“The choice in 2019/20 will be between bad and worse”

Interview: Chetan Ramchurn – Entrepreneur & Political Observer

‘The MSM cannot afford a three-cornered fight. It will look for an accommodating partner that will throw in inanities such as dans l’intérêt supérieur de la nation’

‘Going alone for the MMM would be honourable and while it would lead to defeat would allow the rebuilding to finally start’

Chetan Ramchurn is a young entrepreneur with a strong political flair which shows up in this week’s interview. It is no less percipient than a previous one he had given to this paper a few months ago. He remains as incisive in his analysis of the current state of our politics and the venality of politicians and those they are working for, the economic bourgeoisie as well as that of the hangers-on who cling to those in power to gain privileges even if they have to shift sides to achieve their end. Those vying for power continue to sell dreams to the gullible people instead of bringing about the real changes that will improve the quality of life and ease the conditions of living of the population. Unfortunately, unless there is a groundswell coming from a frustrated people, this trend is likely to continue…

Mauritius Times: The Constitution (Amendment) Bill will soon become a thing of the past as the country goes into campaign for the next general elections by the end of 2019 or sometime early 2020. The Government will have achieved its objective of showing its intent (to the UN Human Rights Committee and the Supreme Court) to bring about reform to our electoral system, but the country will remain saddled with the same electoral mores and practices. It was doomed to fail. What do you think?

Chetan Ramchurn: Everything orchestrated by this Government has to be analysed with proper caution. Their ‘Hit and Run’ style with the absence of debates or wide consultation with key stakeholders is a tried and tested concoction. It was the case for the bending over exercise for Smart Cities and their sudden love for the tramway.

Everything is spin these days; an attempt to portray the son as having a prime-ministerial cachet. And still they fail. The chinks in the carefully fabricated image become apparent when he passes the hot potato of the SIFB issue to a hapless minister or when at the prospect of defeat on the electoral reform, he backpedals or even more glaringly in 2017, when his party’s chances at the polls in constituency No. 18 were so dim that the coward’s way out was chosen.

The PM should know that “what stands in the way becomes the way”. Had he understood that, we would not have to hear something as grotesque as: “The rationale behind the holding of the next elections of Village Councils in the year 2020 is that our Government is currently in the process of bringing major electoral reforms in the country.”

This sham of a reform was designed merely for posturing – the framing in the minds of the electorate of two sides: a progressive one that wants change, and a regressive one that is stuck in the past and talks about an ethnic census. It was a trap well set and it is alarming for us that many of those wallowing in patronymic privileges in the Mauritius Labour Party and the PMSD seemed eager to walk into it. Who in their right minds would consider the MSM to be progressive? A party that has annihilated the democratisation process and that is keen to please the oligarchy is now positioning itself as an avant-garde faction. This is the message that will be weaved around the scandal-ridden bloc.

All truly progressive parties have to present their idea of an electoral reform that would hopefully include recall elections, greater power to citizens with levers that would spur renewal. This reform which hands additional powers, not to the electorate, but to our out-of-sync political leaders hosts the germs of selfishness which Tocqueville deemed is “to societies what rust is to metal”.

MP Ramano was right to question the wisdom of putting so much power in the hands of what he terms the “propriétaires des partis” and rightly averred that this amendment would only «glorifier ce manque d’éthique de la politique mauricienne ».

The masquerade at least made those begging for an opportunity to rekindle their love affair with the MSM happy. It is a sorry sight. Those having indulged for decades in opaque political financing are now talking about the need for a transparent political financing system. That no progress has been achieved should surprise no one.

The present government has a simplistic take on many issues and this is not an easy topic and even more appallingly there are so many regressive voices in the opposition that infect this debate with their obsession of pitching one against the other thereby prolonging the minority v/s majority obsession. I would rather keep the existing system until we have something that truly bolsters our democracy and is accepted by the people.

* As a matter of fact, nothing will really change in the system and in our practices unless the people want to see change happen, and that is not likely to be any time soon. So the people are equally responsible for the current state of affairs. Or could it be that the majority of the people, except for the 40% or so who abstain from casting their votes at elections, are comfortable with the status quo?

