“There is no complicity whatsoever between the MMM and Big Business”

Interview : Prof Sheila Bunwaree

“There will be no MMM-MSM alliance. Do you see a militant endorsing the ‘papa-piti deal’?”

Our guest this week is Sheila Bunwaree, an academic who feels that she can answer better the call for service to the people through politics, a sort of continuation of the ‘call’ she felt when accompanying her father on his social work rounds in her younger days. She explains the reasons which have led her to join the MMM and she is animated by a spirit of doing politics otherwise which she thinks is possible. Read on:

Mauritius Times: Why did you join politics? Is it because you were disillusioned with Mauritian politics, and thought you could do a better job than the current tribe of part-time and full-time politicians?

Sheila Bunwaree: There are several reasons why I joined politics: For years, I have been discussing and advocating for a new development and governance paradigm with my students and colleagues. Their resultant quest for this alternative model has been an important source of inspiration. Second, like Edward Said and Noah Chomsky, I conceptualise the role of the intellectual as someone who denounces all forms of injustice and is willing to engage, to make a difference to the lives of people. I therefore refused to continue sitting in the ivory tower of academia; I preferred bidding goodbye to my comfort zone so as to give a helping hand to those who are sincere about wanting a modern, more just, more green, ecofriendly and inclusive society. Third, I must also acknowledge the fact that I inherited this inclination for politics from my father who was very involved in social work and community development. As a child, during the school holidays, I used to accompany him to the different social work and community development centres in the remotest villages of Mauritius. I often heard him speak of the different measures that were taken to improve the lives of the people. Transforming the human condition and thinking of the greater good became second nature to me. Entering the political fray is some kind of call to me.

Coming to the second part of your question: Indeed many of us have been disillusioned not by politics as such but rather the way that some politicians use the political platform to advance their personal interests and that of their cronies and friends. It would be no exaggeration to say that the situation has deteriorated in the aftermath of the 2014 general election. L’alliance lepep has become the epitome of incompetence and mediocrity, failing the population on almost every count. We deserve much better and yes, I can in all humility, tell you that not only I but a number of people I know and I associate with, can do a much better job than many members of the current regime.

* There was that brief stint with the Mouvement Liberater and with your own party, the ‘Parti Justice Sociale’ – not necessarily in that order. The former did not go down well with you, it would seem, and the latter did not make any headway. What have these two experiences taught you however about politics/politicians and the people’s expectations?

Brief stint indeed with ML – it did not take me long at all to discern what was happening and what kind of people I was going to have to work with. Many people tell me that I would have been a cabinet minister if I did stay on, but I made a choice — an important one – a choice between integrity, morality, ethical and human governance on the one hand and arrogance, hypocrisy, money politics and lopsided development on the other. The path that I chose to tread on is the former. I also very quickly realised that the ‘projet de société’ I had on my mind would simply not be possible with L’ alliance lepep.

As far as Parti Justice Sociale is concerned, I was advised by many ordinary citizens as well as people with huge political experience and wisdom that small emerging parties will not be able to make much headway at least for now, and that it is best to join a mainstream party. This is exactly what I then opted for.

* Now that you have joined a mainstream party, the MMM, how do you ensure that you’ll make yourself heard and be able to influence what is decided by the party leadership in terms of political decisions and public policies that are compatible with the national interest?

Contrary to what some people including those who have left the MMM in the recent past say, the MMM has been and remains a democratic party. I have had the privilege of studying some of our political parties in the course of a research project that I carried out for the Electoral Institute of South Africa some years back and now that I am an insider of the MMM, I can tell you that the MMM has democratic structures which are not to be found anywhere else within the political spectrum of the mainstream parties. Of course, the system is not perfect and there is room for improvement, but it would be untrue to say that the MMM does not welcome new ideas and that there is no space to make one’s voice heard.

