“You cannot just create a prime minister on a television screen by drumming it into people every day”

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With Nomination Day at the weekend seeing 40 candidates being fielded for the by-election in constituency No. 18, Weekly speaks to Ram Seegobin of Lalit to find out why his party is not taking part and his analysis of the political situation as a whole. His views are candid, refreshing and uncompromising.

Nomination Day is gone and no candidate has been fielded for ‘Lalit’. Is that a reflection on the stakes on this by-election?

In Lalit, we do not always field candidates for every election. First, we meet and discuss what is at stake, what will the campaign be about and if we think it’s worthwhile to advance our political programme, then we field our candidate. Otherwise, we don’t participate in the campaign.

But what does that mean for the Quatre Bornes elector who is going to the polls on December 17?

What does it mean for the Quatre Bornes elector to choose between five or six opposition parties?

Do you mean it’s a meaningless election?

A bit, yes. In fact, there are none of the important political issues facing Mauritius on the agenda. All that is being decided is how many votes each party can garner – by hook or by crook – to strengthen their bargaining power in the coming battle for alliances before the general election. It is a macho fight. To make matters worse, with the absence of the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM), which cannot face an electoral challenge with all its terrible problems, the fight is amongst only opposition parties! So if we fielded a candidate and we had to go criticise and attack other people in the election, that would mean that we are not just going to tear apart the other opposition parties. Ultimately, that’s also going to be to the benefit of the government.

And yet you put out a paper on your website criticising every party under the sun that is participating in the election. So how is that different?

One of the reasons we put out this document was that at some stage there were messages sent for either a single opposition party, or a single left opposition party. So we had to explain why we could not collaborate with any of the opposition parties.

Couldn’t you have at least, tactically, collaborated with other leftist parties?

Which ones?

Let’s say Jack Bizlall’s party or Rezistans ek Alternativ (ReA) who have been asking you to join them.

ReA still have to explain why they left Lalit. I mean a group that leaves your party, unless they explain why they left, you cannot work with them. As for Bizlall, our disagreement is at two levels. At one level, he does not believe in political parties and he does not have one. He has an organisation that is resurrected just before an election. It can be called Muvman Premiye Mai, it can be called anything. He says he does not agree with a political party, so how can we work with him? Also for a number of years now, we have had quite a serious difference with Bizlall because he made an unwarranted attack on women in Lalit. Everybody knows about it because we wrote to let everybody know about it, and then people come and ask why we won’t work with him? He is classed in that same group as all the other international predators. So we certainly can’t work with him. Besides, if he does not have a party, he does not have a programme, do we have to accept that he’s ‘left’ just because he says he is ‘left’? What makes you think that he is ‘left’?

Well at least you could have convinced the other leftist parties for a common candidate?

That’s the same thing. What we are talking about is a common platform. ReA has actually publically announced that they are not against capitalism. I can understand why; they want to be a centre-left, ordinary party to replace the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM). We are not going to dilute our socialist programme to join with a party that says that they are not against the system.

Where would your electorate go? What is your watch word?

We are asking people to go to the polling station on 17 December and to cast a “blank vote”. This kind of vote can be a vital political action. The method we propose it to put one big cross on the whole ballot paper, corner to corner, signifying none of the 40 candidates.

Isn’t there one candidate who is not as bad as the others?

No. Lalit rejects the self-proclaimed pro-capitalist parties: Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD), Labour, MMM, Mouvement Patriotique (MP), Reform Party, ReA. We reject any candidate who has gone on a US embassy-sponsored tour (Kugan Parapen (ReA), Tania Diolle (MP)), especially when Mauritius is under US military occupation. And while the Les Verts candidate speaks to their working class programme, the problem with Sylvio Michel’s party is that it allies with all the worst bourgeois parties: the PMSD, Labour, MSM and MMM. We reject any candidate who has a history of publicly exposed violent anti-woman behaviour (Jack Bizlall). None of the new parties or even independent candidates has the credibility necessary for a mo-dord to vote for them.

How do you interpret the fact that the MSM has not fielded a candidate? Isn’t it running away from the by-election?

I think they are running away, but at the same time, it’s in their political interest not to field a candidate and sit back and watch everybody else tear one another apart. They have made it impossible to have any kind of concerted opposition. Even Labour and the PMSD don’t seem to be getting on and they are natural partners. There was some hint of a rapprochement between the MMM and Alan Ganoo’s MP. That’s gone. There was some kind of rapprochement between Roshi Bhadain and the PMSD. That’s gone too. So it’s very much to the government’s advantage not to put up a candidate because the opposition will not have a target. And if you are contesting an election without a target, then you look a little stupid. People will ask the MMM, why criticise Arvin Boolell? He’s in the opposition, isn’t he? And vice versa. People will ask that and they will eventually realise that this election will not decide anything. It may decide a certain rapport de force between the opposition parties, but that has little to do with alliance formation. Look at the last election: who was the Mouvement Liberater (ML)? Just a group of people in Rose Hill around Ivan Collendavelloo and now they are in government. People say that this by-election might allow the parties to establish a base in terms of support for the next election. I don’t see that.

