“Our older politicians need to ‘ressaisir’ themselves before society goes in a wrong direction”

Interview: Vijaya Teelock, Associate Professor – UOM

‘Many seem to be panicking because they can no longer ‘control’ or ‘engineer’ the votes as before’

Our interviewee of this week is noted historian Vijaya Teelock, who feels that this country needs no less that a moral revolution – especially among the political leadership – to reinvent itself. To prepare the future leaders of Mauritius we need to overhaul the education system to teach critical thinking skills to the youth who will eventually be called to lead and build this country, so that they can analyse issues more objectively so as to decide the direction in which they will take the country, working for the common good than for narrow interests. They need to dialogue more among themselves so as to understand each other and define their common aspirations. That is the only way the future can be envisaged.

Mauritius Times: Unless we are mistaken, the current electoral campaign in the run-up to the general elections on November 7 would perhaps qualify as the ugliest and most divisive one that we would have witnessed in decades. For having known the earlier generation of politicians who were in the battle for Independence and thereafter, what does the current electoral campaign tell you about the political culture prevailing in the country today?

Vijaya Teelock: I agree there has been a ‘défoulement verbal collectif’ on the part of various persons or groups which is more visible this time. What would have been said previously within the confines of a family home or among close friends is now being stated openly without care or concern for others’ feelings.

The big culprit is, of course, social media. People think they can say anything and do not realize or do not care about the effects and consequences of their words. The reactions towards those peoples’ comments are matched in their virulence, violence and unprogressive attitudes.

I personally think that it is sad that our youth is being exposed to such attitudes and opinions and I hope that they have more sense than to believe what is being said on social media and in themedia in general.

It is not only the quality of politicians that has lowered over the decades, but also that of the more ‘intellectual public’, and the media which does not adopt an objective approach. All in all, the population is not well served by these different forces or by their leaders. It is difficult to arrive at the truth behind the multitude of allegations being made. Where do we go to find the truth?

That’s why I feel sorry for our youth, they are not getting good quality level of information to be able to make sound judgements.

* What is it about power that seems to drive many of those seeking their election/re-election nuts?

You mentioned this earlier that before there was a vision to lead the country to independence, to fight for better living conditions for the majority of the population. But now that was achieved to a certain extent, it is in a sense expected for these ideals to be replaced by other ambitions.

There are however changes in the economic vision and we have moved from being a country eager to be progressive and cater for peoples’ interests and needs to catering for the interests of a few. Despite all claims, it is the wealthiest who continue to be the biggest beneficiaries as well as those close to the political class and state bourgeoisie.

Inevitably, this leads to those who are greedy materially to gravitate towards the political arena as it is perceived as a route to material prosperity.

* Leading the country can’t just be an exercise in survival while leaving powerful interests alone, isn’t it?

I do not think powerful interests have never been too far way from the big political parties! They have been playing this game for far too long!

* The general perception these days is that we are stuck, like in several countries elsewhere – the US or the UK, for example – in a hole with the current political class. And the view is that real change can only happen only if we change how we do politics. But how do we engineer that change?

It is true the world has changed but I am not a doomsday person predicting the worse for this planet. I have two sons who have grown up in Mauritius. I cannot predict doom but prefer to work as hard as I can to help in a humble way to make Mauritius a better place to live in.

Having said that, we are in a transition phase, culturally, historically and as far as our economy is concerned, where various competing interests exist. What direction does Mauritius take, do we follow the UK model and the mess it finds itself currently in?

It does not seem as though the political class in Mauritius has followed suit or modernized. That is indeed a great pity, they prefer to focus on petty personal-political rivalries rather than working together for the common good: we are ending up like the UK.

Smaller parties seem more modern in their approach… maybe ‘petit parti deviendra grand’ one day!

But it is extremely important for more Mauritians to speak up, to question, to mobilise, to organize and protest. To do that, there needs to be more transparency on the part of politicians who need to provide full information to the public about what is going on in the country: there is no freedom of information. That suits the various elites controlling this country.

* Isn’t the problem really a political one – right from the way people are ‘bought’ or coaxed into voting X or Y candidate who might have bought his/her way to the party’s list or chosen along questionable lines down to how parties are financed and run?

This is the first election I have personally become quite confused about. Given the massive changes of individuals moving from one party to the other, it is quite difficult to keep up and to remember who is currently in which party!

I appreciate those members of some parties who have gone to swear an affidavit against defecting to other parties.

