Nita Chicooree

Moving to the Centre

 

— Nita Chicooree

 

Denmark comes first on the list of countries where people enjoy the best quality of life according to a British survey. Denmark is a democracy. Its principle is: ‘reasonable capitalism’ and never let the economy outweigh social welfare. Bhutan comes eight. It is a kingdom and its economic development, mainly agricultural, rests upon Buddhist principles, and the king watches over the right balance between the economy and the welfare of the people. Can Mauritius stand somewhere in the middle?

 

 

Overall the political landscape in Mauritius has not been marked by strong ideological positions as in the West nor do the elite and the public bother about the labels of right or left in the running of the country. And yet, the PMSD clearly began as a conservative party bent on maintaining the status quo of Mauritius as a colony and even worse, handing it back to the French. It was supported in this venture by an equally conservative press.

 

On the leftist platform the more incisive and no-nonsense political discourse of the IFB embodied by the Bissoondoyal brothers was overcome by a milder conciliating leftist Labour Party (LP) but which was still marked in its legacy by the work done by prominent figures like Rozemont, Anquetil and Seeneevassen, the erstwhile Founding Fathers of the Labour Party. Quite logically, the natural trend of the LP in the context of the newly-acquired political freedom in the early post-Independence era was to uplift the masses and provide better living conditions through education and economic empowerment.

What the leftist stance headed by SSR and his government could achieve in a highly polarized economic situation with a traditional concentration of wealth in the hands of a few (who maintained a conservative attitude and whose interests diverged from the aspirations of the rest of the population) was limited to a few major breakthroughs in the field of education, in opening gates in the Civil Service to a wider segment of the population and facilitating the first steps of small businesses.

The dependence on the sugar industry and the burgeoning economic and political relations with other developed states and newly sovereign countries were the strands that probably accounted for the narrow scope for economic development which appeared to be stagnating through the 1970s and the early 80s,despite the foundation stones of the tourism industry and the Free Industrial Zone being laid in those years.

In the meantime, under the leadership of the bright and charismatic SGD, the PMSD gave up its conservative stance and joined hands with SSR to work for the progress of the country.

However, the country looked set to wallow in a quagmire and as public discontent rose, a new radical left-wing party urging for reforms gained widespread popularity. Mao’s little red books circulated in the hands of the younger generation. Bérenger spearheaded an awareness campaign to strengthen trade unions and defend workers’ rights.

Nevertheless, the public at large could not endorse the Soviet-style revolutionary spirit and the threat of a coup d’Etat nor did they espouse the western-style ideological romanticism advocated by the party. The Marxist love for the prolétariat went as far as elevating the common language used by the people to the status of official language. Eliminating French language and replacing it by Creole was widely rejected.

Mauritians from different cultural backgrounds share common values and among these are a pragmatic approach and a sense of compromise in addressing key issues and conflictual interests. The party missed that point in those days. It should be acknowledged that the new wave of freedom in political debates, in arts and social mores that swept across the world in the aftermath of May 1968 in France was embodied by the MMM in Mauritius.

Austerity in all domains was the key word under the rule of SAJ at the head of the MSM, a milder version of the MMM. Throughout the 80s, the good people tightened their belts as fast as they could and by 1986 the national debt was reimbursed. The euphoria of prosperity brought about in the wake of the economic boom of the late 80s in the tourism and textile industries as foreign investments poured in restored hope and pride in the country. SGD’s prediction that not only employment would be resolved but foreign workers would have to be imported came true. SAJ admitted that he applied the programme laid out by the MMM in the economic development of the country. But socialism was just a name for the MSM. It was firmly set on the right-wing politics of hardcore capitalism, and so was the MMM as the fall of the Berlin Wall dealt a severe blow to its political identity and ideological romanticism.

On the international level, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair mapped out the political landscape of the post-Cold War era while the collapse of communism created a new reality. In the West, the dramatic left-wing divide started to give way to a mushier middle, with people rallying around the idea of a market-based economy but with provision for a substantial safety net. Today, people in democratic countries worldwide want competence and do not respond to ideological clarion calls. In Europe, with the exception of Spain, all the other countries are governed by rightist parties that have toned down their radical economic ideas and adopted centrist views. Britain joined in recently.

In Mauritius, despite the economic boom and some progress on social issues in the mid-90s, grievances over neglect in the educational and health sectors and the rise of wildcat capitalism benefiting a few brought down the ruling party. Meanwhile, the MEF continued to apply the mantras laid down by Margaret Thatcher and the ‘trickle down’ economic policy advocated by Ronald Reagan. Muzzle up trade unions, enrich the rich and some of the wealth amassed will trickle down to the people at the bottom of the ladder!

Is the country moving to the centre? Will the PM and his team set themselves to work for the democratisation of the economy as he promised? The creation of wealth to provide jobs and improve living conditions is a principle everybody agrees upon while the western-style socialist idea of wide distribution of wealth has lost ground. But yet, the Mauritian general public is still far from benefiting from the fruits of their labour. A conservative stance is being maintained as regards sharing economic power as long as the traditional wealth holders in the private sector and the newcomers building empires dictate their laws to the government.

The Industrial Relations Act is still devised to protect the interests of capitalists as much as possible. The MMM leader in 2003 oiled the machinery of capitalism for the benefit of a few powerful barons who flocked to him to set up the IRS, whose hidden agenda of encouraging selective settlements of foreign nationals has goals other than harvesting huge financial windfalls. Real estate sharks are still pushing on a predatory policy with the blessing of successive governments. In recent years, the ultra-capitalist policy has widened the gap between the capitalist few and the rest of the population as never before, with soaring costs of living. By now, it is obvious that there is not much difference between the LP, the MMM, MSM and PMSD though the public and the press still continue to pretend there is.

Denmark comes first on the list of countries where people enjoy the best quality of life according to a British survey. Denmark is a democracy. Its principle is: ‘reasonable capitalism’ and never let the economy outweigh social welfare. Bhutan comes eight. It is a kingdom and its economic development, mainly agricultural, rests upon Buddhist principles, and the king watches over the right balance between the economy and the welfare of the people. Can Mauritius stand somewhere in the middle?

 

Nita Chicooree

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