Mauritius: Chetan Ramchurn - "If We Judge Pravind Jugnauth Solely On The Debt Levels And Creation Of New Industries, He Has Failed"

13 September 2019

With the loss of a number of members of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) in the run up to the general election, Weekly speaks to Chetan Ramchurn, former president of the youth wing of the party, for his views. His astute observations about the strategies being played out in the political arena provide food for thought.

You were the president of the youth wing of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM), a party that you left in 2011. Why?

To be honest, I never left the party officially. I went away hoping that the yes-men would get tired of losing and change would eventually come. Little did I know that some of those figures have nothing except the MMM to exist. When there was the controversy surrounding the choice of candidates for the 2017 by-election in Belle-Rose/Quatre-Bornes whereby the one that had been working in the constituency for years was sacrificed in favour of a handpicked one, I went to the regional cell and listened to the arguments put forward. The yes-men were very much there with zealous voices, professing unflinching loyalty to the leader's whims. Nothing had changed.

In concrete terms, what exactly bothered you?

As president, I merely averred that if we stuck to the Ramgoolamists vs Berengists paradigm, we would end up relinquishing our values and would reduce ourselves to useless followers. And indeed, once the MMM and the Labour Party were in alliance, it created a void that was filled with power-hungry individuals. We were quickly tagged as rebels and the clashes between the youth wing and the politburo were regular. Many of those yes-men have now changed ships and state proudly that they have had enough of the rotten state of affairs that they had helped create.

Did you expect the party to weaken so much overnight?

The decline of the party was predictable. The MMM has failed its own values. The absence of introspection and strategy is obvious. Added to that, the gradual realisation that a mere handful would be elected could have led to the numerous departures. But not only that, a leader who refuses to question the government in parliament solely because he is no longer the leader of opposition is childish and illustrates the party's dire health.

He may not have put questions directly to ministers but he says he worked with his team. And his MPs did give the government a run for its money, didn't they?

The leader has to show the way. I do feel that many of the questions seem to have been targeted at those that the party would like to see gone in the eventuality of an alliance. And why would you choose to ask Minister Seeruttun whether a price hike was being considered to bail out the cane industry? Such questions are puzzling to say the least.

Didn't Paul Bérenger and his MPs offer some meaningful speeches in the National Assembly?

Yes, there have been some solid budget speeches by some of the members belonging to the MMM.

Coming back to the resignations, you don't seem to be shocked by such ratting on one's party so close to the general election...

This is verily the period of headhunting and poaching. Clearly, this is a move that has been orchestrated by those in office. The timing is interesting. The premier one is not in the country, which serves as a damage limitation tactic that he has long privileged. It has spectacularly flopped though. And here we are, laughing at their expense. You will have noticed that several happenings are scheduled when Pravind is out of the country. This seems to be a smokescreen designed to make the orchestrated exits look more authentic. Here are brave militants who have left their shores to join a party without having been guaranteed anything by the premier. It has not worked though. The population has called their bluff.

There have been a number of low blows exchanged between the departed and the MMM. The latter would do well to ignore them and not indulge in cheap allusions of financial help given to a former member. It is unbefitting of a movement that used to stand for noble values.

I don't think the information about the help came from the MMM leadership but rather from the homework of journalists. What's cheap about exposing disloyal candidates to the electorate?

If I remember correctly, it was mentioned by a future candidate of the party on a radio show. There is a minimum of decorum to be kept. We should not forget that many of the members who have left have given years of their lives to the MMM as well. Yes, in most cases, these years have been served saying yes to the leadership and enduring press conferences. But they are years nonetheless. The only thing that this type of bickering does is widen the disgust of citizens with politics. Whether the information came from the journalists matters not. Anyone who deems that this is something that should be thrown in the agora is ill-advised.

There are those who left to look after other things and those who left to join the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM). Do you have the same opinion of both groups?

No. I can understand why someone would wish to leave the MMM: there is no clear economic policy being advocated, with the leader vouching for pragmatism. What does that mean? The heavily tilted scales in favour of the haves are likely to be untouched. There will be mere management and kowtowing to the interests of capitalists. There is hardly any new ideas being proposed these days and nepotism has entered an already soiled structure. There is a cutthroat jostling for position, which is contrary to all MMM values.

Leaving the MMM for the MSM is altogether another matter. Whether the individual chooses to do it directly or through a Special Purpose Vehicle does not matter. The MSM's list of scandals is truly baffling: The mishandling of the British American Investment (BAI) case, the Rs19 billion Safe City project and the creation of a surveillance state, the generous incentives in terms of tax rebates to promoters of Smart Cities, the leeway given to one betting company in particular and the acute drug problem. The greatest scandal if you ask me is Pravind Jugnauth's taking over as prime minister. Anyone respectful of our democracy would face the electorate for a new mandate within a short time frame. I can only hope that those highly excited to partake in the progress of the country have paid due attention to the list of botch-ups associated with this regime.

The spin right now is that the scandals are not the doing of the prime minister but of his ministers and that getting rid of the rotten apples will result in the creation of an almost new party. Are you sympathetic to that view?

That is a load of malarkey being served to the population. It is an endorsement of Tancredi's line in Visconti's Le Guépard, "Il faut que tout change pour que rien ne change"; that is, "For things to remain the same, everything must change". We know how the system works and the considerable power that is vested in the head of government. We have an aching trust issue with our police force, the report of the Commission of inquiry on Drugs has not been followed by strong action so far and the onerous projects that have been initiated seem to be an attempt to masquerade the absence of progress. If we judge Pravind Jugnauth solely on the debt levels and creation of new industries, he has failed.