And shame on those parties accepting persons who have changed parties so many times! It shows clearly they have no ideological perspective and have lost all self-respect.

I do believe an anti-defector law should be passed. Loyalty to one’s party is a precious commodity in short supply these days, it seems.

* It’s said that most young people are interested in politics but are alienated by politicians. But does the younger generation of politicians inspire hope in you?

As a University lecturer, I have encountered many promising students who could have contributed much to Mauritius. Regrettably, they have not been well served by the political system over the past decades. They have become disillusioned about the system, a system that has become so corrupt morally, a system that allows undue political interference at all levels. It is thus not the best who rise up to prominence in various sectors of public life, but those who prefer to use not quite so honest strategies – seeking all types of backing and blackmailing, using their ethnic, religious, family or socio-cultural origins.

As I have stated before in your newspaper, nothing short than a moral revolution is required on the part of our politicians, the young or the ageing ones. They need to think about the legacy they are leaving, if not to the population but at the very least, to their children and grandchildren. Is this how they want to be remembered in the history books in 50 or 100 years’ time?

I wish the younger politicians every success but I would wish them to be on a higher moral ground than many are currently. To encourage them to look to the future of Mauritius, to develop a vision for it and not to focus only on making immediate gains in the present.

* But besides the young politicians presently sitting in Parliament and who have been made popular mostly for the bad reasons, one criticism of young politicians who come on the stage to, as they say, do politics differently is that they ultimately end up as just the same as the older generation. It isn’t surprising then that they are not taken as credible and their parties fail to pick up even a reasonable following?

It is not surprising! Who are their role models? Locally or internationally? There are not that many so I do not blame them but rather would encourage them to be inspired from the past as we have had great leaders locally and internationally, people who have sacrificed much for the public good. There is nothing wrong in aspiring to be a morally strong and intellectual leader. Stick to this moral route and do not let others dissuade you from it. Work for all Mauritians not just for select groups. Just because we live in a tiny island does not mean we cannot have great aspirations for our country.

* When you meet the common people or even the intellectuals, do you get the feeling they could not care less about the way politics is conducted here, nor about such concepts as “rupture”, national integration and solidarity, etc., so long as their needs, be it old-age pensions, etc., are addressed?

This is what having a poor quality education system (despite the hundreds of millions of rupees poured into it) leads too. Again I have said this before. Rather than encouraging critical thinking skills and understanding concepts, we encourage rote learning, spoon feeding and a focus on exams. Our students are not encouraged to aspire to higher quality levels of life, to discern and distinguish what is fake and superficial from what is true and noble, to question what they read. They become prey to the consumerist and materialist conceptions of life that are propounded by marketing strategists and media on one hand but also by our economic policies. They have become ‘sheep’-like (like in the US). Education thus plays a major role.

But so does family life: parents can and must have a bigger influence in guiding their children and encouraging them to be critical thinking adults, how to behave in Mauritian society, how to respect other cultures and to work for the public good. We see this less and less as some parents are too busy and do not spend quality time with their children.

* So the people get the leaders they deserve, right?

 It is unfortunate, but yes.

* At this rate we’ll continue having the same political structures of the past with at their head ethnic leaders like in most ethnically plural societies – as well as the political dynasts?

I think we are in a transition phase, I think our leaders are feeling this (we are a few hours before Election Day), many seem to be panicking because they can no longer ‘control’ or ‘engineer’ the votes as before. It should be a wake-up call for the older politicians. They need to ‘ressaisir’ themselves before society goes in a wrong direction. Instead of fighting each other ‘tooth and nail’ in petty politics, they need to realize that Mauritian society has reached a point of no return.

Who will decide the road the new Mauritius will take? They have a responsibility to ‘do the right thing’ for Mauritius.

* Speaking of ethnic leaders, ethnic boundaries have not really faded 50 years after Independence, so should we keep things the way they have been in the hope that moderate ethnic leaders will allow the country to keep going?

I hope I do not offend too many people by saying the following.

I think Mauritius is the only country outside India where Hindus are in the ‘majority’ (I do not like this term as 40% is not quite a majority, but cannot find a better term) and since independence, this has been the aim to ensure that Hindus remain ‘in power’.

Since 1968, other ethno-religious groups have increased in proportion, in particular the Creole population of Afro-Malagasy descent and those others of mixed origins. It is natural they want a bigger share of the political cake and want greater representation at all levels.

