“Stopping a third mandate for the ruling party is starkly and simply the imperative”

Interview: Nalini Burn, Economist & International Consultant

‘We are in the throes of a serious assault on the judiciary. A unified opposition is to me paramount and needs to coalesce with progressive civil society’

* ‘There is certainly a climate of fear of open dissent, cultivated in many ways by the regime.
Which of course does not transpire in the channel of disinformation, the MBC’

Our interviewee this week, Nalini Burn shares her views on the complex sociopolitical issues currently impacting the country, amongst which governance, the pressures and intrusions on institutional functioning, the widespread feeling among the population that change is a must. She comments on the newly-formed triple alliance on which she doesn’t shed much hope and hopes that mobilization of civil society forces would be vitally necessary to bring about change for the better.

Mauritius Times: If you were to listen to the daily chatter of urbanite Mauritians these days, you would most probably get the impression that most people are eagerly awaiting a definite break with the current governance in place in the country. Those who speak out say they are fed up with what’s happening, but that’s all they can do. But is there, according to you, a palpable sense that change could be in the pipeline?

Nalini Burn: I’m not quite sure what you mean by urbanite as a category, as opposed to non-urbanites. If it is social media, newspaper articles, or oral chatter, then there is also a fair bit of fragmentation. But yes, there is a clear sense that there is a need to change the current governance, as you put it. Let’s drill down a bit more.

It is at two palpable levels: one is getting rid of the current government, now nearing a decade in power. The other — personalised politics – is the ‘Ni Pravind, Ni Navin’, no dinosaurs. A sense, however, of no more the sort of “current” governance of the post-independence decades. They do not necessarily point in the same direction. Of a third alternative of change in the pipeline. Or of an alternance, or more deeply, of transformation. Maybe the authorities’ multiple surveillance antennae know otherwise but will not let out anything.

* If the solution to the current dissatisfaction can only be a political one (through regime change), the belated announcement of an alliance between the Labour Party, the MMM and the PMSD does not seem to have met with enthusiasm or even support from their followers. Do you think what is at issue relates to that alliance’s credibility as well as its viability? Or are they waiting for ground tests?

Yes, there is current dissatisfaction. But it is muffled, self-censored, gone underground. And that makes it difficult to read in terms of outcome, voting intentions. Even the likes of Facebook are now muted, through fear of retaliation, from postal workers, police, etc. While it seems that opaque WhatsApp groups are quite active in circulating info and amplifying dissenting views, venting frustration.

There is certainly a climate of fear of open dissent, cultivated in many ways by the regime. Which of course does not transpire in the channel of disinformation, the MBC. The latter paints a Barbie-like rosy-pink make-believe universe, fashioned by the mighty Mattel Corporation, owners of the Barbie doll whose much-hyped movie – pink in this case, not orange – hits the screens, as I chat to you. Does it collide with real life, when Barbie and Ken the dolls, go out into the real world, outside of the corporation? That scenario, we don’t quite know.

The long-drawn-out putting together of an alliance of mainstream opposition – having presumably pulled out the most hazardous “macadams or mountains” – feels like a damp squib. I’m not sure what was in the precise mix. And do we know anymore who are die-hard or peripheral floating members or supporters? But this fraught process is probably more about damage limitation when mixing the old culture, personalities and practices with what is electorally viable now, in the current landscape. It would have a hopefully realistic assessment of respective strengths on the ground. 

One does not know how much of the perceived lack of enthusiasm of the followers comes from regime trolls on social and other media. But it could be the sobering realization — when you look at the configuration — that maybe this is what it takes to defeat the incumbent regime, which hasso many weapons in its arsenal, including savvy advisers of incumbent regimes in interested countries.

What could “ground tests” be? The regime clearly does not want electoral defeat at the municipal elections. By postponing elections yet again. It has once more shown its authoritarian heavy hand – in its by now impressive cumulative playbook. Why? Fear of ground zero?

