Interview: Mrinal Roy
“Politics has for too long been allowed to have a toxic influence on almost everything. It is time for it to take a back seat”
“Labour Party & MMM: “The status quo is not a credible option to enable the reinvention of these parties for the future”
“This is not Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Old hands and their loyal inner circle must have the grace to step down”
In this week’s interview, Mrinal Roy gives us his considered views on several issues of concern that came up in the period leading to the general elections on Dec 10, 2014, and that have been taken up to be addressed in the Government Programme.
A regular contributor to this paper, Mrinal Roy was CEO of the Mauritius Syndicate before becoming General Overseas Representative of the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate and the Chamber of Agriculture based in London (2005-2009).
As Chairman of the ACP London Sugar Group he participated actively in the ACP Consultative Group meetings on sugar in Brussels, as well as in the international negotiations which successfully concluded the Special Preferential Sugar Agreement in 1995 in Brussels.
He has occupied high positions as member of several organizations related to sugar trade, beside appointment as member of various national Boards, including Chairmanship of the Mauritius Housing Corporation. He has contributed regularly to Agra Europe, a specialised weekly magazine on EU Agriculture, as well as to the Financial Times.
Mauritius Times: Rather than the long list of intentions in the Government’s Programme, what seems to overshadow the substance is who is called upon to read it out, as happened when Sir Anerood Jugnauth did so in 2005 for the Labour Party-PMSD government. It would really appear that the substance does not matter, for the people know that a Government’s Programme is but another inevitable ritual that every new government has to follow – but much of which is usually not achievable. Right?
Mrinal Roy: Wrong! The people know better. For them the substance is always paramount. The discerning majority who voted the current government to power on 10 December 2014 in the teeth of all the hype about a landslide 60-0 victory can surely make the difference between contrived distractions and substance. They are fully aware that a host of peripheral issues are as usual being systematically blown out of proportion to distract attention from or overshadow core government actions to honour the commitments contained in its electoral manifesto, now transcribed in the government’s programme.
Furthermore, it is early days in the new government’s mandate. Yet, they have already promptly fulfilled the commitments regarding an enhanced pension of Rs 5,000, and a higher quantum of salary compensation in recognition of the hardships faced by those at the lower rungs of the salary scale and old age pensioners to make both ends meet. It would therefore be grossly unfair to already start passing premature judgement without even allowing for the end of the traditional grace period of 100 days, bearing in mind that the government has a lot on its plate to bring about the transformational changes required to deliver on its programme.
Post independence, the country seems to have gone astray in the rigorous application of some of the sterling principles of good governance, transparency and meritocracy. On too many occasions, the leadership of the country erred and short-changed the nation on these fundamental principles. High-handedness and tantrums of power have spawned fear and cowed too many into subservience, thus undermining good governance. Politics has been allowed to interfere in a toxic manner in everything from policy-making or appointments to fat cat jobs or other advantages for the coterie. In the process, the political class has traded merit and competence to reward sycophancy.
The emphatic victory of the 10 December elections which is based on a new contract of trust between the people and the elected enables government to kickstart a paradigm shift in approach. The people therefore expect that under the stewardship of Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth, the government will cut loose from the chronic malpractices of the past and solidly anchor (as stated in its programme) the running of the affairs of the State on the cardinal principles of exemplary good governance, altruistic service to the nation, meritocracy, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, equal opportunities for all and the ironing out of inequalities.
* When you talk about the country having gone or seemed to have gone “astray in the rigorous application of… good governance, transparency and meritocracy”, post-Independence, are you putting the SSR-led governments in the same basket as latter-day dispensations which took over? When did the rot really start setting in?
It is pointless to pillory anyone. Let this be left to the cold and objective scrutiny of history. The core issue is about checks and balances. It is part of our learning curve as a nascent nation. If the in-built bulwarks to assure good governance are sapped instead of being continuously strengthened, we open the floodgates of licence. We have allowed an insidious and systemic undermining of good governance through the tentacular reach of political interference. Cronyism, sycophancy and the protection of a chosen coterie have been allowed to take hold. Meritocracy, transparency, good governance and the public interest have been the major casualties.
