Interview: Manou Bheenick
Economic miracle: ‘We’d better leave miracles to Mother Teresa or whoever is your favourite guru’
Manou Bheenick really needs no introduction. However, it is useful to point out that he has had not only a ringside seat on the economic and political stage of the country as from 1968, when he was inducted as an economist into the newly formed Economic Planning Unit, but has also been an active player in the development of the country. He transitioned from being a technician to taking up politics, besides serving as Governor of the Bank of Mauritius. His is therefore an authoritative voice, as he gives his considered views on the major events and forces which shaped the course of the country from even before independence, and outlines the decision areas that can help us get out of the quagmire that we now find ourselves in. Rightly, he stresses enlightened political leadership and policy continuity as the critical underpinning of the polity. Read on…
Mauritius Times: You saw it happen at close quarters when economic planning and development were in the works in the early 1970s. Tell us your opinion 50 years down the line what you think were the fundamental contributory factors that produced the success that was to follow later. Was it political leadership? A capable civil service? The Coalition? What else?
Rundheersing Bheenick: How right you are. I was privileged to have returned to the country from overseas university studies in July 1968, just a couple of months after the national climacteric, when we were still basking in the first flush of independence… well, some of us at least were, since there were many still leaving in droves for more promising shores and brighter prospects elsewhere, fleeing Naipaul’s “Overcrowded Barracoon” and fearing the country would go to the dogs, swamped as it was going to be by “Indians,” read Indo-Mauritians. The great majority of our citizens did not have this facile option and just had to pick up the pieces, heal the scars left by open racial strife during the run up to independence, get on with the job, and pray for the best.
Yes, I had a ringside seat from the word go, moving from interested observer from the pulpits of the newly-created University of Mauritius, to a more active role at the just-minted Economic Planning Unit (EPU) in the Prime Minister’s Office. You will recall that Economic Development, as a subject for study, was itself a fairly new discipline, building on a multiplicity of previously disjointed pursuits often labelled as Economics of Colonies and Underdeveloped Areas.
Economic planning was introduced by the departing colonial power in the late-60s, following up on the masterly Meade Commission report of the early 1960s. The EPU fell on fertile ground and grew rapidly, being hived off from the PMO as a full-fledged ministry in 1970. Ten years later, I took over the direction of the ministry. Sixteen years later, the wheel had gone full circle: after a brief stint as Minister of Finance and a short passage as backbencher, I found myself Minister of Economic Planning and Development. So, you see, I did more, much more, than just seeing it at close quarters
My opinion? It was an exhilarating journey, with an unending chain of ever knottier problems, replete with perils aplenty and pitfalls at every corner. We faced dangerous shoals that could have easily sucked in less experienced hands and taken Mauritius down the well-trodden paths which have led so many emerging nations, including much-better-endowed ones and most of our neighbours, on the road to nowhere.
The key factor that made the difference was the quality of political leadership that we have been blessed with, not just at the time of independence, but also at the various critical transition times that we have known since. I am certainly not downplaying other factors that also helped such as: the ethnic, linguistic, and religious makeup of the country; a well-knit though heavily compartmentalised society; good social and economic infrastructure; or indeed the fact that the British were probably the less-benighted of the colonial powers who, far from despoiling the country, actually left us with an administration in full working order, fairly up-to-date infrastructure, a tradition of fiscal prudence, and a political culture that may have saved our democracy at one highly perilous transition point that we navigated successfully. The quality of political leadership was the necessary condition without which our political and economic trajectory would have turned out to be much closer to the prevailing norm in the underdeveloped and decolonising world, in our case with disastrous outcomes for our citizens given the intractable problems the new nation had to grapple with.
In effect, if nothing had been done to address the problem of runaway population growth and its consequent massive unemployment, we would have been fighting a losing battle of just keeping people alive with, down the road, the cheering prospect of unrest, revolt, repression in the economical words of the Titmuss Commission which had produced a parallel report to that of Meade.
* But all was not just nightmare and despair?
