Interview: Chetan Ramchurn – Entrepreneur
‘The Labour Party should let the honest leftist voices be heard. For at the moment, it is not connecting with Mauritians’
‘The Annual ‘Tap Latab’ exercise (Budget Speech) is such a waste of time. 3 hours of pure PR’
Our interviewee this week is a young entrepreneur – formerly president of the Youth Wing of the MMM – who has bold and incisive views on the current chaotic state of our polity. His views span politics, economics, finance, business and the shady undercurrents on which they float and which are corrupting Mauritan society. His diagnosis is clear: there is rot everywhere and the only redemption can be a return to nobler values which the leaders and their yes-men/women have long since abandoned in their pursuit of filthy lucre in cahoots with Big Business and dubious investors to whom they are selling the country’s soul just so as to remain in their seats. His is a breath of much-needed fresh air. We hope it will blow all around and remove the mental cobwebs of those who are supposed to be leading us, but also of the people who must get out of their lethargy if they care for themselves and the future of their children.
Mauritius Times: The leader of the MMM went public a few days ago to express his “surprise” by and annoyance (“agacement”) with the goings-on within the MMM in relation to the election of the Poliburo of the party. It’s almost certain that he had been taken off guard, and might well be losing the upper hand over his party, as some would suggest. Rather surprising, isn’t it, for someone so well versed in turf battles in the political arena?
Chetan Ramchurn: Before indulging into that, let me first point out how irrelevant such internal spats are while we are in the midst of suffering from further encroachment upon our private spaces with the opaque Safe City project and we face the risk of welcoming dubious figures in our motherland, such is the eagerness of this government to sell our nationality to foreigners. But this is the MMM, a party that can re-enact the same stale acts sine die. Expect one of the patented yes-men to profess the non sequitur of ‘Plus fort que jamais’ or ‘Mari Travay Dekip’ after the confusion stemming from this masquerade.
There were signs of ‘revolt’ back in 2015 where an initial list scripted by ‘rebels’ (former obsequious members that had finally seen the light) had already penned the ousting of Bérenger. The latter having tamed some of his adversaries with top-notch posts was able to quell that revolt. This is the ‘lutte des places’ taken to its next stage. Taken to its extreme, this fight over seats could involve profiling and canvassing on ethnic lines.
These elections, now reduced to a divide-and-rule device, have been long used by the circus master to exercise total control over what will eventually become his last bastion. Having stripped the MMM of real causes, killed the ‘droit de tendance’ and sacrificed its credibility with on/off bouts, this was to be expected. French rappers use the line ‘Il a accouché de sa propre fin’ to describe such situations. Only time will tell whether it applies to him or not. He might have resolved the conflict on Wednesday and cobbled a team that satisfies both sides but the credibility of the party is in tatters. So many new and unknown figures with no expressed opinion on the issues that matter next to those who merely echo their leader, it does not look good.
This is my reading of things; the absence of any desire to improve the lives of the masses and the selling out to the capitalists has transformed the movement in a hollow vessel with many yearning for any form of recognition. We are at the stage where the ‘seconds couteaux’ try to upgrade to première lame status; essentially a battle between old and new yes-men/women. The only way a party’s internal elections would gain in credibility would be through the organisation of open primaries where all Mauritians would be allowed to vote. Like other mainstream parties, MMM’s version of democracy is a farce.
* Paul Bérenger will surely fight back, as he is being nudged to do so – he would not himself want to be reduced to being a “Leader Minimo”, wouldn’t he? Do you expect him to regain control of the situation, or have the circumstances changed today for him?
He is not doing much as an MP albeit voicing his concern for the oligarchy on the sugar (a misnomer, this is verily the cane sector) conundrum so he has plenty of time to leverage control in his favour over the next few weeks and months. He will be patient and will not hasten matters. You will have noticed that he is only annoyed (agacer) and not angry (Mo bien amerder). He holds the purse strings of the party and that is a determining factor. He has a national aura that his adversaries need.
