Interview: Nalini Burn – Independent Analyst/Researcher & Concerned Citizen

Elections 2024: “What is at stake is bigger than party and personal fortunes”
‘It is about public spiritedness and human rights’

* ‘Inequality is wired into our business model
Is it socially, morally, environmentally, culturally, economically, and also crucially, politically sustainable, on this scale?’ 

* ‘ We need the human rights principle of the Rule of Law, to fight impunity, to call into account. In a timely way’

Constitutional reform is hardly the sort of theme to get intelligent conversation and mobilisation from the grassroots. Nalini Burn, in this interview, cogently argues the necessity for Opposition to get on these issues, if not a minimum consensus, then at least enough common ground for policies that are increasingly felt as necessary. She has thus taken the role of co-chairing the Constitutional Review Conference organised by Resistans ek Alternativ (REA) this Friday, with the hope that it may help kick-start the process well before the general elections. We have, in the same breath, asked her views on the country’s social and developmental priorities, on the simmering political cauldron, which requires deft hands and elevated sights, before the Alliance, its ticket sharing formula, candidate list and electoral manifesto are finalised.

Mauritius Times: In the absence of political will to take action, discussions about the necessity for constitutional reform are likely to remain a purely academic exercise, with no tangible progress or implementation. So, what’s the point of the constitutional review conference organized by Resistans ek Alternativ, which is to be held tomorrow and facilitated by yourself and Satyajit Boolell – especially so considering it’s an electoral year, and the socio-political conditions might not be present for any change to occur or even begin?

Nalini Burn: The Constitutional Review Conference is initiated by Rezistans ek Alternativ (ReA). They asked me to act as co-Chair with Satyajit Boolell. I agreed. As co-Chair, I am not subscribing to the specific political strategy, aims and vision of ReA as a political party. I am facilitating a conversation between political parties in the opposition – parliamentary and non-parliamentary, including ReA – and members of civil society, whether in organisations or as individuals. I place myself in this latter category, as a concerned and active citizen.

You will recall what you put as headline in my interview of 21st July 2023: “Stopping a third mandate for the ruling party is starkly and simply the imperative. We are in the throes of a serious assault on the judiciary. A unified opposition is to me paramount and needs to coalesce with progressive civil society.”

I do not think that constitutional reform is an academic exercise at any time. In less than a year from then, we are seeing how this multi-pronged assault on the judiciary is playing out. Does the Financial Crimes Commission Bill, passed rapidly with a simple majority and given quick Presidential Assent on 21 December 2023, go against the Constitution? That is the one line of defence left against it, in this legislature. That is, if the administration of the judiciary pronounces itself just as swiftly over it and any appeal dealt with. If the outcome keeps it in the arsenal of legislation, then we must work towards urging a new legislature to change the Constitution, to protect, restore our democracy.

It is obvious that political will by any incumbent government is needed to take action over Constitutional reform, and it needs opposition parties to agree if it is does not have a ¾ majority. But that does not mean that we must assume it will not do so. In the meantime, we need to see what common ground there is among political parties in the opposition over Constitutional reform. It would be important to solidify that and to encourage a collaboration between stakeholders of representative democracy and of participatory democracy.

This is all the more important at the end of an electoral cycle of 5 years and which ushers in a new one. All parties and their candidates face elections, to be elected and/or re-elected. Whether they are outgoing authoritarians, incoming putative ones -who often claim to be democrats in opposition -, as well as democrats, as far as electoral democracy is concerned. I believe that it is prior to an election that there is scope to pry a more open democratic space.

Citizens as electors can make their votes count. On issues they care about, and one can advocate that they care about. Last year, I also said, agreeing with you about the palpable sense of ‘awaiting a definite break with current governance’, that it is at two levels. Yes, who do we cast our votes to, which candidate or party? But also, a sense of “no more the “current” governance of the last decades”. We need more citizen activism to mobilise and shape the agenda of what changes we want to see. And pre-elections BEFORE Parliament is dissolved is where we have more leverage. For all to show their hand by walking the talk.

