‘Both MMM and the Labour Party could become the cradle of a political renaissance

Interview: Dharam Gokhool

This is the challenge to which the leadership of these two parties should rise’

“Pravind Jugnauth will have to bear in mind that the Opposition will leave no stone unturned to dislodge him”

‘If he fails as far as the economic management of the country is concerned, he will become vulnerable’

Dharam Gokhool, former Minister of Education, in his review and overview of the evolving political situation in the country, analyses the reasons for the electoral victory of the MSM, and ascribes Labour’s defeat in part to ‘a number of strategic and tactical avoidable errors and omissions’ on the latter’s part. He feels that if Pravind Jugnauth’s mandate is to be successful, MSM should forego the ‘vendetta politics’ that characterised the preceding regime, and focus on the number of critical challenges and issues that the country faces, and find the appropriate solutions for economic revival. As far as the opposition is concerned, he thinks that their adversity could be turned into an opportunity, but that can only follow genuine in-depth introspection and an internal reordering of the parties along more democratic lines, based on a kind of societal political engagement that is focused less on a given leader and more on grass-roots leadership.

Mauritius Times: For a start, let’s talk about the year that’s drawing to an end. What are the significant events which you think will have a bearing on the years ahead?

Dharam Gokhool: End of year and beginning of a new year are generally viewed as an opportune time to retrospect, introspect and prospect, individually as well as collectively. I shall refrain from reading into the minds and hearts of the individual/average citizen as s/he prepares to bid farewell to 2019 and welcome 2020, and extrapolate about the lessons learnt and future resolutions for the time-honoured wish for “a bonne et heureuse année 2020”.

But there are certainly a number of events and developments at the national level which invite our attention and which potentially can have a larger societal impact and consequences. They span not only 2019 but go as far back as 2010.

 2019 has been marked by a relentless and ruthless struggle for political power, which has its origins in the failed Labour-MSM alliance government of 2010. The revelations surrounding the Medpoint Rs 144 million scandal blew up the 2010 Labour-MSM Alliance and paved the way for a long, protracted period of hostility between Labour and MSM. After the MSM victory of 2014, the MSM’s political agenda had one and only objective and target. Destroy Labour. Destroy Navin Ramgoolam – politically. Between 2014-2019, the MSM has spared no effort to use all its resources – political, financial and institutional – to achieve its objective and target. At the end of the day, the period 2014-2019 can constitute an interesting case study in “vendetta politics”.

“Vendetta politics” formed one important or rather the essential component of the MSM political strategy. Interference in the functioning of public institutions combined with flagrant and rampant nepotism, favouritism and alleged cases of corruption which were at the heart of numerous scandals like l’affaire Sobrinho/Gurib Fakim, Sampath, Jhoomka, Jadoo, Gulbul, Euro Loan, Bal Kuler, etc… constituted another significant aspect of the MSM public governance culture.

Parliamentary scrutiny of governmental policies and practices were often made ineffective through a high-handed and often partisan approach adopted by the Speaker of the day – as perceived by most citizens.

Since some 90% of the time and energy of the MSM government was devoted to tackling its main political adversary, very little attention was paid to economic development and consolidation and the promise of propelling Mauritius towards becoming a high income economy. The economy, over the last four years, continued to register a growth rate less than the promised over 4%. Apart from the real estate and construction sectors, the other pillars of the economy stagnated or declined whereas new sectors like the blue or green economy struggled to take off. The Vision 2030 strategy document promised a lot but has delivered very little.

On the social front, if we exclude the introduction of the Minimum Wage and the substantial increases of the Old Age pensions, there has been an overall general deterioration in the social situation with an increase of violence, especially against women, children and the elderly; proliferation of drugs; growing indiscipline in all walks of life including among the student population and the police force; widening deficit in housing for those in urgent need and the on-going shortage of regular water supply.

In spite of the global climate emergency and its likely devastating impact on SIDS (Small Islands Developing States), there has been no strong commitment by the Government as far as the protection and the preservation of our endangered environment and ecology is concerned. On the contrary, projects which may have long-term negative environmental consequences are being exempted from undergoing the Environment Impact Assessment requirement. The Metro project is one example.

Now that the elections are over and Government commands a comfortable majority, its priority should be to address the numerous challenges on the economic, social and environmental fronts as a matter of urgency. 90% of its time and energy should be devoted to matters of urgent public interest; the country cannot afford another round of “vendetta politics”.

* Can it be said that the re-election of the MSM-led alliance was a surprise?

The election of 7th November 2019 was a three-cornered fight and as the electoral campaign progressed, by far, the general public perception was that we were heading for a hung Parliament, with the possibility of a post-electoral alliance for the formation of a government. But the final results went very much in favour of the MSM-led alliance.

I can draw some parallel with the recent UK general elections. Conservatives and Labour were locked in a do-or-die electoral campaign but as far as the outcome of the elections was concerned, the general UK public perception pointed towards a hung Parliament. But Conservatives won. There are some very good explanations for their unexpected victory. I could even say that there are certain similarities with the victory obtained by the MSM-led alliance. But let us focus on the MSM-led alliance victory.

