Opinion: Citizenship and belonging
26 November, 2022, 3:57 pm
The last article in this series promised to analyse the 1999 elections that confounded many with its results.
In the lead-up to polling in May 1999, both Sitiveni Rabuka and Jai Ram Reddy were jubilant that the 1997 Constitution was finally accepted and promulgated as a consensus document that came about through a painstaking, acrimonious, tedious and extensive process of consultations.
They sincerely expected this to pave the way to a new Fiji, a Fiji where racial inclusion rather than exclusion would guide political decision-making.
After all, the 1997 constitution had the unanimous blessings of both the Bose Levu Vakaturaga (BLV) as well as Parliament.
First, however, they needed to win the 1999 elections.
A huge disappointment and subsequent political oblivion were on the horizon for these two leaders who shared a sincere vision that would severely test their beliefs about Fiji, its citizens and the whole concept of political power sharing in a multicultural context that had been historically imbued with racial distrust and animosity.
Not only the direction, that Fiji would take after 1999, was at stake; the future of these two gentlemen was also very much at stake.
It is now part of recorded history that the new preferential voting system propelled the Fiji Labour Party to a landslide victory in 1999 where it secured 31 indo-Fijians and 6 Fijian seats in the 71-member Parliament.
The largest victor after FLP was Rabuka’s old nemesis, the Fijian Association Party (FAP) now led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra’s widow, Adi Kuini Bavadra – they won 10 seats.
Poseci Bune’s Veitokani ni Lewenivanua Vakarisito (VLV) pulled off 3 seats.
Rabuka’s SVT managed to win 8 seats, but this was a humiliating blow to a party that had its roots in the BLV and had ruled Fiji since 1992.
Reddy’s NFP was zeroed out of politics in Fiji.
It was clear that the electorate had not given Reddy and Rabuka’s efforts in securing the 1997 constitution the same level of importance as was expected among more concerned circles.
Profound discussions and arguments ensued about “what happened.”
Fijians felt that they had been “tricked” by the new constitution.
Indo-Fijians thought that the results clearly showed the genius of Mahendra Chaudhry as opposed to the “dreamer” in Reddy.
An analysis of that election will need more space than that permitted in one of these articles, so I will focus here on actions and expectations of Jai Ram Reddy and Sitiveni Rabuka in the lead-up to the 1999 elections.
Other contributory factors will be looked at in the next article.
Jai Ram Reddy and NFP
After he accepted that inclusiveness was the only way to go for Fiji and that a legal framework in the form of a constitution was an absolute necessity for this, Jai Ram Reddy, dedicated his life single-mindedly to helping in the review of the 1990 Constitution.
Over the course of 1995 to 1997, he listened closely to counsel from his most trusted advisors and colleagues, from people outside the traditional political ambit, from academics and trade unionists, and the list grew.
He raised funds to access what was considered to be the best legal advice available in the person of Professor Yash Ghai at that time.
His endeavors did not stop there.
As opportunities emerged to build bridges with leaders of other communities to allay their fears about his motivations, he began addressing luncheon gatherings, party meetings (General Voters Party 1994) and national occasions such as the ‘Year of the Indigenous People’.
The diplomatic community was regularly briefed – a sort of novelty as he was not the PM.
Newspapers and news magazines carried comprehensive interviews about his views for the future of Fiji.
Reddy was leaving n Reddy was leaving no stone unturned, but this meant that he had less time to engage with his grassroots support as he had done so impressively in the early part of his career.
The end result was that Reddy became a remote figure while the FLP focused on filling this void by nurturing its roots and re-invigorating its links with the electorate.
In July 1997, Reddy, at the behest of Rabuka, was invited to address the BLV in a historic first for Fiji.
Reddy humbled himself before the chiefs like no other non-Fijian leader before him.
In his deeply moving address he said, “today the grandson of an indentured labourer answers the call of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga. And
together we keep an appointment with history… I have made many speeches, in many places, and on many high occasions. But what I have to
say this morning is for me the most important of them all. I come to speak of fear and of the end of fear. I come to speak of truth and destiny”.
He continued “you are called upon to be a foundation of unity for the islands your ancestors set upon the road to modern nationhood.
Chiefs of Fiji, with the greatest respect and humility, I submit that you are chiefs, not just of Fijians, but of all the people of Fiji”.
Reddy was speaking across the political-ethnic divide to the Fijian power elite.
This was no small achievement, but it meant little to the Indo-Fijian electorate who were still mired in the framework of short-term victories,
petty gains and zero-sum thinking.
Niceties about inclusiveness and cross-cultural tolerance were apparently not making any headway with them.
This was clearly captured in Chaudhry’s declaration in Parliament when he said, “I am only too aware that mine is a voice in the wilderness. The rest of my colleagues are happy enough to settle for the shadow rather than the substance of multiracialism”.
What he meant by the “substance of multi-racialism” remained undefined, but it was enough for the Indo-Fijian electorate to propel him
His “success” in having Parliament add a 20th seat for IndoFijians thus increasing the Parliamentary total from 70 to 71 was what
appeared to resonate with his supporters.
Sitiveni Rabuka and SVT
Rabuka, on the other hand, appeared to be faced with much of the same among his supporters.
It needs to be noted that after the JPSC accepted the revised report, they asked for a “free vote” on it with the hope that it would be defeated in Parliament.
It was obvious that the broad-based support that is normally attributed to the 1997 Constitution, was actually a conditional support – these
conditions never saw the light of day because it would have revealed broad opposition to it.
Rabuka assured them that if the report was defeated, he would immediately call for elections and centralise the report as the key issue
thereby making that election a referendum on the constitutional review report.
This helped “push” the report (the 1997 Constitution) through Parliament.
The distrust and negativity towards it, however, was never allayed.
Furthermore, Chaudhry deftly dealt the ever-lurking coup card by saying that Rabuka and other coup perpetrators “must show remorse for what they did, and the best way to show this is through an apology to those who were wronged and who suffered as a result of their actions. There is no permanent remedy in just papering over the cracks with a lot of rhetoric about multi-racialism and national unity.”
Chaudhry was verbalising a complaint that was gaining ground among former Rabuka supporters as well.
This was part of the fuel that propelled the VLV and FAP to a total of 13 seats in 1999.
Former coup warriors had decided to take the moral high ground against the very man who they had championed in 1987.
The tide had truly turned against Rabuka in 1999. All his sterling efforts in securing an ethnically fractured Fiji the widely acclaimed 1999 constitution had come to naught.
He would reemerge as the first commoner chairman and only life member of the BLV.
This is because he was a Fijian and his people in their own way acknowledged that they had wronged him at the 1999 elections.
Reddy had no such luck; he was shunned by the Indo-Fijian electorate who went back to the politics of myopic pettiness.
Chaudhry ran the country for a year with his insensitive and assertive team who succeeded in helping forge ominous alliances among disaffected segments until Fiji jumped into another coup.
The rest is history.
We will focus on lessons from the 1999 elections in the next article.
• DR SUBHASH APPANNA has been writing occasionally on issues of historical and national significance. This series was triggered by a recent reference to Fijians of Indian Descent as “vulagi” by an aspiring politician. The views expressed here are his alone and not necessarily shared by this newspaper or his employers.