“The political and economic establishments have largely had a silent pact

which has enabled them to laugh their way to the bank”

Interview: Nita Deerpalsing

* “When political parties will have moved from appearance to authenticity, then I think we could agree that a country can start to be seen as ‘doing well’”

* ‘What is needed is a relentless continued focus on a true progressive political philosophy.
The kind that fired up rights-minded activists in 1936′

Nita Deerpalsing, had a long past involvement in the local political cauldron as a vocal Labour MP from 2005 to 2014, who was also Deputy Chairman of Committees in Parliament and the Director of Communications of the Mauritius Labour Party as well as member of the Committee on Economic Democratization of the PMO. Since 2015, she moved on to Paris and Addis as UN cadre and we felt her twin outlook and her own personal beliefs would provide our readers with a useful insight from someone who was never shy to fight for her convictions even if at times controversial. In this candid interview, she holds back no punches on issues facing Mauritius.

Mauritius Times: We have no doubt done quite well for many years, and that has been confirmed by international rating agencies on a number of governance and the economic performance of the country relative to most African countries, but that seems to be no longer the case. Since 2015 you have had the opportunity of a notable international professional journey as a director first at Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, then at the UN Economic Commission for Africa; what does that inform you about the whys and wherefores of what’s happening there?

Nita Deerpalsing: Let us start by seriously debating on the proposition that ‘we have been doing quite well’. And let us honestly recognize that the clock certainly did not start ticking in 2015. If we would go strictly by GDP numbers, comparative classifications, we could say that we have been able to manage. Yet if we look at debt level, the picture is very bleak.

I would submit that if we were to consider the worrying numbers of health indicators, for example, we could not say we are doing well. Literally speaking. Not when we are in the top hit parade of hypertension, diabetes, etc.

Can women walk safely on the streets? Does every single citizen sense that they live in a rights-based, rule-based society? Are parents without worries when their kids take the bus to school as our generation did in the past? Is the drug industry now too big in the economy to fail?

So, I guess it all depends on what definition of ‘doing well’ we use. On top of that (and perhaps this contributes to the dire health indicators), the sense of overall well-being has been elusive for most of the population.

* The impacts of colonialism, tribalism and not the least coups led by petty colonels have at different times been responsible for halting or even reversed economic development in some African countries. But would there be one or multiple factors that have made spectacular economic progress, once-thought-unlikely, possible in places like Rwanda, Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, etc.?

For sure, Rwanda is far ahead of many countries on several indicators. This is even more impressive because only recently – in 1994 – it went through a most tragic period of genocide/civil war with up to one million people dead. To have been able to reconstruct and turn things around must have taken a resolve of steel. And a relentless focus on results.

When a leader has such a level of focus on his or her mission and measures himself/herself regularly against set objectives, then leadership is about achievements, not merely holding/wielding power. Only under such leadership attributes, important strides are possible. Enlightened leadership is about having a vision past so-called political realism under one’s nose and rallying the energy of the people to create a new horizon. This is just not possible with leaders who only end up allowing their minds to be conquered by those strictures and therefore end up as cowardly followers of same.

* Mauritius is not to be outdone. After 2022, Mauritius again tops the list of the happiest countries in Africa, according to the World Happiness Report. Besides the country’s natural beauty and stability, the report says there is growing economic opportunity. Isn’t that good news?

These relative comparisons are interesting but do not incite real growth. Rather than comparing myself to others, I much prefer comparing myself with the path I have travelled. This is much better to produce genuine growth. This stands true at the personal level, at the professional level and at the national level too.

Happiness at the national level is also about the work undertaken to remove barriers which block people’s aspirations, significantly reduce the population’s vulnerabilities to create an environment where people can live with a sense of peace of mind, enjoy decent health and well-being. Incremental social progress for the large majority of the population, through electoral promises, is not my idea of a holistic vision.

