Interview – Satish Kumar Mahadeo – Academic UOM

‘What alternative is left to us? The lesser of two evils’

* ‘Opposition parties “seem” to be coming back, but it is too early to argue
with assurance that they will grab power so fast’

* ‘Demagogues who say they place their trust in the wisdom of the masses
should be treated with a lot of caution’


Our guest this week is a keen observer of the local socio-political scene, and has a privileged vantage point since he is in daily contact with a wide cross-section of the youth of this country at the University of Mauritius. He takes a broad sweep at the current developments in politics, with the imminent installation of a new Prime Minister in the context of a difficult economic environment and a general perception of promises unfulfilled, and uneasiness about the future.


Mauritius Times: In a few months’ time we’ll be halfway through the mandate of the present governing alliance, which was elected with the expectation that it would make things better. Grumblings on the ground would suggest that the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the government’s performance is going up for different reasons, and a telling example of that is the striking disclosure about the one and only project which would have been implemented during the 20 months the government has been in power. Is it the classic case of a government hampered by an ineffectual state of governance, or of a team chasing the wrong priorities, of absence of leadership…?

 

Satish Kumar Mahadeo: A combination of these three factors might help to explain why the governing alliance is losing popular support, though it is normal for all ruling parties around the world to be out of favour at around midterm. What usually happens during electoral campaigns is that politicians are quick to exploit the “ordinary man” (the ti-dimoun) by at once promising both a better future and a return to a nostalgic past (the first economic miracle of the 1980s) – but people are now realising that this is an increasingly questionable concept in 2016.

And no leader or governing party is likely to thrive politically in difficult economic times. The alliance in power are mostly victims of forces beyond their control. Although they may want to do everything in their power to restart the engine of growth, the economic clock is running more slowly than is the political clock, generating widespread discontent.

A large part of the Prime Minister’s appeal during the 2014 General Elections was his promise to clean up corruption and bad governance, and ensure that a rise in wealth is more evenly shared in order to combat poverty and everyone gets a fair share… but this is not happening. Mauritians at large are not experiencing the ‘feel-good’ factor, and are even deeply pessimistic about their situation.

The PM had raised the expectations of many who voted for him so high that they were bound to be disappointed. Hope has now turned into doubt and disillusion. The PM’s campaign featured hope and change, but there was something missing: a coherent plan or narrative about how to achieve the second ‘miracle économique’, especially with the ex-Minister of Finance expressing his diffidence with facts and figures during the campaign.

Hope is a sentiment, not a strategy, and quickly loses credibility without a road map. A majority of the people chose to place their confidence in the PM – the man – but not necessarily in the institutions through which he would have to enact and implement his agenda. I think the PM assumed that his personal credibility would outweigh the public’s doubts about the competence and integrity of the government he leads. As events have proved, that was a significant misjudgement.

As he took office, it was apparent that the public’s overriding concern was the economy and the job market. But he has as yet failed to address that concern in a manner that the voters regard as satisfactory. To make matters worse, scandal after scandal has erupted. In short, this government has not been able to redeem the PM’s pledge.

* The public perception of a government having become dysfunctional can be gauged from interactions of fellow Mauritians with private radios or on social media, but we might not have reached a situation in which voters, disgruntled at the performance of the governing alliance, would be prepared to fall back by default on whatever alternative is on offer. What do you think?

When voters feel disillusioned or disgruntled with all political parties, it leads to a general apathy towards politics and they become distrustful about politicians. An environment dominated by a low level of trust blurs political parties’ image because of the general belief that all politicians are corrupt or corruptible. So what alternative is left to us? I will say that Mauritians face the situation of choosing “the lesser of two evils”.

* The main opposition parties, the MMM and the Labour Party, seem to be coming back – forcefully and stronger than just after the last elections -, and their leaders appear to be overcoming whatever they had been rejected for by the electorate and accused of in the wake of the last general elections. Why do things happen this way? Does it have to do with public memory being short-lived or does the electorate know what’s best for it?

You rightly say that the opposition parties “seem” to be coming back, but it is too early to argue with assurance that they will grab power so fast. If people are disillusioned with politics and politicians, it’s also in part because we only have a choice between two political parties/alliances, and both are constantly seeking the popular vote rather than really standing for anything. Proportional representation would be a much fairer system, and would engage those who are put off by the two-party system we have now.

Hope springs eternal from the human breast, and most of us want to believe that whoever is next in government would act in our best interest, that they would take on board the issues that affect us. The main political parties are pretty much the same, and we fail to see any way to decide between them that is not based on personalities (and ethnicity or caste). I suggest that people need to have an independent interest in order to really understand how politics works, but in reality not many of us would have a good insight into politics.

From my experience of working with young people at the University, I feel that for them political parties are an out-of-date concept, and not very useful. In fact, they have a very poor understanding of what is going on in politics, let alone what is going on in the world, unless something (like university fees) directly affects them. They do not see the difference between any of the parties and they do not believe things will necessarily improve whoever is in power.

* But to come back to public memory: being short-lived, this is what often emboldens politicians to go back to their bad habits soon enough… Is it nevertheless a risk worth taking in the present circumstances?

The risk will exist as long as Mauritians do not develop greater political awareness. I strongly believe that young people should receive compulsory lessons in political education before they leave school. This would give them a grounding in democracy and encourage them to vote intelligently (and not emotionally, as is the case now).

