As We Draw The Curtain… 

By Krishna Bhardwaj

We reviewed in the preceding edition international economic conditions during 2010 and how well the domestic economy responded to the emerging factors. This week we take up two other subjects, namely social conditions and the political factor during the year on which we are about to draw the curtain.  Society: “There is much room for improvement” on this front 

Economic performance gets reflected under normal conditions in the state of society. As we observed last week, no new grounds were broken on the side of the economy but we did fare reasonably well despite the prevailing adverse external market conditions. Likewise, society continued to “evolve” at the pace set in during earlier years.

That is, nearly every fragment of it remained stuck in its own defensive mode. If anything, the separation of distinct cultural groups became a bit more pronounced than before with the advent of dedicated TV channels for particular linguistic groups, consolidating, as it were, the distinct cultural centre concept of prior years. Efforts were also made by a few persons to identify the Creole language solely with the Afro-Mauritian community, in a manner of giving exclusively identifiable moorings to yet another separate group in the population. This whole arrangement must have been calculated to continue yielding rich political dividends with everyone remaining content to be stuck in (and being looked after against the background of) his own cultural confines.

On the positive side, the argument was put forward that the variety of cultures in the country being given a boost would constitute a source of strength for the country. On the negative side, nobody came forward with a cohesive plan to ultimately merge all the diverse currents into what one could have identified as a proper unifying national culture. It appears therefore that the future will be built up on a fragmented concept of differentiation among the diverse cultural constituents identified so far and those yet to be identified in future. This concept of “divided unity” ties up very well with how the oligarchs of old thought they best could preserve their economic interests. This model will no doubt make those in the population who feel they are in a comfortable majority give up attachments to their own specific cultural association while taking a plunge instead into the “culture of globalisation”.

The so-called “culture of globalisation” has been with us in several ways. It has manifested itself, on the positive side, with new inroads made by the younger generation especially into the provision of international services. Mauritius has indeed thrived on the cosmopolitan image it usually projects about itself to the rest of the world. This is seen in the increasing employment of our youth in tourism and the hospitality sector. We have during this year raised our claim to providing a broader range of high-tech medical care to international visitors at relatively lower costs and with standards of care comparable to those in the best known international health care centres. We have also been intensifying our provision of international financial services. The demand of BPO services was sustained. We have attracted significant amounts of foreign capital for quite a few years now and, probably a higher level in 2010 than in past years, in the purchase of local luxury residential properties by foreigners. Global interfacing has also been giving rise to a new kind of musical and artistic culture which is altogether different from what comes from cultural roots. This manner of engaging with globalisation has no doubt imposed its own rules of acceptable norms of behaviour and lifting up local standards of professionalism. We will no doubt continue to work hard at this level in order to cut an edge against global competitors.

On the less brilliant side of it, we saw during the year a degeneration of values. Some of the form which domestic violence took was simply unthinkable a few years before. It is true that a global culture of easy and atrocious crime is being projected with greater proximity by the global multi-media from time to time. This may be having an impact on local social behaviour. The fact that it has manifested itself on occasion with so much atrocity proves that our so-called socio-cultural organisations have only been able to show how irrelevant they actually are when it comes to tackling serious matters such as preventing such escalation of crime in society. Their priorities should therefore be lying with more mundane concerns, such as garnering as much benefit and advantages to themselves. Many wear blinkers of self-interest instead of putting together concerted efforts to thwart anti-social behaviour as a whole, which is something that has no respect for artificial social barriers created for self-seeking.

No visible inroads have been made to arrest the proliferation of drugs. The twin sister of this social scourge is larceny, accompanied by violent crime. The two of them together represent a threat on social stability and security in general. There is no indication that one or other of the enforcers of law and order has successfully shaken the faith of those who have recourse to this sort of crime. We needed some exemplary signals to demonstrate that society will deal firmly with any degeneration of the index of social well-being. We did not get one. On the contrary, the gambling habit, which is a licence to easy money, proliferated across the country more than ever before. This nasty thing went even further, as government became dependent on it for a good chunk of its revenue and even for sponsoring scholarships, in the same manner as the tobacco industry in the past, justified itself by taking on some honourable social role. It is not quite clear whether we have the tools in our hands to reverse this loss of a sense of social values. One thing is certain however: the general sense of responsibility that great societies have been reputed for may have taken the exit door. This is unfortunate for the country which could have distinguished itself from other identically placed or even better international economic performer countries, by standing up for certain values that it will not compromise on.

The question that arises at this point in time is about the type of development we want. It is normal that we should want to rid society of the scourge of corruption, that we should take a deep breath and consider the contradictions we have embarked upon to be able to sort them out to an acceptable finality, that we should give to citizens some universal cardinal values to believe in, cherish them and stand for no matter what, that we should not allow social and family values to degenerate irrecoverably and that we should not be blinded by immediate gains without developing a clear vision on the future. 2010 has not been exceedingly productive on fostering development of this sort. This situation may mean that the instruments we have kept up as safeguards against social slippage are not being effective. They need to be coordinated again, preferably without the blinkers of a multi-layer and multi-speed society with its deliberately diverse compartmentalisation, each proceeding at its own pace, with the attendant risk that one of them might be hurled for political or other advantage against the other at the right opportunity. Our teachers used to remark in the good old days: “there is much room for improvement” on this front. Someone needs to take on this responsibility. 