Indeed. Titmuss believed that Mauritius could rival the experience of Japan and Puerto Rico in overcoming their demographic problem and could set an example to the poorer countries of the world… [and]… make its own contribution towards solving the great problem of poverty.
It was not going to be easy… but it was doable, subject to some demanding conditions, well summarized by Titmuss: From the Government, it calls for political courage of the first order, dynamic leadership and honest administration. From the people it demands tolerance and a high sense of moral conduct and national unity.
Sadly, hardly had the ink dried on this report that the people were at one another’s throat in an outbreak of racial strife which fuelled much tension on the road to independence, even necessitating British military intervention to keep the peace. The political leadership rose to the challenge and breached the party political divide in a grand post-independence coalition, which not only allowed the determined pursuit of the development strategy in search of economic salvation, but also served as the home-grown variety of Truth and Reconciliation, well before this term gained currency, enabling all our citizens to bury their differences and restore racial harmony and social stability.
Yes, we had political leadership of the highest order when it mattered most. Throughout, we also had a dependable public administration — which, like their colonial peers elsewhere, was often bureaucratic, overly conservative, and far from inclusive, as observed by Meade — with petty corruption in the usual places but nothing spectacular of the kind to which we have been treated subsequently. The administration progressively assumed wider roles, going well beyond their original colonial remit, explicitly focusing on development, spawning regulatory bodies, agencies, parastatals, and corporates, as we went along.
But what made it all work, and work wonders, was the gradual realization that we had our back to the wall and we had to fend for ourselves. Nobody owed us a living. No country would open their markets to our products. Taking sides in the Cold War was a mug’s game and we did not fight other peoples’ wars, actual or ideological.
We, politicians and top civil servants, brought a high level of commitment well beyond the nine-to-four mindset that seems to have crept in as we rose higher in the middle-income league.
We used foreign expertise sparingly, and limited it to areas that were genuinely new to us or where we were out of our depth. We stoutly resisted aid donors’ views of what they thought we should be doing, which was not easy given that we had so few aid givers to begin with. We took the view that nobody from outside could possibly know our country better than us: some like the IMF and the World Bank did not take kindly to this… before ending up holding out Mauritius as a success story to inspire other countries.
We were keenly aware that foreign capital, even in grant form, always came with strings; we developed the bad habit of looking gift-horses in the mouth to fight off bad development projects, not always successfully I admit, but you won’t see many failed projects and white elephants dotting our landscape. We knew that international debt had to be refunded so we didn’t go on a borrowing spree. We knew international aid could never substitute for local effort. I could go on and on and illustrate these points at length… but you get the general idea.
* Do you think we could and should have gone faster during those initial years so as to avoid the 1982 debacle, or was the country in a hurry then?
No, I do not believe we could have gone any faster in the first half of the 70s. Remember, it was a fraught period when we had just emerged as an independent nation, bruised from recent racial strife, with public finances strained to the limit to cope with the additional recurrent and capital expenditure required to cope with the consequences of the population bulge as it moved up the age pyramid, first exerting its impact on the school age population at primary and then secondary levels, before swelling the working age population.
A premature or unruly touch on the accelerator, pointing in any particular direction, could easily have been counterproductive and brought things to a halt. With hindsight, it is easy to say that more could have been attempted in this policy area or that particular sector…but we would do well to remember that it was a delicate transition period when you had to steer the economy cautiously without making your passengers seasick or wanting to bail out to join the first-wave pre-independence émigrés.
We were of course in a hurry as lives and the quality of life of thousands of families were at stake. It was a case of festina lente, which was the prudent thing to do as we were embarking on a form of social engineering. We were going as fast as the economy and the society, to say nothing of public finances, could possibly bear. We were taking the first determined steps towards family planning, export manufacturing, and tourism development which, sustained and appropriately tweaked over the years, gave predictable results with the last two emerging as powerful engines of diversification and job-creation to take over the running from sugar which was quite incapable to meet the needs of the growing population, and with the first one triggering growing concerns about an ageing population.