Some of the chatter on social media pokes fun at the Alliance du 3eme âge. Presumably from the demographic that on turning 18 in a pre-electoral window, has already been given a once-off transfer of Rs 20,000 from the State Budget. A gift safely out of the electoral vote-buying window that can be challenged in court. If at all timely, to count? And this is typical of the customised vote-catching that has served the present regime so well so far.

The other chatter is about how long will this coalition last. Democracy is elusive and needs constant dialogue and consensus-building. I would rather have shifting, contesting alliances than the blanket autocracy of “finndesidlao” – who have also reached pensionable age, by the way…Will the electorate by and large prefer autocratic populism to shaky alliances?

* It may nevertheless be too early to write off the LP and the MMM or even the PMSD – three mainstream parties that have marked our history one way or the other. On the other hand, some of the new parties that have come up in recent months may not be around for the long haul. What would that mean for Mauritian politics in the medium- and long-term?

You seem to be saying that this alliance will not match the incumbents. Do we have enough of a sense of voting intentions across urbanites and non-urbanites to gauge that? I think voters will compare the LP-MMM-PMSDalliance with the existing regime. Certainly, all these parties have a history that to varying degrees was commendable in their respective heydays. Unlike the MSM, apart from the so-called economic miracle whose longer-term built-in negative impacts and “essouflement” are so evident now. But these dynamic connections between short-lived “miracles”, their character, and their longer-term fall-out on many fronts are not made.

The problem with the mainstream opposition as far as their die-hard supporters areconcerned, is that historically, they also emerged out of opposition to the others in the current alliance. But they do have a track record of working together.

The MSM in its market-penetration ways has debauched many prominent MMM frontliners. But rather than buying-in and absorbing its ideological goodwill and aura, the hostile takeover has merely exposed the opportunist, docile corruption of those who joined it. And it is not clear how transformative and untainted are those who have left the MSM, to position themselves as the new mostly extra-parliamentary opposition. Old politically-exposed-persons in new parties?Trust and credibility are elusive on all sides.

The Labour Party seems to be the only contender to make a serious bid in voting out the incumbent regime in rural constituencies. And that long-term resonance and advantage should shift the “fear factor” on the other side.

* Do you believe that extra-parliamentary opposition forces could serve the ruling regime’s interests by dividing votes or should they lay aside “personal ambitions and sensibilities to allow a new era of governance” – as urged by the leader of the MMM?

In urban constituencies, including some with a more rural belt, the postponing of municipal elections, could however be a calculated move. Not just a penchant for knee-jerk, autocratic postures that the accommodating legislation provides for even more now.

If there were municipal elections, we would be able to see how much the new extra-parliamentary parties could bite into the mainstream opposition votes. And give way to not just letting opposition eat opposition in urban constituencies, as seems to be the ploy since the 2019 elections: Such ground truthing could have led to a broadening of the opposition to include the extra-parliamentary one to stop a third national mandate for the ruling party, constituency-wise. That is the only first past-the-post result that counts. A big risk to take. And I think this is what should happen.

All the same, the long track record of espousing the established patron-client ways while in office and buying into it to regain office, is what leads to looking for transformativealternatives to the system. To go beyond mere “alternance”.

Stopping a third mandate is starkly and simply the imperative. The V-dem Democracy Report 2023, shows Mauritius as one of the countries fast ‘autocratising’, as opposed to Seychelles, Nepal, Sri Lanka. We are an electoral democracy veering towards an electoral autocracy. The immediate, medium and longer terms in that scenario are too dismal and disastrous to contemplate.

What could pan out following an election is a transitional phase, – proposed by Rezistans ek Alternativ — that would give any chance for a transformative agenda to be nurtured at all. It is delusional, valeur du jour, to believe that a coalition or worse, separate clusters of extra-parliamentary parties will win against the incumbents. But we must find ways and means to harness their search for change, for transformation as early as possible, reach out over a broad agenda.

