Come the birth anniversary of SSR, as it happened this week, various events are hosted to remember the good things he did for the advancement of this nation. Gratitude for the good work he did is a mark of the moral high ground on which we, as a nation, can stand, abstracting from political partisanship. Nothing is ever lost by giving credit to those who, like SSR himself, took risks on their political career to contribute to furthering causes they held dear to their heart. It must be said that, in the generation of politicians to which SSR belonged, there were quite a few stalwarts who could transcend their private interests and, heedless, persevere until the goal was achieved. Being himself a visionary, SSR was lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of politicians dedicated to a grander cause than their personal safeguards.
The causes SSR made his own included giving Mauritius an independent voice so as to chart its own course, lifting the mass of the people from out of the extreme poverty in which they lived, giving the people without any distinction access to education and healthcare, and enlarging the scope of both society and the economy which, in his days, was extremely limited. In many respects, his causes were identical to those the founders of the Labour Party aspired to right from the 1930s.
But by the time SSR was vested with political power, the idea of the welfare state had travelled across the world and it was easy for him to make it his own, though it was not as easy to implement it. Resources were terribly hard to come by to make the State the benefactor of its people, most of whom lived a life of deprivation. If only one were to consider the numbers of those who were able to remove themselves from the clutches of the extreme poverty which prevailed at the time, it is possible to conclude that the idea of the State which SSR endorsed was not only more humanitarian and realisable but that it was much more caring and elevated than what it was during colonial times. It is the mark of great politicians that they manage to engineer a break from the past to a more elevated stage of social evolution. This no doubt was the practical translation of a vision SSR had held for long.
We can gauge the achievements of other politicians to the extent that they, like SSR, have broken new grounds. SSR did not undertake the task alone. He was always surrounded by a number of select like-minded politicians who wanted to see an elevation of the social condition. His political allies were critical to the lift-up the country experienced in the novel experience that independence ushered in. He canvassed wide-ranging support. He had not only formed an alliance with the IFB of the Bissoondoyal brothers and the CAM of Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed to secure independence. He proved skilful enough later to even cause Sir Gaetan Duval, his arch adversary in the election for independence, to come round and rally to the same cause of nation-building, leading to concrete and positive consequences towards enhancing, especially, the country’s economic scope and removing from the front stage the sterile race-based hostilities which had previously threatened to frustrate Mauritius’ social and economic progress.
Suddenly, Mauritius was able to think about having its own airline. This was a quantum jump from the quasi-feudal society we had been living in before in which one sometimes had to convert to secure a job, including in the public sector. Mauritians at once started going out in much larger numbers than ever before to train for higher skills in overseas universities, despite the continuing narrow scope of the local economy. Seeds of future growth were being planted. Things like this don’t happen by chance; they occur when astute politicians bring to bear hitherto unexploited synergies from within and outside the nation, despite all sorts of opposition at the time a novel idea is mooted – which is quite normal in democracies.
It is worthwhile recalling that the world was a highly controlled place when SSR was in the lead. Liberalisation came only after Margaret Thatcher and later, Ronald Reagan took office, way into the 1980s. There were plenty of restrictive practices in international trade. Nevertheless, he was able to create the environment for better things to come, for the platform of the future to be laid down solidly enough. He kept fighting in this generally constrained environment even while the forces of opposition were making the most of the shortage of resources SSR’s governments were faced with in this more or less hostile external environment.
The leadership qualities of SSR emerged the most when he was heavily challenged. He faced internal squabbles with calm and poise, not coming down to the level of insult no matter how lowly and fractiously some of his lieutenants behaved. He remained open to conviction in the quest to find a solution to stubborn problems and did not claim that he and he alone had answers to all that hindered progress.
He listened carefully to what others had to say. He even compromised so as not to let a situation degenerate beyond recovery, but hardly ever on principles, which he saw as sacrosanct not for his personal preservation, but for the future sound upkeep of the work done so far. Even when he lost the elections of 1982, he quietly put forth the message that it would be safe not to give up our access to the Privy Council as our court of last recourse. It was a far-reaching vision, not being limited to picking up quick gains while sacrificing the very foundation the stability of which Labour had contributed to. It was one of the exceptional qualities of SSR that, despite being vilified by adversaries, he did not hesitate to extend a warm hand to them when it came to keeping up inclusiveness, by bringing into the fold those who voted against him.
Times have changed. The world has evolved. Countries which have endowed themselves with the necessary skills and know-how and which have kept themselves disciplined despite all the odds of the international economic downturn, continue making inroads on global markets for the better safeguard of their populations. Even the nature of technology has undergone profound change to the point that novel ideas and innovations are transported from one end of the world to the other at a speed SSR would never have imagined in his days.
The collective and cohesive responses of an entire nation can make significant differences between the achievers and the non-achievers in this ’brave new world’. In a situation like the present one, the right leadership endowed with the best collective intelligence a country can amass will make a difference between scaling up or tumbling down. True leadership will be the one that can sift the trivial from the important, the short term from the long term, the purely ideological from the real and practical, flourish and triumphalism from actually reconstructing the lives of the people. If SSR did it despite all the odds of under-development in those days, there is no reason why, with all the advantages of development we have in our hand, we can’t make it up once again and shine anew among the ranks of achievers.
* Published in print edition on 20 September 2013