“What matters ultimately to this government is its belief that it can get itself re-elected”

Interview: Kugan Parapen, Economist

* ‘ The BAI saga has cost taxpayers more than they will ever know. And what for? A political vendetta’

* ICTA Proposed Amendments: ‘Should we trust the authorities with our personal data? I would definitely not’

Economist and member of Rezistans ek Alternativ Kugan Parapen is no stranger to this paper as an interviewee who is as forthright and pointedly analytical in his views. In today’s paper he dissects some of the aspects of the amendments to the ICTA Act and concretely he finds that they tilt towards the tighter and unwarranted control of information of a personal nature, which is extremely dangerous. He also comments on the forthcoming budget, which he doubts will bring the relief needed by the masses if we are to go by the unfulfilled implementations of last year’s budgetary provisions.

Mauritius Times: Do you get the feeling that the Government is losing the information battle, and that social media may in a large measure be responsible for that?

Kugan Parapen: The liberalisation of the information landscape locally can be described as having been laborious at best. It is widely known that the control of information is key in a society. Numerous personalities including Noam Chomsky and Jim Morrison have made reference to the power of the media. “He who controls the media controls the mind.”

It is baffling that we had to wait until the very start of the 21st century to see the emergence of the first private radio channel in Mauritius. Nor can we forget the infamous Newspapers and Periodicals Amendment Act from 1984 whereby private newspapers were required to post a ‘caution’ of Rs.500,000 to operate. Recently, we have heard of licene fees for private radios being increased exorbitantly.

Mind control has been a feature of most governments since independence. In today’s world, we get the impression that controlling the national television channel and using it as an outright propaganda tool is not sufficient. The government has not yet lost the information battle, but it is certainly freaking out at the possibility of losing its power to shape perspectives in its favour and to hide unpleasant truths.

The internet has revolutionised the world in that it has made information readily available to users and provided a direct linkage between the information source and the end user. The advent of social media has crystallized the worst fears of many governments worldwide – a circumvented unlimited access to reality. An end to the Truman Show.

The narrative is frightening for those who have controlled the levers of information for generations. The digital world is rapidly gaining ground and will shape future generations like no technology has done before. The outcome is uncertain, and this is exactly what bothers traditional power structures like the government. The threat of redundancy and obsolescence is all too real.

* Whatever the government’s real, unstated, intentions and even if a majority of Mauritians want, according to Straconsult’s latest AfroBarometer, “unrestricted access to the Internet and social media”, shouldn’t there be some form of oversight over social media content to check offensive and abusive online content which remain unattended or are not addressed in a timely manner by social media administrators?

There should of course be an appropriate regulatory framework surrounding the use of social media platforms such that the constitutional rights of every citizen is upheld. No one should be the victim of bullies, especially when these bullies hide behind fake profiles to do their dirty work.

But in its present form, the consultation paper put forward by ICTA is a potential attack on free speech in our democracy. In so many ways, ICTA is proposing to crack a nut with a sledge hammer. The ascertainment of a criminal offence should be left to the judiciary. Is ICTA trying to pre-empt a court of justice?

There are too many grey areas that need to be clarified by the regulatory body. In a nutshell, the ICTA proposes to treat everyone on social media as potential criminals so that when a crime is committed, the culprit can be identified and incriminated. It is a bit like the police keeping an inventory of the personal belongings of all citizens every day such that when a theft is committed, it can identify the robber.

Notwithstanding the gigantic cost factor of such an exercise, this is an outright attack on the right to privacy of citizens. Should such a frivolous project go ahead, we can already imagine the potential abuse of such a system by the authorities. It could very well lead to a censorship of those voicing out against the government, act as an intimidating agent for a majority of the population as well as deter whistleblowers.

The Safe City project is a smoking gun which we cannot ignore – the disappearance of CCTV footage when it mattered the most in the Kistnen Case is irrefutable proof of tampering allegedly by the authorities. The lack of an official investigation in this particular matter suggests a degree of political interference at all levels of power.

Should we trust the authorities with our personal data? I would definitely not.

* There is more however: besides the blacklisting of Mauritius by the European Commission, we are said to have joined the list of 10 autocracies, according to V-Dem (whatever the credentials of that research institute and the worth of its listing) and slipped five ranks down on ‘Reporters Sans Frontières’ World Press Freedom Index. Should these matter to the Government or not?

What matters ultimately to this government is its belief that it can get itself re-elected. Re-election boils down to local politics and by extension to the local population. Of course, these international downgrades reflect poorly on the government, but it is a ‘who cares’ shrug as far as they are concerned.

It is worth digging into this paradigm as it does reveal the strategy and mindset of the government. I believe they do not think that such bad publicity will ultimately damage their core vote bank. If we analyse the outcome of the last two elections, we know on which basis the winning formula was constructed.

The intelligentsia of Mauritius was convinced that Pravind Jugnauth would not emerge victorious at the 2019 general elections. And they were proved wrong. They fell prey to what psychologists would call the ‘false consensus bias’; that is thinking that the whole population think as they do because everyone in their social circle shared their opinion. But electoral choice is rooted in a complex and diverse set of triggers. Most retired people chose to reconduct the MSM party to power on account of personal gains, even though they were aware, to varying degrees, of the adverse impact of the incumbent on society.

Former US President and founding father of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, famously said, “a democracy is nothing more than mob rule where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” While mob-rule or ochlocracy may sometimes genuinely reflect the will of the majority in a manner approximating democracy, ochlocracy is characterized by the absence or impairment of a procedurally civil and democratic process.

In the Mauritian context, we are not even talking of 49%, but 37%. We seem to have succumbed to what political science would refer to as the tyranny of the majority which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence.

I believe we have sufficient ground to conclude that the fundamental democratic institutions have been and are being undermined in our Republic while I will leave it to the reader to make his/her opinion about the existence of a mob rule.

