Anil Gujadhur

Changing political winds

What fate for our public institutions?

“One cannot trifle with the country’s key institutions simply out of political imperatives. It would be a national calamity if institutions which must be seen to be operating totally free from and independent of political considerations – the DPP, the Judiciary, the Police, the Electoral Commission, the ICAC – did not live up to this very fundamental expectation and bowed down, instead, to unwritten “directives” from alternating political establishments in power. We cannot afford to undermine the very credibility of such institutions by adopting wayward behaviour according to changing political winds…”

Mauritius has made sturdier progress economically and socially than quite a few of its neighbours. Politicians may claim credit for it for having adopted policies which paid off. For example, democracy has prevailed in Mauritius. The rule of law has been respected. Defeated governments have bowed out. There has been a mix of free market and welfare state policies which, while not being always perfect, has resulted in considerable social and economic improvement over the years.

Social improvement has in turn provided the opportunity for many to rise from poverty into some sort of a middle class. As it is common in other countries, those who have managed to extricate themselves from the clutches of poverty have wrestled the most to become part of the country’s intellectual elite and eventually its social and political leaders.

Thus, it is out of their ranks that the country has been able to draw competent public servants, after the departure of the former British administrators. It is they who have spearheaded the development of the country’s public institutions. Most of them have raised the institutions they’ve been in charge of to higher levels of efficiency and competence than what was the state of affairs earlier. Institutions have successfully adapted to new challenges posed by modernization as well as globalisation.

Unfortunately, however, new governments coming to power have often assumed that all those who occupied high positions in public institutions before them belonged to the previous political establishment. This view taken by political parties has led to reshuffling the top decks of our public institutions from time to time, destabilizing the work of the institutions themselves. In the process, both those who were good at their work and those who were less good have often got replaced – sometimes brutally – by other incumbents.

The assumption has been that those who are called upon to replace should be better than those they are replacing. This is not necessarily always the case. There have been several periods during which our institutions have not functioned as efficiently as they should have done. When the hubris of power caught up with some of the new appointees, they even ended up disrupting the good work that many of their predecessors had done.

Air Mauritius is a case in point. The national airline ceased at some time in its history to have the vision to be a strategic carrier for an isolated island like ours, which needed at all costs to integrate with the mainstream countries of the world with the help of a dynamic and organically growing fleet and the associated manpower. The airline even managed to get entangled into a disastrous hedging contract which clipped its wings even more, preventing it from taking off the way it should. Other countries’ airlines are connecting us with the outside world today the way Air Mauritius should have done it on its own. Sad, but true.

But one need not look at Air Mauritius alone. Our water supply system has not functioned as it should have done to give a domestic economy hosting an increasing number of activities the security of its water supply. Our public transport system did not reinvent itself to guarantee seamless 24/7 transportation of people and goods across the country. Soon, our roads became heavily congested. Our agriculture sector has been beset by many troubles since years. Thousands have left off their agricultural occupations. But it doesn’t appear there’s a clear plan of action to redress the situation.

What these examples illustrate is the fundamental point that frequent changes of the commanding structures of our key institutions have wreaked a lot of harm. Where incumbents of high offices are thrown out unceremoniously – as governments alternate – only adventurers having nothing to lose will seek to replace them. From the institution’s point of view, this process means that they have to accommodate newcomers from time to time who may be out of tune with the ambition the institution should have pursued in the given circumstances.

Institutions lose their perenniality, when these sorts of abrupt changes keep taking place. Consequently, they become weaker than they were and it is a loss for the country as a whole.

Consider the case of the US Federal Reserve Bank (US Fed) – the equivalent of our Bank of Mauritius. When Barack Obama assumed office as President of the US (2008), Ben Bernanke was already Chairman of the US Fed from 2006 on his first term of office. Not only did Barack Obama not interfere; he approved him for a second term which ended in 2014 when Janet Yellen was appointed to succeed him. It would be most unexpected – given the due respect in which institutions are held in those places – that if another president of the US were in place in two years’ time, he/she would seek to replace Ms Yellen. In the US and countries that abide by the same rigour, the continuity of the institution is more important than political changes. Similarly, it cannot be contemplated that Mark Carney, the present Governor of the Bank of England, would be replaced next year when British elections take place and there took place a change of government. Simply unthinkable!

It may not do any harm when replacements are made in the case of incompetents and corrupt chaps put in charge of public institutions. It may in fact be a blessing indeed. But one cannot trifle with the country’s key institutions simply out of political imperatives. For example, it would be a national calamity if institutions which must be seen to be operating totally free from and independent of political considerations – the DPP, the Judiciary, the Police, the Electoral Commission, the ICAC – did not live up to this very fundamental expectation and bowed down, instead, to unwritten “directives” from alternating political establishments in power. We cannot afford to undermine the very credibility of such institutions by adopting wayward behaviour according to changing political winds.

On the one hand, we owe it a lot to the work of our efficiently run public institutions that we are not so backward as other countries which failed to put the best they have by way of trained up resources, in charge of their key institutions. On the other hand, we have to understand that our public institutions have been the seedbed for producing the best of our intellectual resources in the good running of the country.

They may cease fulfilling this function if the churn in our public institutions were to continue all the same whenever political fortunes changed hands. That we have been having recourse to foreign expertise on a variety of local issues needing attention from time to time, shows that we have dried up the pool of our own resources by constantly putting misfits into positions of control, requiring renewal at each turn of the political cycle. It is because they have not delivered the goods that we have to seek out external assistance to bridge the gap of our shortcomings.

Countries which succeed the most at the international level cultivate their public institutions with minute attention so as not to lose the best talents they have. Mauritius could follow the same route if it looked forward to have a truly performing set of the highest public institutions generating mature performers who would be no less than world class. We would then be in a position rather to share our top human resources and store of skills in different domains of public life with other countries, than to keep borrowing external expertise left and right.

 

Anil Gujadhur

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