“The winds of change have arrived. The writings are on the wall”

Interview: Dharam Gokhool

* ‘It is time not only for Government but also for Opposition to reinvent themselves’

* ‘we are Covid-safe but not Covid-free. But when it comes to corruption, neither are we corruption safe, nor corruption free’

Dharam Gokhool, former Minister of education in a Labour-led government, shares with our readers his views on a number of current issues which are engaging the citizens and are of critical concern to the country. He feels that the government has to take seriously the message of the need for change in the way things are being done that has been sent by the street protests, but also that the opposition has to review its own stand and approach as regards its future policies and strategies in light of these developments. He comments on the Wakashio incident and the management of the Covid situation and the reopening, as well as on posts on social media which are of a divisive nature and can cause harm to national unity.

Mauritius Times: We seem to be facing difficult social and economic circumstances in the country presently, and it is no better on the political front what with events that have taken place lately and the challenges ahead. What are your thoughts on the current situation and are you worried that things may deteriorate?

Dharam Gokhool: Well before Covid-19, the world economic outlook was quite grim and the effects of global economic slowdown were already impacting our social and economic landscape. During the period 2014-2019, under an MSM-led government, the management of our economy, under different Ministers of Finance, did not register any significant breakthrough. And when the November 2019 general elections were held, the prospect of a hung Parliament due to a three-cornered fight and the associated political uncertainties as to who would eventually be heading the government, polarised public attention to such an extent that there was hardly any public debate or concern about the economic agenda that an incoming government would be adopting and implementing.

We all know the outcome of the general elections. The MMM was an outsider, people voted against Labour and… MSM came to power by default, without a well-articulated and well-calibrated economic strategy for the country. If we exclude the mega multi-billion Metro project – originally a Labour Party project vehemently opposed by the MSM, in particular by its outspoken patriarch (SAJ) during the 2019 electoral campaign –, we are left with the Safe City and the Côte d’Or Stadium projects, neither of which can be classified as revenue generating. On the contrary, both will have to be sustained through Government subsidies, which will constitute a heavy burden on our public finances in the coming years.

In recent times, the absence of a well thought-out economic strategy has been compounded by the EU blacklist, the reputational damage caused by the St Louis corruption scandal involving a Deputy Prime Minister, the advent of Covid-19 and its disastrous economic toll, the MV Wakashio oil spill with its associated deleterious impact on a vital socio-economic pillar of our society (the tourism sector)… the cumulative impact of all these unfavourable events cannot but be detrimental to the future of our economy and society and a cause for serious concern for the whole nation and its future.

* On the social front, if we go by comments on social media, in particular on Facebook, and videos circulated via WhatsApp of anti social/communal rantings heard on the ‘chassées’ of the island – though it’s not known when that took place — , we seem to be approaching potentially dangerous waters. What’s your take on that? 

Let me put it to our readers that this is certainly not a new phenomenon; nor is it the last of its kind. But we have to be vigilant in order to protect peace and harmony in our multicultural society. Let me also state that this mentality or mindset is not restricted only to the ‘‘chassées of the island”. Other platforms are equally very patronising towards such irresponsible conduct. But we should refrain from making sweeping generalisations.

However, such attitudes and behaviours should be viewed as a sign of immaturity, lack of civic responsibility and poor cultural intelligence.

Having said so, let me add that there are people who will continue to take a myopic, monochrome view of the world and their world. Their social relations will be conditioned by what I would refer to as the binary algorithm, wherein either “you are with us or against us”. This is a cultural deficit due to ignorance of others.

Let me illustrate this point through an analogy. I often come across people who view the present Government as a “Hindu” Government and they make the argument that all “Hindus” are benefiting from the favours being dished out by the Government. In effect, Government privileges are going to a handful of close relatives, and political cronies, referred to as “the clan”.

By taking short-cuts and associating a whole community with a “clan” is highly disturbing and objectionable. This mode of reasoning may lead people to adopt an antagonistic posture towards all “Hindus” and exacerbate communal tensions.

Inadvertently, some protesters are reinforcing an erroneous perception that the PKJ Government is a “Hindu” government and all “Hindus” are enjoying the privileges of power. Can a community be equated to a clan? This is a potentially dangerous amalgam which some people are making and it can undermine the solidarity and unity that people should display when confronted with problems that cut across all communal lines, be it the proliferation of drugs, loss of purchasing power, corruption, nepotism or favouritism. Each one is not in her/his own ship; we are all together in the same boat… or mess.

* From what we hear, the speech by Cardinal Piat at the ceremony to mark the death anniversary of Pere Laval which was perceived as a direct attack on the mis-governance of the current government for a number of reasons has also not been taken kindly by a large cross-section of the population. How do you react to that?

Cardinal Piat delivered a written speech and it was telecast live and therefore watched by the whole nation. It was delivered in the presence of the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet.

Cardinal Piat touched upon a number of burning issues of public interest and the message was indeed a powerful one. It clearly referred to a number of policy failures/shortcomings on the part of Government in a number of sensitive areas like drugs.