What the V-Dem Report 2023 also pulled out are lessons of what are the ingredients for restoring democracy

1.Judiciary reversing executive take-over.
2.Unified opposition coalescing with civil society.
3.Critical elections and key events bringing alternation in power.
4.Large-scale popular mobilization against the incumbent.
5.International democracy support and protection.

In each of these fronts, the incumbents are aggressively engaged to prevent from happening. We are in the throes of a serious assault on the judiciary. A unified opposition is to me paramount and must coalesce with progressive civil society, not just sociocultural movements, sectarian vigilante groups and anti-democratic forces.

The concept of civil society needs unpacking. No longer so civil as it lurches with political parties towards right-wing, regressive agendas. The MSM’s at time left-populist measures had managed in 2019 to pull towards its orbit those unions and small revolutionary parties seeing it as a bourgeoisie d’état. At least that seems to no longer be the case.

An alternation is imperative. It needs to provide safeguards for constitutional reform.

* Doing politics through the internet, on social media platforms or in the press itself, may be helpful to fight corruption or counter abuses as it’s being done by internet activists and other intellectuals, but would that be viable if we want to build long-term thinking into our political system and a culture of transparency and accountability?

The funny thing about social media platforms is the illusion that what people say on it is the only place where they say and do. Some keyboard warriors are also active elsewhere. If the internet and platforms were not so important and strategic, why would an authoritarian regime want to shut it down? It is now also an organising medium as well as an influencing one.

But you are right in that grounding in real life face-to-face engagement and in other platforms or instances is a vital force for new thinking and practice. It is all desperately shallow and a desert intellectually. One is attacked and put down for being an intellectual. Our universities are by and large not engaging in any such thinking, nor are there think tanks worth the name. There is no social research worth its name to irrigate, debate views, search for ways forward. Maybe political parties do this in-house; I would not know.

As for a culture of transparency and accountability, parliament’s supreme role in that respect, dedicated institutions of audit and track white-collar crime, fraud, money laundering have been bludgeoned into silence or hollowed out, captured to become a weapon for hitting at opponents.

* There remains however the nagging question of whether the people who vote parties/alliances of whichever political affiliation to power care about the issues that intellectuals debate about. Their major and immediate consideration seems to be about old-age pensions hikes and other freebies, so they get the government that they deserve, isn’t it?

I do not think there should be this binary of intellectuals thinking about values and lofty utopian deals and the masses content with bread and butter… and circuses. People I listen to don’t like “faire dominer” and have a strong sense of what’s fair and just, of dignity and self-esteem. I don’t subscribe to the Maslow pyramid, as it were. Intellectuals debate about social, economic, and cultural rights too, not just civil and political ones. They are so interwoven.

I engage to listen in many deprived parts and among marginalised population groups of the island and among women specifically as the most voiceless. It is shaping all the time and revising my understanding of trends and dynamics. It serves to confront ‘idées reçues’, tear down intellectual silos. For instance, about how deeply embedded the narco-economy is in this country, woven in the economics of everyday life and its familial and local community anchors and tearing at its fabric.

That is the greatest indictment of the incumbent regime. Normalising drug trafficking at all levels. The havoc cuts across urbanites and non-urbanites, rural, urban. What also comes across is the sheer resentment at inequalities, passe-droits and “guette figure”, arbitrary practices. When one looks at V-dem’s ingredients of democratisation – the role of international democracy support and protection – even autocratising states among our current constellation of geopolitical big brothers, should baulk at openly supporting a narco state….

Rallying against this should be a powerful dynamic, an incessant narrative. If attention is not dispersed by series of revelations, scandals, voyeuristic exercises.

At the moment many people, and the world over, are suffering from the cost-of-living crisis, more exposed as we are with a failed model of high export growth, high imported consumption and high debt. It keeps people fearful for their jobs, silent for fear of retaliation, self-censorship. The palliatives offered in pensions, top-up minimum income are just that and funded by consumption taxes and depreciations.

