Elections and the Ethnic Drum-Beating
Announcing the formation of the Labour-PMSD-MSM alliance last week, the Prime Minister stated his wish that the general elections should be based on a clash of ideas and not on ethnicity. In the light of certain recent events, he appears to have spotted quite well the risk of the debate drifting out into considerations of ethnicity. He must have sensed that the opposition could only have leaned on this subject to rally its following, given its own poor performance over the past nearly five years. On the occasion of the celebration of Varusha Pirappu, the Tamil New Year, on Wednesday last, the Prime Minister appealed in favour of national unity at the televised function held on this occasion. Jayen Cuttaree, a member of the Tamil-speaking community, who was deputing for Paul Berenger, leader of the MMM, (the latter said to be taken up with other duties) urged the predominantly Tamil audience that it should fight up for its rights as a community after having made it to the top by dint of discipline and hard work despite having started with poverty.
On the surface, there is nothing objectionable to the MMM’s representative’s call to the Tamils but, looked at in the current electoral context, his reference to origins in poverty and his urge that the people should fight up against injustice to assert the rights of the Tamil community, may be perceived as calculated to drive a very specific sectarian message. This message was received with a resounding applause from the audience which must have understood quite clearly the person against whom it was driven. It was a message delivered with Rama Sithanen in the background. Of late, Rama Sithanen who belongs to the Tamil-speaking group and who has risen from one-time poverty (like most of us) to become a Minister, has had serious difficulties with the Labour Party of which he is a member. The question arose in this context whether Rama Sithanen could dictate to his party the constituency from which he will stand for the general elections and whether he would have to be guaranteed beforehand the post of Minister of Finance if the party were elected to power. Although Mr Cuttaree did not refer directly to Rama Sithanen in his speech, his appeal to vindicate the rights of the community and to put up a fight against injustice after having risen from poverty was well understood to stand Rama Sithanen as a victim of his party which was not willing to yield to his demands.
Well, many politicians do indulge in this sort of innuendoes. We have got used to those subtle attacks which do not hesitate to cross party lines in the name of ethnicity. However, it ill becomes a politician of Mr Cuttaree’s standing who, apart from having held senior ministerial posts in previous governments, has also been Minister of Foreign Affairs of the nation and is tipped to be appointed President of the Republic in the event the MMM-UN-MMSD alliance were to win at the next elections. One would expect him not to take advantage of an internal problem that has been besetting Labour for quite some time, to invite a communal rallying up by a particular ethnic group. When Mr Sam Lauthan, a Muslim and till lately President of the MMM, decided to quit the party after strong differences between him and the MMM leader on the choice of candidates for his constituency and his decision to quit was accepted by the MMM, Mr Cuttaree found no injustice or the need for people having risen through poverty to fight it up against injustice. He remained quiet on the matter and has held his tongue on the matter till now.
This unfortunately is not the only incident indicating the whipping up of communal feelings taking place with the fast approaching elections. Catholic Priest Jocelyn Gregoire who also heads a grouping called Fédération des créoles mauriciens (FCM), appears not to be satisfied with the fact that the government has not introduced the Creole language in schools. He has referred to a so-called prevailing “malaise des minorités” in the context of the formation of the Alliance de l’Avenir after the failed negotiations for an alliance between the MMM and Labour. In other words, minority communities would, according to him, be feeling left out of the Labour-PMSD-MSM alliance. Yet, we know that it is the government’s Empowerment Program that has been expending large sums of money to help the poor, in particular certain minority groups for a long enough time now. The Ministry of Tourism has also been spending large sums to embellish specific areas which the FCM should have been happy about. Given the donations made by the government in the context of the Empowerment Program, it is the “others” who should be having a feeling of having been left out. It would be enlightening if the government published a complete list of all the beneficiaries and amounts from this program as that would show who has been left out and who has been in exactly.
Among the Hindus, two small groups claiming to be representative of the Vaish have recently come up with an altogether different kind of ethnic display. One has been all praise for the government for its good deeds in favour of the particular caste group. The other one has accused the government of having failed to attend to the interests of the Vaish. Private interests clearly appear to be at play in this ridiculous contradictory situation. Politicians are expected to ingratiate those private interests if they want to secure the votes. The fault line is however cleverly drawn up by concerned caste lobbies for politicians to join the game and deliver benefits to whoever manages to pose as the more serious threat against their election.
It is quite clear that these claims and counter-claims by different ethnic groups amount to an outbidding for specific political swings in the present electoral climate. Political parties encourage this activity when ethnic division can serve to comfort their position. In contrast, political parties which believe that they are in a position of strength make an appeal rather less for ethnic one-upmanship although in private they may be entertaining and pacifying the same ethnic lobbies with promises or by bending the rules in their favour. In a system in which winning elections can depend on small swings of voters, the system is prone to be corrupted by the satisfaction of exaggerated demands of specific ethnic lobbies. Such a system cannot accommodate meritocracy and good governance. Successful lobbies walk away with their prizes, unmindful of the loss of direction they inflict upon the entire nation. Short term horizons are imposed on policy-making. The square pegs that come to be fitted in the round holes in this process inflict enduring damage to the efficient functioning of society and its institutions.
In the circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to govern the country the more governments have to accommodate the demands of diverse ethnic groups for their own survival. In other countries like America, it is business interests that are stood up in the lobbying business; in Mauritius, it is the interests of particular ethnic groups, nay, those of the leaders of those groups and of certain closely-related associates of such leaders, that dictate political choices. A benevolent dictatorship like that of Singapore could have served to eliminate the enduring negative impact of perverse ethnic lobbies; we, in Mauritius have been putting up with it for decades. It is not surprising that our progression among the top global performers has been by jumps and starts rather than by a smooth upward ride to excellence.
There is a risk in the present system that gains of yesterday can be wiped out altogether by new perversions if every component of society continued to put itself in the position of an especial victim, come the time of elections. It appears that those who have been claiming to stand up as a rampart of national vigilance against abuse by an overwhelming government in the event of a Labour-MMM alliance coming to power hereby resulting in a weak opposition, have nothing to say now when the ethnic monster is raising its head under so many guises. Would they have remained as passive if it was the MMM that was being threatened in the same manner? Yet, the country needs to overcome the ethnic monster whoever is in power if it wanted to govern for the equal benefit of one and all. This day will hopefully come for the great good of Mauritius, hopefully not 50 years down this broken road on which we have been travelling so far.