“Everything is possible in politics but the right strategy has yet to be found”

Interview: Chetan Ramchurn – Entrepreneur & Political Observer

Labour Party-MMM-PMSD Common Front

* ‘The new normal is very much like the old one. Tilted in favour of the powerful’

The conglomerates have the MIC to bail them out. The SMEs are pretty much on their own

* ‘The carousel of scandals that went on full throttle between 2014 and 2019 seems to have picked up where it left’

Chetan Ramchurn, entrepreneur and political observer, shares his views with us, in today’s interview, on a number of issues that include the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and the government’s response which he feels is in favour of the powerful. He says that SMEs and small entrepreneurs still face hurdles in getting access to finance despite government schemes. He also comments on the three-party meetings – LP, MMM, PMSD – and calls for a real change within those parties.

Mauritius Times: There has been a lot of bad news lately: St Louis Gate, police arrests of suspects in cases of social media abuse, allegations of questionable practices in the matter of medical procurement, so it has all been about suspicions of nepotism and outright corruption, and attacks against freedom of expression. The build-up against the current government has been intense and sustained… How do you view things?

Chetan Ramchurn: Indeed, in the mere 9 months that it has been in power, this Government has been rocked by successive scandals. Allegations of fraud in the aftermath of the elections were quickly followed by dubious nominations and then… Covid struck.

Since, we were unprepared despite the reassurances that were given in Parliament, and the country was clearly lacking in equipment and masks, authorities were forced into panic-buying. This triggered the numerous contracts awarded expeditiously to unknown entities. Some of them with little to no previously recorded income generated since their creation ended up bagging contracts worth hundreds of millions. The ties between political nominees and some of the suppliers have been published with no action from the authorities so far. Then there is the CCID which is actively looking for the whistleblowers that leaked this information. Welcome to Mauritius.

Post-Covid? Our reputation has again been maligned, with the African Development Bank issuing a communiqué, and a damning one at that: “Evidence supports a finding that Burmeister & Wain, on a balance of probabilities, financially rewarded members of the Mauritian administration and others, through the intermediary of third parties, for providing access to confidential tender-related information which allowed them to tailor the technical specifications of the tenders to its offering, thus gaining an undue competitive advantage over other tenderers.”

We should remind ourselves of how this scandal was treated by those in office. On the 8th of June 2020, the AFDB’s statement is released. Members of the government throw hints that this is the Labour Party’s doing. The CEB board is vacated on Saturday 13th. On 16th

June, Collendavelloo offers an ode to Pravind’s leadership in our august Assembly: “Aujourd’hui, la population est soulagée d’avoir mis à la barre de ce pays un homme de la trempe de Pravind Jugnauth. Exemplaire, ce leadership!”

Jugnauth receives a strictly confidential summary of the investigation report on the matter on 23rd June. Alea iacta est (the die has been cast). Having gone through the summary and refused to step down, Ivan is revoked on 25th June. The confidentiality of the report notwithstanding, the Prime Minister invites the Leader of the Opposition, Arvind Boolell, to have a look at it but refuses to make it public despite repeated calls on behalf of the Opposition to do so.

Based on his own account of why he chose to show the confidential document to Ivan (Hansard No.23 of 2020), the Prime Minister, unable to display the legendary leadership that was previously lauded, avers: “But, of course! He was my Deputy Prime Minister! I am asking him to step down, and I cannot just tell him: ‘Oh, you know, just step down’.” There is no one above the law and this is a serious accusation levelled at both Bérenger and Collendavelloo. Still, the enquiry on same has yet to reveal anything after almost two months.

As if this were not enough, with our inclusion on FATF’s grey list in May, our legislation will likely join EU’s money laundering blacklist in October unless the considerable backlogs are cleared within our institutions. This will further affect our already weakened financial services sector. In light of the above, some of the appointments at our Central Bank should also have been questioned.

The arrests have undeniably been overzealous, showing a desire to curb criticism. Still, it has been counter-productive, for they have triggered even more scorn on online platforms. These exaggerated demonstrations against critics are even more troubling when you reminisce that troll brigades were used extensively in 2014 and 2019 to sway voters.

