“Our politicians are in fact living in a world of ‘alternative facts’ and sheer lies…

…exactly like Donald Trump who has decided that ‘truth’ does not exist”

Interview: Ex-Associate Professor Satish Mahadeo, UoM

Satish Mahadeo, ex-Associate Professor in English and Linguistics at the University of Mauritius, is unsparing in his views, in this week’s interview, about the issues which have hogged the headlines in recent weeks. He comments on the tikka controversy at The Residence hotel, the continuing debate about electoral reform and the PMSD’s call for the maintenance of the Best Loser System and for a ‘recensement ethnique’. He also shares his opinion on the leader of the MMM’s remarks on “money politics” which would be the root cause of the democratic crisis facing the country. Read on:

Mauritius Times: The MMM’s leader Paul Bérenger has been saying lately that our democracy is facing a crisis, and much of this would be due to what he calls “money politics”. That’s really nothing new, for the money-politics-power equation, here as elsewhere, which very often produces outcomes in terms of public policies not necessarily in the best public interest, is known to most of us, isn’t it?

Satish Kumar Mahadeo: Your question actually raises two issues, namely the issue of democracy in crisis, and money politics, and I will deal with these separately, though they are interrelated.

Democracy as a concept is in crisis all over the world. The same situation prevails here. The logic of populism which has brought this government to power in 2014 made them promise everything. They were dictated by the mindset that made them say “Once we get into power, we are going to solve all your problems.” (e.g. water supply 24/7, economic miracle, elimination of fraud and corruption, etc). And when they did come to power, they now seem to be saying “Who knew that solving these problems could be so complicated?” And when this happens, they start to blame. They start to blame independent institutions. They start to attack the judiciary (You remember the vicious attacks against the DPP). They start to attack the Press (You recall the frequent accusations levelled against the newspapers, even to the point of being in the unenviable situation where the present Minister of Tourism compared himself with Donald Trump in his denunciation of the Press). And once somebody in power does that, democracy is in danger.

It is our duty to try to stop the suicide of democracy. Pradeep Jeeha’s oft-repeated argument “soit ou ene democrate, soit ou pa li” goes to show that indeed, democracy is not going well in the world too – not only in his party despite the paradoxical political discourse around the issue of democracy being in danger coming from the MMM leader on Labour day.

Democracy seems to be tired of itself, the wind of history is no longer blowing in the sense of democracy but in the sense of the enemies of democracy. Churchill has said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” People are fed up with politics and have fallen out of love with democracy. The ex-FBI Director recently stated that Americans have voted for a “morally unfit” President. Various commentators in the West are of the opinion that Donald Trump has time and again attacked the very fabric of US democracy. Here’s a man who has called the press ‘the enemy of the American people’ and suggested, among other things, that the FBI investigating his campaign should be personally loyal to the President

At times, I wonder where a democracy starts. Where does it end? Where does an authoritarian regime start? Where does it end? The frontier between a democracy and a dictatorship seems to be blurred. This reminds me of the founding father of Greek philosophy, Socrates, who was hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy in the country which gave birth to democracy. The point of Socrates is that voting in elections is a skill, not a random intuition, and like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting people vote without any political literacy is irresponsible according to Socrates.

As for the issue of ‘money politics’, on the surface at least, we seem to have a fair and flourishing democracy. We have a Parliament governed by age-old tested rules; we have regular elections. Democracy, however, is a process. And if we look closely at the process, it is clear that our democracy is for sale due to money in politics. We’ll see that it is not the will of the people that shapes the political agenda; it is the money pulled from the deep pockets of wealthy individuals and corporate donors that secures access to and influence on policy makers, and ultimately shapes politicians’ priorities.

People all over the world want political parties and governments to represent their views and be responsive to their needs. However, all too often parties are disproportionately representative of the interests of the donors who have largely financed them. If large corporations and rich individuals are able to buy greater influence through large campaign donations, then citizens can lose faith in the political process.

* The preceding question raises the issue as to whether our political parties really uphold the public interest at all times – as they are expected to do. It may seem that they do when issues of education, public health, social security and law and order are concerned, but there are lingering doubts when banking, investment and other licences are issued in the financial and global business or the energy sectors. Does it seem to you that the power of money has very often the last word?

