“May the next poll prove that we understand and believe in the need for change!”

Interview: Nikhil Treebhoohun, Economist and Former Director NPCC

“As long as the current generation of politicians controls mainstream politics, the situation will not change. And so long as the electorate also continues to respond to scientific communalism there will be no change”

If party leaders are also political leaders, why should they not be accountable? How can a party leader honestly claim to work for good governance and trust when he himself is not adhering to the same principles?’

Our guest this week is Nikhil Treebhoohun, an economist who has chaired the National Productivity and Competitiveness Council in the past before he took up a post of Technical Director at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London for several years. He makes a short but incisive analysis of several of the challenges facing us, and sees an atavistic trend in the recourse to ethnic politicking by some politicians and religious leaders. He argues for a strengthening of the equal opportunity and meritocracy approach rather than a quota-based or affirmative action type for lifting people’s standard of life. Read on:

Mauritius Times: There seems to be a general malaise in the country; there is really nothing happening that would raise our spirits. What we see instead, besides the depressing daily news about crime, drug trafficking and other forms of malaise in society, are what might be considered futile talks about ethnicity, census… What is your reading of what’s happening in the country?

Nikhil Treebhoohun: Is there really a malaise? Or is there a perception of a malaise? When I listen to the news on TV, every night I hear the PM enumerating the numerous projects being undertaken by the government and blasting his opponents (including a section of the press) for spreading fake news. For the government, the glass is more than three quarters full. But after being almost daily subjected to numerous scandals over the last four years – BAI, arrest and prosecution of the former PM, the Sobrinho saga which has caused the downfall of the first woman president, the Lam Shang Leen Drug Commission which has exposed the legal profession as well as the police, etc. – there is a breakdown in social capital, in trust, and an unease in the population arising from the perception that a small clique is sharing the spoils among itself.

While this kind of behaviour has not been invented by this government, the feeling (rightly or wrongly) is that one has to belong to “la cuisine” (a term introduced by one of the protagonists who was part of the notorious kitchen) to be able to get a share of the spoils.

However, this government was voted in by the people and cannot be held solely responsible for all “societal malaise”. Each of us must ask ourselves what we are doing to make things better. For, deep down, all the social scourges such as drugs in primary and secondary schools, a latent violence in our reaction towards one another as reflected on the roads, the rise of crime and broken families and teenage pregnancy, indicate that Mauritians have been pursuing material improvement with so much zest that they have forgotten that there is something called ethical behaviour.

Schools are teaching our children how to earn a living through academic success but they are not being taught how to live their life, how to work in teams and how to relate to one another in society. Emotional intelligence has been neglected; courtesy has been replaced by aggressiveness, respect of the other by the urge to show that one’s group/religion is superior. There is need for a collective arousal of consciousness, not just adding more cameras to prevent crime, not more policemen, nor more stringent laws. Personne n’est coupable, tout le monde est responsable!

* If we were to dwell on the malaise prevalent in our society today, which by the way is not reflected in the favourable ratings that Mauritius has been receiving from various international institutions – the Mo Ibrahim index, IMF, etc., – there seems to be another reality here that escapes the attention of the outside world. What’s your take on that, and what should be done about it?

We should rejoice that we do well in some key indices. These are based on a mix of quantitative data and a perception survey of a select group of individuals. The favourable rating serves our purpose if we want to position Mauritius as a dynamic destination for business in the region. Yet the same rating is not helpful if it prevents us from seeing the many flaws in our business, institutional and social fabric.

However, it is important that we do not get lulled into complacency by our own propaganda. Reality checks must be carried out. For example, I personally know that it took a charitable foundation almost a year to open a bank account!

* To come back to the question of ethnicity, which has come up in the wake of the constitutional case entered by Resistans ek Alternativ in connection with the compulsory declaration by candidates of their ethnicity in the context of the Best Loser System, the PMSD’s stand on this matter has been in favour of the maintenance of the BLS and the holding of another round of ethnic census. How do you react to that?

We cannot live in the past. Fifty years after independence we cannot choose our legislators on grounds of ethnicity. The Republic of Ireland elected a gay person of Indian origin as its PM! I was surprised to hear a religious dignitary backing an ethnic census on the ground that this would ensure that each ethnic group can be guaranteed that it will have a representative in the National Assembly to defend its cause! I would have thought that members of parliament are elected to fight for the interests of a constituency, of all the inhabitants of the constituency, irrespective of caste, creed or colour!

The argument in favour of the census is seemingly to use it to target public services to the needs of specific ethnic groups, as well as to justify claims for political representation and quotas for jobs in the public service. This is a clear example of muddled or Machiavellian thinking; the solution is to ensure that the PSC recruits on criteria of competence. It would be a huge step backwards if we were, after 50 years of independence, to move towards positive discrimination or “scheduled caste” system!!

