The Politics of Conviction

By Anil Gujadhur 

Political parties are necessary for the effective functioning of democracy. They are institutions representing particular swathes of opinion on how to run the affairs of state. It may well be that two or more parties within a country hold almost identical ideas on political choices to be made. This does not mean that the proximity of their views should make them join forces for elections. Indeed, the nuances that exist between parties should be maintained and cultivated to give the democratic system a chance to have a civilised confrontation of those views. This is because when a country has to negotiate a critical turn, it is at that point that subtle differences of approach to policy-making by distinct parties can be determining on the future course of the nation. Besides, when parties which collectively make the bulk of the political following in a country decide to coalesce, it amounts to a tacit denial of vote and, hence, a coup d’état against democracy.

We have experimented with this kind of overwhelming coalitions several times in the past decades in Mauritius. Those coalitions have not shown better results than others which have ruled the country without this amount of sway. They have also not been as stable as it was initially thought they would be. It is therefore highly important for political parties to live for some ideals within their four walls which they hold high and which they will, under no circumstances, compromise with, right, left or centre. By sticking to their guns, they run a better chance to realise their objectives for the betterment of the country.

This means that the underlying social project which a party stands for should have very deep foundations anchored in the genuine aspirations of those it sets out to defend. The values which the party wants to achieve in this context will be so indisputably superior to all else that its adherents will not be deflected from their mission, come what may, by alternative temporary personal gains. Many of the original leaders of Labour were jailed or marooned or deprived in untold ways but they refused to give up the fight as they had seen it. Such was the force of their conviction. On it, they built up the party’s track record. 

This is the unambiguous basis on which the Labour Party of 1936 was formed. Its leaders were deeply convinced about the goals they had set out to achieve under the party’s banner. They were vindicating workers’ rights to decent pay and working conditions and the restoration of the dignity of a vastly ill-treated workforce. Nothing could better rally the entire population under Labour’s banner than this all-encompassing agenda. No boundaries of caste, communal belonging, linguistic differences and all sorts of ethnicities which have flourished in modern days, could find fault with this kind of a comprehensive program for social reform. Thus, the period before those insidious distinctions became the frontispiece of local politics can be considered as the golden phase of politics in Mauritius. That is how Labour assumed the role of the sole bulwark of democracy in the island, as a natural outgrowth against an oppressive system formed by the coalition of administrative and economic interests.

As the recent examples of Tunisia and Egypt are showing, these decisive first steps to break a major stranglehold to political progress are the most difficult to make in the life of a nation. Those who have got used to a system of comfort based on exploitation of the working class will not give up their exclusive rights and privileges that easily. Moreover, the tools and implements which were available in Mauritius when Labour’s selfless social reformers began their action, had to be sharpened by them against fierce opposition to ultimately get to the objective sought. But the fight also carried conviction with the people because it was meant for the indiscriminate elevation of one and all from a status of utter deprivation and foreclosures of all avenues of progress except for the few endowed ones. The consequences of the fight touched them from very close quarters in their day-to-day existence. It was helping them break invisible barriers that were condemning them to a life of poverty. It showed them that the means to rebel against oppression was to be found in their own united efforts and not by each one going his way to curry personal favours from the oppressors. The nation owes a major debt of gratitude to Labour for lifting it out of the area of darkness of those days.

There was a natural evolution of the ideas with which the party set out in the beginning. From defending workers’ rights and conditions of work, Labour went on to take up other all-embracing causes: universal franchise, representative government, access of all to education, welfare such as pensions and healthcare, all of them being ideas that had been colouring political vindications in the UK and the Colonies in those days. The population had no reason to be opposed to such universal and fair demands by the party. It is when Labour began jostling with issues such as inequality and political independence (with a risk of slippage of political control from traditional incumbents of power) that it started seeing a fracture in its heretofore united supporters. The effect of this was to polarise a good part of its original supporters in the opposite camp. Labour’s leadership under SSR (allied with Sookdeo Bissoondoyal of the IFB) started being increasingly sharply juxtaposed against that of the PMSD under SGD fronting for the economic elite. There was no time when communal undertones became as pronounced as at that time.

In the process, on the one hand, the democratic space was being widened to encourage a healthy clash of opinions on policies. On the other hand, the clash was not really focussed on alternative approaches to governing but there lurked rather behind it another approach to doing politics centred on ethnic separateness. The all-embracing agenda that had been the hallmark of original Labour started giving way under communal pressure. The political debate having descended to this level, the big issues about society that had rallied the population around Labour’s flag in one common effort in the past took the backseat. The effect of this want of inventiveness of grand novel issues to fight for was to push the party against the wall on a weakening phase against both an MMM that grew from strength to strength and increasing internal dissensions within the party to the point the party lost all seats in the defining elections of 1982. It renewed with power in the driving seat in 1995 in alliance with the MMM and has come back to power in two successive mandates as from 2005 with other coalition partners.

75 years down the road, the question one may ask is: can the party get back its primal sway in the grand scheme of social construction? This is not in the realm of the impossible. It will, as its founding members did, have to galvanize towards this objective novel themes that the masses across the spectrum will readily espouse. It is by serving the grassroots that the party raised itself to eminence in the first place. Despite the ethnic factor that has plagued Mauritian politics for so many decades now, the basic approach to serving the people first instead of focussing on staying in power still remains relevant. In any event, political parties grounded on ethnicity will hit against a dead-end sooner or later or stagnate by compromising on standards to the great disadvantage of the country.

What the country needs at this stage is a complete overhaul, a break-away from petty-thinking, a vision of fresh air, a team of leaders with strong views about the country’s future in each party, not a process of ageing-down of political parties, in order to rid itself of some unproductive baggage that has become an obstacle to progress. A fresh bout of original thinking to set parameters of development for the future will not be out of place. It is by breaking new grounds that Labour – or, for that matter, any other political party – will leave as deep an imprint of achievements in future as it has been done in the past. You will do best a work if you are convinced about its positive fallouts for all. You can then carry forward this conviction if everybody feels and agrees that it is for the good of one and all. Evoking this feeling of consensus along themes relevant to our country today is a challenge that political parties should make theirs if they want to trek on a path of as many achievements as Labour has had since its founding days. 

* Published in print edition on 18 February 2011

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