“I do not believe that the power to liberate Mauritius is vested in any one individual”

Interview: Chetan Ramchurn, Entrepreneur

* ‘The people hold the real power but unless they wake up to the real situation of the country, there is no rescuing Mauritius’

* ‘The opposition offers a sorry sight and has yet to offer a substitute to the present way of governing’

Chetan Ramchurn shares his dispassionate thoughts about the current political situation and the impression of a status-quo in Opposition while the MSM presses on with activities designed to project the PM’s image as “builder”. Despite weekly press conferences, there is as yet no clear set of values and principles espoused by the Opposition, and this may create a sense of frustration or even a void propitious to “monsters”. Mauritian apathy and the greed of those benefiting from government largesse, with policies targeting the two ends of the economic ladder, may, in that event, hold the nation hostage to the current disposition of power according to his analysis.

Mauritius Times: If what’s being talked about and debated on social media may not clearly reflect the general mood in the country presently – in towns and villages, in the workplace and elsewhere, what then could the mood be like judging from your social and professional interactions?

Chetan Ramchurn: As your readers must have experienced firsthand, social media are a hotbed for attention seekers and moderate views are few and far between. These platforms are however an important cog in any democracy offering a vital space for people to express themselves. With the new Cybersecurity and Cybercrime Bill, these bastions of free expression will be curtailed.

Another facet that they might have come across is the overt obsequiousness in some of the views expressed. Servility and promoting government narratives, has existed under all regimes, but with “chatwaism”, it has been elevated to an art form akin to tight rope walking. This marked absence of conviction and of truth (nihil veri) can create ridiculous situations whereby you find people denouncing the abomination of some of the ill-thought government expenditure or political nominations while simultaneously liking posts by the same nominees.

Liking two contradictory ideas is the zeitgeist. Macron’s en même temps is a celebration of that pragmatic attitude however irreconcilable two views might be.It is now synonymous with an absence of clarity and sheer opportunism. This is in line with the mimetic tendencies described by late Bernard Stiegler in his work Automatic Society:

“These technologies of social networking are produced by what is called the network effect, which means that you are forced to go on Facebook, for example, because all your friends are on Facebook; it is a very mimetic technology. This technology is integrating several levels of automatic behavior. […] And here the problem is that with digital technology, automated technology, it is possible to control the automatisms of everybody and to make them converge into the interest of the controller.”

Through interactions with others, the perception that one can gather is that the population understands that billions are being poured in numerous infrastructural projects, many of which serve the narrative of Pravind Jugnauth as a builder. These, as we are constantly reminded of, also serve as PR shticks for the Premier with ribbon cutting exercises offering a staple of news bulletins. Are all these projects really warranted? I would think not.

Actions since 2014 have focused on keeping two segments happy: people at the two ends of the socio-economic ladder. Hence, the minimum wage has been a boon for low-earning families while the oligarchs know that the Government serves them loyally and shall disburse the funds that they would need for a quick return to higher profitability (Smart City Scheme, Illovo deal, MIC).

What of the lower and middle-middle class? They find themselves increasingly squeezed by several issues: price hikes, a total absence of meritocracy, law and order woes and wilting institutions.

what then could the mood in the country? There is resignation among many who feel that we are stuck with incompetents at the helm of the country. This pessimism stems from glaring malpractices.

* The country’s border has been reopened, economic activities are back to normal, Mauritius has been removed from the FATF ‘grey list’, the civil servants have had their slice of the PRB cake, and the public broadcaster is telling us every day about all the ‘développements’ taking place in the country. It’s not known if the people are optimistic about the future, but it seems the feel-good factor is slowly getting back. What do you think?

Clearly there are things to look forward to which have been massively overhyped by the servile press. Mauritians understand the importance of the return of tourists to our shores. Likewise, we should be happy that we are no longer part of the FATF grey list without however forgetting that we were placed on that list because of the frailty of our institutions.

Are these institutions now headed by competent individuals? Several of the nominees seem to have been handpicked for features other than their capabilities.

As for the Covid-19 pandemic, Minister Jagutpal’s answer at the last sitting of the National Assembly is a clear reminder that we are not yet out of the clutches of the virus with a steep rise in cases and related deaths in the last months:

“from 01 October 2021 to 24 October 2021, my Ministry has effected 44,838 Rapid Antigen Tests, out of which 12,026 have been found positive.” Can one really say that ‘il y a une embellie’ but what is the horizon’?

On the other hand, a compelling question that we should be asking ourselves is: Do our leaders have a clear vision of how they want Mauritius to be in 10 years?

The seeds that are being sown at the moment seem to be focused on other aspects than the welfare of Mauritians. The new paradigm is one that focuses on enticing foreigners with the appealing tax rates. In the future, will the only safe havens be gated residences? Will our law enforcing agencies still be crippled by political interferences? Will the opacity surrounding emergency procurement and contracts continue to exist? Will proper planning be undertaken before embarking upon gargantuan projects? Will communal and casteist hatred continue to be stoked prior to elections for political gains?

* If there seems to be a clear political objective backed by resolute and sustained efforts by the governing alliance to show that it’s delivering on its electoral promises, on the other side of the fence we find the opposition parties still trying to find their way — and a leader. How do you react to that?

Indeed, the mainstream opposition parties seem to be stuck in a modus operandi that is dated with most of their efforts geared towards criticism and promoting their leaders’ children and many of the niche factions seem to be led by individuals lacking in credibility. The most disturbing aspect is that the most bitter adversaries of the present regime are those that have been ousted from its ranks; advisors, MPs or Ministers now seemingly enlightened and finally waking up to the smells emanating from the many misses since 2014.