Some in the mainstream press still hold Berenger in high esteem and it constitutes an asset for the party. Both sides need each other. This is why they have compromised and he seems to have gained the upper hand with a number of people from his circle placed in good positions. While the two pretenders to the secretary general position have been denied, it has gone to his most loyal follower. He has fought and seems to have won, not necessarily to salvage his dimming career, but to keep the family concern going.
* If you go by the MMM’s past track record in the opposition, the current government would have faced a difficult time opposite an MMM of the earlier days what with the long list of scandals that have marked its mandate so far. Whatever happened to the MMM of the earlier years?
It simply does not know which party it will have to ally itself with so as to have the best chances of gaining power. Le cul entre deux chaises, the safest position is to stay quiet and not create ripples. The MMM has long been at the forefront when it came to the revelation of scandals. The catchphrase ‘Zot mem aster, zot mem vander’ punctured young Jugnauth’s credibility to such an extent that even the numerous advisers could not plug the leaks to this day.
But let us be honest about the MMM. In 2014, it was happy to play the “opposition loyale” while the Labour Party was in power and following the power change it resorted to taking shots in a most selective manner so that the scandal-prone MSM would get rid of the ML. With the live telecast of debates, people are realising that even Duval can ask questions that embarrass the government. One of the rare questions asked by the MMM’s leader this year showed the decrepit state it had reached; asking whether a hike in electricity prices would be considered to give some comfort to the troubled billionaires of the cane sector.
* Do you think that the younger generation who have climbed on the MMM bandwagon following the recent ‘Comité Central’ election, or those who look poised to take over, be able to take up from where Paul Bérenger has left it and provide the leadership that would reinvigorate the party?
The second fiddles in the MMM will have trouble upgrading to first violins. The system has been festering for a while and many who have held on to it have been nurtured into saying yes and not having ideas. This is not likely to change. There is no rebirth without a real funeral. I trust them to get this version of the MMM to pier eventually. Then only something new can emerge.
* The MMM is sailing in turbulent waters presently and it’s not clear in which direction it is heading. The PMSD and the Mouvement Patriotique are not tall enough to constitute a threat to the governing alliance. The only remaining contender on the political spectrum is the Labour Party. Do you see the LP capable of successfully challenging the government?
Limiting the potential contenders to a single option is dangerous and would mean that we would have to accept that it is only a cyclic switch between two families and factions. Can a leftist movement muster enough force prior to the next elections? We will see.
The Labour Party seems to have lost its voice. To paraphrase Gramsci, power is only conquered through ideas. At the moment, the hegemony of the capitalists is well entrenched. They are the ones dictating the terms of the debate. Their stooges are polluting the mainstream media and are framing public opinion to please their masters. Social engineering is being used extensively to veil the truth from our eyes. Nonetheless, shunning confrontation with highly biased figures would be a mistake.
Unless the Labourites position themselves in a battle of ideas versus the capitalists, there is the real danger of this calamitous government returning to power. It needs honest voices that say things as they are: this is a government that will rank amongst the worst this country has seen. So bad, that Pravind Jugnauth seems to be a visionary when compared to its other members. This is a government that has relinquished its powers in favour of the private sector that is happy to give exemptions worth billions of rupees to promoters of smart cities, that has considerably weakened the state while the EDB will determine what type of economic growth this country will pursue.
This is a government that toys with the idea of privatising water, that does not pay much attention to the rule of law, which is ready to do everything to satisfy the gluttony of the kitchen. Its charge sheet would have been enough to have it condemned. But the times have changed. There is little to no reaction on the part of the public on several critical issues. The first step would be to wake the people up.