* * * 

Politics: Otto Von Bismarck outdone

Otto Von Bismarck, a German Prussian politician, was the one who coined in 1867 the expression “politics is the art of the possible”. Since then, others such as RA Butler have profusely employed this definition of politics to justify various circumstances in which politics finds itself. Our own politicians have not been at rest to exploit the vast scope for explaining away the various contradictory situations they have found themselves in.

When Bismarck mentioned the word ‘possible’, it was with reference to heretofore unimaginable social and economic transformations that a good political establishment was capable of propelling a country into. He was in fact directing his mind towards high and exceptional achievements that well managed politics can bring. He did not even think of last-minute arrangements political parties can make between themselves, despite their assumed diametrically opposed philosophies on society and the economy, in order to win at elections. Going by what was happening by way of dialogue between the MMM leader and the Labour leader here in Mauritius over a couple of months before the general elections of 5 May 2010, in view of an arrangement between the two major political parties of the country for an alliance just before the elections, our adaptation of the definition of politics by Bismarck appears to be of the lowest category.

Having carefully considered his options, the Labour leader decided to abandon the ongoing negotiations for an alliance between the two parties some days before Nomination Day. Labour made instead an alliance with the MSM. This was enough to infuriate the MMM leadership and give them the cause on which to rest their case in front of the electorate. It gave the signal for both parties to start hurling their recriminations against each other in the ensuing electoral campaign. As usual again, voters conveniently divided themselves into two antagonistic camps supporting the protagonists on either side of the dividing line, depending more on their perception as to which of the two was most likely to win than on any distinct social and economic project each one of them was advocating. The facility with which Mauritian voters can shift allegiance overnight from one combination of political parties to another must not even have crossed Bismarck’s mind when he spoke of politics as being the art of the possible. It looks like something many politicians in the world have yet to adapt to.

This entire ploy reflected a deeper power game. Indeed, by his own admission, the Director of La Sentinelle group, which publishes the l’express newspaper, stated that he was entrusted with the mission to bring to fruition the Labour-MMM alliance in view of the elections. It must be borne in mind that this group forms part first and foremost of the corporate private sector group which controls the economy. It was in the interest of this private sector to be directly part of the next governing alliance by having its own representative in the governing team. The MMM was perceived to fit into that role, acting as a lever of control if ever Labour tried any gimmicks contrary to the economic interests of the top crust of the private sector.

The failed alliance dashed any such hopes and it was fairly predictable that Labour with its new-found ally, the MSM, after jettisoning the vastly unpopular former Minister of Finance, was capable of trouncing the MMM in the elections.

Since then and following Labour-MSM’s victory at the polls, part of the media, including the l’express group, has been involved in a bitter struggle for influence over the ruling political establishment. Not that the government has done exceedingly well on its portfolio so far, but it has been attacked consistently on an almost continuing basis for decisions it has taken or not taken. Unfortunately for it, the government has picked up a number of bad horses to run public bodies and this has given justifiable occasion to stoke the fire against it. The last in the series of confrontations is the battle engaged with the Prime Minister on one side fighting it out against the British for having unlawfully excised Diego Garcia from our territory and consolidating this illegality by declaring the sea around the archipelago a Marine Protected Area, and the Director of La Sentinelle, on the other side, trying to prove that Diego Garcia would have been sold off to the British at the time negotiations for independence were going on in 1965. Is this an attempt to show to certain categories of local voters that the Labour leadership of yore did not have their interests at heart for having given away a land with which they identify themselves more closely? We do not know. But the political chapter continues to be played in the concerned media…

If that is an indication, it appears that local politics will continue to be run along fragmented lines and that mercurial shifts of allegiances, as seen in the last elections, will keep running the platform. In that case, neither the political class nor voters will make the necessary efforts to thrash it out on subtle differences of approach having particular social and economic implications when it comes to making political choices. There is a series of unfinished business to tackle. Politicians have been slow to deliver results in various critical domains. We need to know the actions that will be taken to have assurance of supply of basic necessities such as electricity, water and adequate infrastructure under a vision where things fit neatly into each other rather than pursuing diverse goals one at a time. Costs are involved. They may be defrayed in diverse ways. The choices involved in such matters have implications for the standard of living of the population, already being hit by a number of adverse price developments. Direction is needed in education, law and order, etc. It is by focusing on a series of unfinished business like this that we can bring genuine politics to bear upon the well-being of the population.

For this to happen, we need a new generation of political leaders to come up. A multi-pronged leadership of politics will be far more beneficial to the country than one which focuses on single individuals. It is by this means that doing politics in Mauritius will start gaining in depth instead of continuing to remain superficial, with a highly emotionally charged pitch of voters on either side, unable to set sights on the real stakes which matter for the country’s future. The political establishment, in short, needs to be reinvented at the earliest.  

* Published in print edition on 30 December 2010

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