On the home front, was it therefore a surprise that the MSM-led alliance won with a massive majority of seats, with only about one third of the votes polled? I would refrain from giving a one-size-fits-all answer, and prefer to frame it in two stages. If we take into consideration the lacklustre performance of the outgoing Government, the numerous scandals that rocked it and the incumbency factor, a victory for the MSM-led alliance was not on the cards. That’s stage one. That the MSM-led alliance carried the day in spite of the seemingly insurmountable number of hurdles with which it was saddled — yes, that definitely constitutes an element of surprise.

But when we analyze how the campaign progressed, how the MSM-led alliance up-scaled its offensive against its main challenger for the post of Prime Minister, especially in its final stages, and taking into consideration a number of strategic and tactical avoidable errors and omissions on the part of the main contender, the Labour Party, the element of surprise gives way to a certain degree of certainty in favour of the MSM-led alliance victory.

If only one could pry into the political war rooms of the two alliances and the MMM, as the electoral campaign progressed into its final stages, it would not be difficult to conclude that the odds were more in favour of the MSM-led alliance. With money politics, MBC manipulation and possible alleged electoral irregularities providing additional leverage for a victory.

We may argue about the inequity and incongruity of the ratio of seats : votes polled which went in favour of the MSM-led alliance, but this is to be expected in a three-cornered fight and in an electoral system based on the First Past The Post formula. The 1976 general elections provided a foretaste of the inherent peculiarities of our present electoral system.

In a context which is increasingly characterised by what the Americans have termed as VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) and taking into consideration the whimsical behavioural patterns being displayed by a large swathe of the Homo Sapiens fraternity, in future elections, reading into the hearts and minds of the electorate will become even more problematic and less and less probabilistic.

* The Opposition raised certain concerns about the economic and financial implications of the promises made by the outgoing government but the people who voted the outgoing government back to power thought differently, what with the generous old-age pension increase, minimum wage, etc. Who will foot the bill and how does not seem to be much of a concern to them…

The promises dished out by the outgoing Government threw the Opposition into a dilemma. One of the lead arguments of the Opposition was that the economy was being mismanaged and that the country was heavily indebted. In such circumstances, a prudent approach in managing public finances is the logical way forward. But the Opposition could not launch a frontal attack on the promises made by the outgoing Government, as they were socially and politically attractive. On the contrary, the Opposition also chose to make a set of promises – be it with regard to the old age pensions issue or the review of the minimum wage upward.

The Opposition found itself in a complicated situation from which to extricate itself and there were hesitations before it finalized its proposals. In the process, it created some doubts in the minds of the people about the realization of its promises.

As far as the outgoing Government and its promises are concerned, on both counts – Minimum Wage and Old Age Pensions – it had delivered after 2014 and therefore people were more inclined to trust the outgoing Government when it came forward with its new proposals, which they welcomed. At that point, they were happy with the proposals and did not bother about who would foot the bill and how. On its part, Government did not complicate the issue by going into the mechanics and mathematics of how the proposals would l be funded.

* As for the financing of these popular measures, it might sound simple, but the easiest and most convenient way to do so is to review the Flat Tax regime in place and go for progressive taxes. Besides, that would be more equitable, isn’t it?

The new Government has so far not provided any clear indication about how it intends to mobilize the necessary additional funds to fulfil its promises, except for some vague reference to the possibility of having recourse to some degree of privatization of some Government-controlled agencies/sectors.

In a context where mobilising investment may be an important policy option, revisiting the existing Flat Tax regime in place and opting for progressive taxes may sound more equitable, but will it be more investment friendly? Even consideration of some form of wealth tax could have its own limitations.

Concern for equity will have to be balanced with the economic imperative of enhancing investment opportunities and capacities for growth and employment creation. How all this will be handled will depend very much on the ingenuity of the new Minister of Finance in handling public finances in a comprehensive and coherent manner.

* But how the Government goes about footing the bill might tell us more about where lie its sympathies rather than the actual dole-outs to the pensioners and workers generally, wouldn’t it?

Winning elections by dole-outs to pensioners and workers and other categories of voters is seemingly the easy part of coming to power. It is about appealing to particular vote-banks.

But the more difficult part is how to honour such commitments on a medium- and long-term basis, in a sustainable manner and keep the economy going on an upward trajectory. This is a larger, more comprehensive issue involving consideration for productivity, competitiveness, quality, innovation, amongst others.

It is a bit premature to venture into any speculation about where the sympathies of the Government lie. It is said that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We will have to take cognizance of the Presidential Address as well as the pronouncements of Government spokespersons in and outside the National Assembly to be in a better position to ascertain Government’s ideological preferences.

* We had seen prior to Nov 2019 a government team racing against time and really striving to implement its mandate. It had to prove a point, and that has been achieved. If the cabinet composition and nominations across State enterprises/parastatals are any indication, what do they inform you about the ambitions of the Pravind Jugnauth-led second government?

After the electoral victory of the MSM-led alliance, I posted the following on my Facebook wall:

“The first few decisions of a new Government tell about its priorities: people or privileges.”