The opposition offers a sorry sight and has yet to offer a substitute to the present way of governing. Will it be the same bending over for conglomerates and kowtowing to foreign powers? To come back to that search for an elusive leader, he or she can neither be based on the whims of an already maligned leader nor be determined by a surname. Now might be the time to pave the way for greater transparency and democracy within, to begin with, opposition parties themselves.

* To be fair to the opposition parties, the Covid regulations had restricted their movements and the holding of rallies, leaving them with the only option of making their presence felt through weekly press conferences, jointly or separately. But it seems the general feeling, even amongst political observers, is that the opposition does not represent an alternative option so far. What’s you take on that?

There is an arsenal of communication tools available to opposition factions that are yet to be exploited. The problem is not the platform they choose or dearth thereof but the message and philosophy they espouse. There is the absence of a narrative that would translate their vision for the country. What are the values that they are defending? Equal Opportunities? Integrity? Meritocracy? Truth be told, no one quite knows.

This is why many feel that another party coming to power will not fundamentally change their lives. They will keep pandering to the very rich and throw in some populist measures. The Mauritius Labour Party came with the brilliant idea of democratisation in 2005 and instead of implementing it in several key sectors, sent mixed signals to progressive voters.

This blurring of lines whereby there seems no clear difference between governing and opposing factions is further accentuated by the presence of former MSM members within opposition ranks. People need clarity in the choices that are being offered to them.

* Isn’t it possible that the opposition front with its old parties and leaders is unable to keep up with the pace of the younger MSM party and its leadership? The problem could have more to do with generational differences than the absence of a consensual leader for the ‘L’Entente de l’Espoir’, and which therefore makes the case for the renewal of its leadership?

The MSM’s renewal is cosmetic. In a previous interview, I interpreted this renewal of cadres as an endorsement of Tancredi’s line in Visconti’s Le Guépard, “Il faut que tout change pour que rien ne change” — that is, “For things to remain the same, everything must change”.

That is a formula that seems to have worked for them at the last polls but if anyone gauges the level of most of these new MPs, it is alarmingly disappointing. This is nothing very new with the MSM, hardly anyone remembers their MPs from 1983, 1987 or 1991. Their mantra is a simple one: one highly polarising leader with the help of the financiers and the press ensures that other candidates in other constituencies can ride his coattails and get elected.

Having seen the performance of the new MPs and the derision that they have attracted, it would be difficult to imagine that they are the difference makers in the battle against the opposition. Hollow speeches to celebrate Jugnauth Junior with hardly any idea put forward seems to be their only legacy.

I feel that the image war is on and is clearly being dominated by Pravind Jugnauth. Clearly, if you put the opposition’s stale press conferences next to multi-million or billion infrastructure, it is not difficult to judge who scores more points. The opposition parties are unable to fight against that, but they can still propose an alternative to the present society.

In Mauritius, the fight is always between the incumbent Prime Minister and the shadow one. There is no escaping that. Unless and until we have a credible shadow prime minister who emerges, we could have to put up with an MSM-led government for years to come. The opposition should work towards identifying, through primaries, the one with the best aptitudes to win.

* However there has not been a dearth of cases with the potential to cause tremendous political embarrassment to the government: Wakashio, the emergency procurements, the murder of Soopramanien Kistnen, etc. Many a government would have collapsed given those circumstances. The party in power has survived all of these and will possibly win the forthcoming electoral petitions as well. Why is that so?

Yes, there are damning cases against the present government. The apathy of Mauritians added to the greed of those benefiting from the system will ensure that this government does not collapse.

Let me add that there have been public demonstrations that have been hugely successful. Not everyone is at ease with the present state of affairs. The crowd combined a hotchpotch of causes with no sense of direction and no leader, albeit improvised ones, which explain why once the public demonstrations were over, nothing would happen. The public outcry has led to some resignations which is hardly something that will appease protesters.

Zizek tells us “Just think, don’t act”, and that we should “not get caught in pseudo-activist pressure [of] doing something.” Future actions, if tainted by communal leanings or fringe causes or driven by attention seeking figures, are unlikely to succeed and will only serve to bolster the Government.

The Opposition should go back to the drawing board and pen their vision of the society that they would like to create.

* Have we reached a point where the people do not care anymore so long as their financial needs are met and their old-age pensions will be taken care of?

That would be a dangerous stance. Certainly, people are more individualistic and Mauritians are not different from the global trend. I am reassured that despite all the carrots offered to the population, the last elections were won by an alliance with only 37.68% of the votes.

I tend to put its win more on the inability of the opposition to muster a credible alternative be it in terms of ideas and personnel than on the apathy of Mauritians. Still, that these incentives have swayed voters makes no doubt. If these are the only considerations for future voters, we risk facing the perpetuation of a stale system.

* The next elections are three years away, and the government remains united against a divided opposition, and it’s said that only the LP leader can untie the knot…

I do not believe that the power to liberate Mauritius is vested in any one individual. The leader of the Labour Party has his part to play and can be one of the voices to help topple this government.

I am wary of the creation of a void, which as Gramsci avers could lead to the creation of monsters. Aristotle postulates that nature abhors a vacuum which is bound to be filled by someone or something. The collapse of the MMM and the MLP in 2014 gave rise to one such monster and I feel there could be a similar void which could give rise to a party with populist tendencies.

I still believe that the people hold the real power but unless they wake up to the real situation of the country, there is no rescuing Mauritius from the clutches of the present tribe in power.

* Published in print edition on 29 October 2021

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