It would give them a better preparation for understanding politics, instead of relying on the words of politicians. An impartial education in politics would increase participation in elections with electors voting armed with a knowledge and understanding of party politics rather than being swayed by spin and media prejudices.

* What will happen in the meantime? Do you think matters will improve for the governing alliance if the transition from the current Prime Minister to the one designated to take over is made at the earliest, and will a change in leadership help improve matters for the country?

As I see it, politicians across the board are experiencing a crisis in confidence in their ability to win support of the electorate beyond their hardcore loyalists. No politician enjoys the uncritical admiration of ‘ordinary’ people in whose name they claim to speak. I personally observe a rise in voter scepticism, and even deep resentment, which is so clearly felt whenever I pay visits to my local market. There is a serious lack of trust between politics and society, and this trust deficit must be addressed as a matter of urgency by whoever is in power.

The erosion of trust which began, rightly or wrongly, with the BAI crash, affecting thousands of policy holders, has since been compounded by a litany of scandals .This is why trust which has been lost must be rebuilt, and fast. If ever a change in leadership becomes a reality, the new leader has to give priority to the fate of his alliance which will depend on words and deeds over the next few months.

* It’s going to be challenging for Pravind Jugnauth to put the house in order what with ministerial scuffles and internal dissensions projecting the image of a government tearing itself apart from inside, and restoring faith in its ability to deliver. Do you see him living up to these challenges?

I am least qualified to issue any tips for success as a political leader, but his ministerial experience, I am sure, will be an asset for him as he develops his programme of policies linked to his party’s values, if any, while appealing to the widest possible section of the electorate.

Pravind Jugnauth will have to cope with the bitter infighting that is plaguing his alliance, if not his party, and unite it behind him so he is able to deal with the issues that face the country. For this, communication is vital. This is what marks out the difference between politics as a vocation compared with most others. Leaders have to find a way to convey what they stand for.

* Opposition parties and opinion leaders have launched a public debate on the issue of whether Pravind Jugnauth should succeed as PM after Sir Anerood Jugnauth steps down as he has himself publicly announced. The Constitution is quite clear about this matter, but the question is whether the leader of the MSM has the public mandate to step in. What’s your take on that?

The debate over the designation of Pravind Jugnauth as PM is polarised along partisanship lines between his constitutional/legal right and his moral fitness to govern. Behind all semblance of rationality in this controversy, there lies deep-rooted partisan motivation, as it is in the case of other issues in Mauritius. Actually, I deplore the absence of independent thinkers in this country. The sad thing is that people really don’t like facts, preferring to be swayed by feeling, hearsay, assumption, and whatever comes along to affirm their own world view.

As far as I am concerned, I will choose to opt out and remain undecided on the issue of a change of leadership, though I fail to see any evidence of morality in politics as practised around the world. When the Republican nominee for President of the USA interprets not paying taxes for 18 years as an “act of genius”, I feel comforted in the wisdom of practising the virtue of scepticism about whether morality can coexist with politics.

* In the US, half of the American electorate – among whom there is the “basket of deplorables” – seem to be saying that Donald Trump is the best thing that could happen to America. No comparison is being sought to be drawn here between what obtains in the US and Mauritius, but there might be lessons which have to be learned from the American elections…

Hillary Clinton agreed that she was “grossly generalistic” in calling half of Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”, but she insisted that the word “deplorables” was reasonable to describe much of Trump’s campaign which has been built largely on prejudice and paranoia about race and gender, among other things.

Quite a few commentators have described Trump as a ‘demagogue’ who appeals to the ‘lowest common denominator’. I have personally been shocked to learn that a sizeable proportion of the American electorate have espoused his world view. It is all the more imperative for politicians in Mauritius to learn to refrain from a ‘divisive’ rhetoric.

Trump’s campaign should teach us that politics should not be a frivolous matter, and that demagogues who say they place their trust in the wisdom of the masses (crystallised around the ‘lepep’ ideology) should be treated with a lot of caution, that those who have it in their hands to influence the lives of the people should possess some degree of honesty, seriousness and expertise.

The emergence of figures like Trump and Marine Le Pen in France can be attributed to the fact that people are easily manipulated by those who are cynical enough and cunning enough to seek votes by appealing to their prejudices and resentments. We need to be alert more than ever to populists who appeal to our baser instincts.

* To come back to Mauritius, Teachers Day was celebrated this week. There is widespread concern about the Nine Year School reform plan; the little that is made public indicates that the plan is pregnant with “socially and politically disruptive risks”, as some commentators have argued, and are calling for its scrapping… Your opinion?

In a recent edition of a weekly, Kadress Pillay, the ex-Minister of Education, rightly summarised the objectives of education in four words: Character, Competence, Creativity and Compassion. For this objective to be accomplished, I wish to emphasise the importance of continuing professional development. So I would like to seize the occasion of Teachers Day, celebrated this week, to express my view that excellence in the classroom requires the very best training. This will make sure that the generation of teachers we have now, and those being trained to enter the profession, are the best they can possibly be.

In the entire debate surrounding the Nine-Year Schooling, I have heard very little about the need to invest in the professional competence of teachers who constitute a valuable infrastructural resource that is determined by government policies and economic development.

Teaching is in the abstract considered as a ‘noble’ profession by people for various reasons, with one of the most common being that teachers help to educate future generations. Teachers are described as agents of the future because they help people to acquire the skills necessary to take on new challenges and contribute to the world in meaningful ways. Hence my view that the quality and status of teaching need to be raised for the Nine-Year Schooling, or any other educational project, to be a success.

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