“After all, we get the government we deserve. We deserve better, don’t we?”

Interview: Rundheersing Bheenick

* Electoral reform: ‘Should not reform and transparency begin within the parties? Should that not become a precondition for eligibility for financial support?’

For our end of year interview we have called upon Rundheersing Bheenick, former Minister of Finance and Economic Development, and former governor of the Bank of Mauritius, to share his views with our readers on the contemporary Mauritian scene in its political, social and economic aspects, and how he sees the future evolving as a consequence. He is convinced that more likely than not there will be a change of government for reasons that he spells out, but he is also an advocate of established parties reinventing themselves in a more democratic manner and engaging with the masses in a more intelligent way rather than simple appeal to their baser natures by devices such as sloganeering. Read on…

 Mauritius Times: What are your expectations for 2019… besides a change in government? What change/s would you like to see happen?

Rundheersing Bheenick: Ahem…I see we are setting off to a flying start! You’ve hit the nail right on the head! The change in government heading the wish list for the coming year is certainly not a novelty for 2019 – it’s been very much a top of the mind issue for most right-thinking Mauritians ever since the blatant, unprincipled, and self-serving perversion of the democratic process which was forced on a supine nation when the then Prime Minister, allegedly pleading age-related diminished capacity, catapulted his son into the office of Prime Minister with nary a “by your leave” from the electorate.

There wasn’t even the slightest wisp of a hint of such a mafia-like, all-within-the-family, father-to-sonny boy handover in their electoral program. Barring apologists and sycophants of the regime, and other baise-mains enthusiasts, the rest of us are still reeling from this rape of democracy, totally unparalleled in the history of independent Mauritius.

The only precedent which I can think of is when a former colonial Governor, Mackenzie-Kennedy if memory serves me right, proceeded to frustrate the will of the majority of voters — as expressed at the very first polls conducted in our country on the basis of universal suffrage (where, soit dit en passant, my mother Dhanmatee Bheenick, now 95 years young, satisfied the literacy test and voted for the first time) — by stuffing the Executive Council, which he chaired, with his own nominees in a last gasp effort to stave off the day when the majority wish would finally prevail. The Jugnauths have revived such undemocratic practices to perpetuate their hold on power.

The electorate has been hoodwinked. Come election time, many will no doubt still remember how they have been taken for a ride. When polling day approaches, the Mauritian voter moves in increasingly mysterious ways… and only time will tell whether we’ll effectively have the all-change many are praying for. We’ll find out soon enough!

* What about your other expectations?

My other expectations no doubt rejoin those of the majority of our countrymen.

My wish list, in no particular order, apart from the first one: greater happiness all round, rising living standards, greater social harmony, a more equal society and rising equity, diminishing poverty, less carnage on our roads, more regard for our environment, determined efforts to combat rising insecurity, adequate recreational and leisure space for all age-groups, a marked reduction in the continuous assault on our eardrums, combating criminality and drug abuse, a more expeditious and affordable legal and judicial system, better and more effective policing, containing the tentacular spread of corruption, more and better jobs for Mauritians.

Let me take a deep breath before I continue in the same vein: a much more affordable and effective health and education system, better control on the social transfer budget to minimize its negative repercussions on the work ethic, monetary and financial stability with a financial responsibility council, greater built-in protection for our threatened democracy to ward off the émules the Jugnauths are likely to spawn, enlarging and deepening our democratic fabric, providing an adequate mechanism to revisit/modify our constitution, providing for a Constitutional Court with exclusive jurisdiction over political/electoral matters, better performance in sports and athletics, enhancing the country’s standing in the comity of nations, greater peace and fewer flashpoints in the world, a more open international trade and exchange system, etc…my list of desiderata is seemingly endless!

Let me go back to the happiness issue, which I would elevate to pole position as the target of all public policy. In our fixation with GDP, GDP per capita, and other such indicators, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that they are just indicators and that the world got by very well without these artificial constructs until the early twentieth century. The ultimate test is how happy we are, and how we continue in similar or better state, not the size of the country’s GDP at macro level or our private balance sheet or bank balance at micro level, don’t you agree?

* Would the range of changes that you would wish for the country and the people require a change of the political leadership at the helm of the country?

I set great value by political stability which, in my book, does NOT mean that any particular political formation must have a monopoly of office. It is in the nature of democracy that the voters should be periodically offered the choice of the leader they want, and be faced with a cast of different political formations and players. These, in turn, should set out their wares by way of comprehensive electoral platforms to court the voters… to enlighten him on issues of concern to secure his informed support so as to better serve him and his country. At least, these are ideals we should strive for if we respect our electorate.

