“The Political Class is Short of Breath

and we have yet to witness the emergence of promising national leaders”

Interview: Kadress Pillay

* ‘The current situation may not be wholly of the making of this government, but eight years in power should make it accountable for its non-action’

* ‘Communalism, casteism, money politics and an outdated electoral system and other historical issues have made politics what it is today’

Kadress Pillay needs no introduction as former Director of Audit or Minister of Education during the eighties. He shares his insights on the current predicaments facing the country and large sections of the population as price escalations and taxes/levies take a heavy toll on the lower and middle rungs of the ladder, eroding their purchasing powers. He also delves on the political context and the ability of the Opposition(s) to constitute a common front to counter the current regime.

Mauritius Times: One major cause of deep concern these days is the rising cost of living, which is hitting hard low-income households and increasingly the middle class as well. Only this week the prices of cooking gas cylinders and petrol have shot up, and it would seem there is more to come. Do you get the feeling that there we are heading toward turbulent times, both on the economic and social fronts?

Kadress Pillay: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that rising prices are affecting everybody, particularly low-income households and increasingly the middle class. I sometimes wonder what would have been the plight of old-age pensioners without the Rs 9000 monthly pension. It must be clear to any objective observer that the prices of most commodities and rates have been on the rise for quite some. This, to my mind, is a matter for concern given the potential for social unrest which arises when people can’t afford to pay for basic necessities.

To be fair, this is not solely the doing of the present government. Supply chains have been severely disrupted by the Covid pandemic, and the war in Ukraine has made matters worse. Production bases have narrowed everywhere with cost implications; freight charges have increased enormously and, unfortunately, we do not have any control over these factors. We have seen lately that without the central bank’s intervention the foreign exchange market is going against us in a very troubling manner and we can assert that the impact of central banks on the foreign exchange is fairly mild and temporary.

What worries me is that we are not prepared to develop the local competence to face the new paradigm, nor are we seeing policies that will develop a fallback position as regards self-sufficiency in general, but food in particular. Perhaps it is also an opportunity for those who have lived a life of indulgence in material comfort to rethink their priorities as a response to the dangers ahead.

In any case, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Any government has to intervene in a situation of crisis but it has to be done in a focused and targeted manner; the obvious way to go about it is through the introduction of a voucher system for specific basic commodities such as gas, flour and flour. But I would also wish to see some support to our elders with regard to their health issues.

* What government does or fails to do affects the economy one way or the other as well as the standard of living of the population. Does it seem to you that the government is doing the right things in light of the economic challenges facing the country?

In matters of policy, I do not think we have hard and fast rules about what is right and what is wrong. In relation to the hard times that we are going through and which may stay with us for quite a while, I think we are living on borrowed money and borrowed time.

Hard work and discipline have taken a back seat and productivity is largely compromised due to a lack of competence and a mindset of putting in less and expecting more – a mentality born out of the years of plenty after the first economic miracle of 1983. There is no doubt that the challenges of what is termed as the changing world economic order are going to be tremendous and demanding.

‘Gouverner c’est prévoir’. Any responsible government should take full stock of the trends on the global stage and formulate policies that will secure the stability and peace of our multi-ethnic nation. The momentum of the first economic miracle, which lasted for some years, has created a materialistic euphoria which has veiled our vision of realities and imprisoned us in a comfort zone. Leaders of public opinion and politicians of all shades tend to view everything in terms of economic choices which may well be the case, but any society aspiring to make progress, ensure peace and stability needs more than micro- and macro-economics to lay the path to success.

That path goes through a modern education system adaptable to changing needs, an effective and modernized health system, utilities and environment prominence, food production and security, law and order, all of which are as important as economics. We should also not lose sight of the undercurrents of what is known as Industry 4.0 and 5.0.

* Some critics have taken issue with they consider the misguided priorities of the government with, on the one hand, its huge capital expenditures on prestige projects and, on the other hand, its skewed allocations to price support subsidies – a pittance, they say – as compared to what have been budgeted and being spent on “distressed” companies through the MIC. What’s your take on that?

Let us be honest and give the devil its due. Most of the capital projects people are talking about are those initiated well before the coming to power of the present regime. Almost all of them are projects of the Labour Party, but there is no denying that the present government’s strong point is its capacity to take decisions and get the ball rolling.