The second half of the 70s is quite another story, and one which led Labour straight to the 1982 electoral disaster. The trigger was the sugar boom and, in particular, the political and policy mistakes in coping with its after-effects which were eerily similar to a diabetic coma induced by a surge of blood glucose levels in humans prone to this affliction.
Calls to freeze most of the windfall gains fell on deaf ears and sugar earnings financed a spending spree as activist trade unions extracted unprecedented wage increases across the board and consumers went on the rampage leading to unsustainable deficits in the country’s external accounts once the boom fizzled out.
A comatose Labour government, which had by then lost the policy initiative, was quite incapable of taking this particular bull by the horns: it had a razor-thin majority and faced a menacing Mouvement Militant Mauricien which had unleashed a political pincer movement, nearly winning the 1976 general election, and successfully mobilizing trade unions in most key sectors of the economy, by spouting vintage socialist dogma to fill the political void left by the Labour-PMSD coalition of earlier years, a coalition which did so much to smoothe the transition of our country from strife-torn colony to an independent nation well-embarked on the road to development. While Labour was in office and, so as not to rock the boat, had moved left of centre and was in the PMSD embrace, MMM had stolen its original clothes – and much of its thunder.
The mounting twin deficits in public finance and in the external accounts led to the IMF being called in around end-1979, for immediate palliative measures with a standby agreement and the usual Fund medicine, followed soon thereafter with a Structural Adjustment Loan from the World Bank to address medium-term issues. The Bretton Woods institutions came to our rescue to set the economy back on track as we had clearly been blown off course by the sugar boom.
The 1982 electoral debacle was thus prefaced, and caused, by the IMF austerity program which came in the wake of the sugar boom fizzling out. Governments signing up to an IMF austerity package rarely win favour with the electorate; Mauritius was no exception.
I must hasten to add that we must not be too harsh in our judgment of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam or, for that matter, of his Minister of Finance Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo in this particular defining episode of our economic history. They were thoroughly competent people, with very high standards of integrity and honesty, and had played a capital role in preventing the country from being torn asunder earlier on and in keeping public finances on an even keel during most of their political career and were thus directly responsible for the country not being saddled by a big debt burden.
It was in the sugar boom windfall that they met their Waterloo: the rest was a matter of detail. It was their misfortune that they had to grapple with the novelty of a huge windfall gain precisely at the time when they were at their weakest politically, with the MMM strongly in the ascendant.
Remember that it was Sir Seewoosagur himself who, ever the statesman, decided to call in the IMF when he saw the game was up while others in his team were arguing to defer such inevitable recourse till after the election:
“Pray, tell me, who will vote for us?” he had retorted to them, as I learnt from Rattan Bhatia, then Deputy Director of the IMF African Department, who was leading the Fund delegation.
Electorates are fickle and SSR had his fears: he had been around for more than three decades as Liaison Officer, Chief Minister, Premier, and finally Prime Minister. He probably knew that he was heading to certain electoral defeat but could hardly have imagined the scale of the disaster awaiting him.
His parting legacy was the nexus of policies in the standby and structural loan agreements that served as the springboard for the economic takeoff that we witnessed in the 1980s. Fake history is rampant around us here but no amount of revisionist historifying can take that away from him.
* The Labour Party lost in 1982, but came back in 1983 together with the PMSD in an MSM-led government to preside over what came to be termed as the “Mauritian Miracle”. Was it due to plain luck, or was it due to the new dynamism infused in the decision-making process at Government House?
Labour returned in the 1983 coalition but, for the first time in its history, as a junior partner although it had clearly pulled the strings behind the curtain to prevent a cornered and outsmarted Jugnauth from resigning the prime ministership in favour of the party boss Bérenger who exerted total control over the party apparatus. It is unprecedented for a man without a party to win impending elections and the undisputed locomotive in mobilizing the rural electorate was Labour, much aided by the former Labour maverick Harish Boodhoo and the fiery MMM breakaway Kader Bhayat, to say nothing of the string of gaffes accumulated by the outgoing regime during its short stay in office.
