First 100 Days Version 2.0

Two Comments on the Change of Guard

A change in leadership can be an opportunity for a radical change in style and substance. Will this happen? The next 100 days should tell us…

 In various domains of activities, from business to politics or sports, the coming of a new leader is always a moment of expectations tempered by a sense of apprehension for all the stakeholders. In cases where such successions occur after a serious crisis, the new arrival is meant to open up new opportunities and hopes for improvement on the status quo ante. Whether these actually materialize takes time to manifest.

In politics, the famous 100 first days has progressively been accepted as the standard moratorium afforded to a new leader after which one can start measuring the degree to which expectations are more or less being met. Pravind Jugnauth has become Prime Minister in a post-crisis situation after the government of the erstwhile Alliance Lepep has left an impression of going nowhere after two years in power. Sir Anerood Jugnauth (SAJ) has admitted as much when he has taken the decision of stepping down from his position of Prime Minister.

SAJ’s greatest weakness has indeed been that his government has been constantly perceived as struggling to resist the continuous backlash of discontent and criticisms almost from Day One of its mandate. In these circumstances, reason dictates that the new Prime Minister (and we are here deliberately ignoring the legal contestation of the process which will be decided in Court) should be given at least the famous hundred days of grace before resuming the “normal” course of politics.

Having witnessed the events of the past week and the disastrous effects of the failed “demonstration” in Port Louis on the morale and credibility of the Opposition and its leaders, it would seem that Pravind Jugnauth could benefit from a breather for some months to come. However this is certainly not a licence to proceed in a “business as usual” mode for him. One would expect that he would seize the opportunity to demonstrate that he has what it takes to be an effective Prime Minister by at least initiating changes in both style and substance during this respite.

But more fundamentally can the establishment of the new guard eventually translate into a regime change?

This column has often suggested that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the “rot”, which has defined governance in Mauritius over the past decades, has been the absence of the “politics of ideas” from the whole process in favour of “deals” and “pacts” between leaders and parties for taking power. There is therefore a serious case for bringing politics back centrally into the governance of the City as a necessary pre-condition for a paradigm shift to take place.

Centrality of Politics

We are often told that reaching consensus is a necessary condition for achieving social and economic progress. Whilst this is a valid proposition, it still needs to be qualified and clarified especially in the context of what is happening in many of the more mature democracies including the United States.

If it is admitted that democratic politics is about the acceptance of discordance and recognition of differences, then the essence of the political process is about the search for reconciliation of conflicting interests through consultations and dialogues to reach a workable, albeit precarious social equilibrium. In the best of cases progress would be measured by the normative (values) and quantitative (economic) improvements in the City over time.

The best definition of politics which we have come across and which best sums up the above is “politics is about the activities of conflict, cooperation and negotiation involved in the use, production and distribution of resources whether material or ideal at local, national or global levels.”

Rehabilitating politics is first and foremost about seriously questioning the illusion that there exists an administrative or managerial “fix” for the complex human issues that arise during the process of governance. Such technocratic experiments have been tried in many European nations including Greece and Italy most recently with catastrophic consequences for the majority of the people of these countries.

Today even the IMF agrees that the debilitating effects of austerity programmes on future economic growth and that the resulting inequality and social injustices constitute strong barriers to the social cohesion needed for national prosperity. Essentially recognizing, even if they would not yet admit it, that politics and economics cannot be divorced from each other.

The principal driver of the technocratic approach has been the “there is no alternative” or infamous “TINA” school of thought. Having been the dominant approach blindly adopted by Establishments almost all over the globe during the past decades, this has led to the wave of populism which is presently threatening the very foundations of democratic societies in mature economies of Western Europe and the United States.

Although at first glance this may all seem rather abstract and theoretical, it is nevertheless essential to understand that where the government stands on such issues defines the type of society which will prevail. In the absence of debates and deliberations resulting in what is akin to a “depoliticization” of society, important issues are resolved by default in favour of the dominant status-quo and the governing classes which already hold sway over the “commanding heights” of the economy.

To come back closer home, there are a number of highly politically sensitive issues which will be coming up on the government reform agenda in the near future. The World Bank and IMF will insist on major privatization of public sector enterprises and service providers whereas the universal pension scheme, as it has been practised in the context of our welfare state since independence, will be under pressure.

While it is senseless to oppose a dogmatic hostility to such propositions, a more reasoned approach will nevertheless have to come to terms with the fact that in the socio-political and historical conditions prevailing in Mauritius such programmes are most likely to be politically unfeasible. Context matters and the “one-size-fits-all” approach of the Washington Institutions are even more questionable since the outbreak of the 2008 financial crisis has caused what is looking more and more like irreparable damage to the fabric of society all over the globe.

The new Prime Minister should be aware that the conventional wisdom based on formulaic solutions has failed to deliver the expected results in this country. The most blatant example of these has been the introduction of the much vaunted “low tax regime” which saw a radical fall in corporate taxes being implemented with the promise of rapid economic development. None of the promises have materialized and government has been deprived of one of its major policy instruments. The time is therefore for a more creative approach which involves all the stakeholders in defining the way forward.

As stated earlier, a change in leadership can be an opportunity for a radical change in style and substance. Will this happen? The next 100 days should tell us…

Rajiv Servansingh

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