Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
By Jay Narain Roy
As there is an impression abroad that the acceptance of what is offered by way of Constitution will be the sowing of the dragon’s teeth in Mauritius, I wish to discuss objectively some of the salient features largely for the sake of the young. I feel that it will be more lucid if I present it all in the Socratic form of catechism.
Does the new constitution foreshadow any advance?
There are some progressive features. The most important is the immediate adult suffrage. In the normal course under our present constitution, universal franchise would have come after fifteen years or so when the school-agers were to reach maturity. There are other features which to my mind seem to be of a hypothetical nature. Here are three of such: (a) the nominations will not be used to frustrate the results of the polls, (b) the Commission will primarily enquire into the system of single-member constituencies, and (c) the Ministry will be able to be responsible and will have collective responsibility. I call them hypothetical because I am not sure how much of it will be put down in black and white and how much will be left in the hands of the Governor to establish a precedent.
What about the Nominees?
In a homogeneous society, nominations are resorted to in order to establish the balance of any election freak tending to whittle down certain important interests. But in a multi-racial and heterogeneous society, eliminated racial groups expect to be represented during the period of transition when the edges of racialism remains fairly whetted. But this rider is gradually relaxed when racial consciousness comes to harmonise into a national concept of life. At any rate this is the normal line of colonial evolution in the modern world. But Proportional Representation (P.R.) itself is said to be substituted for nomination and it is a viciously reactionary system if both are wedded and thrust down our throat as an overdose.
P.R. and nomination cannot pair together. Between them nomination is any day preferable as it offers better guarantee of the representation of minorities or interests. As a result of the London discussions two points appear to have been made. It was said that in rare cases will the 12 nominated seats be filled. It was also said that it will not foil the people’s election mandate and some special interests will be nominated. Cooperation is one of them. Are Trade Unions and Planters Associations also included? Or Township and District Boards?
Compare the two systems the Commission will enquire into?
I have already expressed my preference of the single-member constituencies and it appears that the British Labour Party considers it to be the best and the most democratic system. It is the only system that can build up the proper representation fully responsive to his rights and obligations. Those who believe in fooling and horse-play will surely oppose it. Here you cannot eternally go on blaming your pal and dastardly shirking your responsibilities or of only talking through your hat. Mr Ramsay Macdonald speaking in the House of Commons in 1917 said: “The three-member constituency for proportional representation crushes out minorities rather than secures them representation.” In fact it will shift minority representation to those financially strong.
If we take the population of Mauritius to be 550,000, each of the 11 three-member constituencies will have a population of 55,000, or an adult suffrage voting strength of about 25,000. One-man quota will be 8333. While if we make 33 single-member constituencies, each will have a population of about 17,000 or an adult suffrage voting strength of over 8,000. In both cases the chances of minorities are just the same. But while the single-member system will foster national unity and party government, the list system will wreck them both and perpetuate communalism of the most rabid type. It must be fought tooth and nail and I am sure the country will reject it if it is sought to be foisted on us.
What if we throw it out and boycott elections under it?
That’s the only thing consistent with our national prestige. The alternative will be total suicide. The list system does not bind our delegates either. They said that they would prefer the single-member constituencies but should it be proved to the satisfaction of the country that it is totally unworkable, then they might recommend it to the country for its verdict but that neither the country nor the Labour Party is bound to accept it. It means that in the final analysis the decision will rest on the electorate. I consider the rider on the single-member constituency system to be rather unfortunate as I fear that they will become its self-strangulation. The feeling in Labour England is that sooner or later the single-member system will be established in Mauritius. It is quite likely that before the mounting public opinion in Mauritius will assert to scrap the List system, the Labour Party will have come to power in England and it may be before the Commission has completed its report. So that the worst cannot be so bad after all.
Who will be on the commission?
Obviously three Britishers appointed by the Colonial Office but I understand the British Government will take care that the members are acceptable to the British Labour Party or that they do not embark on such reactionary measures that they will become the object of indictment when Labour takes over in Whitehall.
And what about the Ministry?
I am aware that this is the most discussed topic in buses and markets, in offices and on the street. I understand next week the Governor will begin negotiating with a view to forming the Ministry if he had not already begun it. You all know that the Ministers are to get Rs 2500 per month. By our standard it should be conceived as whole-time jobs.
The Liaison Officership is well dead and gone and we expect our men to be real Ministers. Certainly ministerial jobs have more responsibility than reward as they are constantly under fire either by a vigilant opposition or even the promises-stuffed partisans. There are works that demand superior integrity, great ability of knowledge and executive dash and tremendous work. It is true that all Ministers in the world are at their desk at midnight and all their efforts usually smell of the lamp.
And why is it so? Here are people who have gone there to show that at present things are not properly done and know of a better and quicker way of doing it. People naturally expect at the outset that they will achieve spectacular result in cleansing the Augean stables. In our cases the hopes are even higher as the Ministers are expected before the next elections to show that the ministry has tackled some major problems affecting the main groups of the electorate under the universal franchise. Personally I shudder to think of the tremendous task ahead as it can be seen by the face of things that those who will lack stature and integrity will prematurely moulder to their political grave. So that it is not alluring, tempting as all that and mistake are scarcely condoned in such spheres.
Shall we lay down minimum conditions before accepting office?
How else can the Ministers face the next elections? We are bound to haggle about it as one of the basic principles. The country cannot be satisfied with backyard sanitation or water taps. The major groups will demand tangible relief in their day-to-day life and this I fancy is an uphill task the altitude of which is staggering. Not only should we get minimum demands for a start but we must also make sure that the official members of the Legislature are prepared to go the whole hog in putting our measures through. To be effective the Party should be ensured of a majority in Council and in the Executive. You can rely on the sagacity of greying leaders to find their secure footing before they venture along such craggy and precipitous ways. They would, for their own sake, be anxious to end off, when they must vacate through age and infirmity, with a kind of crowning flourish instead of being hustled into oblivion and disrepute.
What are you conclusions, then?
Let us by all means have a go at it. I mean at the Ministry, and give to our seasoned boys who know all the tricks of the opposition some apprenticeship in shouldering national responsibilities. We will have known their practical stature and that’s about the best crucible of politics. We may appear to be shirking it if we desist again after all this hullabaloo. We should be very careful in putting down such minimum demands that we can capture a good platform at the next elections. We should have nothing to do with the Ministry if there is any hitch about accepting our minimum demands. And we should be prepared anytime to relinquish office if things turn out to be against our normal expectation. I am sure everyone is eager to take it in the sole desire of service and would be ready to give up as soon as the smooth working of service is threatened with obstruction.
We should also from now agitate hotly against the List system to see that it is finally torpedoed. That system definitely would be the sowing of the dragon’s teeth and we should give it no breathing space. I know that Mr Gaitskell’s colonial advisers will not touch it. We must have a committee of competent people to study and put up the case for single-member constituencies before the Commission. The Ministers must show outstanding competence and courage to shape policies and to keep the people duly posted with things. We must also keep our friends in the House of Commons informed about our day-to-day difficulties and consult them on all our vital problems putting our unflinching faith in the fact that they will soon come to power and readjust things to the satisfaction of the people of this colony.
* Published in print edition on 19 May 2020
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