I have come across so many people changing allegiances quicker than you could blink. People that give up their self-esteem for a promotion, for a title, money or power. A friend of mine describes it as “malleable ethics”. Ramano mentioned the “le pouvoir à n’importe quel prix” mentality and the loss of self-esteem (dignitas) of party leaders. We have to imagine that it does not stop at the leaders and percolates down to many amongst us. The example set by them is hardly conducive to the creation of a nation of honest citizens. Whole empires have been built by jeopardising the country’s interests in favour of the very rich.

Besides the sell-outs, there are so many people that have seemingly cut their ties with their fellow citizens. Rosanvallon weighs in on this issue: “The citizen is not merely an individual endowed with certain rights; he is also defined by his relation to others, his fellow citizens. What the French linguist Émile Benveniste tells us about the etymology of the word civis is especially enlightening in this regard. The Latin civis, he argued, was originally a term applied to people who shared the same habitat. Implicit in the meaning of the word was a certain idea of reciprocity. It was thus a term of relative order, as can be seen by a comparison with the root of the Sanskrit and Germanic words for “friend,” “relative,” and “ally.” The civis was a person who joined with his peers in the construction of a civitas, a common society. I propose the term “commonality” as a name for this dimension of citizenship, citizenship as a social form, as distinct from its legal definition.”

So many are happy with the triptych of “ene lakaz, ene loto, ene travay”, the formulaic solution to being a happy Mauritian that this idea of shared aims is no longer present.

* If you would remember, the MMM’s leader Paul Bérenger was saying not so long ago that our democracy is facing a crisis, and much of this would be due to what he termed as “money politics” – the money politics-power equation, which here as elsewhere very often delivers outcomes in terms of public policies which are not necessarily in the best public interest… This also will not change?

Great to hear that Bérenger has finally seen the light. I do not remember any difference between his stint as head of government and that of others when it came to policies not in the best interests of public interest. As Minister of Finance, was he not one of the actors in the Mari-Deal Illovo? The fiscal gifts to the bourgeoisie speak volumes about the level of obsequiousness towards the private sector during the 2000 to 2005 period.

I have yet to hear Bérenger raise any question about the generous exemptions given to promoters of smart cities. There are so many “enfonceurs de portes ouvertes” in our country, experts in stating the obvious, preaching what they most of the time do not practise. Malraux writes that “Un homme est la somme de ses actes”. We should judge anyone based on what he has done in the past.

Coming back to your question, it would not have changed much since it would have still been possible for the private sector to finance parties. The state funding of political parties should: allow for a very strict control on expenses; ensure that parties represent diversity be it in terms of gender or origin; ensure that new voices are heard and those sullied by scandals are not allowed to stand as candidates. More importantly, it should ban financing by the private sector.

* We have been selling to the world the concept of the Mauritian version of “unity in diversity” and the harmonious relations within our rainbow nation. But when such issues like ethnic census, the Best Loser System, constituencies reconfiguration have come up during public and parliamentary debates in the context of the Government’s electoral reform bill, there’s the feeling that deep down there’s still lot of distrust for each other, to put it mildly, amongst those who constitute the “rainbow nation”. Are you worried for the country?

I find it disheartening that there is a blinkered view of the situation. Racism is meted out on every single community in this country. We should do our best to eliminate it  from all spheres: public but also private. It is a shame that we are treating this issue in a way that is partial and unfair. I found Xavier Duval’s attempt to rewrite the country’s history out of place. On his father’s role, he merely averred that “he was against independence, he had his reasons”.

We should never forget how vile the pre-independence campaign of the PMSD was. The “langouti nou pas oulé; envelopé nou pas oulé” assaults caused a weakening of our national fabric that endures to this day. I would find it hard to believe that the Public Services Commission is biased and politicians with a modicum of integrity would do well not to cast aspersions on it to please their followers.

* The preferred option of an increasing number of our countrymen is to make the most for themselves of what is on offer, thus the increasing prevalence of political patronage in most spheres/sectors – socio-religious and economic… That could be preparing the seedbed for some form of populism in time to come. Would that fear as expressed by some commentators be justified?

Indeed, if economic mobility continues to be denied to those working hard to achieve it and we are left with a rotten clique of parasites chosen on skin colour, caste or creed or affiliations, we have to expect extreme voting patterns. Jamel Debbouze illustrated it best: «l’ascenseur social est resté bloqué au sous-sol et ça pue la pisse !» People will feel increasingly disenfranchised and could use their ‘rotin bazar’ in unexpected ways.

