“Don’t just repeat the past; reinvent the future

Interview: Dharam Gokhool

21st century Mauritius does not need ethnic leaders — moderate or otherwise. We need leaders who can transcend the barriers of ethnicity and identity and uphold the ideals of unity”

Political dynasties are discriminatory, antidemocratic and against the elementary norms of human rights. As such they are a form of social and political evil, the manifestation of a crude form of Nepotism

A former Minister of Education, our guest this week Dharam Gokhool makes a realistic assessment of the political situation, takes an insightful look at what is going on in his former party, the MMM. Although he does not write off the current ageing leaders, he feels however that they have the responsibility to allow potential ones within their parties to emerge, a form of succession planning which will show their true commitment to democratic principles, walking the talk as it were all through. Read on …

Mauritius Times: Political commentators have been saying lately, in the wake of the defections from the MMM, that this party is in serious trouble. “It’s in decline,” they say. Do you think that’s really the case?

Dharam Gokhool: For the first time, Paul Bérenger himself has admitted that the crisis was “mari grave”, “bien difficile”, “bien triste” and refrained from asserting, as in the past, after every crisis, that “MMM pli fort ki zamai”.

Whatever damage control MMM can undertake, the fact remains that it has suffered a serious setback which will not be easy to overcome.

With a score of below 15% at the 2017 by-election in Constituency No 18 in December 2017, and the series of defections that has dogged the party since, I am afraid MMM is indeed in a decline phase unless it decides to stop the process though some bold, radical measures.

* But we could expect the MMM to do in the next general elections as well as it did in 1976 in a three-cornered fight – or at least play the kingmaker in a close fight between the MSM and the LP, but its decision to go it alone in the next elections might hasten its decline if we go by its performance in Dec 2017. What do you think?

2019 is not 1976 when the MMM was a formidable political machinery, reaching out to nearly 50% of the voters -of all age groups, all backgrounds. Today, its rural electoral base has dwindled and, in the urban areas, it only has pockets of diehards with personal loyalty more towards Paul Bérenger than the party itself.

In a three-cornered-fight, those who will come out to vote may opt for one of the two main contenders – Labour or MSM (with or without an alliance). In a few urban constituencies, where there may be split voting, MMM might get a few of its candidates elected. All in all, it is a high risk decision for MMM to go it alone.

* There may be a number of reasons that might explain the MMM’s present discomfiture: its inability to win elections, according to those who have left the party recently; Bérenger’s “autocratic methods” – despite the fact that it might be more democratic in its functioning than the LP and the MSM; the leader’s latest, and rather surprising, moves to promote his family within the party. What does all this tell you?

Since its creation in 1969, for nearly 50 years Paul Bérenger has presided over the destiny of the MMM. Many of those who have left or have been made to leave the party (and many were co-founders of the party), have put into question the “autocratic” leadership style of Paul Bérenger, considered as a major cause of the different splits within the party.

However much the party may claim to be democratic in its functioning, the fact of the matter is that the party has not been able to create conditions for the emergence of a leader other than Paul Bérenger. Under these circumstances, how can one prevent public opinion from drawing the conclusion that the functioning of MMM is more autocratic than democratic?

As for the dynastic connotation that may now be tagged to the MMM, which has been quite virulent, in the past, especially in its “Papa Piti” diatribe against the MSM, I can foresee a robust MSM “Papa Tifi” diatribe against MMM in the forthcoming electoral campaign, although in the latter case, there has not been any transfer of power from father to daughter.

Joanna Bérenger is, so far, making her way through the democratic functioning within the MMM and trying to establish her political legitimacy in her own right. But, Paul Bérenger, with his political flair, should have realised that in politics, perception is often stronger than reality. Some collateral damage for Joanna cannot be ruled out.

* The view has been expressed that the MMM’s decline, if it keeps going down, might not be a good thing for the country in the long run, for it might leave the field for populists or all manner of sorcerer’s apprentices. Would that be an exaggeration, according to you?

I do not think anybody can write off the contribution of the MMM, for example, in the upliftment of the working class in the 1970s, nor can anybody deny the fact that, in 1982, it was an MMM-led government that introduced an amendment in our Constitution to entrench the holding of general and by-elections, within prescribed periods. Its legacy of quality local administration remains a benchmark and a reference.

MMM can still be a party with a future with a well-crafted renewal strategy, but if the present decline of the party is not arrested, this may very well create a political vacuum which will attract political outfits of all sorts, including those who genuinely want the emergence of a new political culture, in harmony with the changing aspirations of the population.

* The December 2017 by-election’s result must have been a huge disappointment for Xavier Duval’s PMSD, but it is believed in some quarters that the socio-religious establishment might still see in him a leader capable of bringing together the different factions within the Creole community. Duval’s comments and initiatives in relation to electoral reform and the redrawing of constituencies suggest he might be willing to take on that mantle. What do you think?