Constitutions are far from being remote and aloof. They can be used practically, to interrogate and contest on bread-and-butter issues, on strategic levers of electoral power and influence, such as electoral and party-political financing. In India, after much dogged and smart civic activism, the Supreme Court has recently decreed that secrecy around Electoral Bonds infringed the right to freedom of information enshrined in the Constitution, even when balanced with the right to data privacy.

The ruling came too late to influence the previous elections and the forthcoming one, during which time the ruling party had been able to amass huge funds, over ¾ of what was mobilised from corporates and other private donors, and consolidate a formidable electoral machine, and deepen its own hold on key economic and cultural institutions.

* Beyond the gaps or deficiencies in the existing constitutional framework, the 1968 Constitution may not fully reflect societal changes, values, and evolving needs. However, the fundamental principles underlying our Constitution, the structure of government and the distribution of powers within the State have generally not been the subject of criticisms. The real issue has mostly been about who holds authority both within the government and institutions. It is believed that only political change can make things happen. What’s your take on that?

The 1968 Constitution was drawn shortly after two international Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the one hand and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICECSR) on the other. It draws from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948, whose moral foundation is captured in Article 1 “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Both of them were signed in 1966.

Yet it is only the ICCPR which found its way in our Constitution, in the stultifying grip of the Cold War, that we found ourselves immersed in. This bias goes beyond gaps and deficiencies. It never reflected societal values and needs at the time, in particular the economic, social and cultural rights agenda, let alone evolving ones like the right to a safe environment. Now these violations, including of civil and political rights, have become systemic. It has been exacerbated by the particular political and economic models and dynamics in place since independence.

I think many individuals and groups, Constitutional lawyers, bodies such as the Law Reform Commission have for a long time and more scrutinised the areas you mention. They have come forward with propositions and this is still ongoing. Right now, the balance and separation of powers is absolutely the issue in the ongoing de-democratisation of our polity. It is precisely because of this understanding of the strategic foundational role of Constitutions that there has been such engagement with Constitutional and electoral reform.

Yes, it can only be addressed politically, both in terms of process and content. And it is expected that these dimensions will be aired at the Conference. This is what triggered my interest to co-facilitate the presentations and exchanges. ReA wants to draw firmer common ground among parties around a transformative agenda to contest the elections. It is not yet clear whether it is envisaged to draw a possible roadmap for this agenda. We may begin to find out on Saturday, as parties present their priorities of what they want reformed.

* The prolonged duration it takes for electoral petitions to be resolved, for alleged corruption/money-laundering cases at the CEB or elsewhere to be investigated by the ICAC, or for high-profile or politically sensitive crime cases in cane fields to be solved is indeed surprising. These are instances where it seems that the people in authority matter more than the system itself or even a modern Constitution, wouldn’t you agree?

I will not say surprised. Morally indignant, revulsed yes! Nothing surprises me about the slide into authoritarianism and the extent to which the present regime is self-serving, and is hollowing out, when not capturing and subverting key institutions. It cannot be allowed to be normalised.

Two years ago on 11 March 2022, reflecting on all this in these columns, I had said “with economic liberalisation, a market-oriented profit seeking ethos has been encouraged in the public sector, slowly displacing the developmental welfare state. The state has become a site, an enterprise for business facilitation in the new ideology of development”. The nitty-gritty in actual business transactions I referred to, is what you have just described. “From business facilitation by the state, we have the capture of the state itself by private interests.”

The people in authority have power. But they seek re-election to maintain their regime of private wealth accumulation and distribution. They bank on being seen as patrons generously giving out income transfers in the form of senior pensions, social aid, from public funds mobilised through taxing all on goods and services, with illicit funds laundered, while not taxing private income and wealth and its accumulation. And without any will to research to generate the data of the fallout, the current, short, medium and long term trade-offs and dilapidations.

I strongly feel the people in power need to be called out in their posturing. At the same time, we do not just want an alternance, with the same business model and coercive powers intact. We need another model. One that is framed not by business facilitation but on human rights, its moral compass, its norms, principles, and practices to underpin policies, regulations, standards of conduct.

