Burnham and the PNC

Burnham and the PNC

Photo : Ravi Dev

The PNC is commemorating its 60th anniversary. Exactly thirty years ago, as part of a paper, “On the Guyanese Dictatorship” I analysed its “Founder-Leader” LFS Burnham’s imperatives to launch the party after his three unsuccessful challenges to Jagan to become leader of the PPP and the defeat of his PPP faction in the 1957 elections. The same imperatives drive the present PNC under Granger who has vowed to fulfil Burnham’s “legacy”.

“Burnham craved to be leader for three reasons: His undeniable personal ambitions; his realization that Jagan and other “extreme” leftists had a very naïve apprehension of the geopolitical realities of the era; and he considered himself the representative of the African and Creole sections, who were increasingly seeing themselves in danger of being overwhelmed by Indians.

The last reason stemmed from several factors. Firstly, even though the P.P.P. thought it had addressed the racial cleavages by recruiting leaders from each racial/ethnic group, the dominance of the Indian top leadership, the aggressive entry of Indians into positions formerly dominated by Creoles, the economic development plans that veered towards agriculture, and the generally jingoistic response of this previously politically backward but numerically largest section, raised concerns in the other sections as to the implications of their “minority” status. While the P.P.P. had defined itself as a “revolutionary” party, which would eliminate the “ruling class” and fuse the rest of society with the “working class”, the minority group began to perceive themselves as potentially permanently dependent on the beneficence of the “major group”. The P.P.P. was being defined, both by its supporters and its detractors, as an exclusionary party with its constituency (Indians) and excluded group (Africans and Creoles) racially defined.

Secondly, the discomfiture of the African and Creole sections was exacerbated by the implications of being dominated by a group with a completely different culture - one they had been taught to consider as “heathen” and “inferior”. The national ethos had defined Guyana as a “Creole” nation and the Creoles and Africans, as the guardians of this ethos, naturally presumed they were to be the inheritors of the nation on the departure of the British. It was unthinkable to permit power to fall into the hands of the group deemed ambivalent about their national allegiance because of their refusal to “assimilate”.

               Burnham, as a consequence, did not have much difficulty in legitimising his drive for power by articulating the fears of the African and Creole sections, when he launched the P.N.C. and provided a vehicle to address those fears. In fact, Burnham was promised help by Manley and Bustamante of Jamaica, Adams of Barbados and Padmore of Trinidad if he formed a party to prevent Jagan from creating and “Indian State” in Guyana. The formation of the United Force (U.F.) in 1960, representing the White and near-white bloc, further increased the paranoia of the African and Creole sections.

In a plural society where one section is over fifty percent of the population, “democratic elections” are not very comforting to minority groups. It is simply a prescription for permanent exclusion from power and the prerequisites thereof, which issue from the exclusionary politics practiced, once a group acquires power. There is no question that the fears of the minority groups can be, and have been, heightened by demagogic politicians like Burnham, but one can assert with as much certitude that the fears are rational and real, based on the experience of minorities the world over. Unless these fears are addressed, minority groups will continue to be receptive to mobilization by ambitious politicians. Burnham then, received increasing support from Africans and Creoles as he strove for power because, to reiterate, they perceived their interests and his, as coincident.

               Burnham’s attempt to wrest control of the P.P.P. between 1953 and 1955 resulted in a spilt of the nationalist movement. The ignominious defeat of his faction in the 1957 general elections persuaded him that he could not win over Indian support by merely utilizing Jagan’s tactic of fielding prominent candidates from the “other” group. Jagan had pre-empted the field. Burnham’s fusion with the United Democratic Party (U.D.P.) - the political offshoot of the League of Coloured People - in 1958 to create the P.N.C., was a natural development. It combined Burnham’s support among the lower class rural Africans with the strategic support of the urban based Creole and African middle class.”

Race has dominated Guyana’s voting since.