‘Pravind Jugnauth has been constantly campaigning since he slid his way through but this is mere shadow-boxing…

The real showdown lies ahead’

Interview: Chetan Ramchurn, Entrepreneur

Change is certainly slow to come but it will come”

‘The Labour Party and the MMM were founded on sound thought… Both have been perverted to embrace Ramgoolamism and Berengism’

Our interviewee this week is Chetan Ramchurn, a young entrepreneur who is not new to this paper. With his usual candour and directness he makes a refreshing and revealing analysis of the ground realities that are messing up people’s lives, of the economic woes and the carrots that our political leadership and political class generally are dangling before the electorate. His justified cynicism that is typical of at least the more aware of his generation will, hopefully, build into a force among the electorate so as to stop those vying for power from continuing to sell dreams instead of indicating more concretely how they intend to bring about the real changes that will improve the quality of life and ease the conditions of living of the population.

 Mauritius Times: It appears the leader of the MMM has not taken too kindly to the recent statement of Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo in which the latter revealed his “shame” about the economic performance of the Mauritius economy which has stalled at a growth rate of 3% over the last 10 years. Why should he be unhappy with that when Lutchmeenaraidoo is providing him with fodder to run down the government?

Chetan Ramchurn: Well admittedly Berenger’s position is a complicated one as he has to preserve his credibility as a man who has built his career on a strong opposition to every government that he has not been part of and, en même temps, he has to be cryptic so as to keep some of the doors open.

The central piece of yet another boring press conference was an unprompted statement that the MMM was going alone. Seul contre tous. The economy is ailing and at least he admitted to that, pointing out the different sectors that were performing poorly. He described Minister Gungah’s stance as nonsensical and the situation in the textile sector as a “cacophonie”. That could pave the way for an alliance in the “intérêt supérieur de la nation.”

The term en même temps summarises MMM’s standpoint. In this regard it has a lot in common with another fervent user of the term, President Macron whose many pirouettes have brought the French to the streets. Henri Guaino exemplified it best, « On va accomplir une chose et, en même temps, son contraire ».

* What about the feeling of shame of the Minister of Foreign Affairs?

It is worth pointing out that the one hailed as the master conjurer of the second economic miracle in 2014 is now telling us that we are stuck in the middle income trap and that we have not pursued the routes that would have made a telling impact.

The 2015/16 budget was one with excessive optimism. The then Minister even averred that we should “expect GDP growth to go up to 5.3 per cent and for 2016/2017 we are targeting a growth rate of 5.7 per cent.” The absence of good economic results is a serious dent to this government’s credibility and on the image of the unchosen PM. The latter’s minions were quick to interpret the former saviour’s comment as one that warranted no consideration. But it does. The present Minister of Finance has not been able to get the Mauritius tramway past the 4% GDP Growth mark. The overtly generous incentives to promoters of smart cities, the dismantling of the BAI to further empower the historic bourgeoisie have not reaped the fruits this government had hoped for.

I will not even address the farce of the high powered committee on Achieving the Second Miracle and Vision 2030 with the 100,000 jobs it had foreseen. The blame goes to successive governments. It is a collective failure.

So many have over-promised and under-delivered. The shortfall from the trickle down measures such as the corporate flat tax is affecting our country to this day. We are crippled and cannot afford to invest in better infrastructure. Our last resort seems to be to give up some of our sovereignty so that foreign powers can bail us out. No good can come out of it. And what infrastructure? The ruinous tramway and big brother is watching us projects!

There is an excellent book, ‘Palaces for the People’ by Eric Klinenberg. The author makes a compelling case for social infrastructure such as libraries and childcare centres. In a society with disintegrating values, “libraries and the social infrastructure are essential not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for buffering all kinds of personal problems—including isolation and loneliness. […] Why have so many public officials and civic leaders failed to recognize the value of libraries and their role in our social infrastructure?

“Perhaps it’s because the founding principle behind the library—that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage, which they can use to any end they see fit—is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our time. Libraries do this, principally, by providing free access to the widest possible variety of cultural materials to people of all ages, from all ethnicities and groups. For older people, especially widows, widowers, and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and companionship, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles, and classes in art, music, current events, and computing.”

I fail to see how our dearth of commonality, what Klinenberg terms “real connections” will be curbed with these hefty projects. The people might be lulled by the mise en scène around the Premier but when reminded of the litany of scandals and misses associated with this government, they will wake up. Hopefully.

* Does it therefore mean that Paul Bérenger’s declared ambition to go it alone in a three-cornered battle at the next elections sounds to you a bit pretentious and improbable? Would that also suggest that his MMM would be unable to put up a fight in a three-cornered fight?

It is difficult to predict anything at this stage. I have seen no reconstruction process embarked upon, no quality blood infused in its system, no serious projet de société discussed as yet. Paul Berenger as leader has not contributed much to the debates in parliament other than to mention the need to bail out the sugar barons and when the koz koze pot of gold came to the arena; the elusive electoral reform. Still, these are strange years. Those opposite to him in parliament have been busy wagging tongues, belittling women and been embroiled in more scandals than I can remember.