Above all we need the human rights principle of the Rule of Law, to fight impunity, to call into account. In a timely way, agreed. These human rights have yet to be domesticated in our Constitution. One of the ways is to spread literacy about them, mobilise around them, also inspire ourselves with examples drawn from elsewhere about Constitutional activism as political and social activism. So, working on the Constitutional front can be very strategic and concrete, meaningful to ordinary citizens. By undergirding it with human rights, connecting them with and grounding them with a concrete situation analysis. This would be a bilan, analysis of causes of the outgoing government’s 10-year record from a rights-based approach, and as the culmination of the dynamics of the previous decades.

There are some initiatives of civil society ongoing on this front. It is still fragmented, rudimentary. They contain germs of an alternative. Mobilising, despite fear as a repressive tool, around a positive vision – not utopia – of change is one way to confront such dystopia as we are living in now and possibly staring at us down the line.

* But even if it’s true that any constitutional amendments or a reform exercise would require a three-quarters majority, people may not be comfortable with the idea canvassed by Resistans ek Alternativ in favour of such a parliamentary majority, especially considering recent events. Don’t you think a three-quarters majority is too potent a tool to solely entrust to politicians, regardless of their political affiliations?

You may need to ask ReA about it. I am certainly not their spokesperson. I do broadly subscribe to socialist, ecological, and feminist human rights-based transformation if one wants to put labels, which means there is affinity. I do not think there needs to be a single party with ¾ of seats to have a ¾ majority for Constitutional change.

Having said that, the MMM-PSM government of 1982, with 60 seats did push through a Constitutional amendment about the automatic dissolution of parliament following a five-year term of office. We are thankful to them for that, especially looking back. It was carried by a dynamic engaging political and civil society forces coalescing. It was short-lived. But the amendment remains.

For my part as a concerned citizen, activist, I do think that if there is a way to avoid the usual stance of: for reform and against autocracy while in opposition and backsliding and dragging feet after election; it would have to somehow be before an election to push for Constitutional reform. And that ¾ can be cross-party with the incumbent legislature. Why not collaborate for the common good? And not collaborating shows bad faith! Civil society as an electorate should try to push for that. Make it gain traction as an electoral agenda. People claiming power as opposed to being electoral populist pawns.

* We witnessed at the last elections foreign workers participating in the voting process, potentially influencing outcomes in various marginal constituencies. Moreover, recent reports have highlighted the sale of a villa to a foreigner/an expat for approximately Rs 600 million. The proliferation of schemes such as IRS, ERS, etc., is exacerbating the trend of locals being marginalized in the property market. Do you believe it’s time to revisit the Constitution to consider policies focusing exclusively on votes and land ownership for Mauritians?

To put in context. When in the UK, as a resident, not UK citizen, I can vote in elections, provided I am from the Commonwealth. The same applies to foreign migrant workers here. But also, with the amendments in citizenship and residency legislation, military personnel and their families can also vote here.

We have become an archipelago of island bases with spread over the entire Indian Ocean. So much silence mutes all this. As well as at the same time, any Mauritian citizen’s foreign spouse can now, since this legislature, be stripped of acquired citizenship through marriage on the sole authority and discretionary power of the Minister for Interior.

Do we know how many there are in the category of Mauritians, under threat of vindictive political retaliation? Living under threat. As there has been in the past, as well I am personally well-placed to know. Is this legal amendment in conformity to the Constitution? We do not yet know. High time for more timely Constitutional rulings.

As for the sale of residency, there are two grounds to being a citizen, through blood or land/property. Blood ties have been made shaky, through marriage and family formation. It can only exacerbate emigration or a stance of staying, keep quiet and knuckle under. But land and private property rights are reasserting themselves even more now. We need to remember that we inherit a jurisdiction where patrimonial wealth, its succession planning and further accumulation, has always underpinned our Constitutions from the time of the British-French colonial takeover of a settler colony.