This is yet another reason why we should not take the proportional representation matter lightly. Those sowing the germs of unfairness should expect it to reap populism. Would a populist leftist movement à la Corbyn or Mélenchon help in stalling this disenchantment? If yes, it has yet to gather enough momentum to channel this brimming anger.

* Aung San Suu Kyi is reported to have said: “Sometimes I think that a parody of democracy could be more dangerous than a blatant dictatorship…” Does this strike a chord here?

I can understand the feeling that it is all make-believe, that we have stooges of the private sector that swap partners every now and then to stay in power, that a few families have taken democracy hostage and threaten to do so in the coming years.

What we need are leaders with moral values and authority. When I refer to authority, I do not talk about the poor man’s version of Lee Kuan Yew that we had to endure between 1983 and 1995. The builder of modern Singapore was never strong with the weak and weak with the strong.

Authority is derived from the Latin word ‘auctoritas’ which belongs to the same group of words as augustus (one who empowers with his/her charisma). I am specially more concerned about the young generation, trapped in an increasingly vacuous world, what they need is a model that can inspire them, what former Army General Pierre de Villiers terms «l’autorité qui structure ».

* As regards next year’s electoral campaign, things at this stage look rather uncertain with the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of two political leaders. Do you think the outcome of any of the two cases will matter to the electorate?

It is a strange situation that we are witnessing. The two figureheads spearheading the two main blocs are both facing cases where money is involved. It is difficult to pre-empt how people would react.

Expect a favourable verdict to be used as the stepping stone towards a win for both of them. It is the storytelling that would differ.

For Ramgoolam, it is about claiming that this was all part of a vendetta scripted by lakwizinn and the number of cases against him that have been dismissed would lay credence to this narrative.

For the incumbent, it would fit perfectly with the man on a mission storyline. In case of a negative outcome, many of the private radio stations already serving the government of the day will be presenting Jugnauth Junior as a saintly man wrongly blamed.

I expect the next electoral campaign to be a sordid affair with ad hominem attacks, maligning Ramgoolam seems to be the main argument for a re-election. A negative outcome would render him vulnerable but by no means result in sure defeat. The storytelling will be around redemption, of someone with a whole system against him that defied the odds and won.

* It may be premature at this stage to come up with a sketch of how things will shape up for the next general elections, or which alliances will be unmade or remade, and it’s likely to be much of the same in terms of political alliances or at the very least we could see a three-cornered fight given the present “rapport de forces”. But does it really matter for the people and the country’s future as to how things shape up on that front?

The MSM cannot afford a three-cornered fight. It will look for an accommodating partner that will throw in inanities such as “dans l’intérêt supérieur de la nation” and shares the same economic agenda — serving the historic bourgeoisie. It is not hard to identify the likely bed partner this time around. People will remember how Anerood was elevated to someone with the mettle to lead the country. It is the same process all over again. They need a hype man, someone who will find in young Jugnauth unique qualities. I expect the team around him to be revamped with technocrats and pseudo-celebrities.

With Ramgoolam, we had a very special form of democratisation; it was not power to the people but power to some people. He is promising disruption this time around, does it mean better access to housing for the middle class, solid assistance to SMEs, will it translate into greater participation of the citizens in the democratic process and bold fiscal measures to combat inequality? Between 2005 and 2014, there were more than a few misses amongst which the Flat Tax disaster, the biometric card and the inability to protect the middle class.

The choice in 2019/20 will be between bad and worse. It is hard to remember a crop of politicians as incompetent as the present one at the head of our Republic. The limited options are our own doing. We have prolonged the lives of so many past their sell-by dates choosing to let dynasties thrive. Nonetheless, it matters. Giving those in office another mandate would take us back as a Nation.

* If we go by what get posted on social media, it would seem the Government’s popularity rating has gone down, it’s debatable whether this is a faithful reflection of what the silent majority think about the Government and politicians generally or even about the issues that hog the headlines. It seems there is a long way to go before social media takes over in influencing election outcomes or even in setting the agenda for the country. What do you think?

That this government’s ratings have waned considerably is hard to deny. Social media often captures the mood of the moment. But the internet and subsequently social media platforms are what Greeks term pharmakon: it can at once be a remedy, a poison and a scapecoat.

