Interview: Sangeet Hazareesingh
But it is rare for the public to learn of the true scale of what happened because most of these secrets remain secret…”
* ‘Courage is not in resigning. Courage lies in Mr Bodha telling taxpayers why his conscience does not allow him to continue working with the current leaders’
* ‘SSR didn’t become PM in 1968 out of thin air. He built it on a career of service. Likewise, Paul Berenger didn’t materialize out of thin air’
* ‘Ingenuity is not lacking among those who want to cheat. What we need most of all is not laws. We need a few good men’
Like most of the Mauritian diaspora, who are very active on social media, commenting almost on a daily basis on developments in every field, be it economic or political, back home, Sangeet Hazareesingh also takes a keen interest is how the country is doing. He has a Ph.D. in Mathematics and has taught at the Universities of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Minnesota, Duluth, University of Wisconsin, Superior, and for the last 26 years been on the faculty of Mesabi Range College, which is part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
In this issue’s interview, he comments on several issues of current interest and others that are basic to the good functioning of our democracy and good governance, such as political financing, democratization within political parties, revisiting the Constitution, etc. As regards the latest political development, the resignation of Nando Bodha from the government, he feels that it will serve no purpose if he (Bodha) does not come forward with the real reasons why he quit, in other words say exactly what are the dysfunctions and why. Read on…
Mauritius Times: Seen from a distance, what does the situation Mauritius finds itself in today look like to the diaspora? Much more than delicate: messy and ugly?
Sangeet Hazareesingh: First of all, it’s important for me to mention that, while I am not affiliated to any political party, I do have a soft corner for one. However, my views are not coloured by sentimentality towards any party.
The best way to describe my impression of Mauritius presently is incomprehension.
Here is a country that has had a decent history of governance, compared to many others. Increasingly, however, successive governments seem to think that, if they placate their electorate with more goodies, they can govern as they please.
And it has worked. In the last 25-30 years, governments have come and gone, but the way the country has been governed has not changed. There is no accountability until elections come round. Not one of the institutions that can bring restraint to how politicians operate has worked.
So yes, it looks ugly and messy.
* You might have heard about Nando Bodha’s resignation last Saturday. It seems he had reached a point where he could not take it anymore. In fact, he expressed his disappointment that ‘la culture du pouvoir et le fonctionnement du MSM ne correspondent plus aux valeurs et principes qui ont toujours marqué mon parcours politique…’ He might have listened to his conscience, but it takes courage to listen to your own conscience these days given the present circumstances here, isn’t it?
Conscience is a good thing but the question, especially in politics, is: To what end? It is possible to use it to work from within to effect change, or conscience can dictate that change is no longer possible from within. I don’t know if we will ever get an answer as to why Mr Bodha decided that this is the time to call it quits, but the country deserves to know.
Courage is not in resigning. Mr Bodha has been paid handsomely by taxpayers for a number of years. He will be paid handsomely in retirement. Courage lies in telling taxpayers why his conscience does not allow him to continue working with the current leaders.
Not everything that he knows comes within the purview of the Official Secrets Act. If his resignation leads to us being none the wiser, then what does it matter to the average citizen whether he is in government or out? And where’s the courage if it comes at no risk?
In fact, his resignation may do more harm if the people who take over are less scrupulous.
* In any case, Bodha’s resignation is surely an embarrassment for the MSM, the more so since Yogida Sawmynaden is still around – though admittedly, like everyone, he is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Should politics (good political sense) trump legalistic considerations pertaining to presumption of innocence in this case?
The Prime Minister enjoys almost absolute power in Mauritius. Ministers serve at his pleasure. Being part of the Cabinet is not a right that Mr Sawmynaden has. It is a privilege bestowed on him by the PM. The PM does not need ICAC, or the Police Commissioner or anyone else to find out whether Mr Sawmynaden pocketed the money allocated to the Constituency Clerk or not.
All it requires is for the PM to tell Mr Sawmynaden that records show that Mrs Kistnen was employed as his Constituency Clerk. Records also show that payment was made to him for seven months’ salary. If Mr Sawmynaden cannot substantiate that this money was actually paid to Mrs Kistnen, then he will have to resign and the matter referred to MRA for failure to report part of his income.
This particular issue is not a legal matter. It is an administrative matter.