When the very vulnerability of people is a weapon of mass destruction via electoral promises, that does not nurture any genuine happiness but rather perpetuates an environment of mercantile negotiation, which subliminally erodes fundamental values upon which the well-being of a nation can be built. It is true that some local bean counters talk about ‘growing economic opportunities’ tied to so-called smart cities. Only visionless bean counters can rejoice about the widespread smart concreting (bétonnage) of the island. 

* Seen from a distance, what do you make of the “serious concerns” that local politicians in the opposition, activist-lawyers, media persons, etc., have about the things that have been happening in this country during these last months, especially those related to law and order, the harassment and arrests of individuals perceived to be opponents of the government, etc.?

Those are symptoms that steal the headlines for sure. What gets much less attention is the underlying systemic flaw which leads to all this. Less headline material is the fact that the Political Establishment and the Economic Establishment practically looks almost exactly the same as it did some 50 years ago. Yet corruption is embedded there. Yet political party financing is embedded there. Yet green washing the multibillion rupees worth of so-called ‘smart’ concreting is embedded there.

One side needs the EIA permits to pave the way for smart concreting, the other has the power to give it. One has the ‘power’ to partake in acts of corruption by virtue of the power of money, the other has the ‘opportunity’ to partake in an act of corruption by accepting the indecent offers or even making it a requirement. In corruption, it takes two to tango. Yet only the taker gets media buzz. The offerer is eternally spared any public vilification under the protection of eternal anonymity. The Establishment (both political and economic) have thus largely had a silent pact which has enabled them to laugh their way to the banks. Mostly so, save some exceptions here and there.

Yet curiously, I do not hear even a slightest whisper about this in unfolding public narratives. It is disconcerting that only ReA and Shameer Sharma (to my knowledge) have commented on the beyond shocking billions of rupees of subsidies that the public has graciously extended to super profits makers. Taking public money for private gains does not fall under a wider definition of corruption? Or maybe at least policy capture? I am still waiting for just even one member of the 1936 inheritors to even whisper something about this.

* There is more: the Prime Minister has himself alluded to the infiltration of the mafia in our institutions. He must know what he is talking about, and that would suggest things are not as pleasant as rating agencies would like us to believe. What’s your take on that?

First, let us be wary of giving too much credibility to some of these rating agencies. There is a global debate happening these days, largely led by foresighted global South leaders, questioning the double standards of some rating agencies, questioning inherent biases which result in picking winners – largely the West — and drowning the rest.

As for institutions, it is clear that as anywhere else, and in every single sphere of life, ‘signalling’ is of tremendous importance. Just like in financial markets, one cannot underestimate the consequence of signalling. It can lead to great dividends or great wipe outs of accumulated assets. So is the power of ‘signalling’ at the leadership level. Therefore, the pertinent question to ponder upon is: to what extent is the current state of institutions a result of signalling at leadership level?

* In light of all that’s happening in the country these recent years and that needs to be fixed, the question that arises is: would regime change take care of that?

Not necessarily. When the level of rot in any society is widespread, it becomes urgent to raise the level of individual and collective consciousness. How we do that depends once again on the availability of Sattvic leadership.

It is certainly not going to happen via the concocting of a cynical palette of showcase measures, while people are at the same time conducting mass rallies where, when the ‘leader’ arrives, there are fire crackers galore, (incidentally, ironically the same will have long, long sentences in the form of ‘mesures pour l’environnement’) tambour, ravanne as if some demi-god has deigned to pay attention to the mere mortals who are only there to stroke their own level of ‘ahamkar’ (ego, pride).

So, until you see genuine humility of engagement, away from this thirst, this thriving on a vedettariat syndrome, genuine change will remain mostly elusive.

* In lieu of a ‘gouvernement de transition’, as suggested by Resistans ek Alternativ, we have today the recently announced the LP-MMM-PMSD alliance – without the extra-parliamentary political forces. What do you make of the Opposition alliance? Is it going to be a workable one in government – if they make it at the next elections?

