Editorial

Form and Substance  

A lot has been written and said recently about prospective political alliances for the next elections. The matter seems to be coming to a head. Once the choice of any one alliance of political parties has been decided, those remaining behind will find it an uphill, if not an impossible, task to present themselves as a credible alternative. Knowing this, the stage has been set so as to create a scramble for an alliance with the party that appears most likely to walk away with the spoils of the game. Normally, the public should have been alarmed at the political void that would thereby be created. In Mauritius, the public is debating hotly about who will finally garland which partner. It is less concerned about the implications eventually of such a political void for its future. It is more interested in the form than in the substance for the moment. It may end up losing the only chance which democracy confers upon it once every 5 years, notably, to exercise a free choice among various plausible alternatives.

It is being said by those advocating certain political alliances that the absence of any broad ideological difference should make it possible for the two largest political groups of the country to come together. In fact, democracy offers to the public fine choices between contending political parties in terms of policy. Subtle differences of approach and peer pressure can cause political parties in power to bring about substantial improvement and scope for future progress. At the bottom, all political parties claim to be working for the betterment of the people’s welfare; should this be enough to bring all political parties together and deny the democratic debate which has been at the basis of progress and advancement of democratic societies over decades, if not centuries? By focussing the debate on who should join hands with whom, we have been losing our time on the more trivial aspect of politics and failing to focus on socially acceptable outcomes that different manner of exercising political power can confer upon society.

Broadly, Mauritius is confronted with two types of threats. The main threat lies in our relations with the external world. We are a nation that has a major dependency on external markets. Had our past policies not succeeded to diversify our external markets adequately enough and had we been dependent for our jobs and our economic growth only on tourism and textiles, the gales of the economic crisis which hit the world economy since 2007 would have swept us off our feet. But political and economic decision makers have been smart enough to make us stand on other legs since many years, notably in the provision of financial and other outsourcing services. They have created incentives for our young men and women to get professionally qualified and they have been careful enough to give basic education to all those who are keen to persevere along this path.

We have weathered the storm thanks to this kind of economic diversification and social backup. The fact that the international financial and outsourcing markets did not dry up when tourism and textiles were hit at the depth of the international economic crisis contributed to our ability to withstand the storm. We need governments of the future to concentrate on firming up this basic infrastructure to improve our readiness to answer the challenges from an increasingly aggressive external environment. Any political party stating rather how and with which instruments it proposes to further our activism in the external environment in this respect is more important than political parties interested to share power by putting together the most “winning formula” for winning at the polls.

For almost one decade now, we have been running short of novel ingredients that could have been added to consolidate the kind of economic and social foundation that has withheld us during the recent international crisis. This deficit will unavoidably affect us and we need people at the helm who can steer the course successfully. We need to identify policies that will replace activities that cannot face up to the competition by new and less vulnerable activities that will continue to give sustainable jobs to our people. Those policies are more substantial and important to the country than discussing about who is likely to get married to whom.

The other type of threat is from the internal market. Well managed, the internal market can insulate us from some of our extreme dependency for essential supplies on external markets. For this market to function effectively and bring up more jobs in the services, confidence is important. People have to be conscious of keeping up all activities and products to high standards. If so, we can externalise even those services that have remained purely internal so far. For example, we could export our know-how and labour skills to other countries if we build up constantly what we have acquired to high standard.

A good measure of reward for merit will push in this direction just as well as expanding our reach to external markets can heighten our exposure to diverse new skills. Political clientelism will have to give way if this is to be achieved. Politicians who have a plan on how to make the necessary leadership to emerge for fostering this kind of a lookout are more important than those who are skilled at making convenient political alliances. Formal structures are needed to stream up those who can spearhead an internal market capable of overflowing into reliable support lines for our economy. It is important for politicians to restore a strong sense of values that we have been otherwise losing by urging the people to change sides opportunistically whenever a new political alliance is concocted up.

Extreme income and wealth distribution in society does not produce an environment conducive to social and economic progress. Instead of staging the old antagonism between the haves and the have-nots, politicians need to empower people so that they get a fair though unequal share of whatever is produced. We do not need to dig into the pockets of those who have managed to rise in society to achieve this goal; we need to share the burden of taxation more fairly. What’s the point of collecting ever larger volumes of tax revenues from individuals if corporations are not made to share more justly towards bringing about a fairer society? It is established that glaring income and wealth inequalities in society have been the consequence of deliberate government policies; this means that governments have the power to bring better balance in the internal social equation by adopting appropriate economic and tax policies. This is more solid substance that prospective governments should invite themselves to than finding ways and means for political parties to extend their stay in power.

Where are the views of the different political parties of such issues of concern to citizens? Why do they refrain from debating their stands on such matters, so that the public can distinguish which political parties have the inherent capabilities to effectively deal with matters that should be our real concerns? Why have political parties not focussed on which policies need to be reviewed to strengthen our social and economic conditions instead of making themselves and their representativeness of the population the subject of our considerations? There are often more than two ways of addressing issues of national concern and we should identify which is the better course to follow to get projects going. Unfortunately, time is still being wasted on the form rather than the substance. That’s why the level of our national debate is often poor and one-sided. We need to grapple now with real issues instead of indulging in futile debates on political survival.

M.K.

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