As the Labour Party flexed its muscles with a strong showing at Kewal Nagar to celebrate the 120th birth anniversary of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and 100th birth anniversary of Sir Satcam Boolell, we talk to Labour MP Mahend Gungapersad about what he makes of the protests rocking the country and about the new Mauritius he thinks the protestors want. He also comments on his own baptism by fire within parliament.
Let's start by asking how your first time in the National Assembly is going?
Indeed, this is my first mandate in the National Assembly and so far it has been a roller coaster ride. As any novice parliamentarian, I had to go through the Standing Orders and grapple with the way parliament functions.
What has been your contribution to parliamentary debate so far?
Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to raise a series of questions on a wide array of problems faced by my constituents and the public at large. Problems ranging from houses made of asbestos, coastal erosion, illegal construction of villas on the wetlands, air pollution caused by stone crushers, the breakdown of the incinerator at Belmont, the abject conditions of the Melville-Goodlands road, the pitiful state of the area surrounding the Poudre D'Or hospital and the allowance to be paid to the front-liners have been the subjects of my Parliamentary Questions.
Many people feel that we have never had such a poor lot in parliament as we do now. Instead of debates, all we hear now are obsequious praises of the leader and criticism of the opposition. How do you feel about that?
There is much truism in this widespread belief that parliament has hit rock bottom. I will not judge other parliamentarians, even if I concede that a few are trolled because of the mediocrity of their interventions which are often devoid of substance. Instead of debating ideas, very often the debates are systematically used as a subterfuge to settle political scores, to gain political mileage and to indulge in character assassination. What saddens me the most are the repeated vile and cheap political attacks on a few former parliamentarians, especially the leader of the Labour Party.
Many also believe that the opposition hasn't achieved much either...
As members of the opposition, we ask questions but they often remain unanswered. For instance, 195 questions have not been answered so far. Few have been answered. Instead, members of the majority are busy in a well-orchestrated move to brainwash the public in order to show that they are heroes and patriots while the members of the opposition are anti patriots. You must have also heard the appalling communal innuendos they unabashedly use and in all impunity.
"The 'Dire moi kot mone fauté?' is symptomatic of a government which is good at whitewashing itself and refusing the see the harm and prejudice it is causing to the country. "
Which communal innuendos are you referring to in particular?
Several. They went to the extent of brandishing the Code Noir and "India bashing" for political gains in a reckless manner. Do they think that they can dupe the public with the help of the subservient MBC?
Is that what you are ill at ease with?
I am ill at ease with many things, especially with the way sycophancy has been tuned into an art, a mantra to eulogise the leader of the House with pompous epithets, adjectives and references. These look irritable, fake and hollow to those who know that sycophancy is the favourite bait used by spineless people to gain favours or to stay in the good books of the master of the day.
The speaker has broken all records as far as partiality is concerned. And the opposition has broken the record of walking outs. How does that serve democracy?
There is indeed a widespread consensus that the speaker is doing a disservice to the post he is occupying. During my exposé on the motion of no-confidence against the speaker on 21st July, I had the opportunity to delve into this issue. His partisanship was forcefully evoked in the speeches of the different members of the three opposition parties and the public at large has coined several nicknames for him. It's up to him if he wants to bequeath a legacy where he will be forever known as someone who was one-sided, partial, a party man or as someone who stood up for democracy.
Can he still change the image the public has of him, according to you?
Gagging the opposition, playing the game in favour of the government, expelling members of the opposition, ignoring the misbehaviour of some on the left side of the House have seriously blighted his tenure as a speaker. I hope he redeems himself. I request him to change for the better and not to become bitter after the motion.
Three protest against government action or inaction, including two massive ones but the opposition does not seem to be making any headway, does it?
The protests have to be placed in a proper context. Our country has never had such an incompetent government which is directly or indirectly responsible for so many monumental economic, social and ecological blunders. The "Dire moi cot mone fauté?" is symptomatic of a government which is good at whitewashing itself and refusing the see the harm and prejudice it is causing to the country. The protesters answered in clear terms, "B... r li dehors" in unison.