The fact is that when we come to issues of access and power, it is those with money whose voices are deemed more important than any other. Private donors and lobbyists are given exclusive policy access that is simply not affordable to the average member of the public. Big money grants those who have it significant influence over elections, politicians and even public discourse. In theory, we have in Mauritius spending limits to prevent one candidate from being unfairly advantaged over another, but in practice, what happens is that political parties with large war chests flagrantly flout electoral law with little fear of repercussion.

* Would this issue of money politics be one of the main reasons why Mauritians mistrust their own ‘democratic’ institutions?

Money politics is one reason, but not the sole reason. Trust in institutions of the country, according to kantar TNS (l’express 17 April 18), is at 56%. Since some time now, Mauritians have become increasingly sceptical and critical towards our political leaders and institutions. The trust that a society places in the national institutions exerts great influence on the satisfaction with the democratic development of the country and is a necessary condition for the long term stability of political life. Identifying potential symptoms of declining trust will be a great help in understanding how the political institutions of Mauritius can generate it.

One definition of political trust focuses on the personal characteristics of the political leaders, who actually hold the positions, such as honesty, integrity and competence. Trust in our political institutions is measured in terms of the people’s satisfaction with their performance and is targeted at their day-to-day decisions. parliament is the main representative institution of a democratic government whose most relevant task is to generate and maintain trust. Therefore, a low level of trust is a sufficient indicator of institutional dissatisfaction and should be seen as particularly worrying.

I have in mind the opacity in which our parliament operates with the Deputy Leader’s refusal to disclose information, among other things, about the passengers coming through the VIP Lounge of our airport. Some of the most mentioned phenomena which institutional distrust can cause are disengagement from the political process, lack of electoral participation, political disorientation, cynicism, apathy, estrangement, and even a crisis of democracy.

At the same time, we must be aware of the cultural reasons behind lack of trust in our institutions. According to cultural theory, institutional trust springs from our social environment. The culturalist assumption is that sources of institutional trust are rooted in the trust relationships between individuals and their family, neighbours and friends. It follows from this that if people trust each other, then they will generate high levels of trust. Trust in fellow citizens and institutional trust are correlated. In view of the ‘psychology of mistrust’ which I think exists in our interpersonal encounters, I am not surprised that it should go hand in hand with low levels of trust in institutions like ICAC, the Police, the MBC, etc.

* None of our parties have gone public about how they finance their political activities and electoral campaigns. The few snippets that have come out relate to “donations” from business houses to parties across the board for their electoral campaigns, and there is no evidence so far of foreign governments/parties having financed the local parties. Would you expect the donations from the local business houses to stop if and when political parties get their funding from the State? And what are the implications thereof?

Hard-earned taxpayers’ money should not be used by the state to fund political parties. It’s as simple as that. This would provoke further bitterness and resentment from our voters.

* Besides the State financing of political parties, which is being looked into by the Government, there’s also the constitutional case entered by ‘Resistans ek Alternativ’ in connection with the compulsory declaration by candidates of their ethnicity in the context of the Best Loser System. The PMSD’s stand on this matter calling for the maintenance of the BLS and the holding of another round of ethnic census has been criticized in many quarters. How do you react to that?

The kind of identity politics that the PMSD is proposing in the wake of their overt call for an ethnic census (‘recensement ethnique’) and that we tend to practise covertly here — not so to insightful observers — is often based on the victim status. We often become involved in oppression sweepstakes, whether we are talking about slavery or indentured labour, where in order to be able to maintain our identity, we have to outdo other groups based on who is the most victimised.

Indeed, our political discourse often revolves around the relative victim status of the slave and the indentured labourer. This is incredibly unhelpful. It is ironical that when we Mauritians are defined by our ethnic identity (Hindus/Muslims/Sino-Mauritians/General Population, whatever it means, etc), it calls into question Martin Luther King’s plea that we should be judged by the ‘content of our character’, not by the ‘colour of the skin’, or religion.

