In the Westminster system under which the National Assembly is constituted, the Opposition is viewed as a potential alternative government. One therefore looks forward to a credible Opposition, having a distinct governmental programme of its own. This is essential for the good running of democracies. The opposition of views can be very productive. It can produce ideas and approaches to governing the affairs of the country which should have the potential of overhauling the model advocated by the government.
Let us go back in time to see the difference that a credible Opposition programme can produce. We had a very narrow economic base after independence. A number of people were unemployed. Sugar production was the mainstay. It was the sole activity with which we interfaced with external markets. Even the sugar export market was narrowed down to Britain. The lack of perspective and the protests against this situation had the effect of beefing up the Opposition.
The coming together of Labour and the PMSD in 1969 had the effect of sending the newly constituted MMM to fill the void left behind by the PMSD. Despite certain splinter groups from the PMSD having fallen out on the side of the opposition, it took little time for the MMM to assert itself as the main opposition in the country despite not having a single representative in the House. Taking advantage of the prevailing popular discontent, it took hold of trade unions and launched itself into a widespread strike action, paralysing several sectors of activity. One of its stated objectives consisted of nationalisation of certain key areas of economic activity: sugar, big trading houses, the docks, the tea sector, transport, etc. The party resorted to social agitation on a quasi-permanent basis. The country was losing even the little amount of serenity it still possessed.
This state of affairs had the effect of pushing the government to take radical action to redress the situation, mainly as concerned the mounting problem of unemployment. Having seen the MMM’s tendency to uphold some form of radical socialism, the big private sector, which is traditionally opposed to Labour, soon joined hands to undertake an overhaul of the scale of our economic activities. For the PMSD and the private sector, the alternative to joining Labour would have been to face up to a seemingly unending inward-driven strife at the risk of crippling economic activity.
The result: Labour in alliance with the PMSD launched the Export Processing Zone for textile manufacturing and gave new ambitions to the growth of the tourism sector. Jobs started coming up once investors from the Far East set foot in our industrial activity. Despite the ups and downs of politics in those days, what the MMM Opposition had to offer as alternative had the unexpected effect of bonding forces of future growth by bringing the big private sector to realize the catastrophic situation it would otherwise be confronted with. In that sense, it may even be stated that the threat posed by the MMM’s programme became an accelerator of salutary change for the country as a whole. The country learnt that instead of concentrating upon itself, rousing internal discontent, it ought to be orienting itself outward, something that was amply brought out in the first Economic Development Plan 1971-75.
This episode shows that an Opposition can help the country realize its potential and actually cause it to put the legal and physical infrastructure in place to achieve its transformation. The Opposition need not be focussing only on negative factors. Its own programme of development can challenge the path taken by the government. These alternative proposals can have the effect of putting the country onto a higher and more productive plane than if one were to tread on the governmental programme. In democracies like Britain and America, leaders on both sides of the political divide hold regular party conferences in the course of which they chalk out how they approach issues differently.
Unfortunately, this is not what we have been seeing here over a long period of time. There has hardly been a serious opposition of views between the government and opposition sides as regards the development path to be taken. The views have differed rather on platitudes such as electoral reform, waste, corruption, scandals and such things. While it is the role of the Opposition – as of any responsible citizen – to denounce anything which it considers to be going in the wrong direction for the country, it also has the duty to formulate its own policies about how it proposes to grapple with emerging problems. The absence of facts at this level does little to add to the credibility of the Opposition as a serious alternative.
This shortcoming could have been addressed if there was a public debate on what kind of orientation of public policies should be best for the maximum upkeep of our country. Such debates are usually hosted in the media or during party conferences. However, there is little initiative on the part of individual party members to come out with what they think ought to be done on specific matters of public policy. Everybody appears not to make a statement that could possibly go against what the party leadership might be thinking, if at all. We have stopped short of going up to the superior plane of ideas and limited ourselves to the stage of commenting on day-to-day happenings.
As regards a good part of the media, it is almost a copy of what is going on at the level of political parties. Issues will be discussed by them only after they have been aired by politicians. Depending on which side of the political spectrum the distinct media operators see themselves, they will flourish inputs as it would please the political parties they “support”. The overall effect of this is that one does not extricate oneself from the routine. Politicians are either enthusiastically praised for whatever they say or do, or the maximum amount of aspersion is cast upon them as if, no matter what the politicians say or do, nothing valid can come up from them where they have been cast. Not surprisingly, part of the media starts looking like a sheer extension of the government or the opposition.
It is well known that if we want to mark political, economic and social progress at this stage of our development, we need to break from the mould, as it was done in the past. The acceleration factor towards the transition should have come from substantive inroads being made by the Opposition giving insight into how we could and should have addressed our future more smartly. Once the public perceive that the Opposition has a credible alternative plan, there will take place a rallying of new forces to achieve desirable objectives for the country as a whole. It is sad to admit that this kind of dynamism is sorely lacking. If it were to continue, the world will pass us by and we might lose even the small advance we have acquired from the past by dint of hard, focussed work.
* Published in print edition on 1 March 2013