It is rather sad and unfortunate that some people who have left the party argue that there is no critical thinking within the party, no innovative ideas, no strategy to win the elections, etc. Such remarks constitute an insult to the collective intelligence of the party – we have some very bright, talented people who have joined the party, committed to work with the rest of the team. Acknowledging that it is an honour and privilege to work with a political giant and architect of the stature of Paul Berenger does not make one become des ‘Berengistes aveuglés’ or ‘des lèches bottes’. Of course, we collectively take political decisions and propose policies. This does not mean that there is no divergence of opinion. There are times that we agree to disagree but it is always in the national interest.

* In 2014, as co-founder of the Parti Justice Sociale, you called for a “révolution pacifique” to counter Labour Party-MMM alliance, which you then said would serve the interest of their two respective leaders, not the country’s. How do you see the “militants” reacting to an MMM-MSM alliance next time round, that is if that were to happen, despite the assurances of the Party’s leadership to go it alone?

What was happening prior to the elections of 2014 was just so very unacceptable by my standards. This does not suggest that I was or am in favour of an alliance with the MSM – the latter is even worse. Many people would agree with me that we fell from the frying pan into the fire… How can some fellow citizens possibly continue to think that there is an alliance in the making. The ‘militants’ do not want an alliance because they are instilled with values such as integrity, sharing, respect of the ‘other’, humility and above all want un “projet de société’ which is green/ecofriendly, inclusive, more just and democratic. Only the MMM has the political will to develop and implement such a programme but a segment of the media chooses to ‘invisibilise’ and downplay the party. That’s their problem.

There may be a handful of people who still wish for an ‘alliance’ but by and large there is a growing understanding of the importance of going it alone particularly at this juncture of our political history. The ‘militants’ are bent on ‘going it alone’ since it is the only way to bring morality back into public life and to enlarge the political space for new blood and new ideas.

* What about you personally? Will you go along with that?

The question does not even arise since there will be no such alliance as the one you describe. Do you see a militant endorsing the ‘papa-piti deal’, sit with people who trample on our human rights, allow our institutions to decay, waste our scarce resources, destroy our environment, allow drugs to enter our schools and slowly kill our children? L’Alliance Lepep is tantamount to ‘bétonnage, gaspillage and chantage’ – how on earth can any well-intentioned citizen feel comfortable in such midst and have the pretence of transforming the country?

I have chosen to go along with a Politics of Truth, Competence and Ethics. This is what the MMM represents and what the electorate wants.

* We understand the question of “seul contre tous” at the next elections and the advisability of presenting Paul Berenger as prime ministerial candidate are two of the most hotly debated issues within the MMM. Would these constitute a “winning formula”, according to you?

Let us look at the question somewhat differently. The country celebrated its 50th independence anniversary last year and for the past 50 years we have had only two names as Prime Minister: Jugnauth and Ramgoolam and a brief stint with Paul Berenger himself. Discussing a ‘winning formula’ should not be restricted to the political party but extended to the citizens. The latter should prove to the world that we are not a ‘banana republic’ which thrives on a musical chair of coalitions and alliances, alternating between two family names, but that we are rather a mature democracy which can go beyond ethnic politics and choose a competent, disciplined, honest, dedicated person irrespective of his/her skin colour, ethnic background/religion, social class and so on to be their Prime Minster.

* As regards a number of serious issues that are mostly raised by the so called ‘small parties – rarely by the mainstream parties – like the continuing development of smart cities, the incestuous relationship between government and big business, the trials of small planters, IPPs and the energy sector, etc., we presume you would not be comfortable with the present state of affairs. Do you feel confident about being able to influence decisions and policies within the MMM that would better serve the public interest.

Let me reassure you that these are issues that the MMM is very concerned about. In fact, we are busy consulting with different sectors and stakeholders so that ‘our projet de société’, our electoral manifesto addresses all these issues and reflects the aspirations and expectations of all stakeholders.

Whatever is unjust, unfair and does not speak to the ‘greater good’ are things that we reject. Everyone including big business is aware of the many challenges we face. The erosion of preferential markets, Brexit, Trumponomics, new forms of globalisation and protectionism, climate change, etc., constitute important threats. Unless we join forces, the ship will sink. The MMM will not let this happen. It has always served the public interest and I am confident that it will not deviate from its core objectives and principles.

