Morality, politics and the no-confidence vote

Morality, politics and the no-confidence vote
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Guyana was exposed to the high drama of a political action, which was coincidentally unrolled in several other jurisdictions recently, including the “Mother of Parliaments” in Britain – the “no confidence vote”. This mechanism goes to the heart of Parliamentary democracy, which demands that the government’s legitimacy depends on the will of the people, exercised though their representatives. Our constitution explicitly incorporated the device in Art 106 (6) and (7) which basically allows the Opposition to demand the government demonstrate it retains the support of the majority of the National Assembly. If it cannot, its “falls” and elections to choose a new government must be conducted within three months.

Now, since the government usually assumes office by securing such a majority, as did the PNC-led APNU/AFC coalition, they professed themselves quite confident of surviving the challenge posed by the PPP. In the modern political system undergirded by the “political party”, there is a specific office of “Party Whip” who is supposed to ensure their MP’s vote along the party line. In Britain, while the Whip cannot explicitly instruct the MP on how to vote, - that would violate parliamentary privilege since the MP’s are supposed to vote their conscience - they have worked out a code via underlining information of attendance with one to three lines.

Generally, however, the MP’s toe the party line because they are ambitious and want to move up in the party’s hierarchy – especially with an eye to a government position. The list system for fielding candidates at elections ensures that those selected as MP’s by the party are “safe”. In Guyana, this control over MPs was strengthened after Raphael Trotman and Khemraj Ramjattan formed the AFC while occupying respectively, PNC and PPP seats and there was a “recall legislation” that allowed the parties to expel such MPs and those who did not vote according to the party line.

So with all of that explicit and historical control, with the PPP’s no-confidence motion, it was not surprising that the PNC and AFC demanded that the PPP “bring it on”. They must have had a twinge of doubt, however, when they mobilized supporters to assemble in front of parliament to form a gauntlet which all MPs, including the government’s, had to run. Historically this tactic was always been intended to intimidate, and since they couldn’t possibly have a problem with the Opposition supporting their own motion. They were at a minimum, sending a “three line” message to their own MP’s to toe the line.

Against this background, therefore the action of AFC MP Charandass Persaud to vote his conscience against the PNC-led coalition took a lot of courage. He knew he would be expelled from the party and had to once again run the gauntlet outside the chambers, this time as a “traitor”. But as Persaud explained, he voted his conscience for the first time because for over three years he had supported his party, the AFC, to traduce every principle they professedly stood for, and supported the PNC’s march into paramountcy. No more. The straw that broke Persaud’s back was the abandonment of the 7000 sugar workers by the AFC after explicitly assuring them their jobs would be safe. Living within a shuttered sugar community, Persaud was unwilling to sacrifice them for the sake of political expedience.

Asked to explain his action Persaud explained he was a Hindu, and accepted, at the most fundamental level, he would be judged by the nature of the action (karma) he was performing in accordance with the guiding paradigm of the Hindu world view – Dharma. As far as politics is concerned, Dharma exhorts us to perform actions that “uphold, nurture, enhance, support, sustain”, all living beings. And in this way, Persaud’s actions are absolutely Dharmic – not to mention democratic - and he should be commended by all right-thinking Guyanese.

In modern times, Mahatma Gandhi exemplified and lived politics in line with dharma. He showed that ultimately, political legitimacy cannot be imposed by brute force whether by the state organs against the people, or by party sanctions to coerce MPs to toe their line. Blind adherence to the latter will guarantee abuses by leaders leading to totalitarianism – and in the case of Guyana, party paramountcy.

True political legitimacy has to ultimately rest on the personal morality of politicians and the mechanisms of ‘democracy” must ensure that such morality is not stifled in the name of the party ‘line”. Charandass Persaud is a Guyanese hero.