The story of the return of Labour in this three-party alliance — under Sir Satcam Boolell as party leader, but with the blessing of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam who moved to the State House soon thereafter — begins well before this with the eventful interregnum which followed the political all-change of 1982. This was a fraught moment which brought some major disruption in the country with unprecedented peremptory sackings of many respected senior civil servants, such as Kanti Banymandhub, Hervé Duval, Dutt Purang and Luchun Purmessur, among others – pour la petite histoire, then only 38 years old, with a homemaker wife and two primary-school-age children and no other income, I narrowly avoided this fate as one of my disgruntled erstwhile juniors who had been returned as Member of the Legislative Assembly but was not in the cabinet, was openly canvassing for my dismissal.
The interregnum had also brought the MMM, with no prior experience of government, face to face with the reality of cabinet government which did not recognize the primacy of such constructs as the party politburo. The latter, often meeting at the Port Louis municipal council, and initially with the full cast of cabinet ministers, under the party secretary-general Paul Berenger, was second guessing government’s intended policy stance in Cabinet which met under Sir Anerood Jugnauth as Prime Minister.
The background to this unusual political drama was the fact that Jugnauth had hitherto been quite content with a figurehead role in the MMM as part-time politician and Leader of Opposition, with strategy and pronouncements coming from the party political machine of which he was only the formal parliamentary mouthpiece, in popular parlance the paravent.
Prompted by others, he soon cut loose from the strings of the master-puppeteer as he came to realize fully the powers that came with the position of Prime Minister, and started asserting them. The clash between the centralizing political culture of MMM with the democratic culture of Cabinet government led to the collapse of the 1982 regime, the breakup of MMM – one of several such periodic phenomena that have marked the history of this party — and the birth of the hastily-put-together Mouvement Socialiste Militant of Jugnauth, built on the ashes of Boodhoo’s defunct Parti Socialiste Mauricien.
Berenger, the undisputed leader during the interregnum, must be credited for the successful economic transition of 1982 when he changed the language of political discourse, quietly buried much of the political platform that had swept his party into Government House, managed a soft landing of the exorbitant worker expectations that he had been stoking up over the years, and ended up espousing the IMF/World Bank adjustment programs that he had been openly attacking until the day before… so much so that the then Chief Economist of the World Bank, Stanley Please – one of the firm proponents of structural adjustment lending within the Bank and the progenitor of the “Please Effect” in public finance — whom I met some years later at a college dinner in Oxford where he had retired, still remembered the episode but had forgotten the players:
Tell me, what was the name of this Marxist Finance Minister who fell in love with the World Bank and the IMF? he asked me.
We had a good laugh over this, recalling how he had squarely blamed the previous government for tying his hands and leaving him no elbow room in the matter. In the process, Berenger also scored a first: in his quest to prove the veracity of his claim, he arranged for the full letter of standby agreement, normally a dry and confidential document kept under wraps, to be published, with Mauritius thus becoming the first country in the world to do so!
* what about the so-called “Mauritian Miracle” itself?
Let me now come to the so-called miracle économique that has become part of our economic jargon. In our country we not only practise most of the major religions in the world — actually subsidizing them from the public budget — and openly welcome new evangelical churches but we also have a strong streak of animism/spiritualism, or whatever you want to call it, which provides a ready market for proponents of black magic and witchcraft. Only last week there was the arrest of a French woman who was practicing the black arts in Mauritius. In recent memory, we have had several outbreaks of the touni minuit phenomenon – with a run on cuttings of a species of the medicinal plant jatropha, known as pignon d’Inde with the local reputation of being able to ward off malevolent spirits!
We are quick to find supernatural causes where there are perfectly rational explanations. Luchmeenaraidoo, who succeeded as Minister of Finance — previously an average member of my staff, on the establishment of economists but actually outposted to the trade ministry, he had rightly been passed over in a recent promotion exercise which pushed him in the political fray — was more a marketing man than an economist. Luchmeenaraidoo was quick to capitalize on the underlying gullibility of our citizenry, did some smart packaging and marketing à la Bérenger, and catapulted himself center-stage anointing himself in the process as the architect of the alleged miracle économique while cleverly taking the precaution of enveloping Jugnauth in the garb of père de l’indépendance économique.