* But why do we rarely see the “mainstream” parties including the MMM speaking up on these issues? Is there another (incestuous) relationship between big business and the mainstream parties that ensures the latter’s silence?

As I just said, the issues you refer to are of great concern to the MMM. It is not because the MMM is not as vocal as the so-called small parties, that we do not realize the pertinence of these issues nor does it mean that the MMM has an incestuous relationship with whomsoever.

The MMM is very conscious and sensitive to the concerns of not only the small planters, the IPPs and so on but also to those of the fishing community, the small and medium enterprises, the artists, the senior citizens, the fledgling textile industry, the tourist operators, etc. And this is precisely why the Policy Council of the MMM is holding a series of consultations with these diverse groups. Engaging with these very people from a bottom up approach and trying to find solutions together with them, is certainly not tantamount to silence.

Moreover, being silent about an issue often implies some kind of complicity – well, let us be clear, there is no complicity whatsoever and no such thing as what you call ‘incestuous relationship’ between the MMM and Big Business. Incestuous relations can indeed easily arise when and where ‘money politics’ is involved. The MMM has not stopped denouncing ‘money politics’ but sadly the latter continues to invade the political space. Inadequacy of political finance legal frameworks are perhaps largely responsible for the kind of ‘incestuous relationships’ you refer to, but the MMM is never and will never be silent on all that is wrong.

* Tagged to the issue of incestuousness is the twist that is given to the concept of national interest. It seems to take a different meaning whenever the mainstream parties change sides or depending in which alliance they are or on which side of the fence they are. Who will protect the national interest?

National interest in contemporary Mauritius is to do with each and every citizen getting his/her fair share of the fruits of development – we can no longer be content with the trickle-down theory – we need equalising mechanisms in different sectors so that we do become a more just society. Rising inequality and growing poverty constitute major threats to durable peace and social cohesion.

French economist Thomas Picketty warns us of the dangers of growing inequality and rightly so. It is foolhardy for those aspiring to lead the country to engage in incestuous relationships which can be detrimental to peace and cohesion. The citizens of Mauritius are tired of crony capitalism, they are intelligent – they want transparency, accountability, expansion of opportunities for their children and an eco friendly society. Mauritians are tired of false promises and will not be taken for a ride again. Only competent people guided by a moral compass and who understand the real significance of serving the nation can actually protect the national interest.

* Paul Berenger is known for his support of the sugar industry owned bagasse but mostly coal powered energy plants and the Combined Cycle Gas Turbine project clearly goes against the interests of the IPPs of the sugar industry. It does not appear that the MMM is defending the national interest in this matter. What do you think?

What I think and what I know is that the MMM inclusive of the leader has always wanted to work in the best interests of all. There may be a perception that Paul Berenger is supportive of the sugar industry and of the coal powered energy plants but the reality is a different one. We are not demagogues, we are pragmatic and determined to work for a win-win situation for all.

That said, let me tell you that the MMM favours renewable energy and at the level of the Policy Council we are exploring all ways and means to reduce our dependency on coal and mitigate all associated pollution. We are blessed with plenty of sunshine and a very large EEZ, which provide us with ample opportunities to optimise on different sources of energy. Renewable energies, green economy and green jobs are what motivate the youth of the country and as a responsible political party, looking forward to govern the country, we have at heart the welfare of future generations and the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We cannot do otherwise than work in this direction.

Projecting the idea that the combined gas cycle goes against the interests of the IPPs of the sugar industry to try and win the sympathy of some people who see the sugar industry as the biggest enemy, is not quite right especially when there is so much confusion about the combined gas cycle itself. Many projects undertaken by the government are shrouded in opacity and motivated by different kinds of interest. The maelstrom that we are living through demands that we do not jump to hasty conclusions.

We should cautiously analyse every single aspect of projects being undertaken and then decide what is in the best interest of everyone. It is perhaps apt to remember Mahatma Gandhi’s words: ‘there are enough resources to satisfy the needs of each and all but not enough to satisfy the greed of a few’. Mauritius under an MMM government will have no room for such greed.

