“It is premature to suggest that the MSM will meet the same fate as the Wakashio shipwreck”

Interview: Dharam Gokhool

* ‘Labour and MMM need not consult a political astrologer to know more about their future; they have to become the architects of their own future’

* ‘Those in the opposition must carefully weigh the implications of a two-, three- or four-cornered fight within our given electoral system’

* ‘Are all politicians power seekers and of a corrupt breed? This is a dangerous narrative’

Dharam Gokhool, academician and former Minister of Education, shares his views on the rapidly changing situation in the country in the wake of the popular protests that have been organised, especially the latest one in Port Louis which has sent a clear signal about the population’s discontent with the government of the day. He makes a distinction between civic activism and political engagement, in a way calling upon the actors involved to decide for themselves which side they approach can be most effective in bringing about the kind of changes that are required to make a better society. In this perspective, the traditional parties also have to rethink their role. Read on:

Mauritius Times: What are your lingering thoughts on the 13th February “Marche Citoyenne” in the capital city, Port Louis?

Dharam Gokhool: The 13th February “Marche Citoyenne” represents yet another phase of public demonstration of the swelling discontent within the Mauritian society. It symbolises the omissions and commissions of the present Government as far as the deplorable state of the management of the public affairs is concerned since the general elections of November 2019 and its aftermath.

The twin themes that drove the electoral campaign of the MSM and its allies, namely, “Operation Nettoyage” (getting rid of societal scourges: pourritir –– like corruption, nepotism, favouritism and lack of transparency) and “Développement” (a bigger national cake and bigger share for every citizen) metamorphosed into the exact opposite of what had been promised, causing tremendous disappointment among the electorate.

With the onset of Covid-19, the situation in the country became complicated, with lockdown and confinement being imposed, the chaotic management of the distribution of basic necessities to the public and the introduction of measures restricting freedom of movement.

The Wakashio oil spill tragedy and the delay in taking prompt action by Government to prevent the ecological disaster, the failure of our coastal surveillance system, the sunk Tug Sir Gaetan Duval and the associated loss of lives, the recent revelations by the Avengers group of Lawyers of alleged murders, including that of a prominent MSM agent, the Constituency Clerk scandal and the Kistnen papers in relation to possible malpractices during the 2019 general elections: all have, in one way or another, fuelled the anger and frustration within a wide spectrum of the Mauritian society.

On 29th August 2020, a massive anti-Government citizen gathering of some 150,000 Mauritians was staged in Port Louis. It set in motion a new form of citizen street protest that we have never seen for decades, reminding Government that the public will not condone violations of good governance, and unethical political conduct. True it is that the 13th February “Marche Citoyenne” involved the opposition parties alongside civil society organisations, but overall the bottom line remained very much same: ‘This Government must go.’

* Did you however get that uncanny feeling that we are in for bad times politically and on the social front as well, in view of the intense and perhaps nasty battles that will be waged in the months ahead?

This Government is only just over a year old and on paper it has more than three years to complete its mandate. However, outwardly Government seems to be confident of its comfortable parliamentary majority although it won with a score of only 37% of the votes cast. Since its coming to power, and taking into consideration its overall track record, seriously marred by alleged cases of blatant nepotism, corruption and political interferences in the running of public institutions and with an economy seriously paralysed by the Covid-19, Government cannot afford to bury its head in the sand for too long. It will have to reckon with the political, economic and social ground realities which are likely to evolve in favour of the Opposition forces.

The 37% support is likely to dwindle while the 63% is likely to rise, although it may be too early to predict in precise terms whether the net political support will go to the Opposition.

We may be in for a stretched period of political volatility unless some unforeseen developments tilt the political clock either way. Otherwise, since we are in the domain of politics and since politics is about power and where there is power, there is bound to be struggle for power. A struggle not necessarily between Government and Opposition forces but also within Government and Opposition forces. Too early to predict the political configuration for an eventual political showdown.

And since we are in Mauritius with a complex matrix of ideological and communal/ethnic/religious affiliations among the electorate, the forthcoming electoral battles are likely to be nasty but also epic.

* The MSM-led government will clearly hang on, as expressed by the PM himself recently – ‘We shall not retreat’ –, as long as its parliamentary majority allows it to do so and assuming that it succeeds in overcoming the legal challenges from the ‘Avengers’ lawyer-politicians and the electoral petitions lodged by opposition politicians. It might also be too early to conclude that its days are numbered since most of the other half of the population chose to stay away from the 13th Feb rally. What do you think?

It must be reckoned that even if the 29th August 2020 and the 13th February 2021 gatherings were impressive and the common underlying unifying theme revolved around sanctioning the Government for its numerous failings, nonetheless the representativeness of the crowd was more pronounced towards the urban and southern regions whereas the presence of the predominantly northern belt, which plays a determining role, within our present electoral boundaries configuration, in the formation of governments, was not very remarkable. They have opted to observe rather than participate in these events.