The idea suggested by ReA is, for sure, valuable. But I really don’t see that happening with parties which carry within themselves, systemic internal flaws. And I am surprised that ReA would actually believe in the genuine uptake of its proposal.

* It’s a fact that the leaders of the LP-MMM-PMSD alliance are past their 70s, at least two them (so is Biden, and he is doing quite well, and at 80 he may run for a second time). But what else is available in terms of a better option?

It is important to debunk this age narrative. Political engagement is first and foremost a commitment to defend ideas and convictions, regardless of age, creed, class, etc. Preferably, commitment to progressive politics.

What is therefore needed is a relentless continued focus on a true progressive political philosophy. The kind that fired up rights-minded activists in 1936. Sadly, it appears that convictions, standing by those convictions, has given way to tactics, alliance making, packaging of the ‘vitrine’ and of the manifest. Granted, with sometimes well-crafted words and lofty intentions. Nevertheless, it is still in the vacuity of authenticity.

Just look at the abnormal existential longevity of all those women’s wings (ailes feminines) who are only of service when it is more about ticking the box in press conferences and rallies and that has absolutely nothing to do with women’s rights in the true sense of the term. In any case if they were anything about women’s rights, the first thing they should spend energy on, is to actively fight for the immediate dismantlement of these anachronic ‘ailes feminines’ which are pathetically anchored in patriarchic structures and therefore only serve to perpetuate the very structures which allow for the continued oppression of women’s rights.

Has the existence of all those ‘ailes feminines’ resulted concretely in increasing the level of representation of women? Or are they all happily stuck on a neanderthal 30%?

We were talking about Rwanda just now. Rwanda’s parliament has 61% women, way above the global average of 26%. In the Cabinet, 50% of ministers are women. In Canada too, 50% of cabinet ministers are women. That was imposed by Justin Trudeau. I wonder if in those places it took the existence and the glorious work of all the ‘ailes feminines’ which has brought such pivotal achievements of progressive politics?! Or is it enlightened leadership by the leader? The level of women’s representation/participation does say a lot about the state of progressive politics.

As for new alliances, whether from established parties or the new crop, when we see their ‘vitrines’, one can pick up that with their arms twisted, they cynically do put a token woman here and there. Just for the sake of appearance. When political parties will have moved from appearance to authenticity (le paraître à l’être) in terms of genuine concern for the participation of half of the population, rather than the scientific counting of ethnic parts, then I think we could agree that a country can start to be seen as ‘doing well’.

* Besides the one-man parties, quite a good number of public-spirited activists/politicians have also tried to “do politics differently”. But most have fizzled out. The crux of the matter, it would seem, had to do with their following, without which they could not be co-opted in a larger alliance or even aspire to form a government. Isn’t that so?

I do not at all like this sentence “faire la politique autrement” (do politics differently). I much prefer to commit oneself to do what a political commitment should actually be about and not anything different.

Let me take the example of the ordeals that Ms Yogita Baboo has been/is being subjected to. The genuine activists and trade unionists who have been supporting her and have been by her side, deserve our utmost respect. But I am very wary of all those who go to mark their presence with a view to get political mileage from her plight. Such cynicism is nothing short of shocking.

That being said, we must not underestimate the potential of newly formed parties even if it is to push the older ones to adopt erstwhile unthinkable ideas amongst their ranks.

Take the example of having a parliamentary committee to scrutinize nominations. While current nepotism has heightened expectations of a different approach, that would never have gotten so much attention and uptake from existing parties if several people on the fringe had not been pushing this particular narrative to the centre. In the whole world, the History of achievements in progressive politics has never been linear anyway.

However, the jury is still out in terms of whether that particular proposition is not just a parade. To date we don’t have any of the crucial details. What exact nominations are being referred to? Key posts such as Commissioner of Police, Electoral Commission, Bank of Mauritius? What about the MTs and SBMs of this world where the CEO/Chairperson earns some Rs 1 million per month, even more if the total package is counted?