Two lessons are important. It is capital that the country’s system of checks and balances is reviewed and constantly beefed up to assure and shepherd good governance. The people also need to be a robust bulwark against bad governance. In the wake of the emphatic sanction of the people it is now time to stop the rot. The code of good governance initiated by the new government will, with the support of the people, kickstart a process to do so.
* To come back to the MSM-PMSD-ML Government Programme, what does it tell you about its ambitions? Does it look coherent, politically saleable as well as sustainable?
The Government Programme is certainly ambitious and quite comprehensive. Expectations among the people are also high. As I pointed out earlier, it essentially transcribes the gist of the political manifesto. It touches most socio-economic and administrative aspects of the country. It is a blueprint to transform the socio-economic order and the management of the affairs of the country for the better. There is also a will to address a wide range of issues which would improve the livelihoods of people and in particular the more vulnerable, as well as stimulate growth and assure an equitable sharing of prosperity. Its successful implementation will bequeath a systemically improved Mauritius for future generations.
The Prime Minister and his Finance Minister have the track record of having previously transformed, as from 1983, a country on its knees with a high tax and unemployment rate, tottering after two devaluations, into a vibrant, successful, diversified and prosperous economy. There is once again a determined mindset to transform and uplift the country to an even higher level of economic success for the inclusive benefit of all. It is clear that the people will have to actively participate and lend their support to realize such a game-changing venture which would serve public interest in a holistic manner. It is worth noting that in the Programme the government has undertaken to adopt a consultative approach in matters directly relating to the Constitution of the country and in all cases where the interest of the public at large is at stake.
In terms of the Programme, the current closure of the Verdun highway and the resulting heavy congestion and lengthy daily delays experienced by commuters are stark reminders that the Light Rail Transit system has inter alia the twin advantages of being a mass rapid transit system of tens of thousands of commuters daily on a distinct and separate rail track.
* The view has been expressed in this paper that what is called for today, at this critical turning point in the country’s history, is an “appropriate (political) leadership” that would ensure cohesiveness and focus to help steer the country’s social, economic and political apparatus onto a more dynamic path away from the stagnation of past years. Do you find that ingredient there presently and in the government’s undertakings so far?
We already have two important ingredients to usher such a sea change in the socio-economic prospects of the country, namely: a comprehensive government programme aimed at overhauling and improving broad aspects and activities of the country, and a leadership determined to deliver on its programme commitments. In the past, there has been, in spite of extensive government programmes, a lack of focus and more importantly a dithering style of governance which, coupled with political interference and questionable appointments, have dented and weakened the efficiency of the government machinery to deliver on the government’s programme commitments.
It is too premature to assess the new government’s undertakings as it is early days and work in progress in view of the mammoth task ahead to really transform and develop Mauritius to its full potential. The key to achieving stellar success for the country is to harness the full potential of our most precious national resource, our human resources, so as to help achieve our most ambitious objectives as a nation. This can only be achieved if, as spelled out in the Government Programme, all recruitments and appointments of cadres and top executives in both the public and private sectors are rigorously effected on the basis of meritocracy according to a transparent process of selection.
It is the innovativeness, brainstorming and managerial acumen of the brightest talents of the nation that will be the determinant factors which will help Mauritius to register a quantum jump in growth and prosperity. It is therefore comforting to note that the government has already endorsed a meritocracy- based recruitment policy in the country. As the private sector employs more than three times the number of employees in the public sector an appropriate mechanism must be put in place to ensure that this key policy is being adhered to in practice in the private sector, especially in respect of some 6,000 graduates qualified in diverse fields joining the job market every year.
* Both SAJ and Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo have been saying that they will deliver a second economic “miracle” for the country, just as they did in the 1980s. A Committee has been set up to work out the strategies and wherewithal to attain that objective. But the world has changed in the meantime and what worked in the favour of Mauritius then may not now be available or appropriate. What are the country’s possibilities/options for attaining steady economic growth and development in the years ahead?
