Interview Nita Deerpalsing
“Too many politicians of whatever political party today are not there for the right reasons. They are there for the status, for their ego for anything else but genuine service to a cause, an idea, a people”
The opposition and the government have been busy crossing swords during the past months over a number of issues in relation with the Bagatelle project, Neotown, water supply and the acquisition by government of the Medpoint Clinic. The MMM is clearly driving its own agenda, but it does appear that it has so far succeeded in forcing the government to focus its energies on defending its decisions rather than concentrating on its own agenda. Would this explain the current perception that things are stuck, of a lack of coherence and of a clear sense of direction at the level of
the present government?
Nita Deerpalsing, MP and director of communication of the Labour Party, says there is a will to create that kind of perception. “It’s part of the slash-and-burn attitude from those wonderful democrats who are still having difficulty accepting the results of last year’s general elections,” she says…
Mauritius Times: The opposition and the government have been busy having a go at each other during the past months, and it has not exactly been a picnic for the government with the MMM opposition going for blood with its objections and allegations with regard to the Bagatelle project, Neotown, water supply – and the other “embarrassment”: Medpoint. The MMM is clearly driving its own agenda, but it would seem that it has so far succeeded in forcing the government to focus its energies on defending its decisions rather than concentrating on its own agenda. Do you agree?
Nita Deerpalsing: Well, except for wild allegations, what else have we been hearing from the Opposition? And frankly, has there really been anything on offer that’s different from what we’ve been used to from an MMM opposition? It’s always been a slash-and-burn opposition and now, some 40 years on, it’s still the same old tune. The politics of scandals. Of allegations. Of discrediting all possible institutions. I’m tempted to also add: the Sheik Hossen syndrome. I thought the Opposition was supposed to be a credible alternative… Well as far as we can tell from the evidence so far, this is not the case with the MMM.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Opposition or any member of the legislative – be in on the majority side – should not keep Government on its toes. In fact this is precisely what our Westminsterian parliamentary system calls for. This system of parliamentary democracy rests squarely on this idea of check and balances, which essentially underlies the notion of the balance of power which is at the root of our democratic system.
Under the accountability principle, the legislative branch should oversee the executive branch of power. This is its institutional role – and again I want to emphasize here that the legislative branch includes MPs on the majority side, perhaps later we’ll come back to the reason for which I’m stressing this point.
But other than the functions of passing laws and maintaining oversight of the executive, legislatures in our kind of parliamentary democracy are also supposed to be a forum for public debate. And when an opposition relies solely on allegations and scandals for its “gagne-pain”, we have a stymied democracy. Which is precisely what the MMM has been putting on offer for practically all its time in opposition, which if I’m not mistaken, is basically the major part of its existence.
And let’s not even talk about its time in government! I think I have in a previous interview with you demonstrated with evidence to back my point that at least since 1991, whenever the MMM has been in power, that is, 1991 to 1995 and 2000 to 2005 the verifiable data shows beyond reasonable doubt, that it’s ONLY the 10% richest people in this country who have benefited from their policies. So, talk about workers rights, fight against poverty, etc., etc., all your life, then you manage finally to come to power – with either absolute or near absolute majority! – and you implement policies that gives the exact opposite results from what you’ve been preaching all your life. Unfortunately for the MMM, this happens to be on record. I’m sorry, I don’t think I would call this a credible alternative!
Now contrast this to the Labour Party. Again here, the evidence speaks for itself. And I did share that chart with you on a previous occasion. It’s only when the Labour Party has been in power – with any other political party – that the first 9 deciles of the population, that is, from the poorest to the middle class and even the upper middle class have benefited from any growth that the country experienced. The ones who benefited the MOST, being the 10% poorest. The ONLY people who were worst off were the 10% richest. Which incidentally tells you why this latter category of people don’t like us so much! Because we have one language in opposition and we more or less try to apply the same ideas in government. With the results I’ve just mentioned.
* There is otherwise a perception that things are stuck, of a lack of coherence and of a clear sense of direction at the level of the present government… It does not look like we have a clear view of where we are headed for in the various key areas that call for attention. Would you argue that such is in fact not the case?
There is a will to create the perception that you’ve mentioned. Again, it’s part of the slash-and-burn attitude from those wonderful democrats who are still having difficulty accepting the results of last year’s general elections.
