“People do matter. How competent they are or how mafia-like they are will impact on the future…

Interview: Milan Meetarbhan

… but we should gather support around an ambitious common project”

* ‘For rules not to be flouted you must have good governance and integrity but also sound law enforcement agencies. Do we have any of these?’

* ‘Labour has a history, a set of values, a record of achievement but it cannot expect to be back in office simply because people reject the incumbent’

In today’s issue, Milan Meetarbhan shares his views on the political situation in the country, and regrets that it is personalities rather than policies and ideas which are dominating the scene. Politics has stifled the Civil Service whose qualified and competent cadre – as many are today – were bureaucrats who were listened to by the political class across the board in the construction of the country after independence was obtained. He stresses on the need for a constitutional reform guided by an independent set of experts and after listening to all stakeholders. He also points to the need for a change of structure in the Labour Party that should too focus on policies and ideas and not on people.

Mauritius Times: The 1960s and 70s produced the men that were required to participate in the the transition of the country and in its socio-economic development from the pre- and post-Independence periods. Do you think the political heirs of those founding fathers of the nation have remained true to or did they along the way lose touch with the ideals that animated that earlier generation of men?

Milan Meetarbhan: I believe that in the 50s and 60s we had in the political class some people with conviction, commitment and competence to steer the nation in the most crucial decades of its political and constitutional history. There were – from some quarters – openly divisive politics, reprehensible slogans, fear-mongering and shameful tactics. But there were also people with vision who could see the long-term inherent danger for the country of certain proposals and stood their ground on what they considered to be in the best interests of the nation at large.

The more I read about that part of our constitutional history, the more amazed I am at how effective the towering figure of 20th century Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, was intuitively grasping what could be the ramifications of certain proposals in terms of nation-building. Let me share one illustration of this.

When I worked on the Chagos dossier, I was really surprised at how in 1965 when awareness of international affairs was not necessarily high in small island states, SSR could come up with what has subsequently been called the ‘Lancaster House undertakings’ by an international arbitration tribunal.

Once he realized that the British and the Americans were bent on excising the Chagos and that there was no way leaders of the tiny colony could stop them, he gave the British government a handwritten note on his hotel stationery setting out the undertakings which he would like to extract from them.

Not only did these show a real mastery of geopolitical and long-term economic issues, but 50 years later an international tribunal could decide in our favour basing its decision essentially on what SSR had written on this small sheet of paper in his room at The Strand Hotel.

After independence we had some exceptional politicians but also one of the best crops of bureaucrats this country has ever had. Those civil servants who were part of the top cadre of various ministries were outstanding. We also had some civil servants who had no experience of international affairs who were selected on the basis of merit to undergo diplomatic training and subsequently served with distinction in our newly set up overseas missions. This first batch of diplomats was amongst the best people we have ever had in our foreign service and people who have served their country well need to be acknowledged.

In the first few years after independence, Mauritius was being elected as chair of international organisations, got the best deal on the Sugar Protocol, was elected to the Security Council, became the first OAU member-state outside continental Africa to chair the OAU (and SSR the first and only ethnic Indian to have chaired the organization) .

Today we have a civil service which includes many people with postgraduate qualifications and great academic records but a public sector which has been highly politicised and stifles the promotion of talents and dedication to the nation and often rewards self-serving bureaucrats rather than those serving the nation.

Forgive me for not echoing here the sentiments of my fellow countrymen on the bulk of our present-day political class. Even with some of the newer faces, as I have said before, the only thing new with them is just the faces.

* If it’s true that the well-being of the population has generally improved since Independence, inequality has been on the rise over the past several decades, and so also has economic concentration. These must be due to other contributing factors than globalization, the decline of trade unions or the eroding value of wages; politics must have contributed to that situation as well. What do you think?

Mauritius has no doubt achieved economic progress since independence. At the UN and elsewhere we are often asked by foreign leaders and diplomats about how we achieved this. Once I was invited to speak at Harvard on this and to put it in a nutshell. I highlighted the following: 1. The overall national consensus on economic policies of successive governments; 2. The broad democratic framework and trusted judicial institutions, and 3. The bold decisions to grant free health services and access to education.

If the foundations for our constitutional regime were laid down in the decade preceding independence, the foundations for our economic development were laid down in the decade after independence.