* On the other hand, we are now saddled with a second lockdown, which will probably delay economic recovery. In the wake of the first lockdown, last year, the Government announced a series of measures to put the economy back on the rails. Do we know whether the MIC has delivered and if the beneficiaries of assistance have played the game?

By and large, the government’s economic response to the pandemic has been behind-the-curve. What we mean to say is that it should have been more ambitious in its bid to reinvigorate the economy.

Considering the significant pullback in the economy in 2020 (estimated to be at least 15% of GDP), the fiscal response should have at least matched the economic retreat. Based on available figures, this has not been the case.

The second lockdown will of course complicate the situation, but it needs to be pointed out that the latest lockdown will not be as bad as the initial one as the economy was not completely shut down and has adapted to the situation in a better way than last year.

As regards the MIC, the cloak of secrecy surrounding it makes for a difficult assessment of the fund. As far as we are aware, only a marginal proportion of the monies has been disbursed and that raises more questions than answers. Could it be that the political establishment has built itself an economic war chest that it intends to use when the political timing is right?

In other words, is the government refraining from throwing the kitchen sink at the economy for political reasons? Preferring instead to wait for the penultimate years of its current mandate to try swing the tide in its favour? The forthcoming budget will be a key bellwether.

* It has been said the Covid pandemic provides us with a once in a 100-year chance to shake up the system, revisit the economic structures and policies whether as regards our flat rate tax system and distribution of wealth, the focus on real estate development to the detriment of food production, etc. But do you expect any change to happen?

As much as I believe in the existence of unicorns! You are absolutely right in referring to the exceptional situation in which we find ourselves. This is by no means an idiosyncracy unique to the Mauritian economy – the rest of the world also finds itself at crossroads. The irony of the pandemic is that it has paved the way for governments to indulge in the sort of fiscal extravaganza that Finance Ministers can only dream of. It is akin to a blank check. Under no other circumstances would governments have been allowed to spend so much money to bolster their respective economies had it not been for the scourge of a pandemic.

2020 is shaping up to be a major disruptive year in historical books and in so many aspects, we are likely to talk of a pre-2020 and post-2020 world down the line. As the saying goes, we are masters of our own destiny. The so-called developed world, led by the United States and Europe, have leveraged on the fiscal largesse to embrace the challenges of the twenty-first century. They are allocating significant resources to new industries including the digital sector and the green imperative. It remains to be seen whether their capitalistic structure can produce the adequate results but at least it represents a step in the right direction.

Are we going to follow suit, or will we be once more victims of the conservative narrow- mindedness of our political and economic lobbyists? There is a wide array of opportunities which we need to pursue to lay the foundation of a new Mauritius. Unfortunately, the political will simply does not seem to be there.

* Besides the effectiveness of the vaccination rollout and the reopening of our borders to tourists (who would be willing to visit the island) to fast track economic recovery, what more can the Government do or should be doing in its next budget to get the economy back on its feet?

The recent nightmarish floods have reminded us all how badly we need an infrastructural revamp of our public infrastructure as the threat of devastating climatic change increases exponentially year after year. A massive infrastructure plan would be money well spent in current circumstances.

I fear that we will be served a re-heated budget where many of the supposedly ground-breaking projects which the government announced in the past years will be repackaged and presented as palatable under new circumstances. The real test will not be the measures announced but rather the means to achieve them. Public finances are as stretched as they have ever been in our short journey as an independent country. Given the challenges ahead, including a possible downgrade to junk status by rating agencies, the focus will be the journey on which the Minister of Finance proposes to embark our economy. Social measures will also been keenly watched as those at the bottom of the economic ladder are having to deal with a very delicate situation, while being heavily indebted.

It has been suggested in some quarters recently that Mauritius should seek the help of the IMF and accept the probable harsh reforms which would accompany such a move. The financing aspect of the budget will outline the government’s stance on such a move. Overall, we should expect an austere budget. However, will Renganaden Padayachy adopt the right tone, or will he try to sugarcoat the exercise as he did last year when he announced a balanced budget; it was anything but.

* The ghost of the BAI continues to haunt the Government; it has voted another Rs 11.9 billion which will be injected into the National Property Fund for the reimbursement of the victims of the BAI’s policyholders and investors. More money will ultimately go to these latter BAI “victims” than it cost the Metro Express, it would seem. What’s your take on that?

The unravelling of this whole saga was inevitable. The government has been calamitous in its handling of the BAI dismantling from day one. Rezistans ek Alternativ was one of the few political parties, if not the only one, to have denounced the modus operandi of the BAI. Some even accused us of being ‘chatwas’ at the time. But this whole BAI mega scandal is a play in two acts. And both should be condemned vehemently. That the fall guy turns out to be the population to the tune of billions of rupees is simply revolting.

The recent Supplementary Appropriation Bill officially marked the conversion of advances made by the government to the two nationalised institutions in the wake of the BAI dismantling (National Property Fund and National Insurance Company). Those loans, representing 11.9 billion rupees, are being converted into equity – in other words, taxpayers’ money which was initially lent out to these two companies is being converted into share capital. The public has gone from being a creditor to being a shareholder of these two companies. Given the track record of this government regarding the management of public companies, can we expect a profitable return on this investment?

The worst part is the deceit involved though. Here we have elected representatives of the people, who on paper should be representing the people’s interest, but who have conned the population into believing into a rescue mission which was doomed to fail from the onset?

In financial jargon, the debt conversion into equity is a significant credit event. What it effectively means is that these two nationalised institutions would have gone bankrupt sooner or later. And guess who is bailing them out? We are! The BAI saga has cost taxpayers more than they will ever know. And what for? A political vendetta.

* Published in print edition on 30 April 2021

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