Sadiq Khan: A Lesson for Aspirant Prime Ministers in Mauritius

Any aspirant candidate to the post of Prime Minister of Mauritius, whatever her or his communal/racial/caste origins, should convince a majority of the electorate that she/he will, and has all the necessary inclinations, to serve the whole nation once elected.

Any Mauritian who can achieve this is legitimately entitled to become the Prime Minister of this country

By being elected Mayor of London with a landslide victory Mr Sadiq Khan has not only made history as the first Muslim ever to be elected at the head of a major city in Western Europe but he has in the same token distinguished himself by obtaining the single largest mandate for any individual politician in British history. In an election which saw a large turn-out, Mr Khan obtained around 1.3 million votes as against his main Conservative opponent Mr Zac Goldsmith who only managed a bit less than one million.

Many observers including several leading voices from within the Conservative Party have been very critical of the “divisive” tactics adopted by the latter during the campaign. It is however notable that Prime Minister David Cameron was more or less on the same wavelength as Mr Goldsmith and even after the results of the mayoral elections were announced, he has persisted in his views describing Mr Khan as someone who has links with extremist elements. Finally it may be worth mentioning that the UKIP (extreme nationalist party) obtained around one hundred thousand votes in those elections.

The striking feature of this mayoral election is of course that it highlights all the issues related to the emergence of communitarian politics in a society which until only a few decades ago used to be described as “homogeneous”. As social analyst Wolfgang Merkel wrote recently, “Culturally homogeneous societies are easier to govern. Heterogeneous societies tend to draw ethnic cleavages, to fragment into sub-cultures, to create parallel societies and cut back on the build-up of inclusive social capital. That sounds alarming because heterogeneous societies ARE our future and many aspects of them can be exceedingly positive such as cultural diversity, economic and social creativity as well as the practice of tolerance and recognition of the other.”

In this context, it is interesting and even paradoxical to note how many of the matters which preoccupy us in our continual nation-building phase are actually at the centre of new debates in European cities and nations having to deal with the explosive phenomenon of social heterogeneity (exacerbated over the recent months by the massive migration crisis at the doors of the European Union).

The metaphors of “the melting pot”, “the mosaic” and “the salad bowl” representing different strands of views of nation-building have dominated a whole generation of debate in Mauritius since independence. The same concepts are now framing the terms of public debates regarding different approaches in the search for the right path for a smooth “integration” process in these countries.

One needs to be careful though, about how far these situations can be compared. We are here confronted with a classic case of social phenomena which are perfectly captured by this most savoury of English expressions — they are “similar but different”. The historical context, the socio-economic environment and the political dispositions are as far apart as one can imagine.

As expected though the election of a Muslim as Mayor of London, a city which does not have a Muslim majority of voters, has some resonance with our local political situation and several commentators have already expressed their views and drawn parallels with our local context. Unsurprisingly the most common observation has been that it is so shameful that such a situation is not even thinkable let alone realizable in our country.

The case of the election of President Obama in 2008 and 2012 is also thrown in and compared to the local situation – in both cases it is pointed out that a person belonging to a social minority has been elected to the highest post of responsibility by a diverse racial, multicultural or religious electorate.

Taken at face value, such statements may at first look quite innocuous because they merely describe what has been happening over the years during successive elections in Mauritius. It is true that no non-Hindu (except for Paul Berenger who got himself elected in 2000 in a power-sharing deal with the MSM of Anerood Jugnauth, and acceded to the Prime Minister’s post in 2003) or for that matter people from a particular caste of that community has ever been “elected” Prime Minister of the country. Moreover some elections have also been marked by pretty divisive campaigning along “communal” lines.

At the heart of this debate is why this has been the case. One set of answers revolves around blaming the electorate for its lack of maturity, lack of a modern forward-looking view of the polity and its attachment to “primitive” notions of “communal” belonging. The solution to this unwarranted situation, it is proclaimed, is to wipe out the notions of “communities” as inscribed in the Constitution and subsequently from the political process.

Proponents of this school of thought have manifested themselves by participating in the last general elections by prevailing of a special disposition whereby they did not have to declare their “community” at the time of registration. There can be no doubt that those who hold such a view are of good faith and have deep convictions on the matter and, what is more, they more often than not claim the moral high ground.

We would like here to propose an alternative line of thought on these issues.

First, it is rather strange that generally speaking the same people who hold the above view are the ones who are most vocally celebrating the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of the City of London. Although he may not have had to “declare his community”, all those who have followed the campaign would agree that Mr Khan has never intended to make a secret of the fact that he is a Muslim.

Instead of that, the point he has consistently driven home that he is a Muslim but finds no difficulty to empathize with people from other religions and that once elected he would work for the better interests of the people of London. Having managed to convince a large majority of the electorate in spite of the most vicious attacks on his origins, Mr Khan has been legitimately and overwhelmingly elected as the first Muslim Mayor of London.

Therefore, to come back to the local situation, could it not be postulated that this is precisely what is expected from any aspirant candidate to the post of Prime Minister of Mauritius, whatever her or his communal/racial/caste origins. That he or she should convince a majority of the electorate that she/he will, and has all the necessary inclinations, to serve the whole nation once elected. Any Mauritian who can achieve this is legitimately entitled to become the Prime Minister of this country.

It is true that admitting to such an assumption would indeed represent a paradigm shift in the dominant view to the extent that instead of the facile argument based on blaming the electorate, the onus of responsibility for failure would be shifted on the aspiring candidates for prime ministership.

* Published in print edition on 13 May 2016

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