* But identity politics is very much alive and practised by all the major parties here and which have become past masters in the identification and classification of every group and sub-group within our different ethnic communities for the purpose of their electoral campaigns. Wouldn’t PR instead constitute a bigger threat to the Mauritian nation by spawning the kind of identity politics we would want to avoid?

Identity politics is a manifestation of the corrosion of our political life, the corrosion of national life which gives rise to this desperate attempt to create new identities from nothing. When people lose trust in all institutions which are in a state of crisis, people find it very difficult to know who they are and what they are, and this gives rise to this frenetic search for an identity. What is lost in this religion of identity politics is the possibility of any kind of ‘humanist politics’.

What identity politics calls into question is the capacity of humankind to move beyond biological categories, to move beyond race. Instead of identity politics of all kinds, we should talk about specific issues, and reason honestly about these issues. Joining tribes or movements is not a sign of clear thinking. If we are reasoning honestly about facts, the religion of the individual is irrelevant, as in the case of the ex-President of the Republic of Mauritius, around whom there was a rallying around on the basis of her communal identity or in the ‘show of solidarity’ around Tarolah of ‘lalangue gate’ fame.

Identity is irrelevant if we are talking about reality. The nature of any argument is that its validity does not depend on who we are (whether Hindus or Muslims or Sino-Mauritians or Creoles or Franco-Mauritians). That’s why a good argument based on facts should be accepted by others, no matter who they are. Not being emotionally engaged usually improves a person’s ability to reason about the facts.

 

 


Politics is about winning power for its own sake, rather than using that power for some larger purpose. So my point is that just like Ramgoolam and Bérenger made a deal behind the backs of the electorate to accommodate each other’s ambitions and self-interests in 2014, it would not be surprising to see SAJ/PJ, now that the MSM has fallen out of favour with the ‘silent majority’, giving in to Bérenger’s conditions…”

 

 

* Paul Bérenger is pressing for a higher dose of PR than what will apparently propose the ministerial committee headed by the Minister Mentor in terms of electoral reform that would include 12 PR seats. Would you expect SAJ to accommodate Bérenger’s conditions as regards PR just for the sake of an electoral arrangement for the next elections?

We can trust our politicians to do the unexpected in a state of despair, and this is perfectly predictable in our Mauritian context. We can trust our politicians to adopt positions or take actions based purely on what is immediately expedient or advantageous politically. A lot of people find this kind of behaviour objectionable because it is transparently cynical and unprincipled, motivated by the desire to win tactical advantages even at the expense of larger ideals and objectives.

What this sort of conduct ultimately amounts to is the conviction that politics is about winning power for its own sake, rather than using that power for some larger purpose. So my point is that just like Ramgoolam and Bérenger made a deal behind the backs of the electorate to accommodate each other’s ambitions and self-interests in 2014, it would not be surprising to see SAJ/PJ, now that the MSM has fallen out of favour with the ‘silent majority’, giving in to Bérenger’s conditions.

* There is also what looks like a democratic crisis within the MMM if we go by what has been happening lately in that party. Pradeep Jeeha stood in support of Steven Obeegadoo and he was sidelined; he has now been expelled for having raised his voice against the triumvirate, nominated by Paul Bérenger, that will henceforth decide for the ‘Comité Central’ or Poliburo. Steven Obeegadoo will in all likelihood go the Jeeha way for having challenged the expulsion of the latter. What’s you take on that?

I heard Ajay Gunness, the Secretary General of the MMM, claim not without a certain pride, on a private radio channel this week, that the expulsion of Pradeep Jeeha was a supreme act of a democratic exercise in accordance with the Constitution of his party. Indeed, this is what some would call an “assault on intelligence” (the title of a recent book by Michael Hayden, an ex- CIA Director on National Security) and a shining example of Orwell’s ‘doublespeak’ which consists in deliberately obscuring, disguising, distorting or reversing the meaning of words… quite typical of the age of ‘post-truth’ in which we are living.

Our politicians are in fact living in a world of ‘alternative facts’ and sheer lies, exactly like Donald Trump who has decided that ‘truth’ does not exist, and for him truth is exactly what suits him. The imminent expulsion of Steven Obeegadoo would of course be a matter of time and would be qualified as a ‘democratic’ exercise.

