Politics, like any of the professions, can be noble. It’s the politicians and people who are the problem, as they prefer politicking to politics
By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
The possibility of a by-election in the No. 7 constituency (Piton and Rivière du Rempart) following the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs revived in me memories of my participation in the political campaign for the by-election that was held there in 2003. It was my first ever foray into active politics that has never been repeated since, but it was an eye-opener for me in many ways. I wish to share some aspects of that experience which I believe are of general but ever relevant interest with regard to the political process and the ground realities in which it is embedded.
The politics of seeking power, whether through a by-election or general elections, is not necessarily aligned with the concerns of the people, the high-sounding rhetoric notwithstanding. In other words, except perhaps for a few, those who join politics do so more to gratify their own ambitions than to meet the expectations of the masses to whom they go begging for votes in exchange for pledges to be fulfilled. That was one insight. By all accounts I have come across, that is the opposite of the mindset which animated those who began our country’s march towards Independence, which was premised on the struggle for workers’ rights.
Another important one, at a personal level, was that I realized I didn’t have what it takes to be a politician and that I’d rather stick to my profession of doctoring to patients. It doesn’t mean that one should not follow what’s happening on the political scene, both locally and abroad, because the future of our country and children is determined to a large extent by the direction given to it by the political leadership. As in the Uganda of Idi Amin and so many other countries, a misguided leader can ruin his country. So the citizen must not only take an interest in the politics of his country, but also cast his vote when the time comes and participate in canvassing issues of national importance in various forums according to his inclination and capacity. Inevitably, this means having a reasoned stand on matters that impact the lives of the people.
Which brings me to the beginning of my involvement at No. 7 in 2003. I was proposed as one of the candidates to be fielded by the Labour Party, and eventually it was Rajesh Jeetah who was designated. To dispel rumours that were being peddled that there were bad feelings about the choice, I was prominently present at the announcement of the LP candidate at the Labourdonnais Hotel in Port Louis by the leader of LP Dr Navin Ramgoolam. That was two days after the MMM had already declared its own candidate, Prakash Maunthrooa, about a month before the due date of elections on 21 December. LP was being riled for its indecisiveness.
I had already retired from government service and was continuing with my private practice in the afternoons at Nouvelle Clinique Ferriere in Curepipe. Give the quasi-imminence of the election, we had to start campaigning immediately. Leaving the consultation early from the very next day, I met up with fellow friend and colleague Dr Rihun Hawoldar of LP at his own surgery in Vacoas, and we would drive to L’Esperance Trebuchet/Poudre Hamlet where he was assigned, reaching there around 4/4.30 pm – in those days the traffic was not as crazy. By the time we would get back to Curepipe it would be well past midnight.
We would be joined by the candidate, and other LP parliamentarians from time to time, and the leader as well depending on his calendar of touring the constituency. There were the usual nocturnal meetings – reunions privées – organised by local agents and individuals, and we were always well received.
One fact that struck me – worryingly – was the sight of a few youngsters having beer near a tabagie or a shop when we happened to reach earlier a few times, and some of them were already tipsy in our judgement. And so early in the afternoon! Of course we refrained from approaching them and moralise, that would have served no purpose and who knows how they might have reacted. So we felt it was safer to keep away – and to this day it has been a missed opportunity by the country to launch a massive alcohol control programme. The consequences are known to everybody, including the deaf policy makers.
Coming back to our task, our rounds had been planned to cover all the households, and we were guided sector by sector by some locals who soon became quite chummy as they told us about so and so’s leanings and some titbits about the village. I learnt that there were 1500 votes to be garnered here, one of which was that of a Rodriguan who had become an incontournable figure in the village for many years. He did many of the odd jobs, lived alone – and spoke fluent Bhojpuri, in which I conversed with him as he took us around in ‘his’ part of the village. He was a pleasant, seemingly happy-go-lucky fellow, and bless him if he is still around!
At one house, we saw a waste carrier lorry that appeared to have been out of service for quite some time. When we enquired, the owner told us that his contract had been cancelled by the government because he supported another party. And he hadn’t got any since. I wondered what then he was doing for a living, and it is not as if it’s a job that earns the person a humungous income. I felt revulsed at the meanness and callousness of such political victimization which deprived a family man of the means of livelihood.
In another locality, as we entered the road, we saw a limousine parked outside a house, and shortly there came out a well-known parliamentarian who was suited and booted, and drove away in the car. As we walked into the yard out came its occupant, a labourer who led us inside. The first thing he told us was about his handicapped child whose wheelchair had broken down. It cost Rs 700 by taxi to take the child to the SSRN Hospital for his appointment, which he perforce often missed. I asked him whether he had drawn the previous visitor’s attention to the faulty wheelchair – yes, he said, but he had remained indifferent.
From the next day onwards I came with my prescription pad, and issued referral notes to those like the aforementioned lad who were in need of them. Of course that parliamentarian had never set foot in the village after being elected, it was only then during the campaigning that he had shown up to beg for votes. Don’t they have some amour propre? I’ll answer the question myself: no, they don’t.
In the last 8/9 days of campaigning I was requested to go and give a hand to Mr Jeelall at Barlow. I was meeting him for the first time, and we got on fine – and I have never met him again after it was all over. There was no baze in Barlow. Fortunately a relative of mine, who had shifted out of the village, still had his old shop there, closed down, and he agreed to our using it. So we spent an afternoon clearing and cleaning up the place, whence we could then operate.
When it comes to bazes, incidentally as we learnt this was the first time that containers were used for the purpose in an election. They were rented at between Rs15 – 20,000 apiece. As we passed one such baze a hot evening, my relative who knew the young fellow manning it very well asked him what he was doing there, whether he had changed camp? You bet!, he replied, but what can I do – been out of work for three months and at least I am getting some money.
And this revelation was not the only one of its kind. Another late afternoon as we walked towards one house festooned in orange and purple, my friend Motee Ramdass was coming out, and of course we greeted each other warmly. When we reached the open verandah, the lady standing there told us not to lose time and not to worry about the oriflammes, but to go to so-and-so’s place who needed to be canvassed.
There are so many more similar episodes, but I’ll end with this one: On the last evening of campaigning, LP was holding its last grand meeting at Belle Vue Maurel, and MSM-MMM at Riviere du Rempart. Dr Navin Ramgoolam was at the mike. Suddenly there was a commotion in one corner of the crowd near the main road. Some hot heads had learnt that Motee Ramdass had done with the meeting at Riviere-du-Rempart and was heading back, and would naturally pass through this road. Instructions were immediately transmitted to ensure his safe passage – and I recall standing there as the ministerial BMWay sailed past under the watch of the policemen who had cleared the road sufficiently.
Politics, like any of the professions, can be noble. It’s the politicians and people who are the problem, as they prefer politicking to politics.
* Published in print edition on 5 April 2019