Change, for the sake of change, breeds instability and corrodes the body politic as surely as perpetuating, no questions asked, the same crowd at the helm of the power structure. It is clear that at the last general elections, the electorate effectively bought a pig in a poke…would the voters now become willing accomplices and wish to perpetuate the hoax that has been played on them?

While a change of leadership will certainly alleviate the current malaise, it will not on its own even begin to address a whole range of issues that go to the very heart of our political system.

* Is it a matter of concern to you that our political system (especially the electoral system in place) has been bringing up a self-perpetuating political class which has been sharing power within itself for decades now and which appears content with the status quo as regards the functioning of its (family) parties and the financing of its political estates?

Let me first say that much ink has been spilt in recent months by wiser heads on such issues as party financing, reform of the representation system to do away with the Best Loser system, reform of electoral constituency boundaries, etc…and we have a plethora of reform proposals. I refrain from adding to their number although I have shared my views with personal political friends who have been poring over these issues and who sounded me out.

But let me add my two cents’ worth: in the current state of total opacity surrounding the finances and governance of political parties, would it not be perilous in the extreme to dish out public funds from a strained treasury to such entities? Should not reform and transparency begin within the parties? Should that not become a precondition for eligibility for financial support? And while we are about it, should similar preconditions not be extended to all other entities, by whatever name called, which benefit from taxpayer support? The political class is certainly not the only one where we see the same faces, year in year out…

All this is for the future: it goes without saying that this must be well-prepared and there is no room for the type of ad-hoc-ery which this regime has got us used to. But I do have an immediate concern on this party funding issue.

* Which one in particular?

I raise it with some hesitation. Without going into the details of the cash money seized from Navin Ramgoolam’s residence in February 2015 (the case still being sub judice) – and exploding en passant the canard floated in court under oath by our very competent Clouseau-esque police (following my arrest in the same month) that I had allegedly personally supplied these crisp brand-new notes, apparently still in their original packaging, from the vaults of the Central Bank!! — isn’t there the grave risk that the Labour Party will be outgunned at the coming polls, if the case is not resolved by election time, and the seized money returned to its rightful owner?

We are all aware of the unpredictable voter behaviour that rises to the fore in election week, wrong footing political commentators and local pollsters: that is when money talks loudest and vote banks sway the results! How best can the requirement of free and fair elections be served at this juncture?

Can you imagine a heavyweight championship where the title-holder has ensured that his challenger enters the ring with his hands firmly tied behind his back? Probably, great for laughs in a farce…but no laughing matter in a general election! The electorate would then have its role cut out for it as the…dindons de la farce!

The clumsy attempt to eliminate Navin Ramgoolam as the bête noire of this regime by using the political police against him in a Big Bang arrest — with a compliant media relaying the antics of the rent-a-crowd goons hired by the regime to make a mass-demonstration outside the Ramgoolam residence at the time of the arrest — seems to be fizzling out. But the financing issue remains and must exercise the mind of all those who hold dearly to democracy and its ideals.

* But what if that change were to deliver much of the same that we have had to bear with during the last few years? Saying that it can’t be worse is not good enough, isn’t it?

A little clarification may be in order here: much of the same can have various shades of meaning. It can refer to the rest of the political cast of players beyond the leader of the winning formation.

The noises that we hear, the tentative candidates on the campaign trail in the various constituencies, the hopefuls we come across at political rallies, the troisièmes couteaux and other illustrious unknowns jumping ship in their quest for better selection prospects elsewhere, are so many telltale signs of an impending change in the dramatis personae.

As regards the main formations, Navin Ramgoolam doesn’t tire of repeating that he’s going to achieve more gender balance and rejuvenate his line-up at the next election. Paul Bérenger has circulated a list with many new faces. Xavier Duval implies that he has candidates for every constituency. Once MSM discards those knocked out by age, and by such other non-parliamentary activities as speculative gold hoarding at the cost of a public bank, conspiracy to cause harm, corruption, threats of gunslinging with murderous intent, and broadcasting intended cunnilingus from parliamentary benches, it will have to accommodate new faces.

Which means that we can expect quite some change here, irrespective of the election results.

Much the same can also refer to the policy stance of the new governing team to emerge from the coming general election, its approach to policy making, its façon de faire, its overt politicization of the police apparatus, its rampant nepotism, its respect (or lack of it) for public institutions, its treatment of Parliament, its cavalier attitude to private property as displayed in the Star Knitwear and British American Insurance cases, its culture of opacity in public finance, its insouciance vis-à-vis ballooning public debt, its questionable choice of big-ticket public projects, its laughable visioning exercise, its stuffing of public companies and agencies with stuffed shirts…need I carry on?