What are the accountability mechanisms being proposed once nominations have been made? Will there be regular performance evaluations, and these also made public? Will their per diems and any other fringe benefits be made public on an annual basis? Along with their operational achievements? And what about the enormous gap between what the CEO/Chairperson earns and the average pay in those organizations? Will anything be done about this?

And on a general note, for those who believe they are too rich, too big, too entrenched to fall, they may want to read a great treatise on authenticity of engagement, humility in doing one’s duty, devotion to doing the right things for the right reasons, courage, and perseverance. The Ramayana is there to remind them that no one ever thought that a handful of monkeys would defeat the mightily powerful Ravana, no matter how staunch a devotee of the Supreme Lord he may have been.

So those who are genuinely concerned with doing the right things for the right reasons, should never feel overwhelmed by very powerful, very loaded treasure chests, deeply anchored structures which only hold power to wield power and to perpetuate abuse of power and thus create injustice.

* A better option would be to look elsewhere than these individuals then. What do you think?

For inspiration I would look to some 35 years ago, before the so-called ‘miracle économique’ which was factually only a mirage. Can anyone characterize anything to be a ‘miracle économique’, when even on a strictly economic yardstick, factually the Gini coefficient (gap between rich and poor) worsened?

I say some 35 years ago because I feel that the active subscription to ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the notion that we are all inter-connected), an essential tenet of Sanatan Dharma, was much, much stronger then. And that notion was more present in all citizens, regardless of their origins. Unfortunately, this seems to have been largely eroded.

Therefore, looking elsewhere can only start with looking within us. We desperately have to raise the level of consciousness at the individual and collective levels. Only then, we will act from a place of Noble Energy.

Just look at the level of incivility on the roads! What does it take for people to be kind and give way to other drivers but more specifically to pedestrians who de facto are not in the same place of ‘power’ as someone driving a big car, a big truck? Lately I have observed that the flashier and more expensive the car is – the ruder and more ill-mannered the drivers are. I suppose when the mind is so feeble as to lead you to think your car is an indication of your ‘status’, then that ugly sense of superiority and entitlement comes naturally.

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it once, and everyone would learn and practise pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation on a daily basis. All schools would have 10 minutes pranayama and meditation as the very first and very last activity of the day. No, no, I am not joking. Continuing scientific research have demonstrated that even for those who practise only 10 minutes a day, the dividends are real in terms of lowering blood pressure, containing depression, etc.

Nowadays, the global wellness industry is estimated at some USD 4 trillion. Of which the meditation industry is worth some USD 1 billion and that is in the US only. In a few years, the alternative healthcare industry (yoga, tai chi, meditation, breathing exercises,etc) are projected to be worth some USD 300 bn.

And what is being done in a land where Sanatan Dharma principles are supposedly a significant part of our ancestral inheritance? Building more and more private clinics because presumably there are lots and lots of profits to be made on people getting sick. If that is not a cynical view of development, I don’t know what is.

You will have noted that in the face of the country being in the global top list for hypertension, diabetes and rate of C-sections, the narrative is only about building clinics of this and that. No one bothers to take on the root causes of a population that is very low on health indicators. Nutrition is a huge contributor to this sorry state of health. And why are people consuming mostly unhealthy processed food? Because they are poor and cannot afford to buy healthy food.

Take milk, for example. People can only buy/consume processed milk largely because local milk production has practically disappeared for lack of a vision once present in the mid-1980s. Thanks to the most visionary minister of agriculture we have ever had, I do not hesitate to add. Have you heard anyone (new or old) mentioning this – boosting local milk production — as a top priority in their manifestos? Let us hope they will be now inspired to do so.

* You are the one who spoke about secularism yet you do not hesitate to use faith-based references…

I use my frames of reference in the same way as someone would refer to a traitor as “Judas”. Is that not a faith-based reference point? This is my point. We should not have any prejudice about one frame of reference to be ‘the norm’ or ‘superior’ to which everyone has to adhere. Also, I still maintain that the word ‘secular’ should be added to our Constitution but here with the idea that we have our own flavour of secularism and not any version imposed on us – whether from the Occident or the Orient. Our grappling with securalism has nothing to do with the connotations it takes in for example France or India.

