Politics: A contest of competing ideas

By Rattan Khushiram

Most of the criticisms or diverging opinions act as checks and balances and ensure that the government is accountable to the people. It is the power of ideas that should dominate

Recently in UK, Labour Party and opposition leader Jeremyn Corbyn paid tribute in the course of a debate on Brexit to the amazing performance of Liverpool in the Champions league and advised the Prime Minister to take some tips from Jürgen Klopp on “how to get a good result in Europe”. In an equally applaudable riposte, Theresa May said: “I actually think that when we look at the Liverpool win over Barcelona…, what it shows is that when everyone says it’s all over, that your European opposition have got you beat, the clock is ticking down, it’s time to concede defeat, actually we can still secure success if everyone comes together.” This is the stuff of what politics should be – a contest of ideas.

Compare that with “Boukou kritik nou tandé. Boukou lisien abwayé mé mo les zot” besides the sexist language of our political men. Here our politicians have made a mockery of our democratic process. Their exchanges have stooped so low. In an atmosphere vitiated by vulgarity and hatred, it has become so obnoxious that many people now think twice before joining the political arena. But just as a religion shouldn’t be judged by its worst practitioners, so a profession like politics shouldn’t always be judged only by the worst in its ranks. But if we want to encourage people to get involved in politics and give politics its “lettre de noblesse” and at the same time enhance the quality of our democracy, our politician should be first and foremost a person of ideas – with conviction and commitment. Everything else should flow from that.

In this way, the political debate becomes a contest of competing ideas and elections become an opportunity for voters to choose between policy platform offerings presented by different parties and select the ones they believe stand the best chance of improving their lives when implemented as government programmes. The maturation of our democracy is dependent on at least four changes: the emergence of more competitive politics, of more ideas-driven politics, greater acceptance of the plurality of views and inclusiveness and a more interested and alert citizenry.

Plurality of views means including all voices in the political debate: men-women, young-old, rich-poor, minorities and the marginalised. The ability to listen and understand is sometimes as, if not more, important than our ability to speak. A more alert and interested citizenry and the acceptance of different opinions and ideas are part of the essence of a culture of democracy. They are qualities that need to be nurtured and demonstrated in everyday life.

Differences in opinions and thoughts are what have turned the world into this advanced era of human life. Most of the criticisms or diverging opinions force government to do a better job and keep it on its toes. They act as checks and balances and ensure that the government is accountable to the people. It is the power of ideas that should dominate and this power cannot be underestimated, although it often plays out in unexpected ways. We’re citizens, not subjects. We have the right to criticize governments without fear.

But here our government does not understand it that way; it tends to have little patience with criticisms – criticisms of its functioning, its decisions, its governance, its programmes and policies – and reacts undemocratically by intimidating and harassing its critics. You are either for or against. If you are against the Safe City project or the Cote d’or Stadium, it means that you are biased towards the opposition. So, they start intimidating you, your families and relatives.

Opportunities become few, jobs applications are rejected one after another, and if you are in business, they will stretch their long arm to make life difficult for you and even your bank will start having doubts on the profitability of your business.

If you resist and persist, one of their latest tactics to pursue those who criticize their actions or their methods of governance is to silence them through the practice of the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP). That is, you are likely to be sued for some Rs 50 million or more by a public company for having criticised it for its incompetence!

Using the pretext of public interest, they have found an ideal way to temper the critics. From now on, all those who intend to make any criticism against the government and its companies will have to think about the legal consequences of their actions before acting. Did you get the message?

These repressive tactics affect the lives of thousands of people – wives, children, fathers, aunts, partners, cousins, friends, employees… – at any time. It does not improve the democratic discourse. It breeds more hatred and revenge.

It is time that we bring a healthy dose of sunlight to the political scene and recover the ethical language that has fled from Mauritian politics, and do away with the language of vitriol that our leaders constantly use against their opponents. For the forthcoming elections we must build up this space for mutual respect of political opponents. It will reinforce a party’s democratic credentials and, in a democracy, the merit of criticism is decided by the people, the press and the opposition, on their own terms. It is not decided by the party in power.

* Published in print edition on 17 May 2019

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