Rebooting Politics to Its Altruistic Calling

Should the political parties not cut the dead wood soon, the backlash of the people at the next polls could be even more devastating than at the December 2014 elections

Endless politicking and stratagems to wrest power by all means couched by the leaders of the main political parties have for decades been the hallmark of politics in the country. The trappings of power and its heady highhandedness and arrogance have supplanted the altruistic and selfless sense of service to the nation of the leaders who mobilized as from the mid 1930s the oppressed workers of the sugar industry and the people to fight for their rights and a better socio-economic order.

The intellect, high public standing, political ethics, altruistic and selfless sense of service to the people of the iconic leaders who started the arduous battle for freedom and fundamental rights for the downtrodden and the oppressed multitude have remained unmatched. They had a dream of an equal, merit based, inclusive, poverty free and prosperous society for all. A society which would assure a fair sharing of the fruits of prosperity and access to land and capital, etc., to enable every citizen from every town, village and locality to pursue their dreams of happiness.

These seminal ideals are as potent and alive today among the people as they were then. However, 48 years after the country’s independence, their dream has repeatedly been thwarted by poor governance, the wanton trading off of public interest and partisan political agendas. It is in so many respects still unfulfilled.

The vision of a modern and dynamic Mauritius included the strengthening of the government Establishment through the induction of the most talented and able Mauritians into an efficient, independent and accountable administrative machinery which would, irrespective of the government in place, provide wise counsel on policy framework, act as a powerful custodian of public interest at all times and generally safeguard the interests of the multitude. However, over past decades growing political interference and high handedness by successive governments have done the exact opposite.

Is there an insidious agenda to cow down and weaken the government Establishment and prevent it from assuring its key role as a fair and robust arbiter of public interest? In the sugar cane sector and other instances, there are already signs of policy decisions which defy simple logic and common sense to favour vested interests over those of the more vulnerable stakeholders and the people.

The blatant truth is that the country has spiraled downwards in terms of good governance, the calibre and competence of the political class and its ability to achieve our highest ambitions as a nation for the benefit of all. For too long, successive governments led by the same leaders have not lived up to the promises to resolve the existential needs of the multitude nor the pledge of service to the nation. The bottom line is that under their watch the unequal sharing of the fruits of prosperity has widened inequalities, eroded the standards of living of the more vulnerable and deteriorated (according to a February 2016 World Bank report) the incomes of the lower 40% income earners.

For too long, the same long standing leaders who have repeatedly been disavowed and sanctioned by the people continue to monopolize the political space and seek re-election when they should have long had the elementary grace to step down. For too long, political shenanigans of every kind and party alliances contre nature among the same protagonists where yesterday’s opponents are today’s consenting partners have driven the dogged pursuit of power by all means.

The resulting abysmal state of political ethics and the absence of any sense of selfless service to the nation despite the glib rhetoric and lip service have become the bane of our democracy.

Toxic mess

There is no doubt that politics and the discredited leadership of the main political parties are having a toxic bearing on the country. For decades now, plummeting standards of governance, the relentless pursuit of power at any costs at the expense of the public interest, jobs for the coterie instead of the deserving and the many shortcomings and malpractices in the management of the affairs of the State by successive governments of every political hue have eroded public faith in the current political class.

The upshot is that the country finds itself trapped in a toxic political system manned not by the brightest, the altruistic or the most competent but by apparatchiks kowtowing to the diktats of omnipotent leaders or by bungling nincompoops. Such a crippling system has blunted the think tank and strategic thinking potential as well as the managerial acumen and delivery competence of governments. It is hobbling the growth potential and socio-economic prospects of the country, sapping our democracy and trampling the hopes of the people. The political choice going forward cannot be to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

The resulting mess is epitomised by the unending array of botched decisions taken by successive governments and their political appointees heading State institutions or Corporations. Events have shown that replacing a system anchored on rigorous checks and balances by licence has caused substantial haemorrhage of public funds. What is the sense of having a system which allows the ruling government, Ministers, heads of government bodies and others to blithely approve policies, costly projects, pay enormous fees to advisers, enter into leonine contracts committing substantial sums of public funds or conceding considerable tax concessions without due diligence, transparency or accountability?