Historically, there have been very strong bonds between the PMSD and the Creole community. This has primarily been an ethnic equation. But the Creole community has also shared a class-based bond with the Labour Party, over several decades. We should not forget that it was Dr Maurice Curé who was a founder member of the Mauritius Labour Party in 1936 and served as its President till 1941.

You may be right to say that in “some quarters”, the prospect of Xavier Duval posing as the leader of the Creole community might be envisaged. Apart from Xavier Duval, there may be other contenders for the leadership of the Creole community.

Nonetheless, I would add that any aspiring political leader who intends to play a leadership role at the national level in the 21st century should refrain from building his/her political credentials on a communal “dépôt fixe” foundation. Any such attempt will be an insult to the political maturity and sense of responsibility of our citizens in the exercise of their political choices. It will undermine the whole process of Nation-building.

* But ethnic boundaries do not seem to have really faded 50 years after Independence, so we might as well keep things the way they have been in the hope that moderate ethnic leaders will allow the country to keep going, right?

Forward looking nations cannot remain prisoners of the past. In a global world, mobility, especially among the younger generation, is the DNA for survival and success. In ethnically plural societies, the real leadership challenge is to unlock the huge untapped potential that comes with diversity and not to be imprisoned within the four walls of ethnicity. We, as a nation, are blessed with our multiculturalism which can be the vital pipeline for creativity, innovation and shared prosperity. We need to muster the courage to think and act “as one people, one nation” by upholding the values enshrined in our national flag.

Our political masters should be inspired by the wisdom of the great Nobel Prize Winning scientist, Albert Eisntein who has observed and I quote: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

In essence, the message is: Don’t just repeat the past; reinvent the future. 21st century Mauritius does not need ethnic leaders — moderate or otherwise. We need leaders who can transcend the barriers of ethnicity and identity and uphold the ideals of unity

* There may be good reasons to revisit the Constitution some 50 years after the British left in 1968, like the need to review constituency size to ensure that equal weight is given to the vote of a Mauritian no matter where he votes, the introduction of a second chamber and a constitutional court, but the declaration of ethnic appurtenance and the maintenance of the Best Loser system are still a matter of debate. What’s your take on that?

These are fundamental changes to our national polity and they have been the subject of numerous reports, debates and numerous proposals have been put forward. After some 50 years of our Independence, the creation of a second chamber could be a useful institution for further strengthening the democratic functioning of our National Assembly though its system of checks and balances.

Admittedly, there are no ideal, final solutions. We need to forge ahead progressively and incrementally in a spirit of broad national consensus.

So far what I have observed is a fragmented, piecemeal approach to electoral and constitutional reforms, with electoral expediency driving the reform agenda. We have wasted precious time and effort and created unnecessary misgivings on the whole issue.

The forthcoming general elections could be an opportunity for contending political parties to think through their respective proposals, come forward with a coherent agenda for electoral and constitutional reforms and a seek a clear mandate from the electorate.

* To come back to the issue of the decline of political parties, it might be that we have reached the end of a political cycle, with the continued presence of ageing party leaders. How much longer do you think the likes of Paul Berenger and Navin Ramgoolam can stay on?

Leadership is not a position to be occupied eternally; it is basically a function to be performed to the best of one’s physical and intellectual capacity. Life cycles and life spans very often run in parallel. After all, no mortal can claim to be indispensable or immortal. There comes a time when common sense should dictate to every political leader that time is up and one should give up and get on.

I am reminded here of the priceless observation of Pope Francis during his recent visit to our island – create space and opportunities for our youth, for our future generation.

True it is that one should not expect political leaders like Navin Ramgoolam and Paul Bérenger to abruptly relinquish their responsibilities, but it is reasonable to expect them to initiate some form of succession planning for the future of their respective political parties.

* If Navin Ramgoolam succeeds in winning the next elections despite the obstacles that the MSM is likely to put in his way, he has ceaselessly been repeating that he will initiate a “politique de rupture”. What would you expect his party and his government to break with?

Some indications have already been provided by the Navin Ragoolam about the “politique de rupture” of the Labour Party, namely:

  • The current economic model and policies seem to be perpetuating concentration of economic wealth and widening the gap between the poor and the rich and should revisited
  • The need to establish new productive sectors like a vibrant Blue economic sector
  • The urgency of decreasing our over-reliance on the fossil energy and the need to increase the share of renewable energy
  • The need to consolidate the social sectors like Education, Health, Law and Order situation
  • The preservation and protection of the environment and the ecology
  • The strengthening of our public institutions by doing away of all kinds of interferences
  • The total overhaul of the MBCTV and the introduction of Private TV
  • The fight against drug proliferation
  • The fight against corruption, nepotism and wastage of public funds.