We’d better leave miracles to Mother Teresa or whoever is your favorite guru and others of their ilk. There was no miracle here, no supernatural causes, no deus ex machina intervening to save our hide. There was a perfectly rational twin explanation: the first in the basic underlying continuity of most of our economic and social policy stance, which was fundamentally sound to begin with, and of its associated institutional underpinning; and the second in the phenomenon that goes in the economist’s jargon as the J-curve.
What is the J-curve? you may well ask. You may not necessarily agree with my reading of the key role played by the inexorable working of the J-curve at this critical transition time when we had revolving-door governments in rapid succession against a background of politicking and political shake-up. There is an excellent book on the subject by Ian Bremmer, a political scientist, and it was named “Book of the Year” by The Economist in 2006. It had a title which tells it all: The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall.
I will abstract from such technicalities as import and export elasticities and the mechanics of devaluation/depreciation, of interest to boffins who are at pains to get it right. Actually, the J-curve refers first to the inevitable worsening in economic outcomes in an open economy following adjustment measures (such as a currency depreciation backed up by dismantling protective barriers, price controls, etc), in the downward slide to the bottom of the trough of the curve. This is a perilous political stage often described as belt-tightening and austerity by the opposition and naysayers generally, or as necessary adjustment and purge to pave the way for a new takeoff by proponents and supporters — before things eventually improve enough for the curve to move upward.
I very much doubt whether those who talk so glibly of the Mauritian economic miracle and claim its post-conception paternity fully appreciated its catalytic role here. Rather, they were fully occupied in a game of passing the baby and actually disclaiming this very paternity at the time and shifting blame (remember we were at the bottom of the trough and things were bad) to the outgoing regime for sowing these seeds of the bountiful harvest to come.
Truth to tell, the economy was not only on its way to take-off before the 1982 and 1983 regime changes but it was also on quasi autopilot, thus leaving the political class to its squabbling, once the fundamental decision of not reneging on our international commitments, including those to the Bretton Woods duo, — yes, this as well as a leftward tilt to the socialist camp had very much been on the agenda but were mercifully discarded — had been taken by Bérenger in 1982 and reluctantly endorsed by the post-1983 Jugnauth.
As we moved up the J-curve, and the economy started reaping its beneficial effects, much aided by the happy coincidence of an improving international environment, it automatically unleashed a feel-good factor and fuelled a new dynamism. This was in turn bolstered by the underlying policy continuity reflected, for example, in the government signing up to follow-up supporting economic reform programs by the previously much-decried World Bank in the form of a second Structural Adjustment Loan and various other sectoral adjustment loans targeting agriculture, industry, infrastructure, etc.
The politicians did not stick their fingers in the works, did not cause any disruption, and allowed the fine-tuning of the economy and continual adjustment to proceed in a predictable manner even as they mastered the art of packaging and political marketing. Hence the spurious paternity claims!
* But even if we have done well relative to most of the African countries, it’s not the case when we compare our track record with those of some of the South East Asian countries, which became independent around the same time and were more or less in the same economic conditions as when we achieved independence in 1968. Why is that so?
You are of course absolutely right in pointing out that we have not done as well as the Asian tigers but we have done better than most of our African peers, including better-endowed ones who were in the good books of international investors when we were still in the doghouse with nobody giving much for our growth prospects. Luck had nothing to do with it; enlightened political leadership, everything. Could we have done significantly better? Probably not. Why do I say that?
For a variety of reasons: our remoteness from a major hinterland like China which Hong Kong, for example, had at its doorstep; our remoteness from a technology provider like Japan which did so much to pull up Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore at a time when we were still buying British and discriminating against other products in our tariff regime; the dominant role of sugar in our case which conditioned our mindset and our policy outlook while the tigers were not weighed down by any such agricultural handicap; and sharply different initial conditions in the political and social area.