The situation today. in terms of both our more diversified economy, with a greater emphasis on the services sectors and market conditions now governed by the WTO-driven liberal rules of trade is quite different. However, the opportunities of doing business in fields where we have developed a proven expertise in both regional and other markets in a globalized world or of going up the value chain through the induction of technology and expertise especially in the diverse activities in the services’ sectors are manifold.
We have widely diversified the economy thereby substantially enhancing our potential to generate growth and employment. However, through a lack of rigour and internationally recognised norms to position Mauritius as a learning hub of excellence, the tertiary education sector has been allowed to be mired in controversy. Similarly, significantly more can be done through innovative strategies, strategic partnerships or the induction of appropriate expertise to move the ICT sector, the financial services sector or the free port significantly up the value chain.
New ventures like the international marine and bunkering hub are being implemented. The Ocean economy once properly charted with the help of expertise from those countries already deriving tremendous economic benefit from it through a judicious, eco-friendly and sustainable management of its diverse resources can become another important vector of growth.
Furthermore, Mauritius is an entrepreneurial nation. Given the opportunity and institutional support, people will start diverse businesses. The success of SMEs as a major source of employment is a case in point. The government plan to earmark Rs 10 billion in support of SMEs has the capacity to unleash this latent entrepreneurial potential to generate growth and employment.
Our economy is stunted by a faltering growth rate. We definitely need a second economic miracle if we are to leapfrog the country to a high-income economy. To this end, it is high time for government to set up pluri-disciplinary teams of young cadres with the required commercial, financial and managerial skills to gauge, with the collaboration of economic actors, the competitive profile of each sector in a liberalised world context in order to enable government to be in a better position to support their strategies.
Such a policy would provide opportunities of employment to the plethora of highly qualified young Mauritians in these fields working both locally and abroad but keen to serve the country. They would also help monitor the diverse poles of growth in our diversified economy to enable government to take corrective measures when necessary.
* The people are usually an impatient lot, and sometimes expect governments to wave a magic wand to produce results at the earliest. But we should perhaps not ignore their impatience to come out in the open should they not see results forthcoming in terms of improved socio-economic prospects. Do you see that happening earlier than later?
Let’s not jump the gun. There are so many things amiss in our country which have been left unattended for too long and which need to be set right forthwith. The list seems endless. Water and energy supply, the recruitment on merit, in a transparent mode, of CEOs to head government institutions and state companies, the problem of hawkers and squatters, a minimum wage, etc. So long as the government rigorously honours the commitments contained in its manifesto prioritizing those issues which require urgent action, the goodwill and contract of trust between the government and the electorate will remain intact.
Every government however remains constantly under the scrutiny of the people. The government which has been so overwhelmingly endorsed by the people against formidable odds has every reason to scrupulously honour its contract of trust with the people. Delivery on the promise of a second economic miracle is a key element to improve the livelihoods of people against a background of low wages for large swathes of the employees of the private sector and deepening inequalities. It is therefore an essential element of people’s legitimate expectations which will require patience from the people.
* We spoke earlier about the need for government cohesiveness and focus. Let’s take up the focus imperative. The “nettoyage” agenda may please the gallery — for some time, that is until such time that the political benefits thereof do not outweigh the cost of dealing with urgent issues. Does it appear to you that the government is already overstretching the “nettoyage” agenda?
A new government voted in on inter alia an anti-corruption and good governance mandate is duty-bound to investigate purported malpractices or scandals which have been brought to its attention or are decried on the basis of evidence by the public or the press. There are obviously political fallouts and undertones. In a country governed by the rule of law, such investigations take time to unfold. In the meantime, they make huge headlines as the press has a field day. However, what is important is that in line with the new government’s own stated 12 commandments of good governance, such investigations are allowed to follow their normal course without any interference. It should therefore not distract the government from the more important business of addressing the heavy backlog of priority issues affecting the people and of generally running the affairs of the State.