The Labour Party would do well do revamp its personnel; let the honest leftist voices be heard. For at the moment, it is not connecting with Mauritians. It would do well to do away with those that have created a chasm between it and the middle class; those with love for stimulus packages and fiscal gifts for conglomerates. It needs to work on what democratisation would entail; it has to be the empowering of the masses not merely the pandering to another bourgeoisie.
It has to be bold; come up with new checks and balances and additional power to the people in the form of recall elections. Their dearth of bold ideas allied with an amateurish communication cripples them. They need to step up their game to have a solid chance of winning it next time.
* As regards the current government itself, critics have argued that its recent budget lacked a clear economic vision and substance and that it was more geared for the next elections. Isn’t it what all governments do at this stage in their mandates?
These are paltry gifts compared to what have been given to the haves. The Annual ‘Tap Latab’ exercise is such a waste of time. 3 hours of pure PR — I use PR to be politically correct. Big Business understands that and knows that the servile government will grant it whatever it desires, whether the government acknowledges it in this bill or not. There are a number of déjà vu measures: the Civil Service College, Ocean Economy. Sprinkle some fad terms (Fintech, AI) and you have a potpourri akin to what this mandate is (not a lot of substance and plenty of spin.)
What is even more worrying is that some opposition leaders were almost begging for the government to include gifts to the cane sector… this tells us how rigged and perverted the system is. Of course, the government will be happy to oblige and will be setting up a Ministerial Committee for the bending over exercise.
As an entrepreneur, I find the budget out of sync. Saddling SMEs with graduates is like putting two issues together and hoping that a solution will materialise out of it. This is a simplistic and shows a dearth of knowledge of the many administrative hurdles and costs in the initial years of business.
Any measure to alleviate the burden on the middle class is welcomed. Still, this government is also saying that it will not touch the privileges of the ultra-rich. It needs the financing at election time. So what it does is reduce the price of petroleum products that it increased some weeks back and oversells the tax reduction. A lot of overselling will mean as many disgruntled people in one year.
* The government may be also looking for a face-saving device which would allow it to get out of the mess caused by the ‘Cash for Citizenship’ scheme. What lessons should we draw from this episode as regards the formulation of government policy on economic development and the role of such institutions like the EDB, the membership of which shows a predominance of private sector executives?
The way a few of the directors of the EDB are passing the hot potato to each other so that the ownership of this half-baked measure is not ascribed to them is comical. I am not even blaming them though. The private sector works like this; easy money means you can throw caution to the wind. What was the Prime Minister thinking when he chose to keep it in the Finance Bill? Pertaining to the outcry of some certified protectors of the historic bourgeoisie, this is an upgrade on the IRS/RES which only offered residence permits to the purchasers. The capitalists are good at influencing public opinion when they are not maximising profits. Some of the lobbying in that regard is thus artificial and we should be wary of that. Their villas could remain unsold.
The private sector works best only when the State holds its ground and is not reduced to a doormat for the private sector. The latter is on the look for profitability, usually on the short term and without caring about that happens in the long term. The EDB cannot dictate the terms of the game and tell us how the economy will be run. The present Prime Minister seems to have given up on affirming this stance. And this joke of a budget attests to that.
While we have been lauding the Singaporean model for years, we should probably pay attention to how their country is run. There is a strong state with strong regulators allowing private companies to operate in a safe cadre. Any government kowtowing to conglomerates hoping that this will lead to more jobs and economic growth fails to understand the primary motive of companies.
* Speaking of cash for the government’s budget, there would be a few billions forthcoming from the Saudis in the wake of the visit of the Kingdom’s Interior minister Prince Abdulaziz Al Saud. Whatever the price we would be paying for that, Showkutally Soodhun seems to outperforming his predecessors – the earlier frequent visitors to Saudi Arabia – who could never fetch us a political price for Saudi oil. What’s your take on that?
There is no such thing as a free meal in this world. Be it from India, China or Saudi Arabia. We are increasingly the hostage of their interests. I call it a duopoly; whatever the local oligarchy does not own is now being preyed upon by imperial powers.