* There is on the other hand the ongoing debate about the economic model we have been pursuing since some decades now. Some economists and leftist politicians have argued that this model has been largely responsible for the rising inequality in the country, the impoverishment of the middle class, resulting in growing poverty. Is there another alternative or isn’t there?

It is largely true that the neoliberal model that we have embraced during the last decades have contributed to rising inequality and the impoverishment of the middle class as testified by the World Bank itself. The UNDP dictum ’poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere’ is very relevant, when analyzing societies whose development models tend to leave important segments of their population on the margins.

When marginalization and exclusion are concentrated in certain specific ethnic groups, peace becomes more fragile. And when growing poverty and inequality are coupled with discriminatory discourses such as the ones we heard in the not so distant past, there is even greater cause for worry. While marginalisation and exclusion can be the direct result of unbridled capitalism, discriminatory discourses emanating directly from some senior minister’s mouth, highlight how deep the malaise can be.

That said, striking a right balance between economic growth which is often mistakenly seen as development by some and social advancement for the masses is always a very difficult task. I do not belong to the school of thought which equates development with economic growth and/or big infrastructure. Rather I subscribe to the views of Nobel laureate Amarya Sen on development. Development should be seen as freedom from want, from disease, from illiteracy, from homelessness, from joblessness and if the model in place has not been able to free people from such scourges, then we should definitely replace it.

There is always an alternative – we need a development model which encourages and consolidates human development, generates growth without creating unemployment, which places the ecology and the environment on top of the agenda and not as an afterthought.

In other words, we need to propagate the idea of ‘solidarity and heterodox’ economics and convince people that another world – a better one is possible. We can no longer live beyond our means. Just look at what is happening, our national debt level has already gone beyond the statutory limit and yet we run the risk of having ‘un budget électoraliste’, blowing up our debts further. All this despite the alarm bells of the IMF. If this happens, the economy may not be able to sustain itself and our economy may end up crashing.

Development models which encourage excessive consumerism and non productive growth should no longer be encouraged in Mauritius. If we love our children and grandchildren, let us opt for fiscal responsibility and a human centred development model where people can sustain their livelihoods and live in dignity. But for this to happen, we require the political will and the competence to adopt an appropriate policy mix and equally if not more important, the predisposition to let go of one’s own immediate and often selfish interests and control the insatiable consumption patterns of some.

* If we want to make a change in politics in this country, where do we start?

First, we need to revisit our education system and ensure that political literacy and political socialisation become part and parcel of the curriculum. Second, we should get NGOs working with youth on key societal issues to appreciate the link between politics and policies. Often, people are not conscious of the fact that it is politicians who shape and formulate policies affecting their lives and that they should therefore pay more attention to the kind of politicians that they vote for. Third, we should give more power to the citizens to ensure that they have the capacity to render those representing them more accountable and responsible. The possibility of recalling parliamentarians not living up to the mark is something that all those who believe in ethical governance wish to implement.

Changing politics also requires that we urgently address the inequitable nature of our current electoral system. It is a pity that the current regime which had promised an electoral reform has come up with the most aberrant proposal – one which fails to address the very core problem of the existing First Past The Post system. To make matters worse, it linked the question of gender representation to the electoral reform proposed. Delinking the gender question from such a proposal has become most urgent if the government is sincere about democratic consolidation. The latter is not possible without the application of effective gender lenses to policy making and legislations.

Coming back to your question, I must say that it is not only about ‘wanting’ to make a change, it has become imperative to overhaul our political system and allow a diversity of ideas, ensure that the young people of the country have the opportunity to bring to the table their ideas and ideals. The country badly needs a new development model – one which simultaneously encourages economic growth, creates productive jobs and ensures sustainable development. The MMM’s ‘projet de société’ and its forthcoming electoral manifesto is precisely about this new development model, infused by the aspirations of the youth.


* Published in print edition on 24 May 2019

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