Was cardinal Piat’s address a conventional Church sermon? Given the present context, the timing, the content and the tone of the address, it certainly went a wee bit further and may very well have given rise to qualms and queries in certain quarters.

Let us remind ourselves that Father Pere Laval, being a catholic monk, transcended all communal barriers and reached out to the poor and the suffering with humanity and magnanimity. We should uphold the authentic spirit and legacy of the revered Father at all times and refrain from any attempt to curtail the ethos of his universal message. Beyond being a catholic, he was l’apôtre des pauvres.

Like I stated earlier, today, we are dealing with problems that cut across all communities, and they should be presented and treated as such in order to avoid “communalising” or “ethnicising” them. Cardinal Piat may very well have had the right intentions but his script writers may not have fully captured the universal dimension of Father Laval’s legacy and may have fumbled, to a certain extent, in the formulation of the message, read out by Cardinal Piat, on that particular occasion.

* It unfortunately may be taking a communal turn when there may be good reasons to censure the government for a long list of failings and questionable decisions or absence of decisions in relation to a number of issues despite these last months notwithstanding its successful management of the Covid-19 threat. What do you think?

I would not go so far as to label the management of the Covid-19 as being successful. The presence of the pandemic in Wuhan dates back to around November 2019, and there were calls to close the frontiers much earlier than mid-march 2020, which Government ignored. Besides the controversies surrounding the emergency purchase of medicines and safety equipment, and the chaotic management of supermarkets, amongst others, are all vivid reminders of the rather amateurish way in which Covid-19 has been handled.

Indeed, like the shortcomings in the management of Covid-19, there is a long list of failings/absence of decisions on the part of government. They do not affect a single group or community; their impact cuts across communities.

Let me take another topical example: social housing. Does this problem affect only one community? Maybe it affects a particular community more acutely. But is this the whole story? If a proper survey were to be carried out, it would reveal that this is a problem that cuts across communities. So fundamentally, it is a policy failure in the domain of social housing and should be addressed from that perspective and not from a purely communal angle, otherwise there will be a violation of a fundamental human right that should apply to all citizens in a social housing deprivation situation.

* Lots of people had joined in the protests against the government, as seen in the initial rally held in Port Louis on 29th August, and it dwindled to a lesser crowd at Mahebourg for the second one. What good will this achieve for the country?

The 29th August rally was more of a national event whereas the 12th September rally was more regional. It was to be expected that Mahebourg would not pull a crowd as big as that of Port Louis.

There was a time when people thought that Mauritians would not leave their comfort zone and come out to protest on the streets. That psychological barrier has been crossed and Government cannot just ignore these protests and carry on with business as usual and be in a denial mode. It must readjust or face further protests.

Government should refrain from having recourse to repressive measures, which may degenerate into violence. Especially as the majority of the protesters were from the younger generation and they do constitute an influential segment of the population.

Also, we should not downplay the involvement of Mauritians abroad in the protest movements and their influence in mobilising international public opinion. One should not underestimate the power of the NET.

As for the Opposition parties, the protest movement is a golden opportunity to revisit their priorities to reflect the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the protesters in their party agendas.

The winds of change have arrived. The writings are on the wall. Those who ignore them will do so at their risk and peril.

* We would like to think that we know who call the shots at the level of the MMM or the Labour Party or the PMSD, but isn’t it risky to lend support to whoever would be calling the shots for these rallies and whose real motivations and backings remain unknown to the public at large?

The rallies which we have witnessed focused on a number of public grievances, which were mainly but not exclusively targeted at the present government. There were messages that were also aimed at the present political class, the political elite and the political system. In an oblique manner, the protesters also reminded the Opposition parties that many of the obnoxious practices of the present government do not date back to 2014.

However, the core message was that, after 52 years of Independence, there was need for a new political culture, a more inclusive, more participative and more responsive system of public governance and a new breed of politicians and political leaders, more ethical, more transparent and more accountable in their public duties.

* In fact, the opposition parties played the political opportunism card to join the fray in the first rally on 29th August, probably with the intent of being seen as going with the flow, but they have since chosen to keep away from that crowd for the rally at Mahebourg. Is it again political opportunism or have they taken good measure of the threat posed by this movement to their political credentials?

It was important for Opposition political parties to be attentive to the emerging aspirations of the population, in particular of the upcoming generation, in order to reconfigure their political strategies. And hence their support to the rallies in the initial stages. We are now beyond this phase. Obviously, the Opposition parties have to tread carefully. If the rallies take the shape of a third force, they might then be a challenge not only for the Government but for the Opposition as well.

As I stated earlier, in view of the public grievances, primarily against the present government, particularly with regard to the mishandling of the MV Wakashio tragedy, the general wave of discontent among the population on many fronts – corruption, nepotism, repressive legislation, lack of transparency and accountability amongst others, the Opposition could not logically stay away from the 29th August protest. It was more of a case of political pragmatism than political opportunism.