This is not an exhaustive list but I understand they are indicative of the future orientation of the “politique de rupture” of the Labour Party.

In any case, having served as Prime Minister for three terms, Navin Ramgoolam must be having a more precise and concrete vision of “politique de rupture” agenda which he will communicate to the nation in due course.

* We might not have a model to look up to which would allow us to anticipate how politics will be conducted in the decades ahead, but there is however one phenomenon that’s becoming prevalent here: political dynasties. Is that a bad thing in itself?

Political dynasties typically have people from same families enjoying power, positions and privileges which are denied or deprived to non-members. Such a phenomenon is discriminatory, antidemocratic and against the elementary norms of human rights. As such it is a form of social and political evil, the manifestation of a crude form of Nepotism.

Sons and daughters and other family members should not automatically or, de facto, be debarred for joining politics. But no unfair advantage or special privilege should be bestowed upon them.

They must establish their political credential on the basis of their own competence and merit and not on the basis of their political pedigree.

* However, if political dynasties are here to stay, which factors will according to you decide who amongst Xavier Duval, Arvin Boolell, Pravind Jugnauth, Joanna Berenger will make it to the top in the years ahead? Political programme, or personality or ethnicity?

Ethnicity and its other associated variants like community, caste, religion will continue to have some degree of influence in the political arena, but this influence will go on decreasing with programmes and personalities, and I would add, character, integrity and competence, taking precedence.

Already, I can feel that that in the forthcoming general elections, people will exercise more of their critical thinking and refrain from voting “banne pied banane” !

Hopefully this will impact on the quality of candidates to be fielded by the various political parties.

* The other dynasty – the Jugnauths – with much less democracy within the party has done well for itself by winning more elections since Independence than the more democratic ones – the MMM and the LP. That was with SAJ at the head. How do you see the son doing both as party leader and Prime Minister?

The political fortunes and misfortunes of father and son have been influenced by different sets of circumstances, in different contexts. They have different temperaments and styles. But both are very attached to their power and prerogatives. However, in the case of Pravind Jugnauth, the concentration of political power and institutional control is much more pronounced.

SAJ, as Leader of party and PM, was more decisive, forceful, blunt and exercised better control over his troops. In contrast, Pravind Jugnauth, as Leader of party and PM, is less decisive, more diplomatic and seems to have less control over his party and Government members. Which explains why there have been so many scandals and resignations in his ranks. All this has tarnished the image of his Government as well as his standing as Leader of a party.

We should also not forget that the Opposition has burdened him with the embarrassing qualification of a PM “l’imposte” which has its own nuisance value which is and will be exploited by his adversaries.

* Pravind Jugnauth may have access to a lot of resources, but do you think he has the leadership material to put up a formidable fight/resistance against the likes of Ramgoolam and Berenger?

Both Ramgoolam and Bérenger are ex-Prime Ministers and are certainly aware of the failures and strengths of the present Government. Generally the mood in the electorate is to take Government to task on the promises it had made and which it has not honoured. Added to that are all the “casseroles” the Government as well as its members are carrying with them. In the social media, we already have glimpses of how the numerous scandals in Government ranks will be exploited.

Pravind Jugnauth faces an uphill task. In spite of some popular measure, like increase in old-age pensions, and the realisation of some prestigious projects like Metro Express, the feel-good factor is not yet au rendez-vous.

As far as the leadership issue, it is generally acknowledged that effective leadership is the chemistry between competence… and charisma.

Will “money politics” come to the rescue of Pravind Jugnauth? And tilt the electoral scale in his favour?

The answer, as sung by Bob Dylan, may just be “blowin’ in the winds”.

* In fact Pravind Jugnauth might be of the view that defeat at the next elections will not put an end to his political career and that he will come back on the assumption that the next government will ‘burn its hands’ in trying to set the economy back on the rails… What do you think?

 This is a hypothetical scenario as at now.

There are numerous instances where Leaders do go off-track, but what matters is their courage to recognise their shortcomings and pledge not to go down the beaten track.

In recent times, Paul Bérenger has recognised that it was a mistake for his party to accept political funding from dubious sources; the “rupture agenda” of the Labour Party is an indication of acknowledgement of things that need to be set right by a future Labour Government; Trudeau in Canada has acknowledged that it was improper for him to have intervened on behalf of a business enterprise.

In the Mauritian context, one should never write off political leaders. Having gone though the tryst of adversity, political leaders are able to demonstrate a lot of resilience and have the capacity to bounce back.

The political clock does not stand still. One should always remember that adversity has another name called opportunity. To what extent this could apply in the case of Pravind Jugnauth, only time will tell.

* Published in print edition on 13 September 2019

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