Practise what you preach

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

One of the most frequent complaints heard during an election campaign, whether general or local elections, is the quasi-disappearance of the party representative from the constituency after he has been elected. That is, once the voters in that constituency have believed in his (or her – but ‘his’ used for convenience as most candidates are male) promises and the dreams he sold them, and put their trust in his words by ticking the box opposite his name on the ballot paper when they go to vote.

This phenomenon cuts across all countries where democratic elections are held regularly, and the consequence is that the standing member receives a due ‘correction’ the next time round. It is a complaint that I heard from any number of people when I was helping in the No. 7 constituency for the by-election of 2003, which saw the Labour candidate win against the government’s one. Whether the new member did actually maintain contact I am in no position to say, but of course the wheel keeps turning – and the people do keep a count, if I may put it this way!

As the political cauldron heats up to boiling point, the familiar pattern of vilification campaigns is once more resorted to. Again, this is not peculiar to Mauritius. But perhaps what is unique here is the sheer vulgarity of what we are witnessing. I must say straightaway that this is condemned by the vast majority of our compatriots, who find it reprehensible and feel that it says more about the originators than that of the population in general. They want to hear more about concrete proposals to fix the myriad problems that the country faces, and that should be the focus of campaigning.

For a start, one real rupture from the past would be for the elected members to be more present on the ground in their respective constituencies, and the parties could set up a monitoring mechanism to ensure that this actually takes place so as to avoid it losing face later. Often what people need more than anything else is to be listened to, and to receive an honest answer either way to their problem, including the difficulties faced in solving it if such is the case, but undertake to persist in efforts to find a solution.

There are many other possibilities in terms of rupture – which street protesters from France, Spain, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and more recently Lebanon have been crying for. The cries are about the same themes: economic corruption, broken promises, political scandals, concentration of power and wealth and their nexus, growing inequality, austerities imposed on the people, etc. In Lebanon, for example, after five days of non-stop and non-violent protests by all layers of the population, the President (son of former President Rafic Hariri who was assassinated) came up with a series of reforms that he set before the protesters. One that caught my attention particularly was his proposal to cut salaries of high officials by half, starting with himself.

In earlier times, in India for example, President Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan apparently retained only a token sum of one rupee of his salary, returning the rest to the Treasury. In a similar spirit, in the recent past, President Abdul Kalam had paid to the last paisa the cost of the sojourn of his close relatives at the Rashtrapati Bhavan whom he had invited for his installation as President.

Idea simple, action doable

Prime Minister Modi of India, known for his many breaking, innovative ideas, has implemented one that has been quite successful. After providing a free gas cylinder (used for cooking) to many millions of poor households, he made an appeal to those who felt that they could forego the subsidy on the liquefied gas to do as a voluntary gesture so that the country could then extend the coverage to even more poor households. His appeal was heard, and millions have given up the subsidy.

Based on this and the Lebanese President’s proposal (though the latter is yet to be accepted – the people are asking for no less than the government’s resignation), an idea came to my mind after I had seen a reportage of Top-TV a couple of days ago. It was about a young woman who had been regularly abused by her father since the age of twelve, after her mother had passed away. After this exposure by the Top-TV team, the father has been arrested and the girl with her younger sister have been taken charge of by the concerned ministry. The Top-TV team added that they have exposed 4000 such cases to date, and helped them out – and so far this year they have handled 1500 cases.

Putting all this together led me to think of one possibility, which would also be a real opportunity to come to the succour of orphans, children from broken families who are in shelters, and even women (perhaps men too?) who are the victims of violence. Whether it is shelters run by government or by NGOs, one reality is that these ‘facilities’ are always short of funds and skilled resources such as carers, psychologists, social workers. I recall urgent requests for medical support for children at a centre in Albion when I was at the Ministry of Health, and this is all the more reason for my interest in this issue.

One innovative way of addressing this critical problem would be for the next Prime Minister to cut his salary by 50%, and for his senior ministers (especially those who have served before), to do so as well; the remaining ministers and members of Parliament could contribute up to say, 10% of their salary and, in an extended gesture of national solidarity, so could the members of the opposition.

Solidarity Fund

These sums would go into a Solidarity Fund solely meant for the category of citizens in need indicated above. It could be placed under the responsibility of the Ombudsperson for children and a framework devised for its rigorous and transparent management.

After it would have been operational for say, six months, and demonstrated to be absolutely above board, the incumbent Prime Minister could take a cue from the Indian Prime Minister and make an appeal to all beneficiaries of the Old Age Pension (OAP) who feel they are in a position to forego the same, to do so voluntarily and these sums would then go to that Solidarity Fund. They could forego for good, or for a specified length of time, depending upon their individual situations. There are an estimated 225,000 OAP beneficiaries. If only 1000 would do that to start with, that would mean Rs 9000 x 1000 or Rs 9,000,000 per month from that source into the Solidarity Fund. Carers, nurses, psychologists, physical therapy specialists would be able to find employment in these shelters that would then have no need to go knocking at reluctant doors for funds.

And imagine how much more would be available if other pensioners decided to join in this laudable gesture – that may then find other equally deserving uses.

Even if such a Prime Minister were not returned again, he would have found a sure place in the hearts of all Mauritians, and he and his party would be remembered for having led by example. And the opposition too, if they too volunteered in the name of that fabled ‘national interest’ that they talk about so much. So it would be a win-win across the board.

Who is prepared to make the leap?

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