Interview: Satish Kumar Mahadeo – ‘Political apathy and disaffection with traditional politics can be very dangerous’

* ‘“If there is one thing I am certain about, it is the gradual impoverishment of the middle classes in Mauritius, leaving behind a tiny elite and a huge proletariat’

Dr Satish Kumar Mahadeo, Associate Professor, who holds a doctorate in Humanities from Durham University, UK, and teaches in the Department of English Studies at the University of Mauritius, speaks to us in this broad-ranging interview on the general perception people in Mauritius have about many current issues:

Democracy, Public Governance, Law and Order, the Economy, language policies, parliamentarians’ pay, political developments in the world… Our readers will appreciate the difference between free and frank opinions of the Academic Dr Mahadeo is and the ritual political discourse which deviously seeks to justify even the most unpalatable.

Mauritius Times: If a national democratic audit were to be carried out, as it has been suggested in Australia recently, and the following questions put to you: ‘How you imagine your ideal democracy? What should we expect from our politicians within it? And how is the present system failing you?’, how would you respond?

S.K. Mahadeo:
Democracy is an ambiguous concept. It means different things to different people at different times. Democracy was something of a dirty word even among the ancient Greeks who had invented the term. Their key thinkers were, to say the least, ambivalent about the system.

Aristotle who, in the fourth century BC, pronounced that “man is by nature a political animal”, saw the flaws. He followed his predecessor Plato in criticizing democracy as a poor form of government. Winston Churchill is known to have said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried…” Democracy, by considering the ignorant and incompetent to be as important as the well-informed, does not guarantee sensible decisions.

Democracy corrupts ordinary people and creates rulers who see their most important skill as knowing how to influence the mob – a term derived from the Latin phrase “mobile vulgus” meaning “the fickle crowd” (Reminiscent of Shakespeare’s political play “Julius Caesar”).

We can be forgiven for wondering whether what we have in Mauritius can be called a democracy at all when some of our politicians clamour that “We are Government, and Government decides”. The temptation of voters to bring in a Rambo-like strongman who can “clean up the mess” (“operation nettoyage”) and “get things done” during troubled times is well established. But it may turn out to be a terrible trap that inevitably leads to totalitarian tendencies.

* It seemed to us at some time, just recently in fact, that the level of trust in government and in politicians generally was at its lowest what with the handling of the BAI affair, ministers ‘shooting’ at each other, the controversies sparked by the selective slapping of provisional charges and the attacks against the holders of constitutional institutions, but mostly the absence of tangible results despite so many months that the government is in the saddle. What’s your feeling today? Is there too much of a gap between the rhetoric and the reality?

All governments expect to see their trust ratings decline. But the fall seems to be particularly acute with this government. People appear to have lost trust in the government to put the interests of the country before the interests of the party. Trust is economically important because, among other things, it discourages nepotism and favouritism where work is awarded to ‘people you know’ rather than the best person for the job.

Young people seem particularly to be disconnected from the political system. They are more concerned about the amount of money they earn, their ability to pay their bills and the prospect of being unemployed after their studies. They are largely distrustful of politicians and generally consider their promises to be deceitful, their intentions to be manipulative, and their actions to be corrupt. The perception that all politicians are similar makes them think that their vote will not make any difference.

Unless the gap between rhetoric and action begins to narrow soon, the government may be in danger of losing all credibility. There is lot of encouraging talk from politicians about how seriously they are prepared to take radical measures to make the dream of a second economic miracle become true. But I am afraid there is lot of prevarication which bespeaks a lamentable failure to deliver.

The promise was that Government would be different, and things would be better. It would be unfair to discern no difference between this government and its predecessor, but the change has not been big enough to win the trust of the electorate.

* What’s paradoxical is that despite the feeling of discontent among a large swathe of the population, the opposition parties do not seem to be able to make any headway. One is busy reviewing the party’s Constitution – and rejecting it in the same breath; the other has too much on its own plate for it to focus on more pressing national issues. Wouldn’t this explain why voting volatility is on the rise since citizens increasingly just don’t care who wins elections anymore?

My feeling is that political apathy and disaffection are indeed rampant. The evidence points to people being alienated and turned off by the political system. They do not trust those in public life from whom they expect higher standards and principles like selflessness, accountability, integrity, honesty and leadership. Their behaviour seems to confirm the adage that politics and morality cannot coexist, and that all means, fair or foul, are legitimate in the thirst for power. In the long run, this disenchantment and disconnect between those in power and the voters can be very destabilizing.

* While the feel-good factor is not there yet, there is a perception that things seem to be improving with the boisterous ones apparently made to remain quiet, at least come less in the public view, and more coherence displayed in government policy-making, like the decisive actions taken to clear off the footpaths and streets of our towns of hawkers have won popular support. What do you think?

