all races would be less rigid and more open to a negotiated National Government in which their leaders share equally in government. It is at that point a Pro-Democracy coalition of all parties including the PPP makes plenty sense. Sharing government assumes accepting some leadership from the other side some of the time.
I have been accused of seeking to undermine the coalition talks. I see it differently. If they pay me any mind at all, I am providing the negotiators with more food for thought.
Dr. David Hinds, a political activist and commentator, is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies at Arizona State University. More of his writings and commentaries can be found on his Youtube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com