As regards prestige projects, it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of the ferocious resistance many years back to the construction of the National Road known at that time as ‘La Route Burton’. I was a child spending most of my free time in the beautiful village of Mount Ory, and I took special pleasure watching works being carried out. The Labour government of the day took a real battering from all quarters and certainly words like bribes and prestige were in the air. Just imagine Mauritius without this road. As for the ‘Metro Leger’, the ‘Phoenix Overpass’, the ‘Chebel Bridge’ projects, only time will tell about their long-term viability.

Capital expenditures on those projects should not be related to price support subsidies because their objectives, timeframes and impact are different. For example, the impact on transport cost and traveling time is certainly going to be positive. In a largely open economy, run on free market principles, price stabilization, subsidies may be of short-term relevance.

As for the MIC, I have strong reservations about the principle of responding to a critical situation, presumably short-term, by creating a permanent institution and, to add insult to injury, a company funded by the Central Bank, to support ailing private companies. I am not against the principle of support by government to the private sector during times of crisis. There are other ways of achieving the same result without implicating directly our central bank. I believe it’s the duty of the commercial banks to do this job out of their significant reserves amassed during good times.

I would certainly have no issue with the Bank of Mauritius as a banker of last resort to lend to the commercial banks for that particular purpose. I’m yet to be convinced on the accountability framework put in place and the governance standards introduced and I’m asking myself in case of failure of the MIC where Rs 80 billion have been invested, what would be the position of the two deputy governors who happened to be ‘au four et au moulin en meme temps.’

* Rama Sithanen was saying only last year that ‘Minister Padayachy has relied too much on ‘Old Normal’ remedies to cure the ailment of the ‘New Normal’ world. Would that be a fair comment or are the present economic conditions largely beyond the control of the government?

Clichés like ‘old normal’ remedies and ‘new normal’ world paint a blurred picture of realities. I do not think that this is a fair comment nor do I believe that the present conditions are wholly beyond the control of government. Coming forward with simple such clichés is not enough; we would rather expect concrete actions and an innovative strategic and pragmatic approach from local economic experts to remedy the situation.

I’m an old schooler who strongly believes in hard work, discipline, dedication and honesty. Economic models matter, but they are not sine qua non. My view is that the rot has sneaked into our culture of hard work, discipline and accountability well before 2014. It was veiled by the material abundance of 1983 onwards and the other economic windows that opened up in its wake.

The supply side policies during the 2008 financial crisis have also helped to reignite the economic engine, but the accompanying policy for poverty reduction through the NEF and the CSR did not have the success that we might have expected in spite of the billions invested. I was chairman of the board of the NEF for two years and, unfortunately, I had not enough time to rectify the mistakes of the past and to pave the way forward for a true social integration.

This government has been in place for eight years now and material hardship is on the rise. With the continuing global uncertainties, coupled with the fact that the country is already being pulled down by lack of ownership and responsibility at many institutional levels where accountability has dissipated, the time has come for immediate and responsible actions. The current situation may not be wholly of the making of this government, but eight years in power should make it accountable for its non-action.

* On the other hand, social media and press comments may not be projecting an objective reflection of what the “masse silencieuse” think about the doings and misdoings of the government. What do you personally think about how the government is running the country, especially with regard to governance issues?

One thing I’ve learned as from early childhood from my parents of modest means is ‘vivre vrai’ and to apologise for our mistakes. This is true for individuals as for collectives. Governance is an all-encompassing expression for leadership, good management, accountability and probity within a framework of rules and regulations that define the principles, purposes and processes.

The report of the director of audit for year 2021 gives an endless list of shortcomings in governance. Although the rot has started quite a long time back, it’s unfortunate that eight years in power has not enabled the present regime to destroy the culture of impunity in the service. The ‘mass silencieuse’ has evolved significantly and positively. Its measure of awareness is extensive and they are asking the right questions and they are not getting adequate responses. We see reactions instead of actions.

* Many people you talk to and who say they are unhappy with the way the government is running the country also ask: ‘What’s the alternative?’ How do you respond to that?