I also want to underline that when I use the word Sanatan Dharma, I use it in the much broader sense; not at all limited to people of a particular faith. In any case, Sanatan Dharma in its original sense is about universal truths that apply to all of humanity, not selectively to any particular faith group.

I also use it on purpose, to nudge towards the liberation of our minds from the dominance of taking Occidental philosophies as the ‘norm’, the ‘benchmark’ which everyone should look up to and aspire to. Anyone who aspires to lead a plural society should in my opinion have read Edward Said’s Orientalism at least once. Then they will understand, for example, why the French version of secularism which they call ‘laicité’ is a recipe for disaster. Building a plural, secular nation with a strong sense of unity and justice requires the rejection of Western ideas which impose the mental dominance of bland homogeneity, rather than embrace pluralism.

And if you would allow me to wave the magic wand a second time, I would wish for the maximum number of children to have the opportunity to learn Samskritam (more popularly known as Sanskrit) in all schools. Because Samskritam is not just a language, it is full Systems Thinking package, as well as being a vehicle for ecological values, as well as being akin to a coding language.

Here too, the benefits have been experimented upon and demonstrated. Scientific American magazine published an article in 2018, entitled ‘The Sanskrit Effect’ where neuroscientist James Hartzell shared the results of his study which involved MRI scans over months, suggesting that learning Sanskrit has an effect on the brain’s cognitive functions. These scientific tests aside, the capacity of children to memorize kilometres of text in Vedic chanting is simply astounding. So, by the way was the chanting of Gregorian chants by Christian monks in those times.

More seriously, putting aside magic wands, I would for sure concretely include both pranayama and Sanskrit as optional modules in schools’ curricula, but also as part of an Adult Education package. And use nudge techniques to encourage uptake. In my considered view, it would go a long way to create more holistic well-being across the board, but also possibly citizens with enhanced cognitive capacities.

Perhaps the only individual for whom I would make it absolutely mandatory, as part of the most basic job requirements, would be for the Speaker of the National Assembly and also anyone who who tolerates this. Because it is just intolerable to have anyone single-handedly produce every Tuesday, week in week out, even one iota of toxic, tamasic destructive energy towards fundamental tenets of democracy.

Generally, it is regrettable that under the violence of the colonization of our minds, we have, out of ignorance imposed by the colonisers and their continued modern offshoots of soft power, reneged treasures of our collective ancestral heritage to believe that learning French or English, or having our children speak French or English is ‘superior’ to learning and speaking first our own national language – Morisyen – and that these languages of erstwhile colonial masters are in any way ‘superior’; that we should look up to. It took the Oppenheimer movie to have some people realise that several learned scientists across the world actually learnt Samskritam.

It is absolutely anachronic that in a world where access to knowledge, access to Artificial Intelligence, rests upon fluency in English, we seem to be one lost village gaulois where more people are at ease with French language rather than being totally fluent in English.

In a recent lecture, Gerard Huet, a member of the French Science Academy, a linguist and mathematician commenting on Rishi Panini’s Astadhaayi (a 4000 lines computer like code/formulae for Sanskrit grammar, composed around 500 BC), had this to say: “une fois qu’on a vu ça et qu’on reconsidère l’alphabet francais, on se dit: qu’est-ce que c’est que cette cochonerie, ça n’a aucun sens” (once we have seen this and that we consider the French alphabet in comparison, we say to ourselves: what is this nonsense).

So yes, for inspiration, for enlightened action, whether on the personal level or otherwise, we must certainly consider how much we have been conditioned to think of some ideas of the Occident to be superior and ideas of the Orient to be inferior. To truly liberate our minds from all kinds of acquired prejudice is an important and urgent task for all of us at all levels of society. Emancipation towards anything good can only happen when we have broken free from the shackles of our own minds.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 11 August 2023

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