In these matters, I am afraid we must be weak in the head, if not completely bonkers, if we were to opt to just carry on as before. If we have an ounce of respect for ourselves, our forebears, and those who will succeed us, we must do everything we can to ensure that we change, and change fast, if we are to prevent our country from joining the ranks of rapidly fading stars in the mould of Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and others, all of which once shone bright as poster boys for good policies and good management, but fell on hard times when they fell in the hands of the wrong people and followed the wrong policies, and took the wrong turn.

Indeed, we have everything to fear if it were to be much the same as before. Our electorate will decide which turn we take.

* What are your apprehensions for the country if the people in their collective wisdom decide to stay the course?

Ah, the wisdom of crowds! Fascinating subject for debate, collective wisdom! I recall there was an interesting book on the subject some years ago by James Surowiecki, which I would strongly recommend for a quick read, if you haven’t read it already.

But be warned, I am only mentioning it because you refer to collective wisdom. For collective wisdom and collective choice to be better than individual choices, there’s a number of conditions to be satisfied, ranging from independence of individual decisions to meaningful ways for the aggregation of these individual decisions.

Sadly, collective wisdom doesn’t have much application to elections where group-think and crowd psychology – increasingly in the hands of astute political-marketers-turned-manipulators, deploying the whole paraphernalia of fake news and social media – transform much of the electorate into docile sheep, suspending all brain activity, with the single mission of voting for the party list, never mind the unsavoury characters they are fielding and the nefarious or toxic policies which they advocate.

There wasn’t much collective wisdom on display at the last consultation, was there? Remember how so many people around us lapped up the fake news about Navin Ramgoolam: he was gifted a brand new private jet by an aircraft supplier; he had actually murdered somebody and had used the police to cover “his” murder, etc.

The Mauritian public is far from exceptional in this matter. The British fell for a gigantic hoax when a majority of voters in the referendum supported “Brexit” in the mistaken belief that they’d thus regain their independence and realize huge financial savings in their public expenditure. In the US, despite a multi-tiered nomination and election system which would normally have filtered out unsuitable pretenders, the public voted Donald Trump as POTUS “to make their country great again”… only to see him emerge as more of a laughing stock on the international scene.

Which is to say that it is quite possible that our compatriots, in a display of anything but wisdom, vote the actual non-performing bunch back into office! Since there is little or no revolutionary blood in our veins, notwithstanding protestations to the contrary by assorted political hagiographers, I suppose we’d just have to grin and bear it and work on strategies to win the next time – as more of us are carted off to the CCID and police lock-up facilities on trumped-up charges that then wend their laborious way through the convoluted legal procedures and judicial processes, in a replay of what the current regime staged in the aftermath of their last unexpected electoral triumph.

It would have been another wasted opportunity as this crowd simply cannot be trusted to repair the damage which they have themselves inflicted on the country in almost every sphere of activity, from the social fabric which they have torn asunder, to public institutions which they have captured and turned into instruments to exert control and distribute largesse to cronies, and to the body politic where they sought to create a vacuum by neutralizing their strongest political adversary.

Society and economy and the rest go hang, as long as the family is in the driving seat… that seems to be their credo. Remember the “piss off” remark! I cannot imagine why any reasonably-informed voter should buy into such a projet de société, can you?

 * The preceding question stems from the view that if one were to put an ear to the ground, it is quite possible that opposition politicians are getting it all wrong about what the people at the grassroots really feel about the government’s performance, much like the LP-MMM combine did in Dec 2014 for other reasons? And that’s because more than one hundred thousand have been lifted out of poverty thanks to the National Minimum Wage, the old-age pensioners will obtain a better package and it’s likely there is more to come with next year’s budget. Bad economics always make for good politics in an election year, isn’t it?

There’s quite a mix of issues here! First, the governing crowd could well have public opinion behind it and the opposition is getting it all wrong about grassroots feelings. The fact of the matter is that in our system of social, economic, and political organization, it is next to impossible for the common citizen to manifest his feelings on government on a day-to-day basis for fear of reprisals against him, his family, his relatives, his clan if he has one, his enterprise or his company if he owns one, etc…which only makes the task of pollsters more of a hit-and-miss affair than it is elsewhere.