The opposition or oppositions, since we have many of them, are expected to be alternative government or governments in waiting. I get to meet in my daily interactions with people that come from different backgrounds and who hold different political views; most unfortunately are of the view that the only agenda of the opposition or oppositions is the following: ‘ôte-toi de là que je m’y mette’. When was it the last time that we’ve been gratified with a visionary plan for the future by the L’entente de l’Espoir or the Labour party in relation to education, health, environment, economy, law and order?

I think that by and large Westminster democracy in Mauritius has slowly taken a back seat; we only have to watch parliamentary workings, the standard of parliamentary debates, the responses and non-responses to parliamentary questions, the timetabling of proposed legislations and debates, the critiques of the director of audit, the state of national strategic institutions, the obvious failure of the party system and the state of the public service… and we know that we are in for a bleak future.

The political class is short of breath, and we have yet to witness the emergence of promising national leaders. Most of the political parties of significance in the opposition have kept the same person as leader for years. One could argue that the choice has been made by democratic means, but I frankly have my own doubts about this, because the strength of manipulation of party membership by party leaders is incredible.

This is why I would suggest that to ensure truly democratic parties, the mandate of the Electoral Commission could be expanded to include a framework of rules and regulations governing the registration and management of political parties both at the national and at the constituency levels.

For having been through the process and paid the price for my resistance, I can tell you that anybody standing his ground against a political leader is bound to be kicked out. This is certainly totally undemocratic and against the spirit of the Westminster model we have copied.

We need to amend the constitution with proposals for an effectively independent electoral framework to ensure that best democratic practices prevail. The call for public funding of political parties can provide a real opportunity for a tradeoff for a democratic framework for the management of political parties.

* The Labour Party, the MMM, the PMSD and the late-comer – MSM – have been dominating politics over the past many decades, and the Laurettes, Valaydens, Sunassys and even the Bodhas and Bhadains do not appear to be making much headway. Do you think that despite their disappointments with the mainstream parties and with the so-called ‘dinosaurs’ heading them, the electorate still find comfort with the status quo?

Democracy is a cultural reflex built into our human psyche over time; in Mauritius, we have not had the same time span of 600 years or more as is the case in Great Britain. Our democratic culture is a borrowed one not imprinted in our psyche. The founding fathers of our sovereignty were aware of the cultural exigencies of the Westminster system of governance and were mentally equipped to secure our transition from colony to sovereignty and they were supported by top civil servants who were largely imbued with the same democratic frame of mind. We cannot say the same as regards those who have come afterwards.

The absence of a credible alternative with visionary policies for an imminent digitalized world society, the power of money politics and occult social considerations will make it hard for a change unless this government pushes public opinion to the brink. However, as matters stand and in the light of what I have already said, this government holds all the keys to its electoral survival. This is said in regard to the situation at this point in time, but we all know that a week is a long time in politics, and it is possible that new forces might emerge and disturb the status quo.

* Do you personally take issue with the fact that two families have dominated politics for most of the last 50 years?

We operate within the framework of a rigid constitution tailored to the measure of SSR and which unfortunately has created a prime ministerial dictatorship because of the immense powers accorded to the Prime Minister.

Communalism, casteism, money politics and an outdated electoral system and other historical issues have made politics what it is today. It’s hard for me to accept that only two families should hold the monopoly of intelligence and the capacity to run the country; I’m sure that there are many other potential leaders, irrespective of their community and caste belongings, who can aspire to lead this country.

But unfortunately, we are imprisoned in a social, political and constitutional straightjacket that makes it difficult for anybody to rise to the top. Paul Berenger was an exception and we know how this became possible. Allow me to make a parallel with the private sector. For decades, the captains of the sugar industry came from one particular community who happen to be the majority shareholders of the industry, but at least in one major sugar group this has changed; the private sector has decided to make this possible. Let us hope that Mauritians will eventually decide that any Mauritian, whatever his/her creed, class, colour or community, can aspire to become the Prime Minister.

We are living in very complex times and the complexity of governance will continuously increase and will require a standard of acumen and ability which may not necessarily be the preserve of any single individual or group of persons. It is true that we have made tremendous strides forward as a country, but times are changing. New challenges have already emerged and will prove daunting to those at the helm as well as to those aspiring to be there.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 22 April 2022

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