The prime minister reacted by thanking the protesters...
Yes, he surprisingly thanked those 150,000 people who chanted in a chorus for him to "leve paker aller" or "fou li dehors". I am wondering whether he was 'annoyed' or not. Will he do his mea culpa?
How about the opposition? Have you done your own mea culpa after the protests?
The different opposition parties are not insensitive to these protests. We should not ignore the contribution and input of the extra parliamentary opposition or undermine the role and importance of the civil society. We should not obliterate the pertinence of those who took to the streets armed with banners, to send important messages.
The placards brandished were bearing very different slogans. What do you think the main demands of the protesters are?
The demands are clear and unequivocal. The protesters, just like the Mauritian diaspora and the population at large, are suffocating from the non-ending spiral of nepotism, the level of graft and corruption, the numerous cases of discrimination, injustice, and communalism tensions. This government generally surfs and basks on propaganda, creating the false impression that it is handling the affairs of the country efficiently. Whatever we read on placards is the result of the contrast between what was promised by the government and what has actually come about and which the Italian political theorist Norberto Bobbio has termed as broken promises.
The protests were also supplemented by what seemed to be a rebuke by the Catholic Church that the prime minister took strong exception to. Isn't he right in a way?
No. The prime minister and his government cannot claim not to have understood the message of Cardinal Mauritius Piat, who said that "Mauritius is suffering". The latter asked a series of pertinent questions, among which, whether Wakashio could have been saved, and the ecological disaster averted. What was the Wakashio transporting? How come Mauritius never faced any shortage of hard drugs in spite of the confinement? How come our surveillance cameras in prisons, airport and radars fail to function on specific occasions? How come huge consignments of drugs enter the territory and no culprit is found, except that we have cosmetic arrests as an eye wash? Is the government really committed to fighting the scourge of hard drugs? What are the occult forces which are operating in the shadows?
Many people are asking for a complete overhaul of the system. How realistic is that?
History bears testimony that human beings have relentlessly pined for a free and fair society. The French Revolution, the protests in Bangkok and the USA, the demonstrations in Turkey, Tunisia and elsewhere have all been carried out with the hope that public life can be sanitised. Overhauling the system is not a one-off exercise but a relentless undertaking. It is an endless quest which reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus, the never ending struggle of pushing the boulder uphill. Today's citizens should be dreamers and builders. They should dream for the best possible society they envisage to live in and they should engage in its construction with their sweat and altruism.
"Instead of debating ideas, very often the debates are systematically used as a subterfuge to settle political scores, to gain political mileage and to indulge in character assassination."
What kind of Mauritius do we really want?
The new Mauritius has to be more just, more tolerant, more proactive, and more humane and compassionate. How to achieve this goal? By refusing to be complacent. We need to opt for the right person at the right place, whether we have to manage the National Museum or the Mauritius Standard Bureau. The boards of the State Bank of Mauritius or Air Mauritius should be held accountable for any failure at their ends. Recruitment procedures have to be revamped and made more transparent. For example, we may start by reviewing the way Independent Commission Against Corruption functions or the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation is misused as a propaganda machine, the way or timing of arbitrary arrests that take place selectively, the whole mechanism of recruitment and promotion in the private and public sectors, the way public funds are used and cronyism that has spread its tentacles everywhere. The system will change if we allow it to function independently with less and less political, financial and religious interference. Accountability in the management of public affairs at all levels should become the new normal in Mauritius.
As things stand, it would be very difficult for the opposition to gain grounds, unless it offers something new and acceptable to the youth and the population as a whole. Are you aware if there is anything new in the offing?
Obviously, the opposition has to come up with new ideas, which can bring the population together. Now is the time to reflect on our future. We need a new economic model, a new social contract which should be more inclusive; we need a model of education which valorises the human capital and not just those who top the exams; we need a new reaffirmation of our faith in humanism; we need a breed of politicians who can embody the hope and trust of the population.
All this sounds very nice but where do you see this in the opposition, let alone the government?
