The Internet and digital social networks have revolutionised old-style handling of political perception and some autocratic countries even see Internet-accelerated public perception as a powerful viral threat.
We read with some bemusement in The Guardian last year that China “will produce its first batch of certified ‘online public opinion management specialists’… reflecting the depth of the government’s obsession with controlling the flow of online information”.
Many democratic state leaders (from Modi to Obama) today have digital accounts, probably manned mostly by good staffers. In India, social media and web radio-TV shows have a massive role in the sagging fortunes of the Congress dynasties and in the BJP’s revival under the charismatic appeal of PM Modi. At the national level, when, essentially, it was a one-on-one between two opposing juggernauts, the BJP-led alliance easily trounced the old stalwarts of the Congress-led alliance almost a year ago.
The BJP followed it up by three successive state elections runs around the country, creating a Modi-wave. But in the no less important flagship state elections in Delhi held this week, the relatively fresh Aam Admi Party (AAP, party of the common man), has recorded a stunning win, trouncing both political adversaries, Congress and BJP. Post-mortems will be held: Congress again agonisingly fails to stem the rejection of its struggling family dynasty in the shape of Rahul Gandhi. The BJP will no doubt have to dissect the abrupt end of the Modi-wave, despite massive high-profile involvement of BJP and government top guns in a more complex, plural and educated sociological arena like Delhi.
In a way, we too have a similar sociological footprint and despite the innate complexities of Indian politics, the Delhi AAP tsunami has some lessons for our body politic here.
What is clear for Mauritius is that no political party, no electoral campaign can remain oblivious to that social-media revolution, nor to the fact that people have newer expectations and are prepared to make their feelings known unambiguously over the air-waves, across the Internet and in voting booths.
This is even more true for the Internet-savvy, mobile, applet, Twitter and Facebook born-and-bred generation for whom neither the political battles for Independence nor even the troubled times leading to the constitution of the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge government of 1983, have any meaning. In searching for today’s uneasy answers to increasingly globalised concerns, they can intensify waves for change and even generate tsunamis.
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Since Daniel Ellsberg, the Internet-based journalistic site Wikileaks has, from about 2006 onwards, entrenched the principle of leaking sensitive information of public interest, raising to the fore questions of good governance and the fight against massive fraud, corruption and malpractices at highest levels, often with institutional complicities. On a slightly different plane, Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed the shocking extent of phone and Internet surveillance the USA routinely undertakes on foes and allies alike worldwide. Big Brother is with us everywhere!
The “Swiss-leaks” saga is about tax evasion, secret accounts, financial scams and money laundering. It started off in France in 2008 when Falciani, an HSBC Private Bank employee, sold or remitted to the French Ministry of Finance (Bercy) a list of 3000 French nationals with HSBC-mediated secret accounts in tax havens, amounting to more than $5 billion. Matters of tax evasion and recovery were handled discretely by Bercy. Meantime, around 2010, a former PWC employee reported on the “Luxembourg-leaks” saga, about which the EU has now decided to open an enquiry. There is as yet no precise information on accounts held in other reported tax havens, although the scale is suspected to be colossal.
In January 2014, after extensive enquiry, Le Monde obtained access to the “Swiss leaks” full list of worldwide accounts and names: “180,6 milliards d’euros auraient transité, à Genève, par les comptes HSBC de plus de 100 000 clients et de 20 000 sociétés offshore, très précisément entre le 9 novembre 2006 et le 31 mars 2007.” The discrete approach favoured by Bercy could no longer hold but the restricted French dimension has now been eclipsed by worldwide dissemination.
Le Monde’s fact files have been shared with an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, sending the international jet-set jittery and raising intense pressure in many countries for Ministers of Finance to request access to their country-specific tax evasion or money laundering account details. Those linked to Mauritius or Mauritians concern “81 clients with several hundred accounts opened up to 2008 amounting to a total of 141 million USD (about Rs 4,5 billion)”.
We trust that our Ministry of Finance has already taken the imperative steps to obtain access to those information of public interest and will set up a transparent mechanism to investigate tax evasion or money laundering that may be involved.
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The unfolding saga of police enquiries against former PM Navin Ramgoolam, with its dramatic and highly mediatised twists and turns, has generated considerable public interest in the press and over the social networks. Many will gloat, some feel relieved and others may sympathise with the personal plight and the public humiliation of the “fallen lion”.
The scale of monies in the private coffers and suitcases will be staggering to most ordinary folk and, probably, even to Labour Party former MPs, activists and sympathisers who had to lead the last electoral campaign. Most Labourites have felt the former PM should devote all his time and energies to his defence in those criminal cases and would be in a difficult position to continue leading the Labour Party.
Natural human solidarity aside, they believe it is time for some form of interim leadership, perhaps collegial, to get on with the urgent job of renovation of the old party’s structures, function, core values and principles. We understand that view is also being promulgated this week by the embroiled leader, Navin Ramgoolam.
Beyond the people and political aspects, we need to soberly and dispassionately review the resilience of our legislation, institutions and mechanisms to ensure the reputation of Mauritius as an international financial centre. Under international pressure, we had to evolve the Economic Crime legislation in the late nineties and the POCA a few years later, with the set-up of ICAC, FIU and FSC. With the application by the incoming government of Amendment 113 of the Constitution voted in 1982, none of these and other financial overview institutions, including the Bank of Mauritius, can claim independence from political overlords. This is worrying enough.
Much worse, we still have a gaping area in our financial governance. No Mauritian will be unaware that political campaigns invariably provide all major political parties with a “substantial” influx of donations, amounts widely suspected but never ascertained, in local or foreign currencies. I recall a knowledgeable observer like Gilbert Ahnee some fifteen years back intimating that the “left-over” of political campaigns could well run into hundred million rupees or more, an astronomical sum for most of us but a reality all major political parties have been dealing with since the eighties.
Mr Rama Valayden, equally knowledgeable observer, estimated on air that the December 2014 campaign must have raked in some Rs 1.6 billion, shared between both major alliances and their leaders. These are no mean sums, mostly in cash, and that, we presume, have somehow to be legitimated after elections. One wonders how many of the main party leaders can play Ponce Pilate on this issue?
We have as yet neither consensus nor legislation concerning the funding of political parties nor of their electoral campaign requirements. The current expenditure ceilings are totally apocryphal and desultory. Common folk may not be particularly excited at the prospect of funding political antiques and excesses from the public purse. There are no satisfactory systems worldwide and no one-size-fits-all formula. But if democracy and transparency come at a price, we surely have to evolve a consensus regarding acceptable norms, legislation, oversight and regulations.
Corporate private sector backers here have recognised the phenomenon and have years ago tried to establish acceptable political funding procedures for transparency of their own accounts. Other smaller private firms and individuals as well as big prospective investors may also join the fray. Aside from the “retour d’ascenseur” phenomenon these largely shadowy contributions may lead to, there are other reasons for disquiet at this state of affairs. Some have invested part in property but there is no overall accounting of such undeclared monies. Much worse is the likelihood that donations and funds received by well-wishers and corporate backers alike end up for the most part under the sole responsibility of a party leader.
In the light of the financial legislation, good governance and the reputation of the country, this unsatisfactory state of affairs has to be addressed effectively at several levels. Will government initiate the necessary wide-ranging public consultations to that end with a view to consolidating good governance, sanitising political practices and bolstering the country’s reputation as a clean financial and offshore platform?
* Published in print edition on 13 February 2015