Interview Nita Deerpalsing

Interview: Nita Deerpalsing 

“There is not a single one of the other mainstream political parties which can come anywhere close to the noble history of the Labour Party”

* MedPoint: “There is also the view that not everything that is legal is necessarily also moral”

* “The TINA-wallahs are still well, alive and kicking. Whether they are in Mauritius or on other shores” * Infinity BPO: “The criteria used to channel public money into private companies have to be re-looked… At least to ensure that the money is going into the hands of good managers and not lousy managers” 

Mauritius Times: The Labour Party will be celebrating its 75th anniversary next week. Historians will no doubt concede that it has represented the interests of the poor, and of the working and the middle classes for most of its existence, and also that it remained true to its core values during that time. But it has been argued during the last 10-15 years that our main political parties have become indistinguishable from one another in terms of ideological content – thus becoming easy game for all manner of political alliances. Do you agree?

Nita Deerpalsing: The Labour Party has the kind of noble history which should uplift and inspire the soul of any idealist who truly believes in progressive politics. For myself, that struggle, that ideology, that vision for which the stalwarts of the Party struggled amidst all kinds of trials, tribulations and challenges inspires me to no end. In fact, any person endowed with some sensibility of progressive politics should have goose bumps when they close their eyes and imagine, for example the time in which Dr Maurice Curé started his meetings to mobilize the workers of the sugar industry. Or the period in time in which Emmanuel Anquetil or Guy Rozemont started their political engagement. I mean just imagine what it must have been like then, to believe in a set of ideals, to protect those ideals in their own minds, within the depth of their soul; and to hold up those ideals like a ray of light in the darkness of the prevailing context. I often wonder, what must have gone in their minds? Where did they draw the courage to go on?

You know whenever I feel fed up with this political arena, when I feel that things are just hopeless, I often find my mind wandering back to those times and then I pull my thoughts together and I somehow find the courage to keep going. And the more so because our current leader is imbued with those very ideals and founding philosophy of the Labour Party. Of that, I have not even an iota of doubt.

In 2003, when I met Dr Navin Ramgoolam at the Party headquarters, I have to say I didn’t really quite know what to expect and I must confess that I went into that meeting influenced by some of the perception that there was in the media about him. On the day of the appointment with him, I had brought with me Amartya Sen’s book ‘Development and Freedom’, presumptuously thinking that I would tell him that his Labour Party should draw from Amartya Sen’s philosophy in order to be truly Labour! When I think back about that moment, I realize how prejudiced and presumptuous I was going into that meeting!

I remember when I got to the Labour Party headquarters, I was dismayed about its awkward location and the lack of parking facilities! I had to maneuver all kinds of detours, park my car seemingly miles away and walk to the office – by which time I was unprofessionally late and I was blaming all of this on the Labour Party’s lack of infrastructure! So let’s say I was not exactly in the best of moods when I was shown into Dr Ramgoolam’s office with my Amartya Sen book in my hands. I was therefore quite taken aback when his attention immediately turned to the book and he told me that he had read the book. The ensuing conversation was an animated discussion around the tenets of Amartya Sen’s book. I knew then, that the Labour Party had as leader, somebody who genuinely believed in its ideology.

And this is also why — when I was unexpectedly asked to stand as candidate in 2005 — I didn’t have any reservations about the Party or its leader. I did have a number of reservations but those were mostly about whether my soul would survive in the world of politics. I also had major qualms about party discipline and all that stuff. I’ve never had a ‘cog-in-the-wheel’ temperament and I really thought I would not survive very long before they kick me out! Actually I was almost sure I’d be thrown out when I raised up the issues around the sugar reforms in 2006!

To come back to your question, in my mind, the Labour Party still has the core of its soul thanks to all the stalwarts and its current leader. And there is not a single one of the other mainstream political parties which can come anywhere close to this noble history that we carry in our collective consciousness.

* There have been times, however, when the LP appeared to have distanced itself from its core (socialist) values, and looked like having fallen under the spell of Big Business as seems to have happened under the ‘reform’ agenda of the former Finance minister when to all appearances Big Business was calling the shots. It also looked like the LP leader equally fell under that same spell for most of the last five years. Why was that so? Big business had become stronger? Times are changing and so is the world, thus creating the imperative for a departure from past ideological straitjackets and for reforming the LP itself?