This chunk of the electorate is known to make and unmake governments; it is less vocal, takes more time in weighing the odds and often, if not always, backs the winning side.

However, since November 2019, the Government seems to be losing its grip over this electorate as its popularity has been seriously battered by a string of decisions and actions, as I mentioned earlier, which are contrary to its engagements.

The revelations of the Avengers, in particular the brutal murder of the MSM activist, allegedly by people connected to the MSM fraternity, have had a traumatic effect on the public at large, but in particular within the electorate of the northern belt.

Ex-Minister Bodha’s resignation and his statements, making oblique reference to the possible involvement of those familiar with the corridors of power in the elimination of the MSM activist, are likely to provoke further “social distancing” from the MSM.

The MSM is manoeuvring in troubled waters, but it is premature to suggest that it will meet the same fate as that of the sunk tug Sir Gaetan Duval or the Wakashio shipwreck.

* In fact the view has been expressed that the country is moving dangerously close to being split into two distinct politico-ethnic blocs. Do you find this happening, or has it indeed been the case most of the time?

For the last 52 years, both our constitution and our electoral system have conditioned our political system and our national psyche. Political parties have all preached Unity, Unity in Diversity but in practice, more than ideology, ethnicity and identity have always taken precedence. In the process, we have often had to bow to the imperatives of communalism, casteism and clannism at the expense of competence and meritocracy, compounded by the legacy of history and sociology.

In the process, unity has remained more of a convenient slogan than a living, breathing daily reality. Paradoxically, we are more Mauritian outside Mauritius than at home. Why? Because, overseas we have to forge our own destinies on the basis of our merits.

After 52 years of Independence and after 28 years of acceding to the status of a Republic, can we afford to repeat the past, in the face of numerous challenges confronting the future of our society?

The danger of the emergence of politico-ethnic blocs is there, but we also have the opportunity of defining a new political agenda which will unleash the energy, potential and creativity of the Mauritian genius. This is the real challenge in order to avoid being a prisoner of the past. In any case, as it has been mentioned somewhere: The past is just a lesson, not a life sentence.

* On the other hand, one has to concede that credit for the success of the 13th Feb rally should go mostly to the build-up of public opinion against the doings/misdoings of the current government on different counts by the ‘Avengers’. They are the ones who are taking the initiative and setting the agenda – not the Opposition, isn’t it?

We have to admit that both Government and Opposition (parliamentary) have been losing touch with the daily predicament of the common citizen and the working class. Even the youth have distanced themselves from the “traditional” or “established” political parties. Overall, the number of people who do not want to identify with political parties has been on the increase.

The Kolektif Konversation Solider (initiated by Rezistans ek Alternativ), the Bruneau Laurette Linion Sitwayin have been instrumental in connecting and mobilising civil society. The 29th August 2020 gathering in Port Louis is very much their initiative. The Avengers, through their initiative in taking the defence of Widow Kistnen, have provided traction to the revival of the citizen interest in matters of public interest.

Now that the Avengers are envisaging to be politically active, it goes to their credit that they are working on their manifesto.

These developments could very well instigate the Opposition parties to revisit their strategies and propose new initiatives in line with the changing aspirations of society.

* It was to be expected that Rama Valayden would leverage the public approval rating of the ‘Avengers’ for a political comeback. In fact, he has already announced the creation of a political party soon. Isn’t there going to be too much of a crowd in the opposition ranks and that could eventually lead to voter dispersion?

Multiplicity of political parties will inevitably lead to a dispersion of votes in the Opposition ranks. This is where those in the opposition (both established and emerging) must carefully weigh the implications of a two-, three- or four-cornered fight within our given electoral system.

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out, given the prevailing electoral system and its inherent loopholes, who are the people who will best exploit them and with what possible outcomes.

However, if Rama Valayden’s party is being launched for the long haul, with a national outreach involving all components of the electorate and not just for the sake of the next general elections, it may be an attractive move.

* There’s another build-up that’s being done in a sustained manner since the Wakashio episode – and that can be seen in the media and on social platforms: the projection of Bruneau Laurette as the new leader. Jocelyn Gregoire appears to be past history for the spin-doctors, and so it would also seem as regards Paul Berenger, who may not appear to be convincing to them anymore. What’s your take on that?

Bruneau Laurette has been able to create an aura of a committed civil society campaigner. Campaigning on social and environmental/ecological issues which is now a global trend. In a context of a huge backlog of problems affecting a large chunk of the Mauritian society, being a civic activist provides more freedom of action and greater outreach to take the political class to task.