The unending cycle of each new government systematically culling the previous cohort of political appointees in the top government posts or at the head of key institutions and companies of the State and replacing them by their own is untenable. It reminds one of Mahatma Gandhi’s incisive comment: ‘An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind’. It weakens and blunts the thrust of government action. Old bad habits die hard as in the wake of the elections; past appointees seem to have reappeared out of the woodwork to jockey in for prime appointments at the expense of the public Exchequer.
Thank goodness, in a welcome departure from this past malpractice, the government has announced a transparent process of recruitment for such key posts on the basis of meritocracy. A similar process must be applicable for appointments at all echelons of the civil service. Such a necessary paradigm shift in policy will help harness the best talents available from the rich diversity of expertise available among Mauritians both locally and abroad. More importantly, it will bequeath to the nation akin to what prevails in democracies such as the UK, France or India: a potent government machinery manned by a pool of top executives with pluri-disciplinary skills to serve and help continuously upgrade the policy framing and managerial acumen of the government in place. It will take some time for this process to pan out as what should have but has not been done in 46 years of independence cannot be achieved instantly by a magic wand.
Furthermore, there has not been any transparent process of succession planning for these top posts. Already the new merit-based recruitment process has started to select young and highly qualified Mauritians with the right career track record, expertise and business savvy competence as CEOs of major state companies. The people and the young of the Mauritius would not have it any other way. Such a recruitment policy is a sine qua non condition if we want to leapfrog the country to realize our highest ambitions as a nation.
* Having a transparent process of recruitment for appointments at all echelons of the civil service, in parastatals, etc., is certainly welcome, but that should also be accompanied by doing away with the requirement of prime ministerial or ministerial approval for such appointments. What do you think?
Why should a merit-based and transparent process of recruitment, for very often highly skilled jobs requiring pointed and specific expertise in the State-owned companies, administered by an independent board or the normal process of appointments to top brass posts in the Civil Service on the basis of a transparent, merit-based selection process, be subject to the prime ministerial or ministerial approval of the government in place? Young Mauritians who join the Civil Service should be allowed to pursue their legitimate career ambitions to the highest echelons unhindered by extraneous interference.
The new government has understood that exemplary good governance means that we need to induct a new culture of meritocracy in the country in both the public and private sector – which means cutting loose from toxic political interference bent on feudalising the government managerial machinery as well as stamping out nepotism. It is obvious that as is the case in the best democracies in the world, the Prime Minister in place is entitled to well-defined prerogatives of appointments from the top brass of the government Establishment, to some specific posts such as the Secretary to the Cabinet.
* But you would expect the new government to put in place rule-based norms and practices so that we do not end up in five years’ time with the same messy situations insofar as political nominees, allocation of state lands, etc, are concerned, wouldn’t you? And the Minister of Good Governance and Institutional Reforms would surely do well to impress upon his Cabinet colleagues that the time to walk the talk is now itself?
The core and sacrosanct rule to put an end to such malpractices is as reaffirmed in the Government Programme exemplary good governance. Good governance will have to drive all ministerial and government actions and decisions. In this spirit, government has announced its new transparent policy of recruitment.
It is important that a strengthened and competent government Establishment and machinery serving and providing impartial professional support to the government in place is ardently protected by all political parties and in codified rules of governance to ensure that it remains, unlike presently, unscathed by the vicissitudes of changes of government. For its part, the Civil Service must adhere to the cardinal principle that their personal allegiances should not impact on their work while serving the government in place.
The scarce amounts of State lands belong to the State and cannot be whittled away in the teeth of public interest. All existing procedures of allocation of contracts or State property will need to be revisited to ensure full transparency, accountability and strict compliance to established due process. The Prime Minister has the authority to ensure through his stewardship that the laudable government philosophy of governing ‘for the people with the people’ adheres to the highest code of good governance.
* There is also work to be done about the IPPs and the energy conundrum, the small planters community and the abandonment of agricultural lands. One would expect the government of the day to show as much zeal in setting matters right in the energy sector or proposing support measures in agriculture, as it has demonstrably shown with respect to the Betamax contract. What do you think?