In a nutshell, what are we talking about? We’re talking about human dignity and the well-being of the many, not the few. And this is what the Labour Party has striven to do all throughout its 75-year existence. Those have always been the hallmark objectives.

Now I don’t think that it would surprise anyone if I said I always thought that the former Minister of Finance was a total misfit as far as core Labour Party ideology is concerned. He is an intelligent person, and a doer, there’s no doubt about that. However to me, his policy thinking was not only in contradiction of Labour ideology but also often diametrically opposed to the platform upon which we had all obtained our parliamentary legitimacy.

That being said, as Professor Stiglitz mentioned yesterday, that kind of cognitive capture is not too surprising. Professor Stiglitz was talking about how in the US, Treasury Secretaries mostly hail from big business, and they bring with them the mindset, the mental lens through which things are conceptualized. So it’s not all just about big business and the power of money but it’s also about the kind of cognitive capture that usually happens in these cases.

In any case, there are times in the life of a political party where individuals join, not necessarily animated for the right reasons for being in politics in the first place. But what’s important to see is the fact that despite all of this, the Labour Party has retained its core ideology.

Let me show you a graph and a table that I have here. The source data comes from Central Statistical Office Household Budget Surveys which are carried out every five years. The last one to be published was in 2006 and it covered the years from 2001 to 2005 basically. The next CSO Household Budget Survey is due to take place in 2011, so we do not have the figures covering the period 2006 to 2010.

* What do these figures show? 

These show how the total income of households have changed in each of the 5-year periods from 1991 to 1996, 1996 to 2001 and 2001 to 2006. If you look at the 10% poorest households, you will see that over 1991 to 1996, their income went DOWN by about 13%. In other words, during the five years gone by between 1991 and 1996, the 10% POOREST households in Mauritius became POORER by losing 13% of income.

If you look at the 10% richest households over the same period, you find that their income INCREASED by about 10% over the years from 1991 to 1996. And in fact in that very period, it was not only the 10% poorest whose income had taken a turn for the worse. The drop in income applied to EVERYONE EXCEPT the 10% richest!!

So what do these figures DEMONSTRATE? That any growth that happened over the years 1991 to 1996 went ONLY to the 10% richest households in Mauritius. EVERYONE else was WORSE off in 1996 compared to 1991.

Now let’s look at the period 2001 to 2006. Curiously, it’s EXACTLY the same pattern!! Except that the figures are a bit lower. So once again, the 10% poorest households in Mauritius became worse off by losing about 4% of income while the 10% richest found their income rising by some 6%. And except for those 10% richest households, EVERYONE else was worse off in 2006 compared to 2001.

Now take a look at the period between 1996 and 2001. You have the absolute REVERSE results! That is, the 10% poorest households benefited from the HIGHEST increase in income over the period, and EVERYONE else (except the 10% richest) became better off with generalized increased incomes at the end of the period relative to the start of the period.

Let me remind you that all this can be verified from the CSO Household Budget Survey reports for those periods.

So if you were presented with this kind of evidence, which government would you say adopted genuine progressive policies? Which government was truly the most serious about poverty reduction? I’m sure that unless you’re part of the 10% richest households in Mauritius, the government which you would most like to have running the country is the one which was in power in the period 1996 to 2001. And that was a Labour-led government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Dr Navin Ramgoolam. I want to say that I’m putting this evidence forward on the basis of facts, not political bias.

And which government was in power in the periods 1991-1996 and 2001-2006? In both of those periods, it was an MMM-MSM government. Talk about a toxic combination for EVERYONE except the 10% richest!! Over the first of those toxic periods, we had Rama Sithanen as Minister of Finance and over the second toxic period, we had Paul Bérenger and later Pravind Jugnauth as Ministers of Finance.

Progressive politics is when – at the very least – GDP growth benefits the many and not the few. These figures speak for themselves and I don’t think I need to belabour the point that over the three periods and government regimes analysed above, it was only when the economic agenda was driven by genuine Labour values, that GDP growth benefited everyone except the 10% richest. In the other two periods of MMM-MSM regimes, GDP growth went ONLY to the 10% richest, to the DETRIMENT of EVERYONE else.

* Are things any better today? It does not look as if there has been any major departure from the major TINA policies, there does not appear to be much enthusiasm about the democratization agenda in tourism, for example… And the losses are still being nationalized and the gains privatized – at least this is what newspaper headlines these last 10-15 days would suggest…

The democratization agenda is still very much on but of course there are sometimes constraints that you have to deal with before pursuing the agenda. The Independent Power Producers issue is yet to be closed and I have no doubt that this too, will be dealt with the interests of the many and not the few in the Prime Minister’s mind.

