Thank you, SAJ

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

There is no doubt that nearly a century of Mauritian history unfolded in the tribute paid to Sir Anerood Jugnauth, former Prime Minister and president of the Republic of Mauritius, who had been in the limelight of Mauritian politics for six decades. Homage came pouring in from across the political, economic and social spectrum of the country after news of his demise was made public on Thursday June 3rd. The sad news made people realize that Sir Anerood Jugnauth had definitely left the political landscape of the country, of which he was, undeniably, a dominant giant. Only now that he is no more do the people of Mauritius take full measure of the extent of his commitment to politics starting from the pre-Independence era.

The media coverage of his political career is most instructive and informative to the younger generation and serves as a reminder to one and all that SAJ’s engagement spans almost three generations of Mauritian politics. He joined the charismatic highly-outspoken intellectual figures, the Bissoondoyal brothers of the Independent Forward Bloc, participated in delegations to England, actively engaged in elections during the colonial days. His engagement with the MMM in the late 70s paved the way to a promising career marked by his strong personality and commitment to play a leading role in the political affairs of the country. After a brief passage in the PSM, the foundation of his own party in the 1980s, the MSM, definitely made SAJ an indisputable player in the political arena to reckon with ever since.

Destiny plays a big part in life: this was SAJ’s firm belief, judging from several statements he made on his career and even on the access of his son to the post of PM in 2017. What with his meeting with world figures like Nehru and Nkrumah in England and the fire he sensed burning in them that he felt would propel them to lead and shine as prominent figures in their respective countries, we must acknowledge that his career illustrated his belief in destiny. His lucky stars shone when several external factors combined to create a rapid development of the industrial zone, namely the investment from Hong Kong industrialists in the textile industry at a time when Sir Anerood was at the helm of power. The early eighties were a continuation of hard times which SAJ tackled with a policy of austerity advocated by the MMM, implying sacrifices people had to go through. A flourishing tourism industry and export in textiles signaled the light at the end of the tunnel, lifted thousands of Mauritians out of poverty, increased purchasing power and improved general living conditions of thousands of citizens.

Why were other charismatic leaders overshadowed by SAJ? Seasoned politicians like Sir Satcam Boolell and Sir Gaëtan Duval were great patriots and equally committed to the development of Mauritius. No one denies the contribution of SGD, mainly to the tourism industry. In general perception of politics, the former belonged to the past batch of politicians led by SSR while the latter was striding between controversial early beginnings in politics and the popularity he enjoyed thanks to his outgoing personality and a successful tourism policy he spearheaded for some years. Sir Anerood had a special drive to take the country forward, was imbibed with a deep sense of patriotism to improve the life of citizens, seized the right economic opportunities by engaging with business barons of the private sector in further investments which were set to open further avenues for economic development.

The shabby and run-down look of Port-Louis was metamorphosed with towering new buildings designed in trendy modern architecture. Caudan Waterfront revamped the distressing drab look the vicinity of the harbour had presented to the public and tourists for decades. Back to power at the start of the new millennium, he created Ebène Cybercity, which like Caudan, was described as a concrete jungle by opponents, but is today acknowledged as a most positive contribution. Sir Anerood Jugnauth’s lucky star guided him to put his leadership skills at the service of the country in favourable circumstances at the right moment, to galvanize troops and create a synergy for the building of modern Mauritius.

SAJ’s strong personality and no-nonsense style of governance combined with a sense of discipline and principle of hard work played a major role in building up a positive reputation in the population. His straightforwardness in language and relations accounted for a few abrasive statements and blunt replies to critics. These were generally brushed aside by a public to whom his leadership qualities and contribution to economic development mattered more than the choice of words and tone in heated verbal exchanges among politicians, or undiluted remarks SAJ nervously hurled at any group that he may have antagonized. His village background at Palma certainly left a deep imprint on the natural way he behaved, spoke and connected to others. I think he cared less for his image to please others than concrete actions he undertook. Anyway, politics is not an assembly of choir boys, but an arena for fighters to outsmart rivals, defend political agendas, convince others with the best arguments, promote one’s worth and keep the reins of power in the party’s hands.

Mo ban frer, mo ban ser were the words he often used in addressing the public on national television. Promoters of Creole in the late 90s in Reunion, especially among the leftists and Communist Party crowd, I later learnt, were much elated and lauded SAJ for the free resort to Creole in Mauritius. I could not help telling them, though, that mo ban frer, mo ban ser is the translation of Hindi bhaiyon aur behenon (brothers and sisters), federating words used in public speeches in a purely Indian spirit.

What also endeared SAJ to the public in a way that no other party leaders of the time could was the simplicity of his village background, which he kept all his life and never disowned. He spoke spontaneously and naturally to one and all and remained a gaon man all his life. Mauritius is full of villagers who appreciate the simple way of connecting between politicians and the people, a phenomenon which is often overlooked in assessing merits and defaults of public figures.

My brother Kantilall keeps a fond memory of the Prime Minister when he was tasked by the management of Touessrok Hotel to accompany him in boat trips. SAJ wore a beret and a scarf round his neck, and was in a most relaxed mood on such occasions. Care was taken not to pester the Prime Minister with questions; however, he spoke out and commented naturally and simply on any topic. He expected no grand reception on private visits. My youngest sister Brinda was instructed to meet SAJ with an umbrella to protect him from drops of rain a few yards away from the reception hall of Trou aux Biches hotel. He declined the offer saying: I am fine. Protect yourself, daughter (mo tifi). She obeyed, and of course, she was scolded by the administration for not insisting!. As for me, I always sensed an air of melancholy emanating from his face, which is perhaps linked to his childhood experiences.

I gauged the mood of the country on every visit during my globe-trotting experience in Europe, North Africa, the West Indies, Africa and Asia. Conversations with relatives, friends, casual encounters with all and sundry across the island conveyed a realistic overview of the hardships many folks were facing in the early 80s. Bright former Q.E.C students were jobless after completing their studies abroad. Once, I invited a couple of Sino-Mauritian girls to the house at Triolet when they knocked at the door to distribute leaflets for the Catholic Church in Port-Louis. They studied Accountancy and Architecture in Australia, and were unemployed. Faith instilled hope in them. Forget purchasing power; austerity and belt-tightening was the rule.

‘Your country has refunded all its debts,’ was the good news I heard from a Frenchman abroad, who had just come back from a cooperation mission in Mauritius in mid-1986. The gate was wide open to a new era of opportunities, investments, employment and prosperity. Educated young adults could not believe their eyes when they were summoned for job interviews, and were recruited. No backing or caste-preferences! Girls could find jobs and husbands as factories were set up in the villages, an idea emanating from the PMO. The pace of development gathered momentum in the early 90s. A feel-good factor pervaded society. Mauritius gained status in the region and at international level. It made Mauritians abroad proud of their country.

No wonder SAJ was disappointed at not being re-elected in 1995. There are ups and downs in every mortal’s life, and no one is perfect. Destiny smiled again at him in 2000, and wiped out the humiliation of 2010 in the 2014 elections.

India did a great honour to Mauritius in declaring a mourning day on June 5th, 2021. The demise of Sir Anerood Jugnauth jolts the population, and mainly, the younger generation into an awareness of his achievements throughout his political career, and all the benefits people are enjoying today. He was the last representative of an early breed of politicians of high mettle. It is the end of an era in Mauritius. Our thoughts go to Lady Sarojini, his daughter and son, the Prime Minister, his wife, daughters and relatives. We can only say: Thank you, Sir Anerood.

* Published in print edition on 8 June 2021

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