The devil is in the detail. What will we be giving up at a later stage to please these overtly generous donors is what truly matters. Will they eventually have a say in how we are supposed to live? We have already started banning women from assemblies and there are tensions on communal grounds. Our way of life is what makes us unique. We should do our best to preserve that.
The generous grants showcase how past decisions affect us to this date. The manque à gagner from the flat tax considerably decreases the Government’s ability to act. Hard to believe that it is Soodhun’s charisma that is attracting this generosity, so I am pretty sure we will have to foot the bill in one way or the other at a later stage.
* But there is also some disturbing news about MP Soodhun relating to the sale by his son, Umeir, of his lease rights over a plot of State lands to Chinese investors for some Rs 48 million, a sale which according to documents published in the press would have been approved by former Housing and Lands minister Soodhun himself. The Intermediate Court ruling in the matter of MedPoint, although subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court, would however be a good place to start with for guidance on matters of conflict of interest. What do you think?
Well, jamais deux sans trois. First the accusations of threatening Duval, then he is alleged to have used derogatory terms about a section of the population in a private meeting and now the sale of this lease which raises questions.
The 2015 verdict would be a good starting point although the facts of this case might differ. The sentencing judgement in the MedPoint case highlighted that despite the absence of monetary gain for the accused, any participation in the decision making process was found in contravention of the POCA.
‘The concrete fact is that he participated in the decision making process as regards re-allocation of funds wherein his relative had a personal interest, and this actual taking part in these given circumstances is absolutely prohibited under section 13(2) POCA.’
The toothless watchdog could eventually pretend to act under public pressure. But not much is likely to happen. What people would like to know is whether he has respected his duties and responsibilities as a public official. Expect threats to members of the press by the parties involved and a lot of spin around this matter.
* There also appears to be lots of cash holed up in different places around the island – not only in ‘coffres-forts’ in the Upper Plaines Wilhems. And if we go by the trade the ‘depositors’ of the latest catch to the tune of some Rs 58 million ply, the Rs 220 million look like peanuts today. Isn’t that the perception?
These two issues are interrelated. The opaque political financing system is at the heart of our woes. How can people enjoying the perks of unlimited money from financiers seriously try to crack down dirty money or prevent money laundering? It is a state of mind that has percolated to the masses. The wheeling and dealing, what Mauritians call ‘tracer’, is present at different levels. This greed is seen when we open our arms to international con men, when vehicles are given like bones to those holding important positions in the system, when despite the billions of profits of the well-diversified cane sector, there is still the desire for more, when the father ensures that he places his/her ward to replace him so that this system perpetuates itself. Insatiable greed is present everywhere.
What we can do at this stage is initiate our youth to more noble pursuits. I wrote earlier in the year about cultural democratisation and the importance of a pass which would allow students to discover the beauty of our culture. This along with the cultivation of empathy should be at the heart of our concerns. Otherwise, we have other leaders that will not care about the inequality gap and this is not the type of society that would be elevating for its residents.
As regards the much maligned Rs 220 Million, we should be honest. To even think that only one of the mainstream party leader’s would have a war chest would be illogical. There are many that have profiteered from the system and have built whole empires with this kind of financing. It is a massive hypocrisy on the part of those that have handsomely benefited from this system to pretend that they are any different. What I regret is that nothing has been done by the Labour Party or the MMM to remedy same. They have not questioned the system and if they have their attempts to change it have been weak.
We should add the number of drug cases, the ballad of Lutchigadoo, the freebies given to family members, the use of public money to rescue a sinking hotel, the constant lying of our leaders, their dishonest acquaintances, the vulture-like lawyers, and the many shady deals to the unaccounted money that seems to circulate in Mauritius.
What is even more worrying is that the disenchantment of the population is quickly turning into indifference. The people seem to no longer care. This is what we will have to fight against.
* Published in print edition on 6 July 2018
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