In his exposé yesterday, Professor Stiglitz mentioned killer statistics for the US which I had seen earlier in a New York Times article. And this is how the statistics go: over the last 30 years, the top 1% of Americans received 36% of all the gains in household incomes. And most Americans (other than the top 1% of course) became worse off, despite all GDP growth increases. This means that the American middle class has collapsed as a staggering amount of wealth generated through GDP gains went as a transfer of wealth to the already wealthy!

And this is precisely what the TINA ideologues have always preached. Just keep chasing that GDP growth and the rising tide will raise all boats. Trickle-down economics and all that stuff. The evidence is against them yet the TINA-wallahs are still well, alive and kicking. Whether they are in Mauritius or on other shores. Paul Krugman has called it the strange triumph of failed ideas.

Here in Mauritius, it is well known that for all his good intentions, our Financial Secretary is incurably imbued with those zombie ideas. Under the previous Minister of Finance, he had a free rein to pursue failed policies. It remains to be seen how the new Minister of Finance will be able to show the way to the right policies. Time will tell, but the fight of real progressives will not pause.

* “The fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia has accomplished one thing nonetheless: it has exposed the corrupt common denominator of every regime in the Arab world. They are all, in effect, mafia states—entire nations run by families for their own benefit. Whether they call themselves republics or monarchies… they are all family businesses…” These are the comments of Babak Dehghanpisheh and Christopher Dickey on the Tunisian crisis, in the 23 Jan 11 edition of Newsweek. We are not there, and we’ll hopefully not come to that. Or, shall we?

We live under a democratic regime and we must be very careful not to exaggerate our frustrations (warranted or not) with the system. Any system and any person or group of people for that matter is perfectible. There is always room for improvement. But to compare us with the regimes you mentioned would be absolute bad faith and folly even! So we all have to live up to our responsibilities and we have to be animated with a strong sense of duty – wherever we are in the system. One of the things I deplore in our civil society make-up is the lack of one or two professional non-partisan think-tank which can engage in policy dialogue with stakeholders such as government, trade unions, NGOs, etc. But at the end of the day, what we make of our country is up to all of us, not just politicians or government. In the History of humanity, the kind of cynicism, sarcasm and frustration we see in opinion/editiorial pieces in our press have never ever been catalyst for progress! Change for the sake of change is one thing. Change for the sake of progress is quite another thing.

* But if you keep your ears to the ground and listen to what people are saying about the recent cases concerning the financial support extended by the State to Infinity BPO and the purchase of the Medpoint Clinic, there may be cause for concern… As regards Infinity BPO, it now looks like good money was thrown after bad. As for the Clinic, as more details regarding this transaction are being put forward by the opposition, it would appear that the Labour Party would not be quite comfortable with the company it keeps these days. Is that indeed the case?

The company that the Labour Party keeps is ALWAYS its core founding values! Whoever we are in alliance with (or without!), what is important is the will, the genuine desire to push through policy measures which ended up in the betterment of people’s live as in the period 1996 to 2001 as we’ve just seen in the graph and table I showed you. The rest is immaterial.

Regarding MedPoint, let me remind you that ICAC has started an enquiry. And that Dr Navin Ramgoolam is on record to have taken measures that evidence dictates he should take. Unlike those who voted for the closing of the late Economic Crime Office over a precipitated 24 hour period! Unlike those who thought that a proper candidate for a by-election would be not someone from their own party, but someone outside their party who had been condemned by the Privy Council. So let’s wait and see. Of course there is also the view that not everything that is legal is necessarily also moral and I happen to have a lot of empathy for that view.

On the Infinity issue, I gave a statement to one of your colleagues in the press last week on this. I asked that the Ministry of Finance conducts a full enquiry into how public money was used at Infinity BPO. It is absolutely scandalous that after all those millions of rupees in the form of Stimulus Package that went to Infinity, it still came down to this disaster of employees being deprived of their salaries.