Next to a new crop of politicians that seem incompetent and bereft of dignitas, the MMM has managed to retain some of its allure and could partake in a future alliance as a junior partner. The dangers of going alone are obvious and while I believe it would be the right thing to do, I do not see enough courageous voices in the politburo fighting for same. Again, until and unless the party returns to its socialist leanings and stays away from dynasty politics, a return to power of the MMM would not be beneficial to the masses. Its leader preaches pragmatism in economic affairs. Le centrisme mou, encore et toujours.

* As for Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo’s confession of shame, en d’autres temps, Sir Anerood Jugnauth would have cracked the whip, and Lutchmeenaraidoo would have been left out in the cold. Whatever happened to him?

Talks of a cabinet reshuffle have grown louder and must have disturbed his deep meditation. Having lost the Ministry of Finance as the result of a coup, Lutchmeenaraidoo is no doubt wary of another attempt to oust him again. Another cause of this awakening to our economic woes could be that as a result of self-reflection, he has reached the epiphany that this government has been disastrous for the people. In 2014, his plan was that of being a “passerelle” between the old and young generations. Maybe he wants to redeem himself at the end of his political journey.

In any case, the MSM has always put self-preservation at the top of its agenda. If I am not mistaken the Amsterdam boys were never ousted by the MSM when the scandal broke out. The MSM was accommodating enough to let them stay so as not to bear the wrath of the voters in by-elections. Let us not forget about the Drug Commission’s scarred figures, the many allegations of bribery and the salary raises allocated to the close ones of the regime. They will do what it takes to have the best chances of holding on to power. The Lee Kuan Yew posturing of the father never applied to anyone that would weaken him politically.

* We can understand that Pravind Jugnauth does things differently – at least that’s the impression that is put across –, and it could also be that he does not have much leeway in an electoral year to sort out the matter with Lutchmeenaraidoo and some of the others. Will we see a different man in office next time round if he succeeds in making it back to Government House in his own right — with or without Paul Berenger?

That is a narrative that has too many loopholes to be believable. The issue is Pravind Jugnauth himself. He has not been a great leader for this country, I do not feel that we are more united as a Nation. He has not managed to steer the country to new economic heights, the opposite in fact. He has given the keys of our economy to the lame EDB where the interests of the predatory private clique are upheld. He is never there when the storm is raging. He refuses to talk to Palmar employees but is happy to do a photo-op with workers from another textile company the next day. No one wants a leader who is only going to be there for the happy days. Leading is tough and does not amount to doctored images on social media. In a crisis situation, do I trust him to make the bold moves? No.

What bothers me is that many seem to forget that our institutions are in tatters, our police force has lost authority in the eyes of the public, there is no meritocracy in the way posts are being allocated, leeches and corruption are ubiquitous. The spin is poorly executed if you ask me. He was quick to start a clean-up campaign à la Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and since it was probably not garnering enough likes the whole idea was dropped. The funniest part of this charade was at the 2019 Independence Day celebrations at my alma mater the Royal College Curepipe. He was literally reading from a paper to narrate his school days. This is something you have experienced – but you still need to read about it from a paper?

If Pravind Jugnauth is back in power, it will certainly not be on his own. The choice of partner is still unknown, and the MMM and PMSD options are open to him. His choice of mamzelle will be interesting. If the Labour party ups the ante and puts him under pressure, will he not crumble despite the many press organs at his beck and call? He has been constantly campaigning since he slid his way through but this is mere shadow-boxing… The real showdown lies ahead.

* What if Pravind Jugnauth’s MSM does not make it despite the inaugurations which are in the pipeline this year, and the goodies that are anticipated in the context of the next budget in this electoral year? As we have lately witnessed the anguish of hundreds of textile workers who have lost their jobs, and some economists suggest that more is yet to happen, could the problems coming up on the economic front trump his political ambition?

As soon as the aura weaved around him is shattered, the reality check should allow the blind to see. Still, destroying the maze will prove tough. There are lackeys diligently ensuring that everything he does is hailed as something promethean. That in zealous servitude, the national propaganda machine deemed that interviewing people in a shrine was judicious tells us everything about what we are in for. Pravind Jugnauth has gone overboard with his ribbon-cutting expeditions. It borders on the ridiculous and could end up tiring people. If he does not make it this time around, he will have possibilities of doing so for the next three decades. This is a family business. No one is likely to contest his position within the MSM.

I believe that reality will catch up on him sooner rather than later. Once it does, will he steel his nerves and not lay his weaknesses bare? We will see. Once the hype is stripped off him, will he show himself as a man that can act under pressure? I have my doubts on that. Still, who is Jugnauth’s main opponent? A significantly weakened Ramgoolam. His stooges in the media, existing and new ones, will likely bludgeon the leader of the Labour Party to give an advantage to their candidate. Still the narrative around the incumbent is weak. He has inherited power and not strived for it, he has implemented nothing that will significantly change the lives of Mauritians. True, the minimum wage has been introduced but the cost of living is significantly higher now and SMEs are suffering as a result of it. The dearth of planning is again obvious.

