Pranay Gupte

The challenge of governance is going to be to ensure that the fragile social fabric is not shredded

For an island-nation of barely 1.3 million people who live on a speck of verdant but craggy territory in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is more riven by the politics of communalism than one might expect in a tiny democracy. Last week's parliamentary election showed that the challenge of governance is going to be to ensure that the fragile social fabric is not shredded.

That question will dominate the new — and second consecutive — five-year term of Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam, who led a three-party alliance to win 41 of Parliament's 60 seats. And the question, in turn, prompts another one that is widely whispered, if not openly discussed, in Mauritius: Will Mr. Ramgoolam finally step out of the shadow of his late father, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the founder of this 42-year-old polity?

Sir Seewoosagur is a national legend; like him, his son is a physician by training — Navin Ramgoolam also possesses a law degree. There's a bronze statue of Sir Seewoosagur on the promenade of the capital city of Port Louis that looks straight down a tree-lined avenue toward a statue of Queen Victoria, whose back is to Parliament.

British laws prevail

The British colonialists may have left two decades ago, but their laws and etiquettes prevail, as does the Napoleonic Code — a reminder of the heavy French influence in Mauritius where the administrative language is English but most people speak French.

Legendary figures are a hard act to follow, let alone emulate, particularly if they happen to be one's father. Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam is still a relatively young man — barely 63 years old — and it's quite possible that he still has a long political career ahead of him, not the least because no clear-cut potential successor has emerged in his Mauritius Labour Party.

But if the Prime Minister's personal situation as a son of a national legend is not to be envied, still less enviable is the daunting task of forming a government and reforming national policies that more fairly reflect the country's ethnic composition: nearly half of the population is Hindu, with the rest comprising of Creoles, Christians, Muslims, and whites of French descent who are known here as Francos.

And while there's a veneer of social civility in Mauritius — everybody is polite to everybody, except during political campaigns — one senses a strong undercurrent of communalism. At the end of the day, it's really all about how economics plays out here — a fact of life that can seem often bewildering to a visiting journalist, engendering questions about the seeming outrageousness of political promises and of the uncertain prospects of social and national unity, no matter what politicians aver during elections.

That's because the Francos and the Creoles never fully accepted independence. Freedom from the British meant the inevitability of dominance in government and the bureaucracy by the largest social grouping, the Hindus. And even among the Hindus, there are divisions: the Vaishyas are the ones who generally hold the reins of governmental power; the Tamils and the Telugus are the ones who manage finance. The Francos are the biggest owners of Mauritius' vast sugarcane plantations; whites also control major banking and insurance institutions, and they influence some of the big advertising and marketing companies. The market value of publicly traded companies is just about $6 billion.

Moreover, people of Indian origin don't seem too keen to get into large-scale entrepreneurship, displaying a caution that's perhaps hard-wired in them; Muslims generally are still small traders. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Rashid Beebeejaun groused to The Hindu on Friday that Indian companies seem unwilling to participate more aggressively in such potentially promising sectors as infrastructure, renewable energy, shipping, sewage treatment, and computer sciences.

The economic functions of this country's ethnic and social classes, of course, also underscore the fact that the market in Mauritius is very small indeed, which perhaps accounts for the fact that there is little local manufacturing of consequence here, and that imports constitute more than a fifth of the GDP of nearly $9 billion. And even though the per capita income is $7,000, unemployment is nearly 8 per cent — an unacceptably high figure in view of Mauritius' high literacy and youthful demography.

If this country is to prosper, Mauritius will also have to be more than a conduit for other people's money. While Mauritius provides nearly $12 billion annually in foreign direct investment to India — making it India's largest supplier of FDI — that money is not local but belongs sometimes to questionable sources who route their cash through this country on account of its liberal tax policies.

Beyond routing FDI, Mauritius can be a platform for high-tech, and for re-export zones. China has recognised this, and is building industrial parks, and a new airport. Beijing's idea seems to be to use Mauritius as a launch pad for re-exporting consumer and other goods to Africa and Europe. With such economic aspirations, there will inevitably be political ambitions — something that must surely worry India's leaders.

The worry for Prime Minister Ramgoolam at the moment, of course, consists of distributing the spoils of victory among the Alliance de l'Avenir, consisting of his own Labour Party, and its allies, Militant Socialist Movement, and the Mauritian Social Democrat Party; the latter two had been frequent opponents of Mr. Ramgoolam. The man who's arguably the country's most charismatic politician, Paul Berenger, a former Prime Minister who leads the leftist Mauritian Militant Movement, will be leading the opposition, having won just 18 seats. (An Islamist candidate won one seat.) No friend of Mr. Ramgoolam, the 65-year-old Mr. Berenger is certain to keep needling his nemesis.

But the larger worry for the Prime Minister will be how to project his own leadership beyond the constraints of local ethnic politics. Will he be able to capitalise on the country's traditional non-ideological foreign policy and nonpartisanship in a technology-driven post-globalisation age?

If not, Navin Ramgoolam can look forward to a nice bronze statue after political retirement, perhaps placed next to that of his venerated father, but not much else — a statue that will still be in Sir Seewoosagur's shadow, physically and metaphorically.