On a side note, let me say that I could only feel utmost irritation when I heard one trade-unionist liken this situation with the fuss about Rehana Ameer. I’m sorry to say this bluntly but Mrs Ameer has come across as a wanna-be soap opera actress and her too apparent glee and enjoyment of press coverage enlisted disdain rather than sympathy from me. But this Infinity issue is real. And it’s unacceptable for a company which benefited from all that public money to come to a point where it can no longer pay its employees. A complete, thorough audit is the least that the Ministry of Finance can and should do, at least to inform people where their money went.

As for Mr Suzanne’s pathetic and megalomaniac radio appearance, I was not at all impressed. Nor, I am afraid, did I feel any ounce of sympathy for this man who was seemingly there to enlist sympathy by sweet talking and showing his human weakness bare to the public.

So the guy says that he now confesses that he’s a lousy manager. Really? And can we know how high was the monthly salary or total payout that the company had to fork out every month for a most lousy manager? Come on, we’re not all fools in this country!

* Infinity BPO’s failure despite the financial support of the State through the Economic Restructuring and Competitiveness Programme raises the question of the effectiveness of the Additional Stimulus Package, the institutions set up to implement the Programme and the role of the State itself in salvaging sick companies — and funding managerial failures — for the sake of saving employment. Can the State go on engaging itself and public money in such cases?

Well the intention of saving jobs in an economic downturn is a laudable one. Saving jobs is one thing, saving companies is another thing. In the case of Infinity, it’s clear that the saving jobs objective was not exactly successful. There is growth in the sector, and I’m sure that these employees would have found work in other firms of the sector, had Infinity been left to wound its woes.

So while the intentions are good, I do think that the implementation and the criteria used to channel public money into private companies have to be re-looked. I mean shouldn’t there be a managerial-audit before such amounts are agreed upon? At least to ensure that the money is going into the hands of good managers and not lousy managers in the first place?

I think this should be a lesson and never again should the State relive another Infinity episode. Public money should not be disbursed under these same conditions ever again.

* Another aspect of the story of the rise and fall of Infinity BPO has to do with the democratization agenda of the Labour Party. We were speaking earlier about the lack of enthusiasm in the tourism sector for engaging in that direction. Now that the flagship of that agenda has come crashing down, what’s the way forward? Gradualism?

You know, we genuinely believed in the Jean Suzanne story. I remember that in 2005, I myself used his example in our campaign trail. I mean here’s a Creole businessman who had everything going for him but was denied a flourishing career in one of our traditional private sector firms because of the colour of his skin. That was how the story went. And that was precisely the kind of Mauritius we were fighting against. Our manifest was entitled “Une Ile Maurice Pour Tous” and it was exactly what our Prime Minister’s vision was.

But what this also tells you, is that in the best of worlds and in the best of intentions, mistakes do happen. But your intentions do not change. And looking at this story in another way, you can see that the Prime Minister was genuine in his desire to give a push to people whom he saw as being unjustly denied a bright future. I’d rather keep this perspective on the Suzanne story.

As for democratization, as I said earlier, the democratization agenda is still very much on. We have had to navigate through a rough period of world economic crisis – these are constraints you can’t predict – but the agenda is there and it seems to me that Hon Bodha is also keen on pushing through the democratization agenda in the tourism sector.

* The present Leader of the Labour Party likes to quote the metaphor famously uttered by seventeenth-century scientist Isaac Newton about “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants” with a view to giving credit and paying respect to the contribution of the older generation of Labour’s leaders. You would no doubt wish the next generation to go back to Newton’s metaphor, 75 years from now, when referring to the ‘New Labour’, wouldn’t you? But will you? And will they?

Well, we all stand on the shoulder of giants. We have to recognize that we are where we are today thanks to the indefatigable work of our elders, their vision, their sacrifices, their focus on aspirational and fulfillment goals. And this applies to individuals as well as members of an organization. So yes, in the Labour Party we definitely stand on the shoulders of major giants such as Curé, Anquetil, Rozemont, SSR, etc.

As we have been preparing our photo exhibition for our 75th Anniversary, it struck me how very much has been achieved under the different mandates of Dr Navin Ramgoolam as Prime Minister but also how much the Party has achieved under his leadership.

Not everyone – even in the Labour Party – comes into politics with the right reasons and animated by genuine philosophical values. We in the Labour Party have been amazingly lucky to have had over these 75 years, leaders who were all deeply imbued with our founding values.

My hope is that the Labour Party will always have at its helm someone as truly genuine in his subscription of Labour values and philosophy as our stalwarts whom I’ve mentioned and Dr Navin Ramgoolam.

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