No one and no company should be allowed to flout or short-change the public interest. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Is it not time for appropriate legislation to be enacted to cast in stone the supremacy of the public interest in all circumstances and especially in the case of well-crafted and cemented leonine contracts? We should recall that the mistakes of the past in the context of the IPP contracts – re the indexation of the electricity price on fuel oil and coal costs as well as currency and economic indices – skewed it inordinately against the public interest. The public interest must prevail when the IPPs are to be renegotiated. There is also the related issue of accountability of those who negotiated such disputed contractual terms on behalf of government.
As regards the dire predicament of the sugar planters against a backdrop of dwindling and uneconomic sugar revenue, it is a letdown to note that the Government Programme does not spell out how and more importantly when the clear commitment in the government electoral manifesto to offer, after years of delay, free shares to planters and workers in the different streams of activities in the sugar cane industry cluster will be operationalized. To prevent large scale abandonment, the sugar planters must, through appropriate funding, become commensurate shareholders of the cane sugar cluster enterprises using their cane bi-products as feedstock so that they can, as the corporate sector, shore their falling sugar revenue with revenues from the more remunerative activities in the cluster such as energy production.
* The last electoral campaign was dominated by debates on electoral reform, Second Republic including the issue of the limitation of the Prime Minister’s mandate and the nomination/election of the President of the Republic and the latter’s mandate. These issues are not likely to come up for discussions any time soon, but civil society would also do well to campaign in favour of the democratisation of political parties, a rethink of the question of electoral and party financing. We should know who are paying the different pipers on the political stage, shouldn’t we?
We should obviously know in a transparent manner who are the financial underwriters of political parties. It should be such a tell-tale and revealing exercise. However, it would obviously be foolhardy to raise any issue regarding amending the Constitution, the supreme law of the country. It would be tantamount to kicking into the hornets’ nest again with all the attendant repercussions, which is now history.
Politics has for too long been allowed to have a toxic influence on almost everything. It is time for it to take a back seat as, now that elections are behind us, political issues are far from being priorities and the press must discipline itself to let it be so. This is the time to focus and give priority to resolving the many urgent economic and social problems afflicting the country. To do otherwise so early in the mandate when elections are aeons away would be infra dig.
The Government Programme maps out the innumerable matters that need to be addressed to bring about transformational changes for the common good and the people. It is therefore essential that the government’s attention remain focused on delivering on its substantial programme which can only be achieved in collaboration with and the support of the people.
* It’s too early in the day to anticipate who is going to challenge who else at the next general elections or which theme will dominate the elections, but here also there is a bit of rethink to be done at the level of the opposition parties, especially the LP and the MMM, or even the smaller ones which have made their presence felt at the last elections, with regard to their functioning, their leadership, etc. ‘Vaste chantier, celui-là?’ Do you think they are capable of doing that?
After the rout at the last elections, we would have expected the Labour Party and the MMM to humbly draw the crying lessons of the people’s vote to bring about systemic changes to the parties and their leadership. For a variety of unavowed reasons this is most probably not going to happen. They must realize that the status quo is not a credible option to enable the reinvention of their parties for the future.
The young of the country no longer want the type of politics, politicking and seedy political ethics which have afflicted the country for decades. They want a new young leadership promoting inter alia innovative ideas of an eco-friendly and sustainable model of development anchored on inclusive prosperity for all, values of national kinship, altruistic service to the nation, transparency, meritocracy and accountability. The honourable scores obtained by some of the new parties manned by able Mauritians are symptomatic of the mood of the nation and should encourage them towards more ambitious objectives.
This is not Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. In line with norms in the best democracies of the world, old hands and their loyal inner circle who have done their time after decades in politics must have the grace to step down and allow for a democratic process to unfold to enable the emergence of the young leaders of tomorrow who would help fashion a better future for their parties in our vibrant democracy.
* Published in print edition on 30 January 2015