The revision of our history by some politicians has prevented younger generations from acknowledging the major contribution of the policies adopted in that crucial decade and the role played by those political leaders and public officials who laid the foundations for the country to prosper.

* The main driver for political change and development in the country before and since Independence, the Labour Party, has lost two general elections consecutively since 2014, and it has since been facing a leadership issue. It may not be fair to focus on one single individual for the plight it finds itself in today, but how long can the Party stay away from the seat of power without becoming irrelevant in local politics?

The Labour Party has just celebrated its 85th anniversary. No other party has shaped modern Mauritius as much as LP did. But the party has also thrived in the face of toxic adversarial ethnic politics and of challenges from powerful vested interests. A student of history who reads some of what was published in papers like Le Cernéen in the 50s and 60s will have an inkling of how deleterious the climate was.

Labour did lose the 2014 elections, but the jury is still out on the 2019 elections. The MMM has lost more elections than Labour since its creation but the party has had the same leader for almost 50 years.

It is true that in mature democracies, leaders often pay the price of defeat in free, fair and credible elections. But in mature democracies, politics are not always about people but more about policies. In Mauritius, as we have witnessed over the last few weeks, talks have not yet started on a future hypothetical alliance and no discussions had even started on a modicum of a common programme – but one historical king-breaker insisted that there should be agreement on who would the candidate for Prime Minister and who will hold “tous les postes constitutionnels”. There is no agreement on a common programme yet but potential allies are expected to decide on who would implement the programme!

The debate over the Labour Party and any other party for that matter should be about ideas, party structures, empowerment of the membership, accountability, political platforms and not just about people. People do matter. How competent they are or how mafia-like they are will impact on the future. But we should gather support around an ambitious common project and not around personalities, sometimes just mythical figures.

 * The LP leader has gone back to his pet slogan of “rupture” that he would want to implement should the Party be returned to power. But getting back to power eventually would require restoring trust in the Party as a “force for good”. Should that be a tall order for the LP?

The public debate over the last few months has been about “Changement de Système”. Labour was therefore in tune with the public mood when its manifesto for the 2019 elections was called “La Rupture – Changer le Système, Construire l’Avenir.” But the party was not good at selling its programme. It did not even have a formal launch for its manifesto and was content to just put it online.

To answer your question, I would say that Labour has a history, a set of values, a record of achievement but it cannot expect to be back in office simply because people reject the incumbent. Labour has to give itself a 21st century party structure and educate people on what it stands for. This is not a tall order. It’s a matter of political will.

As I have said before, il y a des travaillistes et il y a le travaillisme, mais il faut un PARTI travailliste revigoré.

There is strong interest from young and not so young people to assist and participate in consolidating the LP, but the party does not have the structure to accommodate them. This must change.

* On the other hand, it may also not be fair to pin all the blame on the political class in one broad sweep for the trust deficit being increasingly talked about these days. The electorate shares part of the blame for electing the government it deserves – if only on the basis of Basic Retirement Pension increases, isn’t it?

Yes, it is true that we are going through a crisis of confidence (in addition to all the other crises). The succession of scandals has rocked confidence in the capacity of institutions to honestly and impartially handle abuse of authority, corruption, misuse of public funds, nepotism, cronyism, etc.

People are also losing faith in mainstream political parties. This opens the way for new forces that may emerge out of nowhere and which will not always necessarily be a force for good though some who emerge out of the present situation to fill in the vacuum may turn out to be those who will shape the future for the better.

Whilst the MMM is fixated on “qui occupera les postes constituionnels”, and even that is an integral part of its historical communalisme scientifique strategy, the Labour Party and the post-independence PMSD have a major responsibility in rising up to the challenge of the times.

The Entente Travailliste/MMM/PMSD had the potential to provide a platform for retooling society. As in 1983 and in 1996, the MMM leadership has once again rocked the boat.

Unlike the LP, MMM and PMSD, the MSM has never been what the French call a “mouvement” though it calls itself one. It is best described as un clan pouvoiriste. It’s been largely opportunistic in its conduct fuelled by its intrinsic business flair.

Once we elevate the political debate and focus on ideas more than people, the electorate will make more informed choices.