I believe the current crowd has run out of steam and is desperate for an alliance if they are to stand any chance of making it back to power. On the other hand, Labour clearly has the wind in its sails. We’ll be in a better position to assess the relative chances of the different formations, once we know the details of their make-up, their line-up, and their program.

The second issue you raise is the cause of the Labour-MMM debacle in 2014, which you trace to misjudging the view of the electorate about the outgoing government’s performance. I don’t quite agree with you there although I must say that, had they not misjudged it, they would of course have won. I differ for several reasons.

First, the MMM in partnership with Labour at the election, had nothing to do with Labour’s performance in office which, by the way, was very creditable and much better than the record of our present rulers.

Second, Labour-MMM were ill-inspired to fight the election on the key platform of transforming our prime ministerial system into a presidential system. This issue touched the fundamentals of our constitution and any reform should first have been widely canvassed via a consultative forum, a referendum, an all-party select committee, a provisional constitutional council, or some similar device (which is currently lacking in our constitutional provisions) to sound out the views of the wider public.

We have grown in political awareness since the constitution was elaborated and handed down in 1966/1968 and we will not take lightly to have constitutional changes thrust down our throat. The election might not have been lost if the Ramgoolam-Bérenger tandem had taken a leaf out of the book of Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a French Revolutionary leader, who had once exclaimed:

There go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader.

Third is the view expressed by some, with first-hand experience of the tractations in subterranean and nocturnal electioneering sorties, that the rural vote was alienated by opting for Paul Bérenger as PM when Navin Ramgoolam moved to the office of President in the proposed reform.

Fourth, the Labour-MMM campaign was lacklustre, directionless, and chaotic, with no clear political communication strategy and everyone fending for himself and coping as best he could. The vacuum left by the demise of my friend Christian Rivalland, who had over many elections played an unassuming but pivotal role in the shadows as Labour campaign strategist, could not be filled and it took its toll.

Fifth, the Labour-MMM alliance missed the boat completely on social media where their opponents had an overwhelming and path-breaking presence, with the attention-grabbing slogan Virer Mam.

And now to the third issue in your question: the minimum wage, state-funded old age pensions, and other likely budget sweeteners to serve as political bait to hook the voters.

Let me first point out that, while I am certainly not against, the issue of a national minimum wage (NWM) is not as clear-cut as some people would have us believe. If we still had a large single employer – monopsony is the technical term, the opposite of the better-known monopoly — facing an army of powerless workers, e.g. rather like the former sugar industry, then yes, on balance, it would have positive effects in transferring income from the rich and the rentiers (earning incomes from external sources) to the poorer workers.

If we have a large number of employers selling their products/services locally, the higher wage bill will have to be recouped through either reduced employment or higher productivity, or higher product prices, or a combination of these. The impact on poverty will depend on the relative weights you would attach to the other factors that enter the equation.

If the employers sell their products/services externally, they would not have the option of raising their product prices as they would then risk losing their markets which would result in job losses. You can apply all sorts of fancy models, with different elasticities of supply and demand, but they won’t change these fundamentals.

Instead of bandying about numbers about the thousands allegedly lifted out of poverty, we’d better pause and reflect on the very real job loss in the EPZ sector which, latest figures indicate, has shed over 2,500 jobs – or more than 5 % of its total workforce in the last twelve months. No, the jury is still out on this one and any sustainable impact on poverty reduction via the NMW can only be assessed when all the adjustments have worked their way through the system.

A word of caution here: carried to extremes by constantly raising the NWM irrespective of productivity gains ( as we do, for example, with old age pensions, etc)there is little to differentiate a runaway NMW from the Gideon Gono method of turning all Zimbabweans into millionaires, and eventually billionaires…before everything went up in smoke with economic and financial meltdown.

Unfunded old age pensions have now become political bait while continuing to pose a financial conundrum for a cash-strapped government soon to face a debt mountain. There’s a limit to how much you can tax the working-age population to support the extensive range of social transfers, many of which have now turned into entitlements. In electoral terms, it’s normally the opposition parties that have the good role here, with vote-catching promises of coming rises, to bag the vote of the troisième âge while a responsible outgoing government is often seen as the spoilsport.

What the issue really calls for is a national debate on social transfers generally in the context of debt sustainability and fiscal responsibility — all matters that the regime has consistently fought shy of and studiously avoided. Makes you wonder whether we actually have a Minister of Finance in office!

Instead, they have avidly, and voraciously, compounded the underlying fiscal problem by accumulating debt and hiding it in Special Purpose Vehicles, against public guarantees, in publicly-owned companies actually registered as separate companies with the Registrar of Companies so that these accounts are not consolidated in the public accounts figuring in the budget.