We were not as homogeneous as the tigers. Additionally, we had a multi-party working democracy with vociferous critics of all government policy initiatives… remember the strikes à gogo when the country was already on its knees and workers cried foul as the sugar boom petered out? Or the famous zone souffrance label attached to our free zone which was clearly delivering the goods in combating unemployment? Lee Kwan Yew would have probably thrown protesters behind bars, and banned the offending political party! As many of the party and union leaders were sporting an unkempt hair style, goatee beards, and moustaches, he would have probably given them a shave on the way! Such authoritarian ways would not have worked here.
No, I believe that we could hardly have done much better – I have no doubt that any attempt to do so would have come rapidly unstuck in greater social and political agitation, thereby running the risk of compromising the modest success that we had achieved and scaring away the trickle of foreign investors who had come our way or were looking in our direction.
* How are we doing now, and where will that lead us to?
We were doing quite well until the last (democratic) regime change in December 2014, decided by the electorate in its wisdom; much less well since unfortunately. Where before there was a palpable dynamism in the air with the Mauritian joie de vivre very much in evidence, we now have an almost daily demonstration of the mal vivre mauricien in unending reports of hold-ups, rapes, murders, road casualties and alarming levels of drug addiction ripping right across the nation.
Where before we were proud to be steadily rising in international league tables, we are now helpless spectators as we see our country tumbling down the same league tables, as we just did in the latest Transparency International classification of corruption perceptions to the benefit of the new rising stars, which are Cap Verde and Rwanda. Interestingly, both of these are countries whose serving Ministers confessed to me that they had visited Mauritius incognito to see at close hand what they could learn from us and replicate in their own countries. But that was at a time when we were still doing things right enough for others to see us as role models.
But that was then. Now, things are different. We are caught in something of a paradox. We have, on the one hand, a government that promised the electorate a grand nettoyage to drain what it claimed to be the Augean stables of the Ramgoolam regime. On the other hand, we have seen how this much-touted clean-up team transformed overnight into swamp creatures with the stench of corruption now engulfing the highest office in the country, the office of the President.
Our government is busy writing a new chapter in the sorry tale of corruption in Africa, including an encart about how to transfer the prime ministership from father to son without bothering overmuch about the electorate. In the meantime, five other African countries — to wit, Botswana, Seychelles, Cap Verde, Rwanda and Namibia — which were only yesterday looking up to us have now romped ahead, leaving us behind. That is the sad reality, and there may be worse to come.
I am afraid all this is not leading us any place where we want to go. We are now a very divided nation, in the grips of rising crime with increasing concerns for personal security. We have witnessed in February 2015 the arrest and detention, completely unprecedented in this part of the world, of the former Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam in a show of political ruthlessness rare in democracies.
A week later, I was to suffer the same fate because of my perceived proximity to him and because the then Minister of Good Governance, a political neophyte who believed himself to be the shadow prime minister in the government side, waiting to inherit the mantle of Jugnauth — hired by me a few months earlier to do some forensic auditing work at the Bank of Mauritius where I was Governor until my sacking by Luchmeenaraidoo in December 2014 — believed that I had been a key link in an alleged système Ramgoolam, apparently set up to rob the treasury and feather the nest of our friends or at least help them to perpetrate alleged scams.
I am yet to discover any imaginary audit trail that can lead to this imaginary Ramgoolamian system. The police, transformed into a naked political instrument — with its top brass seemingly coming straight out of the Inspecteur Clouseau Police Academy — tried desperately and failed. All the cases filed against me, under cover of the notorious provisional charge mechanism, were thrown out by the courts — as was also the case with all but one or two of the charges filed against the former Prime Minister. Beyond this, the public’s appetite for political circuses and sacrificial victims has definitely waned and given way to remorse about how this state of things ever came to pass.
* In a speech to economic operators in 2014, you had raised a series of questions concerning the risks to the future fortunes of Mauritius, namely what steps are we taking to move towards a more inclusive society that leaves no one behind, how far will our current plans and policies mitigate the worst economic and environmental ravages to come, and how will they promote the job-rich and inclusive growth? How are we doing on these counts?
