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Updated: April 13, 2010 01:14 IST

Politics of hope in Mauritius

Pranay Gupte
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NAVIN RAMGOOLAM: A leader of rare political enlightenment in a world that's marked far too frequently by the politics of cynicism. - PHOTO: AFP
NAVIN RAMGOOLAM: A leader of rare political enlightenment in a world that's marked far too frequently by the politics of cynicism. - PHOTO: AFP

Creating wider economic opportunities for all is the best insurance that any leader can buy against social upheaval.

When Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam of Mauritius dissolved the island-state's 70-member National Assembly late Wednesday evening and called for new elections on May 5, there seemed to be an element of political drama to his announcement.

The drama, of course, was deliberate, but it had little to do with the election announcement itself: everybody in Mauritius knew that polls would be held soon, not the least because Dr. Ramgoolam is widely perceived as an effective leader. He has brought record foreign direct investment to his Indian Ocean country; he attracted more than 9,000 offshore entities, and he has engendered progress in information technology, health care, and telecommunications.

It was natural, therefore, that the 65-year-old prime minister – who is also the leader of the Mauritius Labour Party – would want consolidate his political position and focus on what he has increasingly said in recent weeks would be his new mantra for governance: “Unity, Equality, Modernity.”

Who could quarrel with such a sweeping and benign mantra? But there's more to it than bromides that almost any developing-country leader could adopt without spawning controversy. The subtext of Dr. Ramgoolam's election slogan reflects the ethnic composition of Mauritius, a country of barely 1.3 million people: Hindus are in a majority, followed by Christians, Muslims, and Creoles; Mauritians of French origin are the biggest landowners, sugarcane plantations cover 25 per cent of the island's 2,000 square kilometres, and the Francos — as they are called in Port Louis — own a significant portion of that coveted land.

Political parties tend to reflect this ethnic composition, as does the grumbling and grousing of some communities: Muslims and Creoles legitimately complain that they aren't adequately represented in the country's civil service, let alone government. The French continue to have an economic grip that began when they arrived here nearly 300 years ago; but political power for them ended just prior independence from the British in 1968.

Few politicians in Mauritius are as shrewd as Dr. Ramgoolam. Politics, after all, is in his blood, as is medicine — his late father, Sir Seewoosagur Rangoolam, was also a physician, and was the country's first prime minister and founder. And so in making the election announcement, Navin Ramgoolam demonstrated that he was being both a formidable political player and an emollient political physician.

As a political player, he understood that his Labour Party needed key allies in order to secure victory in the country's 20 constituencies and thereby obtain a second five-year as prime minister of this 42-year-old nation. So he's brought in the Mouvement Socialiste Militant and the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate into his grouping for the elections. “This alliance represents stability at this juncture,” Dr. Ramgoolam said on Wednesday, tacking on generous words about some allies who'd been his opponents in the recent past.

Those words can certainly be interpreted as emollient. Dr. Ramgoolam knows that in order for the country to address its 8 per cent unemployment rate — despite ostensibly being one of Africa's most successful economies, with a GDP of nearly $10 billion — it needs to build new bridges to both Africa and Asia, and to strengthen its economic ties to France, traditionally the biggest trading partner of the only country where the now-extinct dodo bird was sighted by early Dutch settlers.

That bridge building means enhancing the financial-services and insurance sectors. It means serving as a platform for investments in the huge markets of Africa and Asia. It means attracting financial interest from the petrodollar countries of the Middle East. It means streamlining traditional industries such as hospitality, and encouraging new ones such as health tourism. One recent example of Dr. Ramgoolam's bridge building is the new Apollo-Bramwell Centre, an Indo-Mauritian venture that's universally seen as a model for attracting patients from the region and from afar who seek medical care amidst a bucolic environment.

The bridge building also means carving a niche for Mauritius in the knowledge economy of the global commons. There are those who have suggested that the country's location, its healthful climate and its non-ideological foreign policy make it ideal to serve as an incubator for a centre for education concerning strategic communications and for generating fresh ideas and solutions concerning intercultural understanding.

But Dr. Ramgoolam also recognises that his new mantra may well be dismissed as being one of political expediency if he does not deal forthrightly with the politically troubling ethnic divisions that have long characterized Mauritian society. He recognizes that, with the exception of Paul Berenger, a politician of French origin, the other three prime ministers of Mauritius — himself included — have been Hindus. And he recognises that minority ethnic communities cannot be relegated to traditional cultural or socio-economic roles in a country that wishes to accelerate its development in a world of galloping globalisation.

Such recognition hasn't come about through osmosis. Beyond his own intuitiveness, and his own sense of history, Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam is fortunate to have the benefit of canny counsel from people of various communities, including his deputy prime minister, Dr. Rashid Beebeejaun, a Muslim. They have emphasised that taking pre-emptive steps through the creation of wider economic opportunities for all is the best insurance that any leader can buy against social upheaval.

By signing on to this sensibility, Navin Ramgoolam has shown that he is much more than his father's son – he's a leader of rare political enlightenment in a world that's marked far too frequently by the politics of cynicism. He wants to establish a legacy that will far outlive his next administration, and he knows that for that to happen he needs to create afresh the politics of hope in Mauritius.

(Pranay Gupte's next book is on India and the Middle East.)

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