“Anerood Jugnauth was a pragmatist… It was the final objective that mattered to him”

Interview: Suren Bissoondoyal

* ‘Both Basdeo and Sookdeo were firm about their principles. They would be prepared to accommodate to some extent – but no further’

* ‘It was a mistake of Berenger to try to usurp SAJ’s powers as Prime Minister’

Surendra Bissondoyal has been a prominent figure in the education sector at all levels, and as a scion of the Bissoondoyal family has had a ringside view of the political developments in Mauritius from the pre-Independence days. And that includes a close knowledge of the interactions between the young politician and activist Anerood Jugnauth and the Bissoondoyal brothers, as well as the subsequent events that made and separated and re-made party alliances, and the impact on the socio-economic development of Mauritius in which Anerood Jugnauth was a key player. In this interview he sheds more light on these important aspects of Mauritian politics which are not as well known to the public.

Mauritius Times: We understand you had become acquainted with Anerood Jugnauth since his early days in politics or even prior to that, when he would come visiting Basdeo and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal before eventually joining the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB) and standing as an IFB candidate in the 1963 elections. Would it be right to say that the influence of the Bissoondoyal Brothers and of the Jan Andolan have had a determining impact on his political choices and on his politics?

Surendra Bissoondoyal: I was studying in London at that time, so I did not know Sir Anerood Jugnauth from close quarters. But I got the news about his election in 1963 — not an easy victory though, since he had to stand against Anauth Beejadhur, the sitting member in that constituency. That was to earn him the reputation of ‘giant killer’.

When I came back in 1965, he was sitting in the Legislative Council and had become Deputy Leader of the IFB in a short time. I watched him recently in a film produced by the Basdeo Bissoondoyal Trust Fund recalling his childhood days when he would accompany, as a child of around 10 years, his father to the sermons of Basdeo on the Hindu scriptures in Palma. His father was a ‘Bissoondoyalist’, he said, and though he could not grasp what it meant at his young age, he eventually became a ‘Bissoondoyalist’ himself. I suppose the influence you undergo when you are young stays with you much longer than when you have already grown up. That influence must have stayed on with him.

That could be the reason why he decided that the Esplanade at the Port-Louis Harbour should be named after Basdeo Bissoondoyal despite the entreaties of some government officials to have his own name instead. Anerood Jugnauth became and remained a ‘Bissondoyalist’, and that is why he himself and his wife Sarojini made it a point to attend the sermons of Basdeo at Rivière du Rempart or wherever they were held.

* You said that Sir Anerood Jugnauth became a ‘Bissoondoyalist’, what did it imply to be a ‘Bissoondoyalist’?

At that time, the discrimination that the Indian community faced put them at a terrible disadvantage. When Basdeo Bissoondoyal came back from India, he wanted them to be proud of their culture and to fight for their rights so as to earn respect. He instilled a new spirit in the people: Stand up and fight discrimination and exclusion; it was a spirit of empowerment. That spirit was reflected when the people responded positively to the appeal of Basdeo and Sookeo to boycott the notorious ‘Le Course Malbar’, a term used in a derogatory manner to diminish them as inferiors – only worthy of making a spectacle of themselves at the Champ de Mars on that particular racing day.

* What do you think caused him to leave the IFB to found the All Mauritius Hindu Congress? Could it be said that the Congress’ harder line appeared more appealing to the young Jugnauth than the IFB’s ideology?

He did not really leave the IFB. The Hindu Congress had no intention to evolve into a political party, but probably under the influence of Basdeo and Sookdeo sought to empower the Hindu community. In fact, Anerood Jugnauth, whilst staying with in the IFB, joined the Hindu Congress. The affinity between those two movements – one political, and the other socio-cultural – was such that during a ceremony in Flacq, Sookdeo garlanded the leader of the Hindu Congress.

As regards what is perceived as the harder line approach of the Congress, it was clear that the Congress openly pursued a pro-Hindu agenda, which was not the case insofar the IFB was concerned and which also brought together non-Hindu members and election candidates. That is how in the 1963 elections, Abdool Wahab Foondun, a Muslim IFB candidate, got elected in a predominantly Hindu constituency: Bon Accueil. The ambition was to build the IFB into a national party, not one reserved for a particular community. That is also why Sookdeo Bissondoyal, as Member of the Legislative Council, obtained in those days the full support of Dr Edgar Millien of L’Oeuvre. When he was suspended from the Council by the Governor, it was Guy Forget of the Labour Party who tabled a motion to repeal the suspension.

* The IFB and the Labour Party did come together for the 1967 elections, but their alliance did not last long. Even in later years the MSM, founded by Anerood Jugnauth, went into another alliance with the LP, then headed by the son of SSR. Why do you think they could not click? Was it due to ideology, personality clashes or different political cultures?

I suppose it was to some extent a question of personalities as well as the approach to be adopted vis-à-vis the colonial authorities. Sookdeo and Basdeo were more vigorous in their defence of the people than SSR and Seeneevassen, who appeared more inclined to make all sorts of compromises, which Sookdeo in particular was not prepared to do. That did not deter them however from coming together for the 1967 elections when there was something greater at stake.

But again, as regards their differences, it could also have to do with their political grooming – one British and the Bissoondoyal’s Indian. Basdeo had been to India at a time when the Indians were fighting against the British for their independence. There was beside the non-violent movement of the Indian National Congress the more vigorous Azad Hind Movement of Subhash Chandra Bose, who would also found his party, the Forward Bloc. The inspiration for the name of the Independent Forward Bloc no doubt came from Subhash Chandra Bose’s Forward Bloc whereas SSR inherited the Labour Party which was based on the British Labour Party.