Attracting residence globally comes from many segments and socioeconomic strata, from retired middle class to young professionals to Very High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs). All of these can become residents for a time period, and some can become citizens.

The citizenship entitlement is not offered to contract labour, but to owners of capital including highly skilled human capital. The HNWI are tax domiciled and have to live here for a period to qualify. Like many Mauritian HNWI – some politically exposed- they have residences all over the world. And the marketing is for experiencing living here as High Net Worth Individuals in unique locations. All this is part of the reasons why adjusting for inequality has lowered our overall score and ranking on the Human Development Index.

Inequality is wired into our business model. Is it socially, morally, environmentally, culturally, economically, and also crucially, politically sustainable, on this scale? And set against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as regards not just rights and fundamental freedoms but also our dignity – and sense of self-worth and well-being?

* The sale of the Rs600M villa, though exceptional among many others, underscores successive governments’ emphasis on property-based foreign direct investment (FDI) in recent decades. Apart from the increased “bétonnage” of the island, it also underscores our inability to establish alternative pillars for sustainable growth and employment. What factors do you believe contribute to our failure in this regard?

What is curious is that the well-known economists with media exposure, commenting and giving advice, routinely do not take on board the key pillar of the economy which has given risen to this situation – Mauritius as an international financial hub, and its dominant niches or streams. Few take the measure of the financialisation of the global economy.

Real estate development is one of the key drivers of foreign direct investment worldwide. Residential properties from these HNWI’s portfolios exchange for far more than Rs 800 million. It is part and parcel of global private wealth planning. It is vigorously marketed by the Economic Development Board (EDB) as an important segment. EDB links hospitality (tourism, etc.) to real estate as a pillar and financial services as another business opportunity track. But the two are solidly intertwined.

The mapping of global value flows from production of goods and services from any economy (captured in Gross Domestic Product as an indicator) is the focus of mainstream economists. They look more with concern about the balance of trade (in systemic deficit) than with what is happening on the balance of payments.

There is the concern on the conduct of monetary policy, international reserves, and international debt. Yes, and they are legitimate relevant concerns. But what of the corresponding global wealth flows, from production? How linked and delinked is it? What is the carbon footprint and broader mitigation and adaptation obligations under climate change?

In a “bilan” yet to be drawn together of our pathways and trajectories as a nation- state, there is a glaring conceptual, analytical and policy evaluation gap. Yet it affects our daily lives, in terms of purchasing power, including of land, bétonnage, enclosing of private space and privatising of public space. How come these villas are on sale from Pas Géométriques land, public domain leased for hotels and as part of hotels all the way from Wolmar in the West, to the East Coast, and from North to South?

Should residence and citizenship be constitutionalised in a restrictive way? This question has so many implications. I would rather the Constitution draws from human rights principles, content and leave it to cascading legislation – underpinning policy – regulations, to be compliant to it, positively draw from it and be subject to contestations and judgements based on it. But that is part of the conversation which we should make possible for all Mauritians, through many channels and languages to engage in.

* News reports inform us that the semiconductor industry is witnessing fierce competition, as new entrants seek to secure their place in the global market, especially given the geopolitical tensions involving Taiwan and China. Malaysia has risen to become the world’s sixth-largest exporter of semiconductors. Are we too small of a player, lacking the critical mass of skilled labour needed to capitalize on this opportunity?

Your earlier question makes me think of how our predicament is because we have not proactively come to terms and strategised about the urgency and dilemmas of juxtaposing Global Value Chains and Global Wealth Chains: That is having to move from being in low and now vanished segments of Global Value Chains – (its low wage, low productivity, low innovation, low risk, quick returns of market access)- while touting high economic growth and high conspicuous consumption, and to grappling with how that connects with Global Wealth Chains – not all of which are licit, at least to start off with. So many disconnects and disjunctures, causes of “feel bad” rather than “feel good”. Of course, those dominant patrimonial Mauritian companies are now making these connections profitably, even when they did not pioneer the changes.