Bernard Stiegler associates it with the “désapprentissage de la vie sociale”. It did play a key role in 2014 allowing ‘Virer Mam’ to go viral. What it essentially did was prompt an action and not delve into what it meant, or to paraphrase Stiegler, “capter l’attention pour la transformer en mécanisme pulsionnel”.

Change for the sake of change has worsened the lives of the majority of people. I have noted that when talks on the privatisation of water were prevalent, Facebookers rallied around the rejection of same. But it never materialised into something ‘real’, be it a successful manifestation or a movement that would ensure retaliation when public services are threatened.

* The MSM, what with the huge war-chest allegedly at its disposal and the state machinery to boot, is not going to take things lying down. There’s also the budget next year, on top of what is already being discreetly undertaken in terms of recruitment in parastatals and promotions across the board in the civil service… Do you see a method in the way the MSM is preparing the ground for 2019-20?

The kitchen has changed but not the recipe. A close control of media channels is high up the agenda. It is expected that the majority of existing and new private radios will be working towards the re-election of the MSM. Capitalists have started to hammer in the idea that there is a need for continuity, a thinly veiled advice that we should vote for the MSM again so that they can continue to have a very welcoming doormat as government.

They will be doing everything possible to stay in power and would do well to remember that recruitments have got them in trouble before in No.8. As expected, considerable resources will be ‘invested’ to convince the electorate. Expect demagoguery with every single issue being politicised.

There will be four key events in 2019 to elevate the son to someone who would not need the l’imposte route this time around: the judgment in the MedPoint case, the Jeux des Iles with its hefty sports complex in Cote d’Or, the budget which is expected to be very generous and the launch of the Metro Express.

Public relations around these will try to attach the following qualities to the incumbent: honesty should he be absolved by the Privy Council, dynamism since it is expected that some jogging expeditions will be staged around the Island Games, empathy as he will be presented as a man that understands the plight of the many through a generous budget, and a visionary, despite the glaring ‘deklar piti ki pa pu li’ aspect of the Metro Express, with a new means of transportation. The hype will be built so that it crescendos when the tramway is up and running. The electoral reform will be reduced to a mere matchmaking device for the MSM and the MMM in March 2019.

All of this planning could be strongly disrupted if there are new scandals and inner circle members catch a whiff of defeat. Vinaasha Kaale Vipareetha Buddhi (‘Those whom the gods want to destroy, they first make mad’). The recent amendment to the Information and Communication Technologies Act was evidence they were ready to suppress free speech when under attack. The backlash following same was not difficult to gauge on online platforms.

For change to happen, opposing parties will have to create their own platforms instead of relying on the rigged ones; cut the intermediary and speak directly to the voter. The wave of propaganda about to be unleashed by the MSM will be gargantuan. Yet, if an opposing party plays its cards right, and offers the possibility of real change in the lives of people, it will have a good chance of winning. It is very difficult to predict anything at this stage. A lot is yet to happen.

* It also does not appear that the Labour Party and the MSM will be forming a political alliance any time soon with the current leadership now in place. Does this mean, according to you, that a walk-over by the MMM could be envisaged?

As in their famous slogan “Seul contre tous, le MMM vaincra” ? It will be tough for it has lost several key pieces with strongholds in different constituencies. There is not much left around the leader who has not said much since losing the Leader of the Opposition post to Duval. I have not heard of new ideas or how it plans to transform Mauritius for some time now. The stance of the MMM when in power is the management of the affairs of the state, a proponent of the ‘centre mou’ or pragmatic politics, reducing itself to a facilitator for the private sector.

Labour does not want anything to do with the MMM. The MSM does not have anyone else but the MMM. Going alone for the MMM would be honourable and while it would lead to defeat would allow the rebuilding to finally start. If it wants to return to prominence, it would do well to defy the odds and present a solid manifesto and get rid of the many yes-men. Still, it has talked left and walked right so often that it would have trouble attracting the trust of many.

The MMM could look for the easy way out and the delayed vote on the electoral reform will give the ti frère and grand frère time to align their political stars for the “intérêt supérieur de la nation”. La réunification de la grande famille militante. Yes, that circus act once again.

* Published in print edition on 14 December 2018

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