* It’s also a political matter…
What I meant is that Mr Maneesh Gobin was using a lot of legalistic arguments to justify why there is no response as yet on whether Mr Sawmynaden did something wrong. The procedure is administrative but yes, the answer is eminently political.
* The Pravind Jugnauth government does not appear perturbed in any way, and the Prime Minister proceeded with a reshuffling of his Cabinet the same day. Life goes on, the government seems to be saying, thanks to its parliamentary majority. What do you think about that?
What’s happening in Mauritius is happening in too many countries that call themselves democracies. Governments have become immune to shame. They are no longer responsive to the need to be transparent. Just because they can get away with it now does not mean that transgressions can continue forever. That’s what Trump thought. Now he is living in fear of what’s to come.
* If we go by the assessments of different international agencies on the governance and democratic credentials of this country, Mauritius would be doing much better than most countries on the African continent and even elsewhere. But ground realities tell a different story…
Mauritius is most likely doing better than many countries but that doesn’t mean it is good. A student who scores 35 on an exam is certainly better than a student who scores 20 but that’s not saying much.
Mauritius is a sophisticated country in the sense that it has well-designed institutions, and it has a civil service that works reasonably well. What it has always lacked is the separation of public and private gain. It is routine for somebody who gets a ticket from the police to call up someone they know to have the ticket cancelled. And it is routine for those who do it to brag about it.
I remember an incident a number of years ago when we were involved in an accident. Even though the relative who drove me admitted being at fault and had the insurance coverage needed, the police kept us at the station for over four hours. I told the policeman who was “investigating” the matter that I had just come back on vacation and I had people waiting for me back home. His response was: “You live abroad. Then obviously you won’t understand the procedure.” Quite obviously, he wanted his bakshish to let us go.
So, the notion that corruption only occurs at the highest level is quite wrong. It occurs daily in big ways and small. Except that we won’t admit that we participate in this system.
We need a set of rules that apply universally.
And this is where the system breaks down. The people who are supposed to set the rules break them for their personal gains and for the benefit of those who support them. It is a symbiotic relationship made in heaven.
The question is not whether corruption can be rooted out. It is: Are we willing to live with the consequences of it being rooted out?
* What do you consider could constitute a threat to our democracy, and how should that be addressed?
The dangers to democracy are visible everywhere. Just one example: Practically every appointment at the higher echelons is made not because people bring any special skills but because they have the right connections. When the country was in its early stages of development, having a few rotten apples here and there was no big deal. Now we are aspiring to play in the big league. We can so easily become prey to chicanery from both internal and external malevolent forces.
* It would seem that the disconnect between an increasing number of the people and the current government is growing by the day. Some are of the view that that disconnect has also to do with the political leadership of the other parties as well – the mainstream parties. How do you react to that?
In the years before Independence, how you were addressed depended on which community you belonged to, with few exceptions.
I remember my grandfather running into the house one day, removing his shoes, and coming out barefoot to talk to this young punk, who worked in the sugar estate. While my grandfather addressed him as Mr.., he called my grandfather by his name. It was not appropriate in those days for a man of his standing, three times as old, to wear a hat or wear shoes because this nineteen-year-old was superior to him because of the colour of his skin.
People, like my grandfather, voted for independence in large part because they felt disrespected in their own country. They had no idea whether better days were ahead or not. All they knew was that the existing state of affairs could not continue.
People today are much more tolerant because they have too much to lose. Few people want to upset the applecart. That’s the ace of many governments. Until it isn’t.
* American press reports by some of the major media companies portrayed a picture of Americans having to put up with Donald Trump during most of the former President’s mandate. And it took four years to make change happen. The feeling here is that though we may not have a Trump-like situation in Mauritius, things are getting nastier by the day and there isn’t much that we can do over here as well until the next elections. Your opinion?
Trump was and is an aberration in American politics. To this day, I do not know whether he actually knew or was it by sheer luck that he picked immigration as his battle cry. It turned out to be the right issue at the right time for a man with no scruples. Enough of the country sided with him on this signature issue that it basically paralyzed the system for four years.
Mauritius is different. There is no hardcore issue that is animating any of the parties. There is no left-right ideological battle.
Until the country is faced with the harsh reality that it converted temporary wealth of the 1980s into unsustainable permanent compensation, there will be little change. All politicians are dreaming of re-creating the economic boom of those days, but that goal remains elusive. In the meantime, compensation in Mauritius for the top levels of government easily exceeds those of richer nations. There aren’t too many government servants in the United States and State Governments who drive to work in luxury cars; those that do rotate in and out of the private sector.
