2 Nov: Still many miles to go

In its issue of the 12th October 2013, The Economist writes: “Between independence from colonial rule in the early 1960s and the end of the Cold War in 1991, not a single African ruler was peacefully ousted at the ballot box, except in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. … Multiparty systems in Africa now far outnumber single-party ones. This contrasts strikingly with the Arab world, where so far almost no incumbent-ejecting elections have taken place anywhere. … Yet Africa still harbours too many dinosaurs whose time ought to have passed. Half of the world’s 30 or so longest-serving rulers are African…”

The fact that Mauritius is singled out as to the method of replacement of political incumbents during the above period speaks highly of the political leadership we had at the beginning of our struggle to build the Mauritian nation. Having chosen to abide by the Westminster system, our political leaders played their part fully despite the fact that it was not at all common even in our countries nearest to us to let the polls decide who should stay in power and who should not. Who were those political leaders? Descendants of the Indian diaspora who had strived through the democratic process to be entrusted with the running of the affairs of state.

It is this process of allowing hopes and frustrations to be regularly articulated through and in between electoral cycles, thanks to free speech, which has been at the basis of the political and social stability of Mauritius. This is no mean thing. Thanks to it, power has been equitably and fairly shared with accompanying stability. This has been the fundamental factor which has inspired several hundreds of investors to come over and expand the economic base of the country, backed by public policies applicable to one and all.

Who were those political leaders who endorsed and abided by the rules of the Westminster system when the temptation to ride roughshod was near at hand? They were people who were firmly grounded in the realities of the country, able to look beyond the constituencies from which they originated. They could focus on the pursuit of the national interest, which they cherished, without allowing themselves to be drowned in clannish interests to the exclusion of others. It must be added that they had received a sound education and were inspired by the highest principles and standards of public conduct when it came to respecting both the spirit and letter of the law.

In the Labour Party, for example, there were heated debates at its Guy Rozemont Square headquarters in Port Louis before party orientations were decided upon. Those who made the greatest sense from among the party’s leaders and agents, within the art and decorum befitting such open debates, also had the sway over the direction to take. It is from deep within this intrinsically democratic culture that respect for institutions and the law emanated. Senior civil servants who drew attention to shortcomings in proposed decisions that could go counter to the laid-down law or that would end up in bottlenecks were carefully listened to, and their just views prevailed no matter how much the political agenda was pressing otherwise. Factors like this remain today the immanent contribution of the Indian diaspora to the fabric of the society we live in, a society which has done not that badly in the world and that has assured the good upkeep of the country’s inhabitants.

We tend to overlook the contribution of this democratic set-up. We only have to take a look at the havoc its absence is wreaking in several countries of the world right now. This will show its real value as an essential part of the national architecture of any country.

If our past leaders have done so much and more to lay down such a solid foundation, the question that arises is whether we have competently followed up on this kind of constructive work after them. The answer is that there is a mixed outcome.

At the collective level, members of the diaspora have contributed to raise the country’s economic and social platform. Barring a few incidents, this country has remained largely peaceful. A philosophy of live-and-let-live grounded in a strong dose of tolerance of differences has conferred sufficient peace for individuals and families to make progress. This is not to deny that many descendants of the diaspora still live in poor conditions and are preyed upon by a feeling of insecurity as to their future.

On the whole, much progress has been made though, in terms of material well-being. Many have ascended to the ranks of those who have held with distinction the highest offices of the land. Many have thrived in private business. A penchant for dedicated effort, sacrifice, seeking education and training has made it possible for them to climb up the ladders of social mobility.

The unity that was at the base of the first generation’s success, notably with independence, has however slowly frittered away – though not quite, since the diaspora still holds the reins of political power — whenever members have lost sight of the bigger issues at stake. Self-seeking has made this unity fragile and capable of tipping over when private interests become too dominant. There are some peoples in other parts of the world who could teach them how to battle it out successfully against almost impossible situations, by defining the final bigger goals with clarity instead of fading away in futile infighting and trivial bickering. But the century and three quarters past since the first immigration began has had positive transformative effects on the lifestyle of the diaspora at the broader level. It is something to be happy about.

Not much has been achieved on the economic front. Even outliers from the diaspora who have made it somewhere up on this front have not reached something on a par with the great achievers of the traditional economic elite of the country. The world has changed a lot. It has become highly competitive and open for business. Those who can look beyond the immediate and have a clear vision – perhaps with Narayan Murthy of Infosys as a model to emulate, though on a smaller scale – have the potential not only to churn much more business than they have done so far in Mauritius: they can go out to the world and make fortunes. But surely they cannot do so if they don’t have professionalism and ambition enough and are not accompanied by the sustaining skills needed for such great adventures?

This is what the fading away of the early days of success as small planters has indicated. Scale and pooling together make a huge difference to the extent of economic outreach one can achieve. The alternative is to go up to some extent, only to fade away eventually. Textile production came to Mauritius but the few who showed stamina and staying power in this field did not belong to the diaspora, many of whom were content to make some quick gains but did not have the staying power to sustain growth and development. At this stage, therefore, we can, to remain positive, state that it is still work-in-progress on the economic front for descendants of the diaspora. The journey is long and arduous but one can reach the goal with the same amount of striving as the ancestors put up after they reached the shores of the country. They built up starting from practically nothing, and gave their descendants a higher platform to take off from. Why don’t the latter turn this comparative advantage into a competitive one – for themselves, for the country at large?

* Published in print edition on 31 October 2013

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