The carousel of scandals that went on full throttle between 2014 and 2019 seems to have picked up where it left.

* But why would any sensible government shoot itself in the foot by taking unpopular measures, especially those in relation to what are perceived as the threats to freedom of expression – after it has successful managed the Covid-19 situation in the first place? That does not make sense. What do you think?

We are still at half-time. There will be a second wave once the borders are opened. Praising ourselves with paid coverage in The Economist celebrating our achievements might not be the most brilliant of ideas.

These attacks on our freedom do not make much sense but there are so many that are inebriated with power and feel that they can do as they please. And to serve them, there are many lackeys around our political figures that are trying hard to get in their good books, maneuvering online and offline so that they may be rewarded in the future with a promotion or a nomination somewhere.

I wrote a piece earlier in Le Mauricien about why people are so obsequious towards politicians in Mauritius and I refer to what Havel describes as a “blind automatism which drives the system.”

Havel further illustrates the hypocrisy of the system wherethe complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views.”

We are living in that system.

* Freedom of expression should however not be equated with licence to tarnish the reputation of anybody, or to insult and slander. There is also a price to pay for that, isn’t it?

Definitely, but to dispatch 10 police officers to the residence of an accused at 6 in the morning does seem grossly exaggerated. There is a very thin line between a description and an insult at times. If you look at the rapidly changing political affiliations of some in parliament, in some instances within hours, simply describing their constant switches between one partner and another could be construed as insulting.

Moreover, the new provisions of the ICT Act pave the way for the gagging of opponents. Article 46 (ga)of this piece of legislation lays down in its Offenses section that one who “uses telecommunication equipment to send, deliver or show a message which is obscene, indecent, abusive, threatening, false or misleading, which is likely to cause or causes annoyance, humiliation, inconvenience, distress or anxiety to any person”. The issue with same is that “annoyance” could be caused merely by stating that someone is totally inept in his/her present position or that someone’s standards simply do not match those expected to lead an institution.

Some of the people in power have thrived during the previous campaign by tarnishing Ramgoolam’s reputation. The mudslinging was without bounds. There was no care or concern for anyone’s reputation back then. They now find themselves at the receiving end and cannot bear it.

* Do you therefore share the view expressed lately by opponents of the current government that we are slowly inching towards a totalitarian state. That’s too much for it’s grossly exaggerated, don’t you think?

The temptation to control the masses is present in most governments. The biometric card paved the way for a surveillance state which is now further accentuated with the hefty Safe City project. What a waste of money this could prove to be.

I feel that this government like a few others before it could go to any extent to stay in power. Be it the encroaching upon our freedoms or pressure exerted against citizens or journalists, we have witnessed it before. This is a post-totalitarian regime, the people seem to have given up, there is no fight left in them. The few that stand up can only do so in vehement terms such is the apathy of others around them.

* The opposition parties that have come together lately, namely the Labour Party, the MMM & the PMSD have justified their action on account of the “totalitarian” bogey. The question this raises: is the sitting government so strong that it requires the three of them to come together to challenge the MSM-ML government?

Post their debacle in 2019, I had expressed the thought that opposition parties should proceed with an aggiornamento, cleaning their own Augean stables and ensuring real change.

I had hoped that they would not merely carry out a casting akin to what the MSM had done which had followed Tancredi’s words in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s ‘Le Guépard’, « Si nous voulons que tout reste tel que c’est, il faut que tout change » which translates into “To maintain the status quo, everything must change”.

This façade of change worked perfectly for the MSM in 2019. Instead of an alternative to the MSM’s stratagem, what are we served? A get-together to fight the current regime.

Many of those who met as part of that “anti-totalitarian” movement, already come across each other in parliament. I dislike the ‘entre-soi’, they choose to talk to each other, leaving the population out. The only communication worth publicizing is the one directed at Mauritians. Theatricalising such meetings only serves to show how farcical things have become in politics. It is a wrong move that portrays the MSM as an unwavering giant that requires three parties to combine their forces to topple it. There is a whole ‘running before the race starts’ feel to this attempt.

Who comes up with such ideas?