You rightly say that there is a “perception” of coherence and serenity, which hardly matches the reality on the ground. This is of course the impression that people who are dependent on the local radio and television reporting would get, but we all know that they do not exactly provide an impartial and objective ‘feel’ of what the pulse of the nation is.

* We shall not go into the legal technicalities of the judgement delivered by the Supreme Court on Wednesday in the ICAC vs Pravind Jugnauth, but that judgement indirectly gives a significant fillip to the MSM-led government to press on with more confidence and serenity with its political mandate. It’s for Sir Anerood Jugnauth to decide when it’s appropriate for the Leader of the MSM to step into the PM’s shoes, but what would you expect the government should do in the remaining part of its mandate?

It’s premature to measure the immediate repercussions of this favourable judgement for Pravind Jugnauth. It will not be surprising that he will eventually step in the shoes of the next PM, though some opposition figures are likely to contest the morality of such an appointment on the grounds that the electorate gave the mandate to Sir Anerood Jugnauth, not his son, as PM during the last elections. Pravind Jugnauth has, nevertheless, to face up to the daunting challenges of restoring greater unity within his own ranks and boosting the morale of his supporters.

* The handling of the Double Tax Avoidance Agreement negotiations with the Indian authorities has not gone well with the local Global Business sector, and the jury is still out as regards the impact the revised treaty will have on our fundamental economic indicators, on employment in the sector and job creation. Our tea industry is almost gone, the sugar sector is facing difficulties and more and more planters are abandoning their lands, and here’s another pillar of the economy that has been weakened. How do you react to all these setbacks?

As you say, the jury is still out as to which of Roshi Badain or Rama Sithanen is right. People like me and so many others who are not well versed in financial services and the offshore sector are at a loss. I wish both Roshi Badain and Rama Sithanen refrain from using highly convoluted technical jargon when expanding on this issue to the masses. They might be advised instead to make available a manual on “The offshore sector made simple to morons” because we are at times lost in this whole labyrinth of claims and counterclaims on the issue of DTAA.

But if there is one thing I am certain about, it is the gradual impoverishment of the middle classes in Mauritius, leaving behind a tiny elite and a huge proletariat. For many young couples, owning their own home is a pipe dream, and they will have no chance of clawing their way out of a hand-to-mouth existence. I think this will impoverish our society, and make it more intolerant. The signs are already there with the law and order situation prevailing around us. Who will benefit from the suppression of the dreams of the middle classes and their disillusionment?

* If there is a feeling of let-down in the Global Business sector, isn’t it also true that this sector has not been sufficiently vocal about its concerns and apprehensions nor made the right noises to get itself heard in the right places? The Chagossians seem to have a better mastery of the craft of lobbying, isn’t it?

Chagossian exiles have indeed fought a series of tough legal battles to secure the fight to return to the islands. They have the enthusiasm, skills and determination to make return a success.

The comparison with the Global Business Sector may be a bit far-fetched, but it seems the operators have been frozen out of the political process and have no political space of their own in which to operate.

* Speaking of the Chagossians, how did you react to the PM’s announcement regarding his government’s decision to go to the UN and the International Court of Justice should the UK fail to return the Chagos Archipelago to the effective control of Mauritius by a precise date to be agreed upon by the two parties?

The PM himself, in an address to the House, mentioned that Great Britain is guided by the principle of “Might is Right”. This leaves us in no doubt as to the outcome of this legal battle.

Even David Snoxell, former British High Commissioner, in an interview to this paper, who was himself a staunch supporter of the Chagossians’ right to return to the islands, had made it clear that “there is not really scope for Mauritius to be a party to UK/US discussions (on Chagos) since they will not be formal negotiations.”

But this of course does not prevent our government from applying all our diplomacy and pressure to achieve our goal.

* No doubt SAJ, or any other Mauritian PM for that matter, would want to go down in history as the one who has been able to take on the UK successfully with respect to the Chagos issue, but one wonders whether the British would be the least bothered by the Mauritian government’s ultimatum. What’s your take on that?

Every single person on earth has the freedom to say whatever he/she wants, but it is not something guaranteed that everyone will take our words into consideration.

The British are deeply committed to the value of free speech, but the final decision to act or not to act upon the Mauritian’s government ultimatum will be theirs – and theirs only. And let nobody be fooled by this.

* Another issue that has made to the headlines relates to parliamentarians pay and other allocations – the latter apparently being non-taxable. The PRB has taken some flak for its recommendations thereon, and trade unionists have joined in the debate and challenged the PRB for more transparency with respect to this matter. Do you find anything objectionable about MPs obtaining higher pay and allocations? Aren’t they after all working in the best interests of the country?

