SSR and SAJ: Two different men and two distinct epochs

At any given time the range of possibilities is determined by what has gone before (determinism), but within this range genuine choices are possible (voluntarism).

— P. Sweezy

1968-1982: Just as the departure of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam from the political scene in 1982 following the 60-0 victory of the MMM was a signalling event in the political history of the country, so is the present resignation of Sir Anerood Jugnauth from the prime ministership.

The fact that he remains in the Cabinet (just as SSR participated in the electoral campaign of 1983) as Minister Mentor is a politician’s tactical decision which aims to avoid a potentially embarrassing by-election in his constituency. In this sense it is and will likely be insignificant in the greater scheme of things in the historian’s assessment of the present events.

The above does not purport to contend that the two men were individually determining in the history of our country, but rather that they symbolized their respective epochs and had to contend with the complex contradictions which characterized society during those times.

SSR presided over the destiny of country during the era of decolonization in the 1960s marked by armed freedom struggles on the one hand and more peaceful, evolutionary and constitutional developments through political institutions on the other. He was the archetypal leader of the latter path of accession of a country to the status of an independent nation.

As such these types of leaders did not challenge the pre-independence socio-economic structures with radical changes, caught as they were between the complex tasks of nation-building (a particularly difficult one in Mauritius) and the need to preserve the “lifelines” of the colonial economic model – in our case essentially the features of a “plantation economy” under King Sugar.

1982-2016: Anerood Jugnauth became Prime Minister in 1982 after having been at the head of the MMM which was born in the more radical anti-colonial and anti-establishment tradition. The party initially proposed a programme of sweeping changes to the existing economic model, including nationalization of sugar estates and the commanding heights of the economy as well as land redistribution programmes – which then were the staple propositions of all “left wing” parties. However by the time the party took power in 1982, it had considerably watered down its ideological outlook and looked more like a traditional “party of government” which promised to manage the existing system more “efficiently.”

The post-colonial arrangement (Cotonou, then Lome) proposed by the European Union together with the Sugar Protocol, which was negotiated in the context of the sugar boom of the early 1970s, were hugely beneficial to the economy of Mauritius. The “rent” obtained by the sugar industry had provided substantial accumulation of capital which was looking for new avenues of investments and there were no economic incentives to diversify agricultural production to significant levels. It was the tourism industry, and later garments and textiles manufacturing, which provided the much sought investment opportunities.

As a consequence Mauritius moved from an essentially agricultural economy to a service-based and industrial one with extensive consequences on the socio-economic structure. Many of the textile factories and the hotels were all in the rural areas and employed large numbers of female labour in skilled and semi-skilled positions.

The “economic miracle” of the 1980s which, to my mind, Sir Anerood Jugnauth can legitimately claim to be his achievement, was built on this absorption of cheap and fairly educated labour in the productive sectors driven by exports to the market on which Mauritius enjoyed preferential access.

The initial opening up of the economy to foreign investors, mostly of Chinese origin shifting their footloose garments manufacturing operations from Hong Kong was not always to the taste of the local extant bourgeoisie.

However after 1983 the new MSM-Labour Party-PMSD government pushed ahead with the expansion of the “free-zone” as special economic zones to attract these foreign investors, and to the credit of the local entrepreneurs they very soon seized the opportunities which were opening up for the diversification of their investments.

Anerood Jugnauth who became Prime Minister after the trouncing of the incumbent Labour-PMSD government in 1982 was, as a person, made of a different mettle than SSR. As a follower and active member of the Bissoondoyal brothers’ Independent Forward Block, he had been brought up in the quintessential anti-establishment culture of the Jan Andolan movement. The latter, led by Professor Basdeo Bissoondoyal, drew its inspiration from the “Quit India” crusade of Mahatma Gandhi and sought to uphold the dignity of the downtrodden through education and raising their political consciousness. There could be no greater divergence between the “world views” of the two men, especially after Anerood Jugnauth joined the MMM in the 1970s and added another leaf to his “anti-establishment” upbringing.

Anerood Jugnauth’s “tryst with destiny moment” came in 1983 when his leadership of the party which he had presided for more than a decade was challenged by his former secretary-general Paul Berenger. Historians will have to figure out what were the actual incidents and internal problems which led to the split of the MMM. What is now pretty obvious is that the government (MSM-Labour-PMSD) which came out of this historic confrontation between the two sides was more in tune with a more forward looking wing of the traditional bourgeoisie as opposed to the more reactionary fringe.

The collaboration between what is known as the “state bourgeoisie” and this more dynamic wing of the traditional bourgeoisie worked pretty well for as long as there were clear and coherent economic development policies emanating from government. This is probably one of the critical lessons which can be drawn from the success story of the period leading to the end of the last century.

SAJ is probably right when he declares that his decision to leave the prime ministership has been of his own choice. However it would be equally true to say that sometimes choices are forced upon people by the sheer force of circumstances – in the present case the perpetual divisions between members of his Cabinet and the failure to mobilize the private sector around a coherent economic project have probably taken the toll on his best efforts.

Rajiv Servansingh

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