Things are moving in many areas of the country. Take the fight against poverty. Granted, c’est un travail de longue haleine, but who other than Dr Navin Ramgoolam as Prime Minister has dedicated a competent senior minister to the fight against poverty? And yet we are lucky not to have levels of poverty like in other countries in our own region. This just shows you that the Prime Minister is darn serious about making sure that economic growth, increase in FDI figures are not just things that are nice to highlight and repeat in a PowerPoint presentation to businessmen or potential investors but are actually things that can be concretely translated into the increase of life-chances for people who are at the most vulnerable rungs of society. This is a concrete application of Amartya Sen’s notion of human capabilities! And let me add that this is precisely what characterizes the intellectual roots of the Labour Party.
* You can very well imagine what the constant and systematic harping by the opposition on alleged irregularities on the side of the government, coupled with the perception of a non-performing government, will bring about in the long run, don’t you? How do you counteract that?
Let me take you back to just before the 5th of May 2010. If you had put your ears “to the ground” – so to speak – you’d have thought that we would have lost the elections by a wide majority. Even if the MMM had aligned the likes of Ramjuttun, Ashock Jugnauth, Dulloo, etc. Not to mention the various “mot-d’ordre” from clerics, not to mention the mainstream press. On top of that they also needed and sought the help of that pathetic Belle Terre guy. Well if you hailed from some other planet and you’d listen to what was being said on radio, what was being published in the newspapers, you’d be forgiven to think that the MMM was going to win a major landslide victory.
This is because on the radio – and I invite you to carry out an ‘investigative listening’ exercise – it’s the SAME 50 odd people who rotate on all the radios whining programs. The same observation goes for on-line blogs. It’s the same old, same old suspects. And we are meant to believe that these 50, 100, 200 (to be generous) people are speaking the minds of the whole population!
This is not to say that we should be complacent. I’m far from saying that everything is rosy and that we should condescendingly ignore criticism or complaints. What I’m saying is that there is a big gap between what passes for the voice of the people and what is genuinely reasoned criticism and debates. I wish there was much more of the latter both in civil society and in Parliament, but particularly so in Parliament.
* Speaking of a non-performing government, we have learnt from the DPM, in Parliament this week, about a series of measures being undertaken or finalized to alleviate the inconvenience to consumers due to the water shortage problem, namely deviation of rivers to Mare aux Vacoas/La Marie Treatment Plant, water pumping at different places – and request for assistance from the Singapore Public Utilities Board. Sounds too little, too late, don’t you think?
The government is doing the best it can in the circumstances. We do have a problem of climate change! Have you noticed how abnormal it has been that we haven’t had a single cyclone formation this season? And it’s through cyclones that we get the bulk of water in the summer season!
And it is rather weird that when the rain does fall, it falls everywhere but at Mare aux Vacoas. I suspect that deforestation in that region has something to do with it. And I could only smile when I saw the Leader of Opposition’s question on deforestation the other day! What? Is this the same person who was going to preside over the whole Valley de Ferney being gobbled up by shiny-tarred roads?
But of course, yes we have to also face the fact that there has been under-investment in the water sector over the past years. This is what you get when highly intelligent bean counters from the World Bank are put in positions where they think they can bully their dogmatic worldview to everyone else.
I find it extremely objectionable, annoying and deeply irritating and downright wrong that technocrats who are in complete disconnect with the realities of the ground, and who are not the least accountable to the population get to push their way on policy matters. And I can tell you that probably most Cabinet ministers will agree with me on this.
I think it’s absolutely unacceptable that Cabinet ministers have to practically beg technocrats from the Ministry of Finance in order to implement good projects for the benefit of the population. Go and find out how many papers the previous Minister (Hon Kasenally) sent to Finance for approval. All of which were rejected. Why? Because the oh-so-brilliant guy from Washington thought it was not a priority for the population. Well, I would really like the guy from Washington to walk around in my constituency and give a darn good, intelligible, reasonable explanation why my constituents are living in a country which can only afford 4 to 5 hours of water supply per day.
I am seriously starting to wonder whether overall policy guidance and prioritization should not sit under the Prime Minister’s Office. As it is, there is way too much power for policy decisions lying in the hands of technocrats who never ever have to face a member of the public for explanations and accountability.
* The fact that the government should be turning to the Singaporeans for assistance to remedy current problems and for drawing up strategic plans with respect to water supply, traffic management, reform of penitentiary services, etc., in Mauritius has itself been decried by leftist intellectuals, but it also tells a sorry tale about the capacity and competence of the different public authorities to meet these challenges. Do we have a problem there – at the level of the concerned institutions – or is it to be found at the level of political leadership itself?
Yes, of course, we do have a problem, but it’s not necessarily at the political level only. We have a major problem of professional conscience – at all levels – in this country! And this is not to mention that the people animated by noble ideals and living by those ideals are few and far between. Ok, we can’t expect everyone to be like Edward Said who was one of those rare intellectuals whose ideals and individual behavior coincided.