The list is long. The Illovo deal, which basically further concentrated the ownership of finite land assets in the country and its generous concessions, denied post independence Mauritius Inc. the unique chance to get control over substantial land assets covering three sugar factory areas in the national interest. Currency hedging, the Betamax deal, the substantial cost overruns of the Bagatelle Dam or the Terre Rouge Verdun project, Heritage City, the ICTA largesse, the substantial fees of consultants and advisers add to the long list of costly blunders.

To crown it all, the enormous tax concessions including land conversion tax at the rate of Rs 3.5 million per hectare and other taxes and duties under the Smart City Scheme not only deprive the Public Exchequer of significant income but in essence ring fences the scheme only for large sugar estate owners who have the sizeable land assets in strategic locations required for such extensive and multifaceted projects allowed under the scheme. One year on, the extreme generosity benefitting the scheme has little to show for it, let alone providing an impetus to growth.

Successive governments must protect and safeguard the interests of the State at all times. What is therefore the sense of rashly terminating contracts binding state institutions without first carefully examining its legal implication with the help of expert advice and ensuring that the State is not unnecessarily exposed to litigation and the risk of costly compensation?

It is equally foolish to have a system which allows bad decisions to be taken without rigorous checks and balances and then set up a costly commission of enquiry to find out what went wrong and how to set things right. The commission of enquiry on the inept management of the Foot and Mouth Disease and the ICAC investigation into the Heritage City project are two of such cases in point. In the case of the Foot and Mouth Disease, what is important is to establish for the future a more rigorous protocol to safely protect all cattle from disease and a more efficient system to detect, contain and deal competently with any outbreak of epidemic. The country cannot be governed by commissions of enquiries set up wantonly at the drop of a hat.

Practise what you preach

The recent array of scandals which have surfaced have emboldened the opposition. Smelling blood the Leader of the Opposition is multiplying his tantrums, walk outs and press conferences. Both the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Labour Party have clamoured that elementary ethics should have prompted the Minister of Good Governance to step down in the wake of the government decision to shelve the Heritage City mega project. They also called that all those smeared by the various scandals should also step down.

Instead of pontificating on ethics, shouldn’t they set the good example by doing the very things they are asking others to do? Shouldn’t they simply first practise what they preach and step down as leaders of their parties after their muscling in at the December 2014 general elections to radically change our Constitution to accommodate a decried power sharing arrangement without the due process of a referendum was ignominiously defeated by the people?

In the democratic world, a rout at the polls is a loud message to the defeated leader that he should step down. This is the established practice in the best democracies of the world such as in the United Kingdom or Australia. The latest example of that is the decision of David Cameron to promptly step down as Britain’s Prime Minister in the wake of the Brexit vote. Disavowed and defeated leaders do not hang on to the coat tails of their parties in pursuit of their pipe dreams of regaining power. This is doubly so in the case of both the leader of the MMM who has never in his long career been able to enlist the popular support required to lead his party to victory on his own and the leader of the Labour Party who owes so many credible answers to the legitimate questions of the people in the context of the many court cases lodged against him.

Cleaning up

Despite the sorry state of political ethics and governance in the country, politics can be a noble calling. Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela epitomize through their deeds and actions the loftiest ideals that inspired these icons who equated politics to selfless service to the nation. Once freedom was achieved and established Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela stepped down to let other leaders carry the destiny of their country forward. Our political history shows that the leaders of our own fight for freedom belonged to this rare breed of patriots who put country and the fight for the rights and upliftment of the people above everything else.

Let there be no ambiguity. There is a growing clamour for the Augean stables of Mauritian politics and its political parties to be swept clean of its disavowed leaders and politicians who despite being rejected and pilloried by the people still unashamedly cling to their posts. There is a growing call among the young and the multitude for a new leadership to give as of yore politics its altruistic and noble credentials once again in the country.

A collective will must drive this necessary paradigm shift to assure the prosperity and marked success of the country for the benefit of future generations. Let those rooted to the leadership of their parties be warned. Should the political parties not cut the dead wood soon, the backlash of the people at the next polls could be even more devastating than at the December 2014 elections.

Mrinal Roy

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