“After a dreadful first year, the worst, I fear, is yet to come”

Interview: Chetan Ramchurn

* ‘Should the chasm between the people and their representatives grow, we will be sitting on a ticking time bomb’

* ‘Institutions are the men and women that make them. I would hope that they stand up for what is moral’

The observations of Chetan Ramchurn in this issue’s interview on the several aberrations that have marked the country this year are as usual sharp and to the point, quite in line with his usual franc-parler. He is a private entrepreneur who has appeared several times in our columns, and he echoes the sentiments of the younger generation of patriots whose responsibility is to prepare the country for the future and as such his views have to be taken with all the seriousness that they deserve. Read on…

Mauritius Times: It has been an eventful year what with, amongst others, the Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown, the Wakashio shipwreck and oil spill, the forced resignation of Ivan Collendavelloo following the St Louis Redevelopment project scandal, and lately the disturbing things we are getting to learn from the judicial inquiry into the death in suspicious circumstances of Soopramanien Kistnen. Truly an “annus horribilis” for the Government – and the country as well, isn’t it?

Chetan Ramchurn: Yes indeed, it has been a complicated year at global, regional and domestic levels. We knew since the beginning of 2020 that the Covid-19 outbreak would reach our shores. On February 3,, the Leader of the Opposition questioned Minister Jagutpal on the dearth of personal protective equipment (PPE), on contact tracing as well as on security measures and whether a surveillance system had been implemented. The Minister’s reply was: “Government is leaving no stone unturned to protect our citizens from such unwarranted risks that may be unleashed by such a Public Health Emergency of international concern”.

Still, there are doubts on the timing of the lockdown with many averring that had it been enacted before, there would have been fewer deaths resulting from the virus. But, this being one of the rare good decisions of this Government, we should recognise that the lockdown has been maintained for a long enough period and has ensured the safety of Mauritians. The opposition’s criticisms against the lack of preparedness of the authorities however have been proved right with many examples of hefty panic buying from mysterious suppliers at the height of the crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic should not mask our economic woes prior to it nor the ambient corruption that has been perceived for years: the Government has been pretty clueless on the measures that would bail our economy out and promises of a 4% GDP growth have remained a mirage since 2014. Besides the St Louis project, the Kistnen death and the inability of the authorities to detect some form of foul play in it, other ‘achievements’ of this 14-month old government comprise our inclusion on the blacklist of the European Union, the massive protests against the apparent inaction of the Executive following the Wakashio oil spill and the proliferation of drugs in our society.

I should add however that there is one notable difference between the “annus horribilis” of those in office and that of the population. The self-employed as well as owners of small businesses are left pretty much on their own while the government knows that it has four more years in power. It is countering its evident unpopularity with its usual shtick: visits to religious ceremonies so that the Premier can state repeatedly that he is still in control, staged PR coups celebrating a tramway project that has yet to break even and the strong presence of lackeys on social media professing their utmost devotion to this 37.68% Government. After a dreadful first year, we are to endure four more years of that team. The worst, I fear, is yet to come.

* Events and incidents that have been taking place and unfolding over the past several weeks with a series of deaths, also in suspicious circumstances, have had the effect of creating an atmosphere of apprehension not only among the population but even the lawyers who have taken up the case of Mr Kistnen and who have expressed concern for their own security. Do you think that apprehension in the minds of the people about the law and order situation is justified?

Not everyone seems to be concerned though. In recent times, many have intervened on pro-government stations or platforms to admonish those that are concerned about the state of law and order in the land. This is usually expressed in succinct terms: ‘Aret faire palabres’. That this is expressed verbatim by several individuals shows some form of orchestration; there is a shouting brigade that works towards quelling dissenting voices. The lackeys close to power are working hard towards getting the population to focus about something else.