The inequities and unsustainability have to be exposed and credible alternatives thought through from the ground up. An alternative political economy. Deconstructing, unpacking. But which can only find a ground with alternance… We have been there before in our history. We have mobilised on this – “elites” and so-called “masses”, yet so full of knowledge of their situation and of possible ways out. I grew up in these moments and it has never left me. I know I’m not the only one… There is scope for transformation.

* ‘The education system is so low and the mentality in Mauritius is so insular and so partisan and the alternative itself is so mediocre that I fear that this political party may come back to power again.’ That’s a comment posted by a Facebooker recently. Does this sound plausible to you and is the scepticism or pessimism justified?

Yes and no, to all you put forward! And that is the terrain to navigate. In the age of AI, pandemics, climate, pollution and biodiversity multiple crises, yes, our poor educational system ill equips us, particularly in the ability to think. But that should be an opportunity to do away with the old and not let the demons stop usfrom crafting a desirable new one. Insular when young people yearn to leave, and many are so internet savvy? When our generations straddle many continents from previous migrations and diasporas?

* The younger generation, especially the qualified ones, have already started voting with their feet to what they think could be greener pastures in Europe and Canada, the US, and that with encouragement and support from their parents. Too bad for the country, isn’t it?

Yes, as they have always done, both a push and pull. It’s funny that as we are decolonising supposedly, we go to ex-colonial powers and not to China, Russia, India as prominent BRICS. There must be a story there about liberal democracies and ways of life. Those that can only remain, are they all hopeless? No! Their capacities, skills, creativity has not been nurtured and recognised by a failed, poor educational system.

* There was a period of economic difficulties when youth looked on migration for economic security reasons, is it the case that today’s youth are restless for other reasons, whether it is fed up with nepotism or lack of development opportunities unless they become agents of the political nomenklatura?

I think they did for the attractions of urban life, by its energy and intellectual and cultural life, its cosmopolitan nature.But yes, many who are leaving are fed up with nepotisms and glass ceilings from both the private sector and the state. Both now patrimonial and the state particularly captured by private interests.

* Has the collective spirit and impetus provided by the disastrous Wakashio episode fizzled out or is it waiting for expression at the polls?

The collective spirit has been blunted, bludgeoned by repressive legislation, brutally applied, and by manipulating the protagonists splintering into factions with different agendas. The regime declared states of emergency to stop the “insignifiant” from being part of restoring the ecosystem, ignored the pleas of well-meaning citizens and organised groups to find ways to cope resiliently with Covid-19, discipline the informal sector.

What did it do with it? Procurement and use of public money, institutional capital and legislative power for ends of private power as we all know. We also know the limits of this sort of rationality when people are found inexplicably dead in procurement rivalries.Others seething for failed contract bids…

It should be in the mix, the scale of our vulture economics, itsrationality. Can we shift the fear, by calling it out smartly so that it speaks in the urns, truly and transparently? And we also pre-empt any alternance for using the same formidable liberticide arsenal, to wreak revenge or worse do the same?

That is why civil society mobilisation is so key. And has faltered by a combination of agitprop and shallow personalised “faire politique autrement” What we need is groundbreaking and it is a long, long haul. Let’s get at least a common ground for all opposition to clear the way for progressive forces within and outside of mainstream parties, A broad tactical, if not strategic alliance, constituency-specific to start with.

But then is the regime resisting change forestalling this by cooking up some law on sedition, and dipping into deep coffers to buy into the alliance, up to the night or day before? The latter we know will happen. Much of the electorate will more than ever, in our toxic electoral system, watch to swing with “lekip ki pou gagne”, and “ki mo pou gagne ladan”? With received wisdom.

So, these are the stakes and they are high. Time to mobilise further, constructively.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 21 July 2023

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