* Fifty years down the line, who do you think was right in terms of political ideology and approach: SSR or Basdeo/Sookdeo?

It is difficult question to answer, but what played in SSR’s favour was that he had the support of the Governor and of the British at that time, who wanted him because of his pro-British inclination rather than Sookdeo to become head of independent Mauritius. Even in India, at that time, there was Jawarharlal Nehru whose approach was much like SSR’s – and therefore more accommodating and acceptable to the British to be the Prime minister of India. Subhash Chandra Bose, on the other hand, was a fighter – just like Nehru was also — but less accommodating.

* To come back to Anerood Jugnauth, even if the MSM were to go into alliances with the LP, PMSD, MMM, etc., in later years, could it also be said that the IFB’s ideology had remained with and influenced Anerood Jugnauth’s prime ministership down the years? For example, when you consider his position towards electoral reform, the language issue…

When you consider all these issues, I would say he was more in line with the thinking of the Bissoondoyals. But you have to first get yourself elected and thereafter have the free hand to be able to implement your ideology. That’s why he broke up with the MMM in 1982-1983. It was a mistake of Berenger to try to usurp his powers as Prime Minister. You can be the real leader of the party, but once you have chosen somebody else to be the leader of the alliance, in this case the MMM-PSM alliance, you must play by the rules. Berenger instead was disrespectful towards SAJ, and was all the time trying to convey the impression that he was the leader of that alliance.

Sir Anerood Jugnauth could not accept that. He not only broke away, but he also wanted to give up politics — just like he would have done in earlier years when as Minister of Labour he was not happy with the attitude of SSR. He had then said to Sookdeo that he would go back to his profession. This is how he left politics to go to the State Law Office – and only to return to politics many years later at the insistence of the MMM.

In 1982, it was the insistence of many of the MMM’s party members that held him back. In fact, there was a crucial meeting, comprising MMM and PSM party members, held at Uttam Bissoondoyal’s place to persuade him to stay and fight back. I must say that Harish Boodhoo lent his support as well and later made a magnificent gesture by merging the PSM with the newly-formed MSM. That was to give Jugnauth the strength to fight back.

* It is said that Sookeo Bissoondoyal turned down Paul Berenger’s proposal to head an MMM-IFB alliance as prime ministerial candidate, and so did Satcam Boolell in 1991. Anerood Jugnauth used realpolitik extensively and with tremendous success, joining forces with different parties – the MMM, LP, PMSD – at different times to ensure his political survival. In fact, he survived the IFB itself. What do you think?

Anerood Jugnauth was a pragmatist who knew how to take advantage of some given situation and used it effectively. He knew that the MSM on its own would not be able to fight the MMM, so he enlisted the support of the Labour Party and the PMSD. He knew what was required and how he could get it. It was the final objective that mattered to him.

* In a way, he was more like SSR than Sookdeo Bisssoondoyal, isn’t it? If the latter had adopted the same approach, he might have gone much farther…

You have a point there, but when it comes to practising accommodation as a political strategy, there is a limit to which you can go to if you have lived and operated by some principles and also what your final objective is. Both Basdeo and Sookdeo were firm about their principles. They would be prepared to accommodate to some extent – but no further… because they believed that they have to live by their principles. They were really not interested with power just for power’s sake.

* It has been said recently that it was Sir Anerood Jugnauth in the main who resisted the IMF and World Bank’s recommendations to slash the Education budget in 1982 at a time when the economy was doing badly. You have interacted with him in your capacity as director of the MES and later as Pro-Chancellor of the UOM. What were your impressions then of the stand he had taken?

I have been the Director of the MES for 13 years and Pro-chancellor for 17 years, and I have to say that Sir Anerood Jugnauth did not interfere in the day-to-day running of the UOM. There was never a time when he would ask me to do something, because he simply did not want to interfere. Even when Jagadish Manrakhan left as Vice-chancellor, he never sought to influence the decision-making process for the appointment of the new Vice-chancellor. It was only after we had chosen the best candidate and appointed Prof Mohamedbhai that we informed him of our decision.

As far as the IMF and World Bank are concerned, for having known poverty and the difficulty of access to education by the poor, Anerood Jugnauth was very much aware of the importance of education for the poor in our towns and villages. That is why he did not accept to slash the education budget. Also, it was during his tenure as Prime minister, from 2000 to 2003, that his Minister of Education, Steven Obeegadoo embarked on the most ambitious project of setting up 30 State Secondary Schools and even allowed MGI to build three more secondary schools. I was adviser at that time to Steven Obegadoo, and I can tell you that he worked very hard to make that happen. The result was that access to State schools was fundamentally improved.

* The ensuing conflict with the confessional authorities when the latter reneged on the deal relating to the trade-off Reserved Seats and Inclusion of Oriental Languages must have shaken SAJ. His hard-hitting reaction at the airport had remained stuck with him for a long time. What do you remember about that episode, and was SAJ fundamentally right at that time?

I believe he was aware, just like SSR was, that the Roman Catholic schools had done a good job and that we had to accommodate them to some extent. Thankfully, a solution for the reserved seats (50:50) was found and the government accepted the solution, which I think was in the best interests of everybody. Thereafter Oriental languages was finally accepted for inclusion for exam purposes.

* Published in print edition on 8 June 2021

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