Of Past and Present Politicians
The Vice-President of the Republic, Angidi Chettiar, passed away at the ripe age of 83 during the night of Wednesday last. This brings to an end his second term as Vice-President of the Republic, the first one being over the period 1997-2002. He resigned his post in 2002 in protest against the passing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which he, after Cassam Uteem, refused to endorse. Angidi Chettiar has had a long political career spanning over 50 years, all of which were faithfully devoted to the Labour Party despite the ups and downs the party faced during this long phase. He was an affable man as well as a popular figure in Port Louis where he had his business in Corderie Street. In politics, he had been the companion of some of the top leaders of the Labour Party, including SSR. Angidi Chettiar belonged to a generation of politicians who had to deliver a real fight for the emancipation of the people. There was serious opposition at the time to the granting of ordinary rights, such as the right to education and to vote, to the people. At a time when economic power was exercised with a more intricate concentration and networking than at present, the politicians of those days had an uphill task to bring about the changes which they felt were necessary for the uplift of the mass of the population. The political leadership was convinced however that it could not yield on the fundamental fights that it had to deliver, come what may. They had experience of the power struggles delivered by other nations in Africa and Asia and felt confident that, like the others, their enterprise in Mauritius was bound to be crowned with success. Given the formidable stranglehold of concentrated economic power opposed to this struggle, many faint-hearted politicians would not have persevered.
But the vested economic interests of those days which wanted to foreclose all opportunities to everybody else, except to themselves, did not realise that they were dealing with men of some mettle and deep conviction in the causes they had set out to defend. As it was not their personal self-perpetuation that was at stake, those politicians were prepared to take the risks, no matter what it will take for them to achieve the goals they had set for themselves. Some were marooned to other islands or thrown into prison; others were deprived of their wherewithal to survive; still others were tempted to give up the fight against lucrative arrangements in their favour. However, those who wanted to frustrate them in their social enterprise did not reckon that these men were not on sale at the highest bidder, no matter what the consequences for themselves and their families. What lifted them up from the most difficult of situations into which they were thrown for daring to go against the will of the economic interests of those days was a solid bedrock of conviction in the ideas they chased for the benefit of the common good, one and all.
The consequences of this dogged political perseverance are here to see: we obtained the right to universal education, the very foundation of our economic and social progress; we secured the right to elect our representatives in Parliament which gave back our lost dignity from being considered as mere chattels; we obtained the country’s independence and we extended the umbrella of the welfare system over the heads of masses of the populations struggling to keep off the rains of abject poverty. We preserved the integrity of the nation, keeping at bay the divisive forces that had managed to fracture society along ethnic lines. We managed above all to preserve confidence into a unified state that would defend the interest of one and all on an equal footing, acting impartially to enforce a global rule-of-law environment for the good governance of society. We produced the successor administrative cadres to the colonial British bureaucracy and kept our heads above water in the concert of nations. We found a sense of orientation of the affairs of the nation and gained a collective identity of which we can be justly proud. We have created a sense of well-being of the highest class, no matter whether the New York Times has included us or not in its classification for we are not slaves to whatever perception some outsiders would be having of us.
After political independence was achieved however, politicians were on the lookout for a new vision to pursue and to set out other milestones to be achieved. There was confusion on whether we should go the full-fledged socialist way to end up in communism or pursue the capitalist route. The agenda to achieve full equalisation in society was mere smoke and screens. The reality was harsher. The one big challenge which came on the way was the economy. Ideology was consequently jettisoned in favour of economic realism as the decade of the 1980s showed. In the early 1970s, our economic base was very narrow, being largely based on sugar. The next political challenge was therefore to shape up a diversified economy to sustain a growing population. Again politicians who took power in the 1980s showed that they were capable of adopting the correct policies to achieve the much needed diversification of the economic base. We expanded into tourism and textiles and went into the provision of international financial services. The new economic landscape was not the result of only chance events. Politicians, administrators of a high calibre and economic stakeholders joined hands to construct an altogether new outward-oriented economic infrastructure which has kept unemployment at bay, promoted welfare and, what is more, held out promises to keep building up on the base that was laid down in the process.
Coalition politics intensified in the 1980s because the bi-polarisation of the population which was engineered for the election of 1967 remained deeply entrenched on voting day. In the process, the age of grand political ideologies as the rallying factor behind political movements (which had characterised the period up to independence) was buried deep. In lieu thereof, divisive politics along clan, class, confession, caste, etc., undermined the very foundation of the earnest with which political objectives had been pursued in the pre-independence days. Balkanisation of the population replaced the erstwhile ideology towards getting on to a fairer and more just society towards all. All sorts of political schemers came on the front stage in which the hidden agenda was one of self-servicing and self-perpetuation. This is so trivial a pursuit that many who have known the sterling days of good politics find it vain to fight for installing particular individuals whose chief conviction is the securing of power.
Angidi Chettiar who survived five decades in politics must have witnessed the transition from solid and tangible political pursuits of yesterdays to radically lift up an entire society from its sorry plight, to the newer stage of greater opportunism. His virtue was no doubt to let things happen as they will until good sense shook up and challenged the political establishments so they take up once again, as the circumstances demand, another great leap forward. We can only hope that politicians will reinvent the stage on which they have been functioning to better purpose and give all the stalwarts of the past who gave their lives to fighting for real social causes a reason to believe that the vacant interlude was just a passing fancy and that meaningful politics will reassert itself even more strongly than it was the case in the past.