* What do you make out of the recent bid of the former MMM members – the Obeegadoos, Jeehas, Ganoos, etc – to come together in a common front? Do you see that as a “breath of fresh air” in Mauritian politics – or is that initiative meant to better negotiate an alliance with the mainstream parties?

It is clear that their horizon does not extend beyond the next general elections so any inkling that they are about to renew Mauritian politics should be quickly dispelled. Many of them have spent the better part of their political careers saying yes to their former leader. Les seconds couteaux ne deviennent pas des premières lames. What are they likely to pitch us now? La réunification de la grande famille militante? That is a stale act. Both factions have trouble existing on their own having followed blindly in the past. They are angling for the best suitor that can lead them to power.

* We’ll therefore have to make do with the mainstream parties with their current leaders and their agendas given that various attempts at reform by different ‘contestataires’ from within or from outside have not worked. Do the people know better and they want it to remain that way after all?

People do find it difficult to go beyond their comfort zone and the efforts of those trying to rock the boat have met with cynicism and scorn. But they should absolutely persevere. There is growing disdain with mainstream parties; the partisanship level has gone down in a most glaring manner for decades.

People no longer deify political figures since they understand that they are mere puppets in the hands of the financiers. It will require more convincing for movements with an honest voice to break through the noise. Their struggle is real for they are fighting against freebies and populism. People fail to realise that they will be the ones footing the bill. Change is certainly slow to come but it will come.

* Would this also mean that symbols and various affinities are more important to the people than what intellectuals and newspaper editors would want them to embrace?

At least two of the mainstream parties – the Labour Party and the MMM – were founded on sound thought with a real intellectual cachet. Both have been perverted to embrace Ramgoolamism and Berengism over the years. The MSM has always been about power vested in the hands of a family. There is no deep-rooted ideology. Moralité pas rempli ventre.

A change in mindset will not be triggered by editors or intellectuals. The enlightenment will only happen when the situation is so rotten that the carrots fed by the crop of politicians will no longer sway voters. Then only people will realise that they are co-creators of the current mess since they have perpetuated a system which celebrates incompetents and leeches.

A friend of mine recently told me that this “awakening” is not likely to be happening anytime soon since a significant chunk of the population is feeding off this sullied arrangement. I would hope that this is not the case.

* One could safely presume that the government would want to keep everybody happy during the remaining months prior to the next general elections – the old-age pensioners, the travelling public, captains of industry, especially in the textile and sugar sectors (with more stimulus packages) and other stakeholders in these sectors, etc – at great economic cost to the public exchequer. Who would want to sit in the Finance minister’s chair next time round?

There is seemingly no concern about what is bequeathed to the future generations never mind the next government. The risk of saddling the middle class with the sins of this government is real.

The latest MCB Focus seems ominous on gross public sector debt which “rose to attain 64.5% of GDP as at December 2018 as compared to 63.4% recorded a year earlier. The outcome thus moves further away from the statutory ceiling of 60% to be attained by the end of the fiscal year ending June 2021 as per the Public Debt Management Act. Moreover, the line of credit obtained from the Government of India for the financing of the Metro Express project would be included in the computation of debt upon its drawdown, and thereby lead to upward pressures on the debt levels.”

The truth is that anyone who will replace the present team will have to shoulder the expenses related to the tramway, the onerous Safe City Project and the electoral carrots… A real ‘rupture’ would be urgent so as to reverse the shrinking of the middle class and would encompass a wealth tax and a democratisation of land.

The one taking over would have to understand that we are at a tipping point and it would be wise to rein in the expenses and ensure a fairer redistribution of wealth. On a note of concern, many of those that are striving to reach that FM chair have had their stints in power and have contributed to the present situation.

* However there is therefore no “good” or “bad” time to accede to power, as former Labour leader Sir Satcam Boolell said in an interview to this paper years ago – any time is good time, right?

I would say that acceding to power when the going is tough is what actually defines a great leader. For example, in 1968 when SSR had to guide an independent country towards harmony and development, Roosevelt with the New Deal or Narasimha Rao with his bold measures to transform India. Anyone can lead when the sea is calm. It is when you manoeuvre your vessel through the tempest that you truly show your ability. And we are in the midst of one.

* Today’s Labourites feel the “good” times are coming back. What do you think?

They were very confident in 2014 as well and were expecting a walkover. They do have the advantage of having their very best of agents in the MSM and the ML. Nonetheless, this will be a rough road to power. Anyone aiming to topple the present government has to prepare itself to face the brunt of zealous and biased opinion leaders, the oligarchy and the many yes-men.

Ruffin says this about the French government, “Vous ne dirigez plus, mais vous dominez toujours.” I feel the same way about this Government. It is bedlam but they are eager to implement new laws to curb our freedom and will resort to every trick in the book. The opposition parties should gear up for some serious mano a mano and that much hyped ‘Rupture’ better not be about gossamer changes. With the fear of the retour de bâton hovering above their heads, this will be an ugly campaign.

* Published in print edition on 22 March 2019

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