This has an eerie resemblance to the methods used by a notorious Greek regime that had resorted to similar tactics to underreport government debt and its public sector deficit until the bubble burst in 2009 and the game was up. What followed this subterfuge in Greece isn’t something that we would wish for our country: a succession of IMF stabilization programs and EU bailout packages, mass unemployment, welfare cuts, rising social exclusion, exodus of educated cadres, and the nightmare of a humanitarian crisis…in short, a lost decade.

We would do well to remind ourselves of the dicton: Les mêmes causes produisent les memes effets.

I earnestly hope that what happened in Greece is not a foretaste of things awaiting us. I don’t want to sound alarmist; it is my fervent wish that this doesn’t happen to us. But, to avoid such an outcome, we must mend our ways… And change the way we have been conducting our affairs since the last general election.

* The times, as they say, are a-changing; the populists are coming up in different places, facilitated partly by the growing dissatisfaction of the masses with the politics of traditional parties. The people also appear to be mostly concerned about obtaining “their biscuits” and are increasingly indifferent to ideological debates. How do you see political participation and engagement with the masses taking shape in the years ahead?

We are witnessing a phenomenon that is a recurrent feature in politics everywhere. Political parties, like other human constructs, come with a shelf-life and there are once-famous, even earth-shaking, parties that are now defunct – think of the German Nazi party or the Italian Fascist party – as there are parties that are best described as walking-dead, of which there are quite a few on the local scene. Occasionally, a party on long-term decline emerges as a comeback kid: think of the LibDems in the UK.

That is why political parties must continually reinvent themselves, renew their personnel, refashion their strategies, rethink what they stand for, and strive to be relevant in a changing world. A glorious past is certainly no guarantee of a bright future for any political party. As parties do this, the ideological dividing line separating traditional parties gets blurred. The Mauritian practice of coalitions, whether pre-electoral or post-electoral, whereby every major traditional party has at one time or another been in bed with the others, also fudges whatever dividing line has survived. Enter the one-man parties, the family parties, the single-issue parties, etc… politics is a minefield for the unwary voter who’s the prey of all political machinations. Lines are drawn and redrawn continuously and I see little evidence of our traditional parties being under attack from populists.

Introduce in the picture two additional elements to understand the rise of populism elsewhere: first, the tendency to blame the politicians for everything that you deem to be wrong and, two, the perceived negative impact of globalization on specific sections of the electorate. And you end up with the traditional parties under fire! Not that the populists and fringe parties can actually propose a better comprehensive program covering all walks of life, all policy areas, etc, as many European countries have been finding out in recent years.

We can count ourselves lucky that we have a high level of voter turnout at elections. This makes it more difficult for extremist parties, pandering to the real or imagined dissatisfaction of fringe elements and other discontents, from succeeding at the polls by their more effective mobilization of their adherents. Fringe parties thrive on low voter turnout.

I would expect greater effort to mobilize the youth vote at coming elections. I would expect less of the “What’s in it for me and my family?” type of reaction from voters which we often come across when we are canvassing door-to-door. We do have a literate population, which deserves to be treated as such, not just as electoral fodder for the party-machines as they seek to get out the vote. After all, we get the government we deserve. We deserve better, don’t we?

* Given the transformation in politics and political communication ushered in during the last decade, how do you see the future for the Labour Party and its main challenger of the past decades, the MMM?

These are both great parties that have written so many glorious chapters of our history. They have charismatic and politically-savvy leaders, who have known to the full the ups and downs of political life. I have been very privileged to serve in a Cabinet where Navin Ramgoolam was Prime Minister and Paul Bérenger Deputy Prime Minister. I see them continuing to bestride the local political landscape for years to come.

But both the LP and the MMM have aging leaders, who’ve been around for a long time, much longer in the case of the MMM. The planned retirement of a party leader is a rare phenomenon everywhere. A leader of a ruling party often steps down if he loses a vote of confidence: more usually, a party dumps its leader after an electoral defeat. Both have survived many defeats and delivered many wins.

They will both lead their ranks into battle at the coming polls. I am sure that, win or lose, they will both give serious thought to engineer a smooth transition of the leadership of their respective parties to a new pair of hands. A changing of the guard is definitely on the cards for both parties.

But not before the biggest change of all that awaits us: a new government at the next polls. Which will be a new beginning for the country and its people as we put things gradually back on track, regain our lost democratic credentials, repair the social damage of recent years, and get the economy moving for the benefit of all its citizens.

* Published in print edition on 28 December 2018

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