But where are all are genuine people who are not concerned by their own selfish interests, by the job, the promotion they want for themselves, for their relatives, or whatever other pecuniary interests? Where are the genuine people who are animated by the right motives, who are willing to take risks, who know that they should just keep going in their undertaking whatever the costs because what you do and what you say is much more important than what “rewards” you get? I’m saying this for community leaders, for schoolteachers, for public servants and also, by the way for politicians as well. For let us not delude ourselves. Too many politicians of whatever political party today are not there for the right reasons. They are there for the status, for their ego for anything else but genuine service to a cause, an idea, a people. So yes, we do have a problem which cuts right across the fabric of our society.
If only each of us, did whatever we can do best in our current job, without waiting for the next job, next promotion, the next “reward” to arrive before we give the best of ourselves, then this country would be a lot further ahead.
* The Prime Minister had earlier indicated that the CT Power project might have suffered from some form of manipulation, which would have paved the way for the rejection of the project itself by Cabinet. Now we learn that that would have been the case with a senior civil servant allegedly tampering with the reports of the World Bank… Incredible, isn’t it? Who is calling the shots here?
Well, I have always said that the power of lobbies and the power of money can and sometimes does overshadow and overtake the power of the people. Is this surprising when there are so great interests at stake? I have seen what was being done in the original MAAS (Multi-Annual Adaptation Strategy) document, so no it doesn’t surprise me. By the way, it’s not all necessarily about money. It can also be cognitive capture by lobby groups. What is essential is that those who are supposed to be looking after public interests do so with even renewed vigour. Now you understand why the PM says he can’t trust anyone? I totally empathize with him! There are just too many idiots in positions of responsibility who instead of taking their positions precisely as positions of responsibility, they think it’s a reward for them to do whatever would suit their own interests first! I can tell you that there’s not much else that enrages the PM and elicit his disdain, than people with that kind of crass attitude and behaviour!
* To come back to the MMM’s agenda, the chairman of the DBM has come forward this week to give the lie to the allegation made by Hon Bhagwan in Parliament regarding the writing off of the repayment of a loan contracted by Medpoint’s management with the Bank. Clearly Mr Bhagwan got it totally wrong, isn’t it?
As I said before, there is a difference between calling government to account and a slash-and-burn, Sheik-Hossen syndrome opposition forever stuck in sheer demagoguery. But what is even more condemnable is the attitude of a morning newspaper. The usual suspect. They published Hon Bhagwan’s question in a prominent part of the paper. But lo and behold, the DBM’s press conference gets NO mention at all. None. Niet. And this is called responsible journalism! Sure, fiable et précis? Come on, try again.
That being said, there are a few ministers, including those in the Labour Party who are in my opinion, on a slippery trend as far as their attitude is concerned. Parliament is the temple of accountability and frankly sometimes I have heard in the tone and attitude of some of our ministers, a demeanor which is unpalatable and offensive as far as that role of accountability is concerned. I wish they would learn some humility and respect for institutions from the Prime Minister! The PM is never haughty, know-it-all and never shows disdain for MP’s questions. He answers what he has to answer, takes on suggestion when he thinks they are valuable and lashes back when the question is just cheap demagoguery. Why can’t these ministers learn a thing or two from the PM for goodness sake?
* It would appear that some of the latter-day MMM MPs and other “dream team” functionaries, who have left successful careers in the public/private sectors to join the Party, would not be comfortable with the selective targeting of certain economic operators by the MMM. Neotown and CT Power clearly do not sit well with the MMM leadership. What do you think this frustration will give rise to?
I feel sorry for them. I can tell you that if you were in Parliament the day that the Leader of the Opposition asked the question on the MCB affair, you would have seen Hon Kee Cheong literally cringing in his seat!
On the question of energy and pollution, have you ever heard one MMM MP ask any question about the level of pollution CURRENTLY being generated by the coal-bagasse IPPs in the sugar sector? No one in the MMM is concerned about the current 600,000 tons of coal that we import annually? These 600,000 tons of coal don’t produce pollution but coal imported by any other player in the market would be polluting? Really? Because we have 2 kinds of coal?
I can only tell you that when I see these new MPs on the other side of the House, I feel so very very lucky to belong to a Party which has a long-standing history of progressive politics and to belong to a Party whose leader emphatically embodies the values and the aims of this Party. To be honest, without that kind of inspiration, I would personally find it difficult to keep my political engagement alive.
* Published in print edition on 27 May 2011