I would not care what we pay parliamentarians if they are selected for dedication and expertise. There are a few dynamic and articulate Members of Parliament who deserve the pay rise, but far too many are mediocre. The latter can do what they like for as long as they like, subject, of course, to their need to be re-elected. Some argue that it would be totally preposterous and inappropriate for them to get such a generous pay rise, at a time when we are asking people across the public sector to accept pay restraints.

* We were talking about the health of our democracy at the beginning. Will it get any better if MPs are allowed to address the House in Creole?

In determining language policies, a world famous sociolinguist, J. Fishman, contends that a postcolonial country like ours needs to balance the concerns of “nationalism” and “nationism”. “Nationalism” has to do with the feelings that develop from a sense of group identity, while “nationism” has to do with the practical concerns of governing.

Basically, every multilingual country such as ours has to strike a balance between the “politics of identity” and “economic pragmatism”. In linguistic terms, this means that we cannot deemphasise international languages of wide communication like English, though it is not useful polarising the role of Creole versus English. Both are useful and needed.

The pull of the force of globalisation in the 21st century makes it almost impossible for any country to even contemplate any isolationist policy of ignoring global influences and ‘going it alone’, as it were.

* What about the official language of the country? Where do matters stand to arrest its decline?

First of all, it would be more fitting to talk about the paradoxical situation rather than a decline of English in Mauritius.

There is hardly a point in the history of English in Mauritius where standards of English were high. Even, during the days of colonial administration, as evidenced by official documents, there are many remarks about the fact that in a British colony, there was hardly a person, even among the Europeans, who spoke any English or even understood it. In the immediate post-independence period, education was meant for a select few – those who could afford it. It’s only with the construction of State Secondary Schools that we begin to see a form of democratisation of education, and more and more Mauritians started learning English.

So if there is any ‘decline’, it is qualitative, not quantitative. I think that when we talk about the decline of the English language, we refer mostly to Mauritians’ inability to express themselves orally. We actually refer to their lack of communicative competence. Having said that, I am not denying that we have a problem with the English language situation in Mauritius. We need to explain the significant differences in the levels of proficiency in English.

Firstly, we need to address the professional competence of our teachers, which I regard as an infrastructural resource factor that is influenced by government policies. We must attract the ‘best and brightest’ to the ELT profession.

Secondly, we need to raise the perceived value and uses of English in Mauritius because we do not yet have a favourable English learning environment. Thirdly, our entire education system is based on reading and writing at the expense of listening and speaking, and English Language Teaching is heavily dependent on an exam culture, on testing mainly rigid textbook knowledge and ignoring the creative use of the language.

Our political leaders always claim that our dream is to become the Singapore of the Indian Ocean, but it is not a coincidence that Singapore’s advanced economy is tied up with its reasonably high level of proficiency in English. The ex-Prime Minister of Singapore invested himself personally in the raising of standards of English. India is predicted, according to some economic experts, to have in future a competitive edge over China precisely because English is becoming a dominant medium among the millions and millions of middle class Indians.

The Quality assurance Office of the University of Mauritius carried out three years ago an Employers’ Needs and Evaluation Survey and a Graduates’ Satisfaction Survey. The two surveys were targeted at all local employers recruiting graduates from our University. According to those surveys, the attribute most sought after by employers was the “technical skills needed for the job”, but it was immediately followed by “verbal communication and presentation skills”.

Given that fluency in English is a prerequisite for success and advancement in many fields of employment in today’s world, given that we live in an educational world where good communication skills are seen as a necessary and positive personal characteristic, we can imagine the consequences in terms of employment opportunities of poor communication skills in English.

So the teaching and learning of English here should not be dismissed as a mere academic exercise, but is bound up with our economic growth.

* Elsewhere, there has been on the one hand the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London, on the other hand part of the media and intellectuals in the USA are presently earnestly debating on “how to save America from Donald Trump”. What lessons do you draw from these two recent happenings?

Earlier, I said that political apathy and disaffection with traditional politics can be very dangerous, and a perfect illustration is the emergence of anti-establishment figures like Donald Trump in the USA and also in Europe with the likes of Marie Le Pen in France and others who are exploiting the same themes of fear and hatred and racism and victimhood.

Such populist reactionary politics ultimately seeks to polarise these societies into “us” and “them”. Donald Trump focuses his campaign on the anger of white working people who have been losing ground for years and who are easy prey for demagogues seeking to build their own power by scapegoating others.

Fortunately, the election of Mr Sadiq Khan as London Mayor to replace Boris Johnson is a fitting repudiation of the politics of fear that serve to promote hatred and intolerance. These are lessons for all of us to learn.

* Published in print edition on 27 May 2016

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