One of the criticisms levelled against the outgoing Government was predominance of family connections and ties at all levels of Government. The new Government had the opportunity to opt for more diversity, competence and inclusion. Instead, the composition of the Government follows the old, classical pattern – our people first.

The nomination of the new Speaker has already provoked a huge controversy, likely to lead to acrimonious and conflictual relations to be played out on the turf of the Legislative Assembly. While the ex-Speaker is being rewarded with an ambassadorial appointment in New Delhi, other appointments and nominations in the pipeline confirm the 2014-2019 pattern.

With a clear and comfortable majority, there was the possibility for Pravind Jugnauth to take some bold, innovative initiatives but he has decided to stay within his comfort zone. Will this help or harm his prime ministerial ambitions, time will tell.

* Winning the Nov 19 elections could have been considered as a personal challenge by the Prime Minister, and one could reasonably expect him to seek to build upon that and his current mandate to establish the MSM’s influence as the major political party in the country. How successful do you think he’ll be?

Indeed, with the electoral victory of Nov 19, Pravind Jugnauth was able to measure himself against two veteran political leaders – Navin Ramgoolam and Paul Berenger. Like all other leaders, I am sure he must be having a strategy for his party’s future.

However as I have just mentioned, with the comfortable majority, there was a window of opportunity for Pravind Jugnauth to broaden his electoral base by opting for greater diversity, competence and inclusiveness right from the start and send some strong signals to the population.

Such does not seem to be the case, as at now. As time passes by, things may just settle down and the momentum for change can die down. This is the price that many political leaders pay, when in power, by settling down in a comfort zone.

I cannot say how Pravind Jugnauth intends to handle this situation. It may very well be that his strategy may evolve and carry him forward. But so far, in what he says and what he is doing, I do not sense an innovative touch; he is treading with a lot of precaution and opting more for continuity.

* Do you see the economy or the opposition proving to be the stumbling blocks in the prime ministerial ambitions?

He will have to handle both. Il n’a pas droit à l’erreur.

If he fails as far as the economic management of the country is concerned, his position will be weakened and he will become vulnerable. This will play in favour of his adversaries who will denounce him as being demagogical and opportunistic with his electoral promises.

If he succeeds, this will boost his credibility, weaken his adversaries and improve his prime ministerial ambitions. At all times, Pravind Jugnauth will have to bear in mind that the Opposition will leave no stone unturned to dislodge him from the prime ministerial position.

On the other hand, it should be borne in mind that once a party accedes to power, it is very rare that it gains in popularity. In the case of the MSM, it may have a larger parliamentary representation but it commands only about one third of the electoral strength.

* As for the opposition parties, namely the MMM and the Labour Party, the former’s leader has abandoned hope of making it to Government House and the prime ministerial post on his own; on the other hand the Labour Party’s parliamentary opposition and its non-parliamentary group seem to be at loggerheads — though this has not come out in public yet. What’s your take on that?

The political situation within the MMM is likely to evolve in a relatively more stable manner compared to the situation within the Labour Party. The MMM seems to have settled down into not going it alone and in future general elections it will opt for an alliance.

The Labour Party has yet to clarify its leadership position, and the recent statements of Navin Ramgoolam have not clarified the situation within Labour as yet. Neither in terms of Labour’s leadership nor its future electoral strategies. The electoral petitions may also become a convenient excuse for business as usual whereas there is a legitimate expectation within the Labour ranks (and even beyond) for some in-depth introspection and innovative initiatives for repositioning the Labour Party in the political landscape.

The longer the uncertainty is maintained, the greater the risk of internal conflicts. This situation will be to the detriment of the Labour Party and may be to the advantage of the MSM.

* It’s said that established political parties do not “die”, but it surely will take a lot of struggle for the MMM and the Labour Party to remain relevant in Mauritian politics, especially as they are no more in power. What do you think?

It’s bound to be a very difficult period for both Labour and MMM, but all adversities are disguised opportunities. It will be an opportunity for both parties to mobilize all their intellectual resources to reinvent their political and electoral strategies and reconnect with the people, in particular with the younger generations.

They will have to identify those issues that concern the population in general as well as those that concern specific groups or categories and design solutions that will resolve those issues.

A more inclusive and more sustainable socio-economic development model, the protection and the preservation of the environment and the ecology, the demographic challenge, the brain drain of many of our talented youth, clean energy are a few examples of mainstream issues that will have to be addressed.

Greater democratization of the internal functioning of political parties, capacity building, greater on-going interactions with the population are other aspects that will have to be taken care of.

Last but not the least, there is need to rethink the essence of political engagement. Can political engagement be limited to securing a ticket for a position or a privilege? Any form of contribution to improve the quality of lives of citizens and society should come within the ambit of political engagement and a culture of political engagement should be defined along this central bottom line.

Both MMM and the Labour Party could become the cradle of a political renaissance. This is the challenge to which the leadership of these two parties should rise. And Robin Sharma’s game changing book on Leadership – The Leader who had no title – could be a valuable starting point both for introspection and inspiration for this great challenge.

* Published in print edition on 27 December 2019

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