* Another issue which hogged the headlines for some time was the tikka controversy at La Residence hotel, a few weeks ago, with its restriction on some members of its staff to wear the tikka – so as not to discriminate, it said, against those employed in the kitchen where the tikka is not allowed for “hygienic reasons”. It appears the hotel will be facing prosecution to be initiated by the Ministry of Labour. Would you believe that this should have happened in this day and age?

One definition of religion is that “religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.”

Religious freedom is built from a collection of more basic principles such as freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Religious rights are themselves a civil liberty, and all civil rights are of paramount importance in our society. But is there a hierarchy of human rights?

We need to have a frank discussion among ourselves on what happens when religious freedom clashes with our other social and civil liberties and our rights in our workplaces, when different and deeply rooted rights clash with each other. Our legislation has not clearly spelt out what to do when one civil liberty clashes with another, how our competing interests be balanced in a clash of rights.

Parliament in these cases has left it to the courts as it is with the case against The Residence hotel which forbids the wearing of the tikka to its female employees of Hindu faith. Protecting our rights to practise our faith where this is not an obstruction is an important part of a deeper struggle to create a society in which an individual’s moral code cannot be forcibly violated by anybody.

We must find a way to bring harmony between our different rights and develop a culture of acceptance, not simply a culture of tolerance. Tolerance is a virtue in many people’s minds, but can actually be a very patronising thing. Shashi Tharoor, in his latest work ‘Why I am a Hindu’, sums up beautifully the difference between tolerance and acceptance.

Tolerance says: “I have the truth, you are in error, but I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong”, whereas acceptance says: “I believe I have the truth, you believe you have the truth, I will respect your truth, please respect my truth”.

We can live in harmony only when we can practise our respective faiths confidently while accommodating all the others who want to practise their own faith.

As I am myself born in the Hindu faith, I grew up with the idea that my faith was totally compatible with a modern 21st century liberal outlook in a pluralist society such as ours. My teenage years were entirely steeped in the influence of Greco-Roman civilisation through the study of Latin and Greek, the history of Christian Europe extending from Medieval to the Reformation period, studying the works of Shakespeare and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regained’, and others.

I was also immersed in French existentialist philosophy as reflected in the works of Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre who happened to be agnostic and even atheist.

All these influences strengthened my belief that the Hinduism I belong to is not a faith of black and white, or of absolute certitudes, but one which is open to questioning everything. This is reinforced by the idea that Hindu scriptures have not one but multiple holy books. Hindus do not have scriptures that dictate to them how to live life. My faith is bound up with my journey in the realm of Humanities and English Literature, and I am grateful to both for giving me the licence to live around question marks rather than full stops.

I am grateful to both for allowing me to live around wonder rather than certitude – a lack of certitude reflected in the following quotation from Shashi Tharoor:

 

Who knows whence this
Creation had its origin?

He, whether he fashioned it, or

Whether he did not

He, who surveys it all from the

Highest heaven

He knows – Or may be he does

Not even know

 

That is why I deplore it when this religion is reduced and traduced into something which it is not at the hands of politicians and sociocultural organisations. The kind of Hinduism practised and extolled by many of our politicians is not in any way reflective of the tenets, teaching and values of Hindus who believe that we do not have to show our Hindu identity especially in public life. We all know how cynical all political leaders are in the sense that they use and flaunt their religiosity for political gain. I believe that political parties should NOT ostentatiously display their religiosity, regardless of faith, and wear religion on their sleeves.

As for the sociocultural organisations, irrespective of their faith, they claim to represent and speak for all manner of identity groups and behave as middlemen between the authorities and particular communities. In a world like ours, where do we think we get our ethics best from? What values and principles and attitudes and habits of mind will equip us best to face the particular challenges of our time and make the most of the opportunities offered to humanity? It is definitely not from sociocultural organisations that this will come.

The incestuous relationship between politicians and these organisations, across all faiths, contributes only toward driving sectarianism. Such a religion of identity politics is extremely limiting in its scope.

 


* Published in print edition on 11 May 2018

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