Quite badly, I am afraid. I raised the alarm hoping that policy makers in government as well as private sector operators would hone in on the cracks in the system and fashion appropriate remedial approaches… it was too much to hope for. What I actually got was brickbats, and not very polite suggestions that I should stick to my last… I didn’t know it at the time but it actually turned out to be my farewell dinner as Governor. The issues have only worsened and are addressed in greater detail in my answers to some of the other questions below.
* The present government ambitions to turn Mauritius into a high-income economy by the year 2020. Do you see that happening in two years’ time or not? Why so?
I am afraid I just do not see that happening anytime soon, much less in two years’ time. Dreaming in broad daylight can be a fulfilling activity for individuals under certain circumstances when they have nothing better to do or for others who are high on drugs but it certainly is not something that one expects from a respectable government.
Kailash Ruhee, Minister of Economic Planning and Development in the 1982 government, had put it quite nicely when he was commented at that time on a similar pie-in-the-sky exercise that was preoccupying our minds – I believe it was food self-sufficiency – when he dubbed it as an exercise in intellectual masturbation. Let’s not count our chickens before they are hatched, especially when we are riding roughshod in the chicken house and disturbing mother hen.
We were very much on track to move to the higher reaches of the middle-income bracket and were attempting to break out of the middle-income trap when the December 2014 change threw a spanner in the works. It brought things crashing down with the rash and inconsiderate moves of the newly-installed regime seemingly much keener on political theatre and vengeance than on ensuring a seamless transition and getting on with the job according to democratic principles.
The circus atmosphere surrounding the vengeful actions in the first months of the changeover was far from conducive to growth. It ruptured our democratic tradition of respecting a defeated political adversary, which is a supreme form of political generosity that had taken root in Mauritius. First things first: we have to heal these scars to our democracy and regain the trust and respect of all those, local and foreign, who were alarmed by this turn of events which had shocked them as they didn’t expect any such happenings in Mauritius.
We have to address those emerging friction points listed in your preceding question and avoid getting pushed in any mindless headlong pursuit of a growth target to propel us forward at any cost. We would do well to always keep in mind that economic development is a journey, not a destination. Our fellow-passengers, who unlike the country have a finite lifespan, must enjoy the ride or they may end up hijacking the train, changing destination, and causing economic and social mayhem generally. The caveats that prevented us going any faster in the 1970s and 1980s apply here as well mutatis mutandis.
* What would you say are the fault lines and critical issues pertaining to the development of Mauritius that need to be addressed?
Some of the fault lines are old acquaintances that we have conveniently swept under the carpet as the political consensus or the political will to address them was missing and there were more pressing things claiming policy attention or, more nefariously, that we have come to regard as quite normal, precisely because they have always been there. How do you solve a problem if you do not even recognize there is one in the first place?
I refer here to the concentration of ownership of assets and wealth, of a kind which is rare among tigers. And to the glass ceiling, of the non-gender variety in our case, which gives a particular coloration to the C-suites in the country. And to the rising income disparities among the employed. And to the growing inequality which our neo-liberal approach has proved quite unable to contain.
The social arena has its own fault lines against the background of a growing web of fissures which can rapidly develop into so many fault lines of their own: sharper ethnic and religious cleavages; the ghettoisation of originally well-intentioned public housing estates into no-go areas; the parallel development of high-end luxury estates to cocoon the well-heeled behind electric fences, razor wire, and round-the-clock security; the transformation of public spaces, highway verges, and sidewalks into open-air souks; rampant crime and substance abuse requiring even more policing effort for a country that is already over-policed; the erosion of the domestic work culture camouflaged by recourse to foreign labour; open and undisturbed squatting of public lands; the development of an entitlement mentality in large sections of the population looking for handouts from the public purse…
I am sure your observant readers can add to this litany of potential flash points. They make for an explosive cocktail that we ignore at our peril. We find ourselves again at a critical turning point where we urgently require the political leadership of the highest order which Titmuss and Meade had rightly seen as a sine qua non to negotiate the economic-cum-demographic transition of the 1960’s.