What do you think of Bérenger's reaction to the crisis - "We won't underestimate the crisis but we will survive"?

The crisis might even have helped the MMM which is drawing sympathy from those partisans who had gone away. Political parties do not die easily. The lure of power is intoxicating and patience is one ingredient never missing in our political figures. The wheel turns as it did for Anerood Jugnauth in 2014. The MMM might be dying but it is certainly not dead. And this might explain why we are in a situation of crisis with many of our parties in a similar comatose stage. Gramsci said it best, «Le vieux monde se meurt, le nouveau monde tarde à apparaître et dans ce clair-obscur surgissent les monstres.» I would expect the bargaining power of the MMM prior to the election to be significantly lowered. That would explain why the party is betting on an alliance after the election.

Yes, let's talk about an after-election alliance. Doesn't it look more and more likely?

A post electoral alliance could indeed be on the cards. The belief that there will be no landslide victory for either of the two main blocks is prevalent among many observers. It is difficult to know at this stage what the future holds in store. A politician is a dealer in hope that merely has to present a carrot before his followers that shows them the possibility of being in power tomorrow. This scenario would fit the MMM's best chances of salvaging anything from the next election, a bit à la Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD) in 1976. The advantage is that we will have an honest assessment of what each faction carries in terms of votes but this particular election year is likely to be marked by several below the belt hits. Imagine having completely annihilated your opponent's credibility during the campaign and then entering a pact with it after the results are announced. That could be troubling for the electorate. I would hope that the prospect of a post-electoral alliance would force parties to adopt a more dispassionate stance but this is unlikely.

Who is the MMM likely to strike an alliance with should there be no clear majority for any party?

Impossible to answer that question at this stage. Some days back, the MMM averred that it had no intention of going with the Labour Party (LP) and even less with the MSM. But this could easily change.

Some people, including Bérenger himself, predict even more resignations from his party. Who is likely to leave from the pool left at the MMM?

The MSM seems to be eager to attract anyone and everyone who is ready to cross the floor. Anyone tired of the wilderness in which the MMM is and wishing for some form of involvement if the MSM gains power could make the switch. Those close to power have clearly expressed their shopping list in regressive ethnic terms. The bets are on.

The argument of those who have left is in a nutshell: "We can't spend the rest of political life in the opposition if we want to help the country progress". Do you see where they are coming from?

I cannot put myself in their shoes. I believe they should have tried to reform the party from within or attempted to rock the boat so that the party would no longer settle for koz-kozer attempts prior to elections. Those who have left on a question of principle are now joining a party that is a fervent adherent of dynasty politics and is neck deep in scandals. In short, I can understand why they are leaving the MMM but cannot understand why they would choose to join the MSM.

How about economic philosophy?

The MSM and the MMM are aligned on the same economic philosophy: protecting the interests of the historic bourgeoisie and an acceptance of the role of the state as a mere doormat for private sector interests. The 'mari deal Illovo' is after all their doing. Our mainstream parties are interchangeable these days. That is worrying.

A large chunk of the population has been expressing its disgust with the reaction of those who ratted on their party. Do you think that will show in the ballot box?

It is an encouraging sign that people are not merely playing to their tunes. It remains to be seen whether the MSM will be handing them tickets for the next election. The best position in politics is that of the victim. The MMM is acting the part most eloquently and will probably earn sympathy. You will note that the two most hyped additions to the MSM have been prompt to say that they are only collaborating with the MSM at this stage and not joining its ranks. That says a lot about their perception of the MSM.

When members of big political parties walk away from their party, their political death is usually round the corner. Is that likely to happen in this case or will the dissidents take their vote bank with them to the MSM?

Not in all cases. There are some exceptions. The MSM has seemingly improved its visibility and presence in constituencies No. 16 and 18 in particular. But that is about it. Others have never had a vote base strong enough and would not add much to the MSM. The idea being sold to us is that the 'valeurs militantes' will shine with the MSM. Hard to see how meritocracy, equal opportunities and integrity will thrive after what we have witnessed over the last five years. Politics is everything but an exact science. It will potentially cause unrest within the MSM and could trigger a form of rejection for those who have sided with it.

What exactly is the MSM's strategy? |

The best strategy is the one that ensures victory without fighting. Pravind Jugnauth's advisers know that he will not be able to go mano a mano with Navin Ramgoolam. They want to show that many are rallying their forces to support a 'young' prime minister. The message being communicated here is since they will never be able to beat them, they might as well join them. They want the population to start buying the idea that the unchosen one has already won. We should do our best to help people to see through the maze. That is what we, as acting citizens have to do.

Will this strategy work?

The risk of backlash is very much here. There is a whiff of clientelism emanating from the many moves. Does it in any way curb Jugnauth's lack of leadership, charisma and vision? No, people are increasingly cautious about what is being fed to them. The overtly staged shows and PR coups sound artificial and out of touch with the needs of the people.

Any idea how things are likely to evolve?

The narrative of the government is easy to read. It will surf on the papal visit, the launch of the tramway and some new projects. The opposition parties can sit and watch and ultimately lose. Or they can puncture the MSM's storytelling and expose the manipulations. They can oppose to the artificiality of this regime something more authentic with real measures to uplift the population. It depends how each plays their cards.

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