* The preceding question pre-supposes that the Labour Party and probably to a lesser extent the MMM are still the two mainstream parties of the country, each with a following strong enough to challenge the government on its own. Do you think that that is now a thing of the past — the last general elections have finished them off?

No, both the Labour Party and the MMM have a rich history but have had more misses than hits over the last years. I am surprised that self-survival and dynasty politics seem to have been promoted to the top of the agenda of such parties.

Ramgoolam’s absence from parliament means that he has to create events so as to keep himself visible and relevant. Berenger’s successor is in positioning mode with the full support of many in the media. There is a lot to happen as of yet.

Everything is possible in politics but the right strategy has yet to be found.

* Why the hurry anyway for the opposition’s common front? The municipals are scheduled for next year, and the next general elections are not any time soon. Is there more to it than the concerted challenge to the government alliance?

There is always more to it than meets the eye. The MMM and the PMSD could merely be enhancing their cachet in the eyes of the MSM as potential future partners. Jugnauth would now have to woo one of them from this union to create his own. Ramgoolam needs them to show that he still wields power and that the Labour Party is still firmly in his hands. He has staged it in such a way that Arvind Boolell, while being present, is overshadowed.

* One could however argue that the opposition party leaders might have correctly felt the pulse of the people, who might be looking forward to a “revival” of their respective parties. Is that possible?

No, I would find it hard to believe that there is anyone ecstatic of this show outside the party leaders’ coterie of supporters. This is not the way to go about a revival. These three parties have distinct identities. The Labour Party was created to support workers, the MMM espoused class struggle and the PMSD was the party that fought against independence.

The worrying aspect of this potpourri of interests is that the MMM and the MLP seem to be aligned on economic liberalism such was the vehemence with which they rejected the budgetary measures with socialist leanings without offering any counterproposal of their own.

* Do you however feel that the opposition’s common front, coming from the same traditional parties, might look elitist, and a bit distanced from the social realities on the ground presently?

Certainly, I find the whole meeting in hotels thing asinine and elitist. The cadre has a very bourgeois element to it that feels fake and forced. People are losing their jobs, some are struggling to make ends meet and here are people enjoying their Saturday in a cozy atmosphere, sipping tea and talking about nothing that would necessitate a meeting and photographers. A call would have been enough instead of this lame staging of seasoned actors.

* What does your feel of the ground inform you about the plight of the common man in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. We hear that lots of people are losing their jobs, and things might not improve any time soon…

I have some friends that have lost their jobs post-lockdown. Imagine coming back to work and being told that they were no longer needed. They have families to feed, loans to repay and other financial commitments. Your life comes to a halt.

To their credit, they did not take things lying down. They fought, sought legal help and were able to get a decent compensation based on their number of years of service.

I have spoken to friends who have had their salaries cut, who tell me of the tremendous pressure they face, not knowing when they could be dismissed from their company. They are tortured souls and feel powerless in this new paradigm. That no psychological assistance has been put into place to listen to them is worrying.

* It’s not only big business that has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the press may not be reporting about the plight of the small business operators. But things are also not very bright for them as well since the MIC’s billions may not trickle down to them. What’s going to happen to these people?

I have many entrepreneur friends that have shared their plight with me. No loans without guarantee were given to SMEs and they are the ones likely to be most impacted. The conglomerates have the MIC to bail them out. The SMEs are pretty much on their own.

Following the budget, I penned this in the Times: “In these tough times, not enough is being done to help small businesses. Easy access to finance at a time when working capital is meagre should have been addressed. The process is still cumbersome and guarantees still a requisite. Announcing Rs 10 billion for SMEs in distress is one thing, getting the finance to entrepreneurs is another. The Minister mentioned the New Deal in his speech. Maybe, he does not know that the US Government was the employer of last resort…”.

Of course, some SMEs will fight on, others will diversify and manage to save their enterprises but, in many cases, people will go out of business or will have to take part-time jobs to support themselves. This is the time of reinvention and no success is possible without grit and flexibility. Adapt or perish. This new normal is very much like the old one. Tilted in favour of the powerful.

* Published in print edition on 7 August 2020

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