We don’t need politicians who will represent only our ethnic group. They should uphold equal chances for all and not protect their own inner circles and agents. They should fight for meritocracy. Politicians should not fight for ethnic quotas for jobs whether in the private or public sector. They should fight to give equal opportunities to all. There are disadvantaged people in all ethnic groups and their children should be given special attention in the education system so that they can be eligible for jobs based on competence and not on their ethnic identity.

We also hear some leaders of so-called socio-cultural organisations rallying people around ethnic identity and caste identity and using this platform to lobby for privileges for themselves or their relatives. One’s cultural identification or one’s religion is a personal matter and should not be used to claim for public advantages.

As rightly pointed out by the Norvegian anthropologist Thomas Eriksen in an interview in l’express recently, “cibler un groupe, ou une catégorie comme victime de malaise peut, finalement, être contre-productif parce que cela peut valider des stéréotypes que des gens ont déjà”.

The rising identity politics follows the world trend in the rise of nationalism as a result of growing insecurity and hence the instinctive drive to see the danger as coming from those who are different from one’s own ‘nation’. While patriotism is a positive and expanding force, nationalism is a negative and limiting force. We must expand our identity beyond the artificial and arbitrary boundaries of even a specific country, to embrace the entire world, the entire universe if need be.

We may be of different origins but we all breathe the same life and the same life flows in the veins of all creatures. We don’t need ethnic statistics to ‘know who we really are’. We need to look deeper in ourselves to discover that we are all connected by the one life which is deep within us and which make us breathe the same air. This is the universal community to which each of us belongs.

Mauritius has a strong sense of tolerance which is why many foreigners wonder how we are able to live so peacefully together. This perhaps has its explanation in the virtue of ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence – do not harm) which is ingrained in the culture of many Mauritians. It is this ahimsa which has made us survive after the ethnic violence just before independence. Ahimsa is not a weakness, rather it is a strength as it enables us to confront differences with a calm attitude of mind. It may be the right time to revisit Gandhian political philosophy.

* One would hope that the old monsters of division that scarred Mauritian society for a long time would not be resuscitated, but there do not seem to be sane voices strong enough to stand up and caution against such “dérapages”. Civil society and our intellectuals have left the field to the politicians… Are you worried for the future?

The Dalai Lama says that there are two days in a year when nothing gets done: yesterday and tomorrow. Worrying about the future is fruitless. The actions of today will shape our future. And we are reaping today the fruits (rotten) sown over the last twenty five years or so which encouraged Mauritians to pursue their own self-interests and to rely on the government (specially the PM) as “papa, mama, bondié”! Over time, trade unions, NGOs, socio-cultural organisations have on the whole become stooges of the political masters of the day.

Furthermore, a culture of fear took form as any voice of dissent was threatened with reprisal. Or rather the perception was created that if you are not with the powerful of the day, you will not obtain contracts, jobs or permits. Did you hear any private sector institution over the last two decades finding fault with a Budget Speech?

It is clear that there is an alarming dearth of leadership at all levels in Mauritius, from middle management to the top. Du choc des idées jaillit la lumière. Today darkness seems to have more likes than dialectics. Or are we moving towards a “kakistocracy”, a term used to describe Trump’s administration, a term that had been used some 400 years ago and which means government by the incompetent (contrary of aristocracy – rule by the best). Wikipedia defines kakistocracy as a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified or most unscrupulous citizens.

I believe that Mauritius needs to have independent think tanks. It is a pity that the private sector never established one but used its institutions merely to lobby government in defence of its short-term interests. Some professionals have come together to set up such a “think and do tank” called Development Enterprise Network. We need more civil society organisations, especially among the youth to come forward and mobilise people around the issues that confront our country and to propose solutions in the long-term interests of the country. They will be the engine for creating participative democracy and pressurizing governments to listen to grassroots solutions instead of leaving the future to be shaped by governments which take decisions in the interests of lobbies and for short-term political gains.

* Identity politics however is very much alive and practised by all the major parties here and they seem to have become past masters in the identification and classification of every group and sub-group within our different ethnic communities for the purpose of their electoral campaigns. There were earlier suspicions of “scientific communalism” being practised by some politicians, now it is being debated publicly. Is this going to be the new normal?

The way some politicians are riding on the wave of identity politics is dangerous for the country. By creating a feeling that because there is lack of proportional representation of certain ethnic communities, there is social injustice, uneven distribution of public services and unfair share of jobs in the public sector. All the problems of these communities are analyzed through an ethnic prism. Yet the fundamental cause is that the education system is not adapted for those who are poor or living in unstable families and this results in massive drop-outs with 25% of children aged 10-12 being illiterate and reproducing the vicious cycle of poverty.