Hindus and Muslims have to recognize this and appreciate this historical development. In the early part of the 20th century, their forefathers too fought for the right for their languages and cultures to be considered as equal to European culture which was the dominant culture at the time (remember one could only vote if one wrote in English or French). They have to understand and appreciate the efforts of others who also want to be recognized as equal citizens.

Just as in the early part of the 20th century, the words of Hindu and Muslim leaders may not have been to the liking of the colonial authorities or of the Franco-Mauritian and Coloured elites, so today the words of Creole leaders may not be to the liking of others. But we do live in a democratic society now, and have to allow various voices to be heard and encourage sound public debates and discussions, and not try to silence them.

It is all part of the movement for recognition of peoples’ rights of self-identity. Eventually a consensus on the way forward for Mauritius will be found. But you cannot and should not suppress or silence differing voices. There has to be more intercultural debate, not each group discussing in its own little ‘salon’.

It is sad that in Mauritius, we cannot speak openly about our feelings towards other groups, about our identity, without being accused of ‘communalism’ or being ‘politically incorrect’. Mauritians need ‘cultural therapy’. They need to rid themselves of stereotypes and misconceptions they have about others.

We urgently need a cultural policy for Mauritius. No government has been able to achieve this and I do not see it mentioned in any electoral programme in this election.

A consensus about a cultural policy would go a long way to appease people and to pave way for a more culturally harmonious political system and may even resolve some of the political controversies such as about the ‘Best Loser System’ and not being allowed to stand in elections as a Mauritian.

* On the other hand, we might not have a model to look up to which would allow us to anticipate how politics will be conducted in the decades ahead, but there is however one phenomenon that’s becoming prevalent here: political dynasties. Is that a bad thing in itself?

We cannot compare ourselves to countries with millions of people. It is not realistic to do so and unproductive. In a tiny country like Mauritius with only 1.3 million people, it is impossible to avoid. It is certainly not the worse of our problems.

* If political dynasties are here to stay, which factors will according to you decide who will make it to the top in the years ahead? Political programme, or personality?

First, I do not think we should focus on this too much: more important is to ensure that all Mauritians have equal opportunities and equal chances in employment, proper housing, better quality education, etc.

Second, we need to encourage more citizens’ participation at all levels of public life, that’s how we will see new leaders emerging, firmly grounded in their communities and working for the public good.

That in itself will lead to a new breed of leaders.

* Speaking about political programme, or what these days are being referred to as “Manifeste Electoral”, have you noticed that nobody seems to pay attention to or care about such ideological ramblings?

I only see that most of those of the ‘big’ parties resemble each other… maybe that’s why…?

* If Navin Ramgoolam succeeds in winning the next elections despite the obstacles that are being put in his way, he has ceaselessly been repeating that he will initiate a “politique de rupture”. What would you expect his party and his government (that is if his alliance wins the elections) to break with?

 No comment.

* If you think that another Mauritius is possible, what are the political conditions necessary for real change to happen in a country like ours? A strong government? A workable political alliance? What else?

I am not an expert in political systems nor a ‘political’ observer, so it is difficult to comment, except as an ordinary Mauritian. I think it cannot and should not be left to political scientists or jurists, or electoral commissioners to decide.

A very wide public consultation is required, to listen to what Mauritians, young and aged, really want out of life. A few people, however learned, cannot impose on the majority. Basic principles have to be accepted too, maybe the Constitution needs revisiting. How many Mauritians were consulted when it was being drawn up?

It is also important to understand Mauritian political culture… only the ‘branché’ are listened to currently. What about the voiceless majority, those unconnected to social media or who don’t read the press, or those who do not vote?

* Overcoming the political bottleneck may not be forthcoming any time soon. That’s a “vaste chantier”, isn’t it?

Yes, plenty to observe and write about later..

* The MSM-led government is hopeful and will do everything that’s in the book to get re-elected. The Labour Party is also hopeful that it will come back, and the MMM is both enjoying the show and confident that it will form the next government. Whatever the outcome of the election, will the country be the winner at the end of the day?

In many ways, this is one of the most important elections this country has held. We are at the crossroads of our history.

I hope our leaders do what is best for the country whatever the outcome and not just focus only on current petty rivalries and jealousies.

As I stated earlier, it’s all about how do they want to be remembered in history books one day? As initiators and makers of the future ‘Mauritian nation’ or the unmaking of it?

* Published in print edition on 6 November 2019

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