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Updated: April 13, 2010 01:21 IST

Mauritius: delicate social fabric

Pranay Gupte
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Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam. File Photo
Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam. File Photo

When the politics of electioneering is converted into the politics of ethnic vitriol, that creates a dangerous precedent.

Take away the stunning greenery and jagged mountains from Mauritius, take away the rolling pastures, take away the vast sugarcane plantations, and take away the bustling hamlets with their narrow twisting roads — and one could be forgiven for feeling that this is Dubai-in-the-Indian-Ocean, a clean place where waves wash gently on the shores and enterprise is encouraged.

Both entities have populations of about 1.5 million each, heavily dominated by people of South Asian origin. Whereas in Dubai, the nationals – the Emiratis – constitute a fraction of the demography, in Mauritius it is the original French settlers – known locally as the Francos – who are in a distinct minority. Yet it is they who own significant property, including the plantations, and it is they who dominate the economy.

One would think that such economic domination translated into political power. Not so. In Mauritius, an island-state that gained independence from the British 42 years ago, it is the Hindu majority — descendants of indentured labourers brought across by the British scores of years ago — that has a lock on government and the bureaucracy. The minority Muslims, Christians and Creoles have little say in the way Mauritius is run, although there's general agreement that the government of Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam has been clean but that it needs to be even more sensitive to the needs of various ethnic communities.

The 65-year-old prime minister — who heads the Mauritius Labour Party — is now running for a second five-year term. A physician and a lawyer, Ramgoolam is the son of the country's founding father, the late Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. A canny politician, he understood that his party needed key allies in order to secure victory in the country's 20 constituencies in the May 5 election. So he's brought in former political opponents into his election alliance, the Mouvement Socialiste Militant and the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate. “This alliance represents stability at this juncture,” Dr. Ramgoolam said the other day, promising a vigorous but civil election campaign.

But the election campaign has already turned raucous. And it's only a part of the drama roiling Mauritius. Because some of Prime Minister Ramgoolam's close friends happen to be Muslims — including Deputy Prime Minister Rashid Beebeejaun — some publications backed by Franco interests have escalated attacks on those friends' business interests. A former wire-service writer has been imported from France to lend ferocity to local journalism; leading financial officials in the French-influenced private sector have engaged in innuendo about some Muslim entrepreneurs, particularly those with multinational operations.

Moreover, blogs inspired by entrenched interests seem to be having a field day, spiritedly raising the spectre of a Mauritius dominated by an alliance of Hindus and Muslims; in particular, attacks against a multinational businessman, Dawood A. Rawat, are being escalated — despite the fact that Mr. Rawat's company, the British-American Group, has created more than 5,000 jobs locally.

All this could ordinarily be dismissed as being part of the hurly burly of politics. But the social fabric of Mauritius is very delicate indeed, and when the politics of electioneering is converted into the politics of ethnic vitriol, that creates a dangerous precedent. It is not that this island — which sits atop a volcano — is about to erupt and spew political lava. But the current spate of attacks poisons the atmosphere in a way that would make governance difficult for Prime Minister Ramgoolam in his second term. Dr. Ramgoolam has coined a new mantra for governance: “Unity, Equality, Modernity.”

Model for multi-cultural amity

It is never prudent to predict the outcome of elections, but Dr. Ramgoolam appears to be headed toward a second term as prime minister. That would also give him a second chance to act as a social emollient, hopefully persuading the attack dogs of Mauritius that their personal assaults and political biting isn't in the national interest — that, in the final analysis, Mauritius simply deserves better because it can serve as a model for multi-cultural amity in a world fraught with ethnic hatred.

(Pranay Gupte, a U.S. national, is a veteran journalist whose forthcoming book is about India and the Middle East.)

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