A line from the film Becket, comes to mind here. Henry II, in terminal conflict with Becket who was ensconced as Archbishop of Canterbury, was musing aloud:
Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?
I can almost hear of our fellow citizens, in their great majority, asking themselves who will rid our country of this incompetent government?
Indeed, there may be some who would be quite unwilling even to attach the label of government to this cast of shadows in a puppet play of political burlesque that does not amuse any more, which is what government has turned into!
* As regards the way forward, it has been argued that Mauritius will have to design new transformative policies to overcome the “inertia” of the existing successful model resulting in the kind of stagnation and social morass associated with the “middle income trap”. We are talking here of disruptive reforms, but that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?
There can be little doubt that our model has run its course; the evidence is all around us: sugar has centralized and modernized and done some much needed backward and forward integration – can it do more in the country? Our EPZ, built on the back of a domestic reservoir of unemployed, is now functioning thanks to migrant labour, if not directly relocating operations elsewhere..
Tourism, which has witnessed a spate of mergers and takeovers, is running out of beach space and five-star hotels are now encroaching on their immediate environs with clogged roads just outside their security perimeter and five-star traffic jams. The Integrated Resort Scheme and similar property developments have slowed down due to physical, social and legal difficulties.
Offshore finance is the remaining silver lining in this darkening cloud: it is still shining and has some mileage left but it is under increasing attack from international crusaders targeting tax havens – and has inexplicably been subjected to backstabbing by this incompetent government in its clumsy bilateral treaty negotiation with a key source market, India.
We can muddle along the tried and tested paths, knowing full well the economy is fast running out of steam. That is the easy option at least for some time still. We can sit and wait for the gathering storm to fall on our head. Or we can be proactive. Leave the beaten tracks. Think out of the box. And press on with the panoply of reforms that suggest themselves in so many sectors of activity.
Yes, they will take us out of our comfort zone. They will be disruptive. And this is what the Labour leader is promising. The contours need to be fleshed out. And the timeframe. Then will come the details. It remains to be seen whether the people have the appetite for what he is promising. And then, once they have bought in, whether they have the patience to stay the course. A form of the J-curve I evoked earlier applies here too as results of reforms do not come overnight.
* There are also other issues – ethnopolitics, dynastic leadership, outdated form of representation – that are thought to be holding us back to a more inclusive, representative and participatory society. What’s your take on that?
All these issues relate to the political dispensation which is so much part of our legacy that we have come to see them as sacred cows. You will find broad agreement in informed quarters on the need to reform these various dimensions of our political and governance system as many of them are dated, out of synch with our present realities, and are crying out for reform. But, by and large, they have actually worked: if they hadn’t, how else would we have been able to transform a sleepy and backward economy into the modern and vibrant one that we know today?
Bear in mind, however, that they constitute a veritable minefield where we should proceed with extreme caution. For proof, look no further than the last general election with the electorate massively rejecting the proposed Bérenger/Ramgoolam reform of our prime ministerial system of government into a presidential one.
The grip of ethnic politics is reflected in voting patterns and the choice of candidates. Political dynasties hold sway so long as they have the favour of the electorate. There is so much to do that I believe we can actually envisage an entire program of accelerated political reforms to effect the desired changes in the political landscape, the system of governance, the democratic and transparent organization of parties, the financing of parties, the creation of a second chamber to be elected in a manner that gives less scope for ethnicity and, yes why not, the introduction of a presidential system.
What we should not do is to come up with half-baked and ad-hoc reforms, proposed by self-appointed pundits, and then attempt to ram them down the throat of the electorate on the eve of a general election. We should dialogue and consult as widely as possible — as we have so readily done in the past for export industry, sugar, trade and tariffs, development strategy and national visioning.
The time may have come to envisage the same approach for the political dispensation, resorting this time to a referendum to finalise the reform package, assuming it can be presented in a way to elicit a meaningful public response…If not, why not, Mr Speaker? I mean dear readers.
* Published in print edition on 9 March 2018