“Young Mauritians feel that they could end up as a lost generation with not enough space in politics, business or culture to exist”

‘The electorate would seem to favour the party with the best chances of ending the present government’s reign… It is the other side of the ‘Virer Mam’ coin’

 

33 years old, Chetan Ramchurn is an entrepreneur, and was previously active in the MMM. He is a lifelong resident of Quatre Bornes where his office is based. Since in the forthcoming by-election the country is looking forward to a renouvellement and a rejuvenation, we have felt it appropriate to listen to a youthful voice about the political situation and the broad issues concerning the country. Chetan Ramchurn gives us refreshing views about a number of them, and his candid perceptions and assessments should make all of us stand up and think. They are thought out and based on sound reasoning from serious sources, and are wedded to the ground realities and the social changes that are impacting the country.

Mauritius Times: Speculations are rife about who is most likely to win the 17 December Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes by-election, the likely turn-out on polling day and what the result of this election will lead to. The bookies’ favourite appears to be the Labour Party’s Arvin Boolell at this stage. What do the strategies of the different parties inform you about the importance they attach to this election?

Chetan Ramchurn: With the government cowering from the electorate, the absence of an antagonist as target for opposition parties is clearly felt. This is a campaign where image is everything and not much of substance can be heard or seen; a battle of photo ops and videos mixed with an avalanche of shallow comments on social networks.

However, the important message to communicate to the No.18 electorate is that this is an election which will determine our common future.

The MLP (Mauritius Labour Party) understands this. This is no mere by-election; winning it could trigger the change process which would come to fruition at the next general elections. The strategy to support this core message (Zordi No.18, Dimé Moris) is well executed. Their candidate steers away from any controversy, conveys the image of a friendly man and smiles a lot. In short, he is playing to his strengths. His presence since 1987 in active politics has been carefully omitted and Ramgoolam’s relative absence from the fray is designed to give him the best chances of winning. But no election is won before votes are cast. Polls use a glimpse of the past to show the future and cannot always be relied upon. And in the absence of a clear target, the favourite attracts the darts of fellow candidates. This is a crucial battle for the Labour Party, one that it cannot afford to lose.

As for the MMM, it started the campaign with two disadvantages; its presence in the constituency had been weakened with Kavy Ramano’s departure, and the non sequitur of opting for a new candidate instead of Vijay Makhan. As if that was not enough, the vocal admonition of the Mouvement Patriotique’s candidate by Berenger was ill-advised. Moreover, rumours of probable on/off fits have been prevalent during the campaign. This dampens the ‘novelty’ cachet the MMM wants to project. Some attempts have been made to frame this as a match between the Labour Party and the MMM. The success of these attempts will only be judged on the 18th of December and will determine the party’s stance at the next general elections: will it go alone or will it saddle itself with another party?

* What about the one who triggered this by-election?

Roshi Bhadain’s Reform Party is fighting for relevance… and its existence. Its adversaries will have smelt a whiff of desperation over the last few weeks. Its supporters clearly believe in their leader and in his words and want to see him triumph. Whether they manage to sway the electorate in their favour remains to be seen. Bhadain’s presence and influence as a Minister until early 2017 harm his chances. He has after all been an active participant in the government’s actions and will have trouble shedding that image. The RP’s strategy is a disruptive one. Expect a lot of noise.

As for the others, Rezistans ek Alternativ’s Kugan Parapen talks about ideas that are relevant to our future. He delves on the social divide, the fiscal imbalance on which our economic structure rests and he has managed to keep some form of authenticity in his campaign by not communicating for the sake of communicating. He will have to cut through the noise and artificiality that this election is mired in to connect with the electorate.

The PMSD comes with new ambitions; that of seeing XLD as prime minister. They will rely more on his pull in and experience of the region than anything else. The result will determine the number of bargaining chips in their hands when negotiating an alliance. The Mouvement Patriotique’s ambitions do not match those of the PMSD’s; they want to show to possible partners that they are significant enough to be taken on board.

It has been a dull campaign so far but will hopefully be vivified in the last two weeks.

* What do you see being spun in terms of political propaganda these days for the people’s and the electorate’s consumption and what are the objectives of these spins?

“Those who tell the stories rule society.” What Plato says resonates even more in times when the doctoring of messages is practised widely. The best coup in recent times was the 2014 projection of Anerood Jugnauth as a harbinger of change and as the guardian of public weal. With the implicit cooperation and collusion of many in the media and the arrogance and missteps of their opponents, they managed to pull it off.

At the moment, the spin around the selling of Pravind Jugnauth as Prime Minister is the one most deserving of our attention. In his case, we have someone, apparently destined for the post since he joined politics, whose absence of charisma and leadership is known. He has long struggled to find his own voice. So instead of looking for one, they are opting for mere imitation: cleaning à la Modi, jogging à la Obama with the only original activity being the zip-lining in work clothes in Rodrigues. It is a tough sell.