If California was a country, its GDP would be the 8th in the world. The Governor of the State of California earns $201,000 dollars, which is roughly Rs 672,000 month. Almost 70% of that income is taxed at over 20% by the federal government and over 7% by the State. The Governor of California is paying at least 27% in income taxes, almost 3% in social security taxes in addition to deductions for health care, medicare, etc. His take-home pay is approximately Rs 400,000 month. How many executives in Mauritius, in parastatal bodies, are earning more than that? And that’s not even including all the other perks of the job.
Salaries in the public sector are more generous than in many private sector jobs, especially at the higher echelons, and certainly more generous than in most countries I know. Salaries were appropriately raised when the country was really doing well. Successive PRBs have kept on tacking increases to those salaries as if we were producing gold when in reality, all we were doing was borrowing more and more.
So far, we have been lucky that Mauritians have found it relatively easy to obtain work in foreign companies and are not averse to being away from home.
Whether this is going to be possible post-Covid remains to be seen. If the government is not prepared, the prediction of VS Naipaul that Mauritius will be an overcrowded barracoon may well turn out to be true.
And the lack of responsiveness will have consequences.
* To come back to local politics, Nando Bodha hit the nail on its head when he referred to the ‘culture du pouvoir du MSM’ in his resignation note released to the press. It all has to do with the political culture of our political parties – no matter whether we have the best drafted Constitution or not, isn’t it?
I don’t buy the MSM’s “culture du pouvoir” bit. Politics is populated by, supported by, entrenched by some of the most nefarious parts of society. Few people of good repute survive long by being “clean”. That said, there is a question of degree.
There is little doubt that successive governments have become more and more adept at tolerating corruption in their midst. But the surprising, or perhaps not so surprising, thing is that no matter how big the scandal is, it is rare for the public to learn of the true scale of what happened because most of these secrets remain secret.
We also place too much blame on governments and not enough on people. If you know the right people, you can get anything done. If you don’t, then you are on your own. We are a country of men, not of laws. Changing the constitution is not going to change much if we keep this spoils system in place. But no one is going to disarm unilaterally because there is no advantage to doing it.
* It’s the spoils system at work?
Politics is a spoils system. To the winner goes the spoils, but this does not mean that anything goes.
Let’s take the the appointment procedures and criteria for some of the key posts in the country and which may not be serving our democracy well. The government should rightfully appoint people it chooses in key positions but there ought to be some minimum qualifications, not to mention experience for the job. I have a doctorate in Mathematics. It doesn’t qualify me to run Air Mauritius.
I think that, of all the sins of governments in Mauritius, the appointment of unqualified people to be part of key institutions, is the worst. It diminishes the institutions. It saps the morale of the knowledgeable people who work there and, most of all, it conveys the distinct message that if you were to study and learn the skills for a particular job, you would be no better than the man on the street in terms of getting it. This, more than anything, discourages highly qualified Mauritians from coming back.
* The view has been expressed time and again in Mauritius that though our Constitution has served us well these last 50 years, we should revisit that Constitution for the decades ahead and in light of dysfunctions witnessed along the way. What are your thoughts on what is required for the country?
The Constitution of Mauritius was written at a time of much internal turmoil. There was a great need to protect all communities and ensure that government didn’t become a de facto colonial power over some communities. In that sense, it has served us well.
Because of these sensibilities, I don’t think the time is right to rewrite the constitution. I believe there are a number of changes that are manifestly needed:
- It is crazy to have people getting elected with less than 50% of the votes. We should have a runoff system like what happened in the state of Georgia recently. The general election weeds out all but six of the candidates and the runoff picks the winning 3, except in cases where a candidate wins 50% outright. And the runoff should be held within a few days of the general election to avoid protracted campaigning and electoral bribes.
- ICAC’s charter should be revisited with the help of foreign experts. It is clear that some magistrates in Mauritius have demonstrated great integrity. They could be used to provide oversight to ICAC.
- I remember the time when the biggest scandal was whether the word bullshit was used in Parliament. Parliamentarians should be made to go to school to learn how to conduct themselves. And the speaker too.
Most changes I would make are not constitutional. They are more in the realm on norms to be followed in public discourse.
* Published in print edition on 9 February 2021