What are the consequences we are living through now, the rest of us, in all our diversity and inequalities? There is a dearth of evidence base, of citizen-centric research. But social media comments to give glimpses of feelings and emotions. It may be that specific niches and university courses and professional bodies are delving into this in their respective silos and from their private, professional angles. But the communication and outreach is skimpy. It is not inclusive, it is exclusive, elitist, more closed than open. But then, most state action is shrouded in opacity and ferociously kept away from legislative scrutiny. So, there is little scope for communicating about these dynamics and development. What space was opened up with private radios and online tv channels is being co-opted, diluted. Somehow these issues need to be part of democratic deliberation. Not ruled out of order, treated as anti-national or face expulsion.

* We succeeded in the 1980s when Hong Kong faced threats, and that boosted our textile industry on the strength of unskilled labour. Do you think our inability to seize similar opportunities stems from our failure to truly reform our education system required for a performing economy?

We have dilapidated what we had that was good about our public education, public health and hygiene, utilities, public institutions shoring up democratising governance. The legitimate protest over right of access to education became captured as an electoralist, instrumental agenda, to gain power. Now pensions.

However, the whole ecosystem to deliver public world class education appropriate for and bearing the imprint of our uniqueness as a decolonising nation-state failed to be set up, through public action. It became a victim of economic liberalisation, feeding on privatisation. The system has always been elitist, as a selection/deselection exercise tied to capitalist and bureaucratic interests.

Fundamentally, we do not educate on how to think and think through. We also do not educate on critical aspects of our history, how to critically examine it, to nurture skills, creativity, innovation, from which entire services could be initiated. Now we are even less equipped for addressing generative artificial intelligence and its implications, how global platform companies are shredding the very idea of an education system and education as a passport to mainstream employment.

Even were the current education system fit for purpose, it would swell the ranks of those wanting to leave to where the educational achievements and competencies would be recognised, rewarded, where relative freedom and democracy prevail, without nepotism, corruption, political screening, and discrimination on many intersecting grounds.

That is a failure of our current governance. We have seen with Covid then, the Wakashio how the regime shut out local capacities and mobilisation, criminalising it, passing draconian authoritarian laws, behind which it carried on its state capture. While at the same time, pleading lack of capacity to mobilise climate and other finance as victim of external forces.

* The three main opposition parties, namely the Labour Party, the MMM, and the PMSD, have come together with the aim of ousting the MSM-led alliance from power. However, it appears that the cohesion that has kept them together thus far may be at risk due to disagreements over the terms of their alliance, particularly concerning the allocation of tickets to each party. How do you react to this development?

It would be naïve to think that the current regime is not actively trying to foster this, as a means of keeping power. In India, a close partner, similar moves are afoot. Even with the incumbent regime in a strong position. It is still wanting to attract parts of the opposing alliance and weaken it, if not engineering its disqualification. It is worrying, yes.

Here, the old candidates will not let go and the new are vying for a seat at the table. It is a possible marker of the dynamic that it can be a perceived winning alliance… Also patronage-clientelist politics has much at stake when there is such wealth to broker and accumulate. A ticket brings spoils of office. Building and sustaining coalitions are then so difficult.

Last year, when you asked me the same question, I said “I would rather have shifting contesting alliances than the blanket autocracy of “finn deside lao. Will the electorate by and large, prefer autocratic populism to shaky alliances?” But providing the alliance does survive! If there are small margins, in a first past the post, one round electoral system, extra-parliamentary parties can also join in the frittering of the opposition vote, to the advantage of a well-endowed and fairly ruthless incumbent wanting to be endorsed by sectarian groups.

For me, all we can do as a concerned electorate is to mobilise popular support against such persistent assaults on democracy and our livelihoods and on what we value. So many have kept quiet, waiting for elections, fair and free. But there is not at present a strong civil mobilisation to exert any pressure.

The opposing parties have to come together somehow and earn our respect and trust. What is at stake is bigger than party and personal fortunes. It is about public spiritedness and human rights, the inevitable give and take, and with humility. Let us hope that the Conference on Saturday 30th March provides a platform to mobilise around and forge common ground.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 29 March 2024

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