If both Opposition and the protesters are motivated by genuine public interest considerations, there is always the possibility for both Opposition and the protesters to maintain channels of communication and dialogue in a spirit of “agree to agree or agree to disagree”. In lieu of outright confrontation and deadlocks.

* It could also be that the people, at least those who are concerned about ecology and the current government’s governance of the country and taken to the streets out of frustration and anger, may also not be happy with the main opposition parties for what may be perceived as lack of teeth. Do you think the opposition is also failing the people?

The fact that the protesters were able to mobilise such huge crowds without the traditional manger boire and other facilities that accompany political gatherings is an indication that the Opposition has been running out of steam and public approval in recent times.

The protests are not only a wake-up call for the government ranks; it is also a strong message for the Opposition to revisit its policies, strategies and practices, and to be more in tune with the emerging trends, both globally and locally.

For example, I do not see how an Opposition party can ignore such issues like the quest for greater democratisation not only of our political system but also their internal structure and functioning; the need for sustainable policies as far as our vulnerable environment and ecosystem is concerned; food security, more effective fight against the scourge of drug trafficking, employment creation to tackle youth joblessness, independence and autonomy of our public institutions.

In short, it is time not only for Government but also for Opposition to reinvent themselves.

* There will come a time when the leaders and establishments of the MMM and Labour Party in particular will have to take the call on the ‘What’s next?’ and ‘Who leads?’ questions. It may be too early for these questions to come up, but what are your thoughts on these matters?

As regards what next, I will refer to the UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in the mid-1960s, who stated that in politics one week is a long time. We are now in 2020.Things may evolve within seconds. Difficult but not impossible to get the Opposition platform going. The focus should be on priorities and policies and not on personalities.

To my mind, at this juncture, political statesmanship should take precedence over political brinkmanship. 21st century politics should be defined by politics beyond egos and not by political partisanship fuelled by super-sized egos of political leaders. It is being argued that tomorrow’s leadership should be based on the principle of Transpersonal Leadership, defined as “leadership beyond the limits of ego and personality.” They are leaders who demonstrate a high sense of ethics, emotional intelligence and empathy and who can inspire others to carry forward their vision when they have left the scene.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of attributes for defining who leads but they provide some useful guidelines and food for thought.

* On the other hand, if the government has been generally perceived to have managed well the Covid-19 threat from the national public health perspective, there is an opacity surrounding the assistance earmarked for big business, the conditionalities attached, if any, and the beneficiaries. Are we in for other unpleasant surprises? Another storm in the making?

In this Covid context, many governments have come forward with schemes to support their industries to cope with the difficult days they are facing and public funds are being disbursed.

The Bank of Mauritius (Bank) has set up the Mauritius Investment Corporation Ltd (MIC) as a Special Purpose Vehicle under its aegis. The MIC claims to be an innovative people-centric initiative and also aims at securing and enhancing financial wealth for current and future Mauritian generations while ensuring the stability of the banking sector.

As far as the noble intentions of the MIC are concerned, there is hardly any room for controversy or dispute. But since public funds are involved, it is imperative that full transparency and accountability is observed in the disbursements. The fact that National Assembly will not exercise the right of scrutiny gives rise to legitimate concerns that opacity can lead to unethical practices.

As far as Covid is concerned, we are Covid-safe but not Covid-free. But when it comes to corruption, neither are we corruption safe, nor corruption free.

Since transparency and accountability is not a priority for government, it is the responsibility of the Opposition, media and public opinion to keep the administrators of MIC on their watch-list …and hit-list.

* The government clearly does not want to take any risks as regards the reopening of our borders. Rightly so, perhaps, but do you think the worse is yet to come on the economic front?

The first phase of Covid-19 is not yet over and the second wave is already at the doorsteps of many countries, including Mauritius. An effective vaccine is not yet in sight. WHO is issuing warnings that the worse is yet to come.

It is true that the situation is unprecedented and there is no easy, cut-out solution. Uncertainly and unpredictability are complicating matters. Government’s typical wait and see and reactive approach and the absence of a coherent, credible communication strategy, often clouded in opacity, are serious bottlenecks in mobilising the public to remain in a state of preparedness. How well-informed is the population about the whole process of the reopening of our borders and its implications? Or the likely implications of a second wave?

The MV Wakashio is a live case study of how a country may fail due to a systemic failure of leadership at the top. Have the lessons been learnt from the MV Wakashio oil spill tragedy?

I do not feel that the population is being prepared upfront mentally and psychologically. We may be Covid-safe but not Covid-free, and the risks of reopening of our borders and dangers of the second wave must not be underestimated. To face the next phase of Covid-19, a strong sense of unity and solidarity at all levels of our society should be a top priority of the agenda of Government. Will Government be able to rise to this challenge?

In these moments of adversity, there are genuine worries in the hearts and minds of the population which I share and which Government must not ignore if we are to limit the inevitable further damages on the socio-economic front.

* Published in print edition on 18 September 2020

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