From what I can observe, Pravind Jugnauth will be portrayed as someone who is good on the economic front. In a way that is not too different from his father minus the Lee Kuan Yew-inspired authority. The only issue is that people now understand that the economic prosperity he refers to rarely percolates to them and that his policies will favour the rent-seekers. The fiscal gifts given to promoters of smart cities are astronomical but most in the press seems to have obliterated this crucial piece of information.

While some of the communication around the new airplanes is propaganda at its most amateurish, the hype around the negative income tax and the minimum wage is being built to win over the masses. Right wing politics sugarcoated with populist measures is a dangerous concoction for any country. The population should wake up to this potentially explosive phenomenon.

* One may be disappointed with the level of debates and how the opposition seems to be bent on shooting itself in its foot in the context of this by-election, but there also appear to be other things being played out in the background, power plays as well as possible alliances being hatched by political gymnasts. What’s your take on these matters?

One would hope that the large slap across the face of the two main parties in the last elections would have prevented such shenanigans to happen. The ‘opposition loyale’ that the MMM today represents with its attacks on those that should be ousted from the current governing alliance for a possible alliance is seemingly on. I am surprised that any noble party would wish to be associated with any of the factions left in government… the scandals, the destruction of the BAI, the drug related scandals and figures, the absence of a clear vision and the incendiary comments. But power’s lure is great.

I am immune to this type of call for change which would lead to shifting back to those who have failed us in the past. This cyclic to and fro between dynasties bears a testimony to how sick our democracy is. What really matters is what happens afterwards, as Zizek questions, ‘What happens the day after revolution?’ Unless someone comes up with a coherent plan that would truly address the country’s woes, any such change is futile.

* But “l’offre politique” on the political spectrum, however, is very limited and the people find themselves at the end of the day with very little choice than go for the “lesser evil”, which is generally not good enough for the country. And the initiatives launched by young intellectuals and academics in recent years who said they would “do politics differently” have remained stuck at the starting stalls. So we find ourselves periodically back to square one, don’t we?

Even worse, those that have professed to loathe and reject the mainstream parties have joined them. The problem is not with the parties; they are mere structures with varying degrees of historical mileage and achievements. The problem is with those who make up the party. They have failed to understand the importance of regeneration and so generously have they been fed by financiers that we are stuck in a society where the economic fabric is in favour of the powerful.

But change will come. It will come when capitalism will have seemingly conquered it all. The attempt to strip our Welfare State to the bare minimum, as targeting and privatisation are proclaimed as absolute requirements for our country to survive, attests to this trend. Dark times are looming with the present government.

* Once every three decades or so we see a sort of tidal wave election, which brings up a new team of young politicians taking over from the old order and presiding over the destiny of the country until they also get swept away by the next wave. This is only a by-election, but some commentators are hoping the December by-election will set the ground for a new beginning. Wishful thinking, would you say?

I wish I could pin such hopes on the ‘young and new’. Have we not often witnessed such overhauls where the young replace the old and there is no change in terms of the way Mauritius is governed? It’s epitomized in Giuseppe Tomasi’s line: “Everything must change so that nothing changes.” There were new and young faces in 2014: Jadoo-Jaunbocus, Rutnah, Duval, Bhadain and Tarolah all fitted that description perfectly. I do not feel that they have contributed much to the betterment of the country.

As I said the allure of newness and change for the sake of change is dangerous. I would rather have someone who has a coherent thinking pattern with a clear ideological choice. We have had enough of the ‘centrisme mou’ which most politicians seems to be happy to adhere to. Economic pragmatism essentially translates into the entrenching of inequalities, less protection to employees and stimulus packages to be injected in failing companies. If new faces espouse such views, there is hardly any need for them.

To come back to Belle Rose/Quatre Bornes, the electorate would seem to favour the candidate and party with the best chances of ending the present government’s reign. It is the other side of the ‘Virer Mam’ coin but essentially it is the same coin. They are part of the system.

* What about the “new beginning” I referred to earlier? If Mauritius really needs a new beginning, what should it be about?

It starts with getting rid of the diseases of the past: the state financing of political parties would be crucial to ensure that the allegiance of those elected is first and foremost to voters and not to financiers. Transparency should also encompass the assets of the state and include a more rigorous control on land; the allocation of leases should be monitored and regulated so as to prevent the kind of generosity towards petits copains we have witnessed and are witnessing.