One crucial book to understand the Mauritian situation is Matthew Simonton ‘Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History’. In this seminal work, the author highlights how the ‘elite’ use institutions to maintain the status quo and prevent revolt. The apprehension is justified in light of the recent mysterious deaths. The judicial enquiry instituted following the former MSM agent’s death has revealed many loopholes in our system and even more glaringly the degree to which our institutions are poorly run.

That the hefty surveillance state cameras failed to capture crucial footage and that someone who wanted to reveal how fraud and corruption were related to the Kistnen case would not even have his statement recorded in the diary book are revealing. Our institutions are failing us. But what are institutions? Institutions are the men and women that make them. I would hope that they stand up for what is moral.

* But there is clearly more than meets the eye that is going on. Mrs Kistnen’s lawyers have openly queried the existence of a ‘mafia’, in light of the suspicious death of the former MSM activist and the subsequent deaths that all seem to have some connection with the supply chain of requirements during the pandemic. How do you react to that speculation regarding the existence of a mafia?

Although it would not surprise me at all that there could be one, it is crucial to present some evidence that would link the deaths to each other. There seems to be a lot of coincidences indeed with their alleged involvement in the procurement of equipment or PPE during the lockdown. The Commissioner of Police seemed adamant that there is no such thing. I would have preferred the same promptness when the possibility of a murder was enunciated in court. Will the previous investigators be questioned on how they concluded that Kistnen’s death was a suicide?

We have known death squads in the not too distant past. Everyone remembers the Gorah Issac murders. Azor Adelaide lost his life at the hands of a political hit squad as well. It is totally within the realm of possibility that aides of politicians with a gargantuan appetite for money or power will resort to anything to remain anonymous. Over the last few days, another matter has come out of this Pandora’s Box. Evidence showing electoral expenses going beyond the statutory limit was apparently in Kistnen’s possession.

* The institutions created by the Constitution or set up by Parliament, except for the judiciary and the DPP, appear shy to take the bull by the horns and do what they have been set up for to put the house in order, and there is apprehension in some quarters that it would take just a spark to unleash unrest in the country. What’s your take on that?

There are several levels of unrest or disturbances. The most prominent one in Mauritius takes the form of peaceful marches. The post-Wakashio protest stemmed out of ecological concerns and the perception that there was no prompt action taken in the face of a disaster. I am happy to note that people are more aware of the mess we are in now. Whether that superior consciousness will outlast a future pension hike, populist measures or ethnic affiliations, I do not know. Should the economic situation further deteriorate and the state does not act as a caring presence next to those in need, there is certainly the possibility of civil unrest.

Authorities have to ensure that basic necessities are available to families where the main breadwinner has lost his/her job. There is the need for reskilling and upskilling, and the Government seems to have understood it in the recent months. Let’s hope for greater solidarity in the face of tougher times. Our crippled institutions, unless reformed now with competent people placed at their heads, could create further distrust in the Government and should this chasm grow between the people and their representatives, we will be sitting on a ticking time bomb.

* On the other hand, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so do electors who are still on the lookout for an alternative. The ‘Entente’, which has brought together the Labour Party, the MMM and the PMSD under one tent, seems to have many more miles to go before it obtains popular support. Is it difficult at this stage to anticipate how far it will go?

I have strong doubts on the pertinence of this ‘entente’. Of course, in the name of the greater good, there are always collaborations that are possible. I wonder how intelligent it is to have three leaders taking turns to speak in a cosy conference room. They seem to be disconnected from the masses.

I note that there seems to be no ideological difference expressed in their views, which is not healthy for our democracy. On the Contribution Sociale Généralisée (CSG), i regret that no socialist views have been expressed. There is the need for progressive taxation. How come the Labour Party is not saying that?

This blurring of identities is not a welcome addition to the political landscape. However lame someone might be, that he requires the pooling of three factions automatically elevates him to a higher position than warranted. The opposition had better get its strategy and tactics right.