Instead of working to bring about an inclusive education system and fight poverty by empowering the poor and not encouraging a mentality of ‘assistanat’, these politicians are fighting for quotas of low-skilled jobs in the public sector for those who have been drop-outs of the school system. Other politicians also use ethnic politics to mask the distribution of privileges to their families, and cronies. As long as the current generation of politicians controls mainstream politics, the situation will not change. And so long as the electorate also continues to respond to scientific communalism there will be no change.

* What’s your reading to what’s happening to the economy in the meantime? There had been talks however of things brightening up in the months ahead. The last Budget referred to the “improved and sustained performance slightly above an average growth rate of 3.6 % noted over 2012-2016”. There are also the infrastructural works going on apace – the Metro Express, road network, etc. It shouldn’t be that bad for the government to come up with a satisfactory economic report sheet in 2019, isn’t it?

Infrastructure development is always better than conspicuous consumption. The benefits of these investments will be felt over time – though I am given to understand that the Metro is in fact a tramway. This may lead to more traffic congestion.

But for years now economists have been pointing out to the fact that a growth rate of at least 5% per annum is required to make the lives of people better. In fact, the Competitiveness Foresight exercise we carried out in 2004 clearly indicated that we needed sustained productivity growth to reach a target of 7% annual GDP growth to meet the growing and changing aspirations of the population as well as to have the capacity to maintain our Welfare State.

People expect to have service quality from both the public and private sectors. Unfortunately I note that the quality of service has gone down in some sectors, for example in mobile telephone. Governments can only create the proper environment; the private sector has to invest. We have to investigate why foreign direct investment has not been forthcoming. We have also to realize that a small open economy like ours is vulnerable to exogenous factors.

* But would the economic performance of the country suggest that it does not really matter whether we have a full-time Finance minister or not, the Finance cadre led by the tall and long-serving Financial Secretary will keep the economic machinery in good working order?

This was true when the political space and the economy were evolving in different spheres but all political parties had subscribed to the structural adjustment programmes. There was an agreed economic vision and competent public servants and institutions could focus on implementation. I am not sure this is the case today.

Quantum leaps require political vision and audacity. Our biggest mistake would be to believe that the recipes of the past will work today. We need to reinvent Mauritius. This will require that we put our heads together and unite beyond party politics to tackle the societal problems we are facing. Continuing along the same path will take us to perdition.

* There is now the Economic Development Board, which is henceforth doing the thinking for the Government, and also looking after the licensing of new business and industries. Will that be sufficient to ensure the transition to the high-income economy the Government has been talking about? What else is required?

Let’s hope that the EDB is not old wine in new bottle! Jose Poncini and I proposed the idea to some politicians some 15 years ago of setting up an EDB-like institution that would bring under one board of administration several “economic” institutions to ensure that a common strategy would be followed by all, that there would be no duplication of effort, to create synergies and to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of these institutions. The board would have operated as the board of a holding company. It would be useful for the country if the EDB did operate as the think tank of government.

The transition to a high income economy has been on the cards for the last 5-6 years. As mentioned before, this requires an annual growth rate of at least 7% per year. The country must become more productive. But does the population really want this? Or should we instead like Bhutan go for a Happiness Index or like the UK go for a Wellness Index?

* The focus in the coming months will be on winning elections, and there might not be the time or the inclination to change things or bring about major reforms whether these have to do with the electoral system or in the governance of the country and its institutions. These should wait for the next team, but we might land up with the same chaps with the same habits and reflexes presiding over the affairs of the country, isn’t it?

While the elections come and go, we are all the unfortunate witness of a political system that serves only itself. Where are the laws concerning the declaration of assets of politicians? Where does money come and go and what is it being used for? If party leaders are also political leaders, why should they not be accountable? How can a party leader honestly claim to work for good governance and trust when he himself is not adhering to the same principles? Can Mauritius really endeavour to be a clean jurisdiction when it continues to harbour a political system that runs with total unaccountability and in total opacity?

All mainstream political parties have been playing money politics. They have been receiving undeclared donations prior to elections in return for advantages after elections. For this to radically change, there should be a law on the financing of political parties and new forms of civil society funding of candidates (such as crowd funding based on the merits and political programme of each candidate, and not based on his/her party’s solicitation).

It is also better if political parties receive public funds for their electoral campaign instead, because otherwise those who fund political parties before elections will try to recover their investment after election through corruption or by securing public contracts or public leases of lands or other advantages from the state which will be funded at a higher cost by the citizen. Furthermore, policies and laws are less likely to be influenced by lobbies who have ‘invested’ in the political party which has won the election and who now line up at the Minister’s door to claim their due.

It is high time for the population in general to realise that again the power will come back to its hand. It is in the interest of all for a true alternative force to emerge and bring change. If traditional political elites cannot reinvent themselves, it is high time to give the opportunity to emerging youth and new blood. May the next poll prove that we understand and believe in the need for change!

* Published in print edition on 16 November 2018

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