General Elections: India 2019 – Mauritius too?

Editorial

The MSM-ML can only hope to come back to power if it succeeds in No.7 and thereby create the conditions favourable for an alliance with the MMM…

By T.P. Saran

As the general elections in India approach, with voting due to begin in a matter of days practically, they are becoming increasingly interesting to follow. As was to be expected in a country nearing 1.3 billion population, there is vigorous debating going on both among the stakeholders. They include the direct ones such as political parties and candidates that are contesting the elections, as well as a literal plethora of interested parties ranging from individuals to civil society groups and organizations, and of course the TV channels.

What is of great interest also in this largest exercise of its kind – India being the largest democracy in the world – are the guarantees that have been built up over time to ensure that it proceeds smoothly and addresses the concerns of the stakeholders about any bias that may impact electoral outcomes. Aptly, a book that came out recently gives a comprehensive account of this process since the beginning with the setting up of the Election Commission of India (ECI) in 1950. Titled Every Vote Counts, it is written by a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Navin Chawla and is reviewed in the March 11-24 issue of Business India which notes that the ECI objective remains unchanged, namely ‘to ensure a level playing field for all contestants’.

The challenges are formidable, and come in the form of ‘manifold extraneous influences on the electorate’ – this rings a bell when we think of the alleged interference of Russia in the US elections that saw Donald Trump being elected as President, and the series of allegations, accusations and counter-accusations that have amounted to washing the US dirty linen in public. The recent Mueller Report to the US Attorney General which ‘cleared’ Donald Trump and his staff of any collusion with Russia has nevertheless raised many questions among the opponents of Trump.

All this goes to show that the stakes are qualitatively the same in elections across the world, and with the advent of social media the situation has become even more complex. As Navin Chawla has underlined, ‘the use of money power to create biased media content for any candidate has already become an epidemic’ – this sounds really scary! Especially so when ‘the influence of media on electoral outcomes has exploded to an unfathomable extent, ranging from paid news to often vitriolic social media campaigns’, adding that ‘There is very limited regulatory control, especially given the wide ambit of available platforms to share content’. This is definitely matter of concern in all countries, and any lessons drawn from the Indian experience will definitely be of great value to all.

We would remember that in the December 2014 elections in our country, it was pointed out that social media for the first time had a major impact on voters, and the clip Vire Mam was credited with having been largely instrumental in the overwhelming victory of the Alliance Lepep. There is no doubt that in all future elections the role of social media will only increase, and it will be a real casse-tête that has, however, to be addressed with all the seriousness that it deserves to ensure the level playing field in this era of post-truth.

The context and circumstances that prevail in Mauritius are a far cry from what obtain in India given the scale and complexity of its electoral environment. But it can be no less as intriguing and at times treacherous as we are given to witness thanks to daily broadcasts by Indian TV channels of political happenings in India.

For example, the resignation of Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo as Minister of Foreign Affairs came as a bolt from the blue both for his party the MSM and all opposition parties taken together. ‘Enough is enough!’ Lutchmeenaraidoo said by way of explanation to justify his decision to quit — a curt three words that say too little and not enough about the real reasons for leaving the MSM-ML government. Is there more to it than the humiliation to which he would have been subjected since the time he had been appointed Finance Minister to make the ‘second economic miracle’ happen?

Whatever those reasons, which we do not expect the former Minister nor the Prime Minister or his cabinet/party colleagues to elaborate upon further with a view to enlightening public opinion, we shall refrain from going into speculations, lest we go into the deep waters identified by the Chinese as suitable for a fishing port and which project was subsequently abandoned following pressure from different quarters. Intrigues, double-speak, innuendoes, kickbacks, etc., are not peculiar to the Indian context; they are a constant feature in the politics of most countries whether in Europe, South America or Africa of which Mauritius forms part.

What happens next? Will the Prime Minister walk his talk and go for a by-election in Constituency No.7 before the final showdown later in 2019 or sometime before May 2020? One can rightly contest the holding of a by-election a few months before general elections are to take place since the National Assembly stands dissolved on 21 December 2019 anyway. That does not make sense and most of all would cost millions of rupees in electoral spending to the Public Exchequer. It does make political sense for the MSM-ML combine, however, to go for the by-election in the expectation that a victory in No.7 would provide the necessary fillip for a larger win in the subsequent general elections.

For a government that has been tainted by a long list of scandals involving its MPs and ministers, without any breakthrough achieved in terms of its promised ‘economic miracle’ (which is still in the works according to the Prime Minister), whatever victory has been obtained in the matters relating to MedPoint and the Chagos are secondary, unrelated to the fundamental concerns of the electorate in general. There will no doubt be enough inaugurations to create a feel-good factor and more budget goodies to go around in the months to come to build and mobilize support for the MSM-ML combine at the polls, but will these be enough to turn the tide in its favour? That remains to be seen.

In normal circumstances, it is quite possible for a political party to win a by-election and meet defeat at the general elections. In the current circumstances and the particular context, especially rural, losing the by-election in No. 7 will likely result in defeat at general elections. The MSM-ML can only hope to come back to power if it succeeds in No.7 and thereby create the conditions favourable for an alliance with the MMM… in spite of whatever Paul Bérenger may be saying about his party’s decision to go it alone. Mr Bérenger will no doubt be amenable to negotiations in good time.

Pravind Jugnauth will most likely turn around the Lutchmeenaraidoo embarrassment into an opportunity for a second innings. So will the Labour Party.

So in both India and Mauritius, we are in waiting mode as regards outcome…


* Published in print edition on 29 March 2019

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