* It would seem that corruption and fraud have more than ever before a major issue in the country over the past several decades; and there’s also a trust deficit in the institutions that are financed by the taxpayer to combat these scourges. Why is it that the rules go on being flouted and the culprits remain unpunished and institutions do not deliver according to their mandate this happening?

For rules not to be flouted you must have good governance and integrity but also sound law enforcement agencies. Do we have any of these?

If the MBC acts in breach of rules of decency and of the law of the land, who should take action? The regulator? Does it have the will, the independence and competence to do so?

The Police? 18 months ago there was a complaint filed with the police about a flagrant breach of the law by the MBC. This breach had even been flagged by the Electoral Commission. What have the Police and the regulator done about this? Nothing that we know of.

This is an indication of the state of our law enforcement agencies and regulators today.

* The judiciary is often referred to as the last bulwark of democracy and the guardian of the rule of law, especially in the face of an overbearing government. One would have expected that the electoral petitions lodged since early last year would have been fast-tracked. Are the checks and balances in our system not operating as they should in this matter as well as with respect to governance issues?

I have always expressed my respect and trust in the judiciary as the guardian of the rule of law as you state. The judiciary is, in my view, the one institution which has the largest degree of trust of the people. But I do feel that one of the major challenges faced by the judiciary is protracted proceedings, whether it’s in commercial matters or governance or disputes afflicting private citizens. One of the global indexes in which Mauritius has done the least well is in relation to what is called “enforcement of contracts.”

We have seen recently how the claims of the Trump camp have been addressed by at least 60 different US courts in a matter of days.

In parliamentary democracies, a ruling party controls both the executive and legislative branches of government and if its legality is questioned, acts done or laws passed will be seriously impaired if it is subsequently found that the ruling party did not have a lawful mandate. The clock cannot be turned back.

The party may use all the procedural tricks in the book to delay proceedings to ensure that the final outcome is postponed until after the next elections. We cannot expect a sitting government to change the law to prevent this from happening.

What can judges do within existing law to ensure that there is prompt settlement of disputes relating to governance whether it’s in relation to constitutional matters or electoral matters or judicial review of administrative action? This in my view is one of the urgent questions that have to be addressed.

At a time when our country will also face serious challenges on the economic front, prompt settlement of disputes will be one of the factors that will inspire investor confidence. For the ordinary citizen facing an “ordinary” legal dispute, this may be seen as just one of the ordinary run of the mill cases but for the person concerned and his family, delays may have very serious consequences.

* If there is a case for perfecting our democracy and our constitutional regime, 50 years after Independence, how should we go about it and where do we start?

I will not speak about substantive changes to our Constitution but only about how to go about considering and adopting the changes that are required.

I first suggested in an article published on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of our independence that reforms to the constitution should be considered by an independent body, a Comité de Sages and that cet exercice devrait se faire sans aucun a priori. I still believe that this should be the case.

We saw what a disaster the last attempt to change the electoral system was when a self-serving constitutional amendment bill was introduced by the government of the day. The 1968 Constitution was NOT one made by “We the People…” If we are to give ourselves a revised constitution which remedies loopholes and includes new norms, deals with new technology, protects new rights and provides for greater accountability, this should be done not by the government of the day but as part of an independent exercise involving wide-ranging public consultations.

* We know that public debates on constitutional emancipation as well as on our electoral system were marked by ethnic considerations. Yet despite all the efforts made to curb communal divisions, politics in Mauritius has been dominated by ethnic and identity interests and influences since Independence. Rama Sithanen would tell us that despite “tweaks at the edges to be presentable, respectable and to appear national but the core will likely continue to be what it has been since Independence: a cleaved society and a polarised country indeed.” We have lost that battle, haven’t we?

No, I would not say so. Rama Sithanen is an astute observer and analyst, and I do not dispute his remarks. But I do not want to give up hope. I am worried though about the dog whistles and the clever charade of some desperate politicians who have decided to use what one of their advisers claimed privately to be their “last joker”, that of the rallying communal cry.

This is dangerous the more so that it is done in what is often a superficially respectable manner. A subtle campaign clearly read and understood by the faithful is led by some to save their own skin but is alluring enough to mobilise the base. The campaigners could not care about what their campaign does to the country.

* Published in print edition on 12 March 2021

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