Take the example of Ralph Nader, the US Consumer advocate for consumer protection, environmentalism and government reforms, also the recipient of the 2017 Gandhi Peace Award, Yousafai Malala, the activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate and Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist who has gained world fame and who has challenged world leaders to take action to stop climate change.

Civic activism can be a pathway to the corridors of political power. But in the Mauritian context, with the prevailing general disillusionment with the political class, Laurette will have to tread carefully if he wants to sustain the credibility he has earned so far. There is a real risk of being swept away by a wave of acrimony that often accompanies any change of trajectory from the social to the political domain. Being a social activist is not the same as being a candidate for a political position.

It is for Laurette to decide where he wants to carve a leadership position — in the broader society or within a political party framework.

* Much is being made these days about what is perceived as the loss of credibility that affecting the Labour Party and the MMM – the two main parties that have dominated our politics for a long time. Do you think that’s indeed the case and does it have to do mostly with the leadership of these two parties, especially in the context of the “présidentialisation” of Mauritian politics?

Let us not be in a denial mode. Let politicians, in particular, not be in a denial mode. There are fundamental shifts in values that are reshaping societal expectations and behaviours. The internet has created greater visibility and the need for accountability from public figures on a wide spectrum of issues.

Politics and politicians are having a very bad press. There is indeed an erosion of political credibility. We are in the thick of a major crisis of political culture. Why?

Paul Berenger coined the term “dérive pouvoiriste” which is often fuelled by the oil of corruption. Cardinal Piat has stated that corruption is the new virus of our society.

But are all politicians power seekers and of a corrupt breed? This is a dangerous narrative which will discourage many who may wish to come forward to serve our society.

It is our model of Government that makes of a Prime Minister a constitutional monarch with quasi-absolute power, together with the risks of the abuse of such power by the holder of the prime ministerial position.

The leaders of the two main political parties are aspiring prime ministerial candidates. Is it not incumbent upon them and their parties to come forward with proposals and undertakings about the democratisation of the “présidentialisation” of Mauritian politics instead of focusing upon the “distribution” of constitutional positions?

Are our current political leaders prepared for a serious introspection or will they carry on with business as usual?

This is an opportunity for them to walk into posterity by leaving behind a legacy of governance based on a profoundly democratic ethos and a new political mindset for the new generation of politicians.

* It has come out lately that a new figure, who comes with apparently ample resources to finance an electoral campaign coupled with the so-called “correct profile”, is being shepherded to eventually take over the leadership of the Labour Party. If that’s not a red herring, do you see Labourites going along with that?

New blood is always welcome, and in the new political environment where there are legitimate public expectations that our existing political parties must review their “modus operandi” in order to reposition themselves and take on board the values that are shaping the contours of the 21st century as well as the aspirations of the upcoming generation.

It is true that the ground realities of the Mauritian political landscape cannot be cast aside in the boardrooms of political parties where political strategies are being crafted for winning forthcoming electoral battles. It is also true that any flavour of “shepherding” or “patronisation” (extra help being extended to someone incapable of proving her/his mettle) may backfire.

The strategist may derive useful inspiration from this popular Shakespearian quotation:

Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.

Let greatness be earned. Let people prove worthy of the position they will occupy and the functions they will exercise. The moment of truth is often when the rubber meets the road.

* To go back to the credibility deficit issue, the fact that the Labour Party and the MMM have been reduced to become dependent on the Bruneau Laurette-led ‘Linion Sitwayin’ to rally a massive crowd says much about the state both parties find themselves in today. Do you think however that there is still a future for these two parties?

Let us not jump to conclusions too quickly. But let us admit that they both have a credibility deficit which is providing space for new players like the Rama Valayden’s “troisième force” and others.

Both Labour and MMM are collaborating with Bruneau Laurette-led ‘Linion Sitwayin’. I took note of Bruneau Laurette’s latest statement to a newspaper and I quote:

“Nous ne sommes pas en mesure de prendre une position politiquement.”

But should this come to materialise, it may well add winds to the sails of both Labour and MMM, of course subject to other conditions and issues being thrashed out within the Opposition front.

In the worst-case scenario, both Labour and MMM have always been able to mobilise their hard core of supporters, which is not insignificant in the current political configuration.

The biggest challenge for both Labour and MMM, either going alone or together, is how to convince the electorate, in particular the voters of the northern belt, that the MSM promised them an air-ticket but has now embarked them on a ship, or rather on a boat sailing in troubled waters.

In this Chinese Zodiac Year, which is the year of the Metal Ox, the message of the professional astrologer, Susan Levitt, could not be clearer:

“Success will come to those who work hard. Really hard. It’s hard work, duty and discipline.”

I am not suggesting that Labour and MMM should consult a political astrologer to know more about their future; they have to become the architects of their own future.

* Published in print edition on 19 February 2021

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