* 2021 promises to be a very challenging and perhaps more difficult year that what 2020 has been for the economy. It’s likely to be tough times for the government but also for the jobless and even income-earners, and economists have been saying lately there’s a limit to which the government can go in dishing out subsidies/wage assistance and even with disbursements from the Mauritius Investment Corporation Ltd (MIC) with a view to ensuring social peace in the country. Should we be worried about what’s going to happen next?

The usual response of our leaders is to solicit foreign aid to sustain our expenses. This further reduces our independence and sovereignty. Our clout, some might call it our allure, has in large part been built on our exceptional geographical location in the strategic Indian Ocean. I believe we will resort to it to benefit from lines of credit. How long will we keep doing that? What do we have to give up in exchange for this bail-out? There is no such thing as a free lunch in this world. We should be worried because our leaders have spent unwisely on projects of little or no importance: Safe City, Tramway and the Côte d’Or stadium. There is no clear roadmap to regain a position of economic strength and that is the real concern

* As regards the MIC, nothing has changed to date as regards the opacity surrounding its functioning, the conditions attached to its disbursements to “distressed” companies, and now we hear that companies which have benefited from the MIC’s support have paid out dividends to their shareholders. It would seem that deep pockets have more political influence, isn’t it?

Under the MSM, that would hardly be surprising. The composition of the MIC should have been done in a more intelligent manner. Political nominees with wobbly track records are ubiquitous in our institutions. Patented historical private sector guys having a say in the spending of our funds seems ludicrous. Socialising losses is hardly new in Mauritius. We had the stimulus package during the Labour years. Of course, no one wants to see a high unemployment rate in the country but there is simply too much opacity in the way funds are being disbursed.

As Aditya Narayan in the 2nd June 2020 edition of this paper put it:

“Just throwing money at existing enterprises to keep them afloat and preserve jobs would be a short-sighted vision. It is necessary to look at their business model and determine whether it is sustainable in the long-term. That’s where the MIC should be a kind of strategic planner who pushes economic operators towards a more inclusive and sustainable path of growth, taking into account the need for a greener economy that is geared towards import substitution, food self-sufficiency and energy security.”

* In view of the apprehensions regarding the situation that would prevail next year, would you say the country would still require experienced, old hands both in the government and in the opposition to steer the boat to safer waters?

It has little to do with age. Seniority does not always mean wisdom. There are so many good leaders that are young and performing across the world. Let me add that youth does not automatically mean dynamism or talent as well. Have you seen some of our new government and opposition MPs? The people we are looking for are decision makers that can adapt to an ever-changing environment and that will not sell them out for the interests of their financers.

But coming back to your question, I fail to see why people from the opposition would join forces with a government they have rightly criticised for months and who would get the final say? A serious opposition is crucial for the good running of a democracy. To do without a credible opposition would be a step backwards.

* The government’s rebuttal to all the allegations levelled in the wake of these suspicious deaths is that the opposition and the media are doing politics. If that is indeed the case, that would amount to dangerous politics. How do you react to that?

Some of the figures in the actual government had no such qualms when they peeped into the private lives of their opponents or used suspicious deaths for political gains in the past. If there was no basis for further investigation, this would be dangerous politics indeed, but there seems to be ample ground for suspicion in the Kistnen case. There is clearly a lack of seriousness in the way the authorities have acted till now. The level of cooperation is not the best we have seen between the judiciary and relevant authorities. The fears of tampering are very much justified.

Unlike many, I do not idolise the lawyers purporting to seek justice. I concur that there are renowned attention seekers that are trying to exist through this case. But there is only one goal to be pursued: to discover the truth and only one victim, Kistnen Soopramanien and his family. So we should be careful about what exactly is being sought. I also find the constant reminder that this is being done ‘pro bono’ vulgar.

Having said that, I understand the necessity to draw attention to the many suspicious deaths as the media is doing and so are the lawyers who seem to be better informed than anyone else. Will we know the truth about the strange deaths during the present regime? It seems highly unlikely.

* Published in print edition on 29 December 2020

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