The youth wings of the three different parties of the opposition have competent and deserving patriots who have high ambitions for their country. They are harnessing thousands of youngsters from the four corners of their countries to shape a new Mauritius which can face the stiff global economic competition.
How will this new Mauritius be born?
After the protests subside, after the marches stop, after the public calms down, it is imperative to chart a new road map which will be based, not on what we politicians want to offer the public, but what the public wants from politicians. The public does not want empty slogans. They want concrete action and commitment. The messages they have sent are strong signals which should make us realise that there is a new Mauritius which has come to age. Fifty-two years after independence, our reflexes have to be geared towards modernism, not rooted on old slogans and clichés.
What is the time frame we are looking at for this kind of change?
Change is permanent. The process of change will take the time it needs but we do not have an eternity. A nation is in a constant flux of construction and deconstruction.
Some people are of the opinion that in spite of the protest, this government will remain in power for another four years and possibly beyond. Do you share that opinion?
It is clear that the government is in a very bad posture. Each attempt to crush the freedom of individuals or the press or the users of social media is an illustration of the real position of this government. Above all, this government has lost its credibility. But I do not underestimate the Machiavellian propensity of this government to do anything, to bend any institution, sacrifice and destroy anything or anybody to stay in power. Does it need voters to win the election or does it have the machinery to fabricate its political victory? We are waiting for the hearing of the electoral petitions. We want this government to come clean and the sooner the better - not after three or four years. The government will use all its energy and money to weaken the opposition. Each opposition party should engage in a thorough rethinking process because the political model has to adapt to the new needs of the population. Political discourse and political actions have to be in tune with the aspirations of the nation.
But the opposition doesn't seem to be in tune with the aspirations of the street. It seems to be too afraid to hit frontally about issues such as the proliferation of drugs, corruption, nepotism, repression etc. Just to give you an example, when the street was asking for the prime minister's resignation, your people in parliament were asking for the resignation of Kavy Ramano and Sudheer Maudhoo...
The opposition has not missed any opportunity to hit at these issues you have mentioned, both inside and outside parliament. It is good that the opposition parties have been joined by other stakeholders, opinion and religious leaders, trade unionists and civil society at large in the march against the different scourges which are fiendishly gnawing at our social fabric. Cardinal Maurice Piat has echoed the concerns of a bereaved nation which has been helplessly licking its many wounds for the past few years. The population realises that the government neither has the political leadership nor the moral will power to fight corruption, nepotism, repression and the proliferation of drugs. Has the Lam Shang Leen Commission been a sham? I seize this opportunity to kindly request all patriots never to bow down in front of the merciless and ruthless feet which want to crush them. Meritocracy and democracy are trampled because a select few enjoy undue privileges notwithstanding the stark incompetency of the protagonists. We also have to fight tooth and nail cronyism, money politics, the widespread waves of fear and revenge and the dictatorial tendencies which have seeped in. Desmond Tutu rightly said that, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
"This government generally surfs and basks on propaganda, creating the false impression that it is handling the affairs of the country efficiently."
What lessons can be drawn from the commotion of the last few months?
That henceforth, the government will have to watch its back. It will have to set feet on the ground and will have to stop playing with fire or else it will not be spared by the public. The water level has gone beyond the nose level. The public cannot be taken for granted and will not be taken for a ride. This government has sown the wind of nepotism, corruption, hatred, communalism and will reap the tempest of public outcry.
How was the event at Kewal Nagar on Sunday?
It was a success gauging by the fervour of the thousands of labourites who flocked to pay their tribute to two stalwarts - Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Sir Satcam Boolell.
Were you expecting such a large crowd?
Yes, but we were still very surprised because we should not forget that this event was held only 10 months after the general elections, which the main opposition parties claim to have been rigged unless proven otherwise by the court of justice (the sooner by the way the better). At a time when the country is going through its darkest phase, the leader of the Labour Party, as a rassembleur and a statesman, proposed the way forward for a better, fairer and just Mauritius. He vouch for unity when others are trying to shred the national fabric to pieces. Dr N Ramgoolam proposed a series of measures which are progressive and forward looking in order to redress the country from the economic, institutional, social and political muddle.
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