The country needs independent regulators and institutions. For that to happen, we need people that will not give in to political pressure and will not, for example, accept the presence of international frauds in our jurisdiction. Matthew Simonton in his book ‘Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History’ traces the rise of oligarchy as a response to democracy. Oligarchs would design institutions that would protect them against citizens. For institutions to be truly functioning, we need people at the head of institutions to be chosen on the basis of meritocracy.

The limits of parliamentary democracy are even more glaring now that debates from the assembly are broadcast live. Clearly limiting the participation of citizens to one voting expedition every five years is not working in the country’s favour. Additional power should be given to people to sanction their representatives, initiate laws and have a say on major projects being embarked upon.

A new Mauritius can only be built by having a long term perspective on matters. Research carried out by Dr Osborne from the University of Oxford evaluated the percentage of job loss through computerisation to stand at 47% in the US. The research paper avers that “For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.” This is an important consideration that should be factored in the type of education we impart to our children in the future.

Talks of a nation of entrepreneurs sound good to the ears but will not materialise unless entrepreneurs are given the real impetus to thrive. Access to finance remains a major issue and the administrative hurdles numerous. There is nothing that I feel is being done despite the PR exercises of successive ministers.

The building of national unity is a continuous process and one of the hurdles that prevent it from happening is cultural hegemony. A culture pass, akin to the one which has been introduced by Renzi in Italy, would allow young people to broaden their perspective and accept the breadth of our cultural richness and subsequently each other.

* There is increasing talk of the disaffection particularly of the younger generation with regard to politics but mostly with the “traditional parties” – perhaps more so with the leadership of these parties. In the US, The Atlantic newspaper states that “if there’s one thing people are learning about this young generation, it’s that they are liberal. Even leftist. Flirting with socialist.” What do the young Mauritians want?

Lumping all young Mauritians together would be wrong. The fils de of politicians and capitalists certainly have no qualms about the present situation as they benefit from it. The system is in their favour. The amount of bootlickers among people would surprise you. But those more concerned about their country than their own pockets feel that there is a marked feeling of regression where the present and future generations will lead lives worse than those of their parents. Access to housing is much more costly, their purchasing power does not allow them to aspire to something better.

At the moment, they feel that they could end up as a lost generation with not enough space in politics, business or culture to exist.

* The young generation must indeed be sharing the same concerns about their future as those of their peers elsewhere – concerns ranging from access to quality education and health services, jobs and affordable homes to a level playing field for the young entrepreneurs. This is what the new beginning should also be about with a view to addressing those concerns, isn’t it?

Definitely, they are components of what would normally be deemed a ‘happy life’. But there is much more than mere home ownership or a decent job that would fulfill an existence. Settling for that would be an issue because it does not encourage participation in the life of the polis and would ultimately render democracy impotent. We need to have a proactive population that can voice out and influence the way the country is run.

I would expect, for example, more cultural vibrancy in a country such as ours. Beyond mere individual considerations, I believe that the need for collective wellbeing is crucial. This is why inequalities matter and need to be rectified. There is no point in having a minority in gated communities afraid of the hungry masses outside.

* This year’s Legatum Prosperity Index™, which shows Mauritius retaining the top spot as Sub-Saharan Africa’s most prosperous nation also states that “however prosperity has however declined in Mauritius for four straight years following a high in 2013, prompted by significant declines in mental health and increasing dissatisfied with healthcare. Personal Freedom and Safety and Security also fell in 2017 – Mauritius ranks 130th in the world for the freedom of its press, whilst people reported feeling increasingly unsafe at night, and this year a greater number of people were reporting shortages of food and shelter.” What’s your take on these findings?

Personally, I have never paid much attention to rankings and indexes. It is, to paraphrase Talleyrand, a mentality of “Quand je m’observe, je m’inquiète. Quand je me compare, je me rassure.”

The index report of 2016 highlighted a female president as something worth noting but this does not improve the lives of Mauritian women.

But based on some of the issues highlighted, I can only say that we have an increasingly unequal society and many people have trouble making ends meet. There is a sense of despair among the young people who face unemployment and resort to a life of crime. The collectivist mindset is gradually being relinquished in favour of a more individualistic one. Everyone is fending for himself/herself and the government has outsourced its role to NGOs. This tendency is on the rise. The absence of meaning in our overtly materialistic lives, rising job insecurity and an uncertain future all add up to create a depressed society.

Last year’s report clearly identified diabetes as a major health issue and heralded the role of associations in helping patients deal with further complications. There is clearly more to be done on this front by the state. Pertaining to our low scores on vocational education, I believe we should start by removing the perception that vocational training is only open to those not good academically. Moreover training offered locally does not always have international recognition thus preventing young people from furthering their studies abroad.

It is evident that the lack of planning and thinking is potentially threatening our country’s future. Mauritius is still a wonderful country with great people whether indexes show it or not.

 

* Published in print edition on 1 December 2017

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