Are you saying that in terms of strength, the balance between the parties will remain the same?

In terms of alliances, yes. The only difference might be that Bhadain might come out the loser. If he does not do well, then his whole strategy will have fallen through.

Are the stakes high only for Bhadain?

For Ganoo as well. It’s the MP’s first election and first election outside No. 14. If Ganoo does not have much of a base, he will get pushed back in no.14.

When Bhadain resigned, he expected that the other parties would not put up candidates and get behind him. He even expressed surprise when they fielded their own candidates…

It was naïve of him to think that the MMM, Labour and PMSD would all sit back and support him. It’s naïve and also quite indicative of the egocentric nature of Bhadain to think that all of them would line up behind him. It’s just silly.

What do they stand to gain from one more seat in parliament?

You are right, it’s only one seat. For the MMM it might be one step closer to recovering the leader of the opposition seat. All they would need is another PMSD MP to get locked up for some case or the other. Also the MMM’s attitude towards this by-election is weird: they have a member active for years in this constituency, then a by-election comes and they announce somebody else. And then announce that for the general election, that person would not be a candidate. You can see this is not very serious.

The choice was dictated by the fact that they wanted to field a woman candidate. Is that not laudable?

You cannot artificially push the gender issue.

Since you brought up the gender issue, what do you make of women in politics, given the women in the National Assembly?

You are quite right in saying women in politics, but then you quickly go on to parliament. There is far more to politics than sitting in parliament. I think women should be encouraged to be politically active and not just before an election. That’s why we criticise the MMM’s choice. Who had heard of Nita Juddoo before? Yes we need more women in politics, but not just as candidates and not just as members of parliament. Otherwise, you will get Mrs. Boygah and just more of the same. Whereas in Lalit, all our structures are half women. If you see us putting up posters, half of us are women… because the party is half women. So, when an election comes along, we have no trouble at all. We don’t have to go and look for women. This is what we want other parties to do – encourage women to be politically active in the ordinary bread-and-butter things of politics as well and all the things that we consider to be political activities. I don’t want to personalise the debate but look recently at the two women who lost the last election – Sheila Bunwaree and Roshni Mooneeram, both just months before the election set up parties, got a few thousand votes, were not elected and lost interest. Bunwaree, before she set up her own party, joined ML and became president! What kind of participation is that? You join a party and, a week later, you are its president and then the next week resign? Then she set up her own party and as she could not be elected in a small party, she joined the MMM! How serious is that?

Don’t you believe in the symbolism of having women in positions of power? Look at the speaker and the president. What does that tell us?

(Laughs heartily) Fantastic examples! Both of them should have been symbols of something else. I think the president has somehow misjudged the post of president. She’s got herself involved in things that she should have kept well away from like Álvaro Sobrinho, Planet Earth Institute, L’Oréal… How can a head of state become involved in an NGO that’s registered in London? Maybe she misjudged because she was chosen just because she was a woman, not for her ideas. So she thinks that as a woman she can do anything she wants, represent L’Oréal or Planet Earth Institute or be chummy with Sobrinho. This is not serious at all. As for the speaker, she has had difficulty becoming an independent speaker. She is still stuck in her position not as just an MSM member but as part of the Jugnauth clique as well. She has never been able to get away with that. And you see her presiding in parliament. It’s kind of pathetic. She looks more like a pre-primary schoolteacher, she screeches all the time and does not know how to defuse conflict which is the main role of the speaker. There will always be conflict between the government and the opposition. If there isn’t, we are in trouble, so there is conflict. The speaker has to know how to defuse that with humour, wit, patience and impartiality. Maya Hanoomanjee cannot do that. Last week, for example, Pravind Jugnauth and Paul Bérenger were shouting across reikin moustass, limposte. True, that does not get us very far. But the way that the speaker intervenes makes it worse every time.

Do you agree with the ‘limposte’ accusation, though?

Only to some extent. It’s not such a great constitutional issue; it’s a political one. Constitutionally, you cannot stop a prime minister from resigning and you cannot stop parliament from choosing who can be the next PM who commands a majority. Politically, however, they should pay a price for what they did at the next election. The electorate did not vote for Pravind Jugnauth to be prime minister.

Now that he is, how has he fared?

He is the one person in the House who does not have any convictions about anything. All his years in the House, he has never expressed his convictions. He has never expressed his political project. He started his legal career as an adviser to parastatals when his father was in power. So he did not have to prove himself. Anerood Jugnauth, Paul Bérenger and Navin Ramgoolam have been through that and you know where they stand, but not him. You cannot just create a prime minister on a television screen by drumming it into people every day. And then having Étienne Sinatambou come and defend the government every week. This is the worst thing you can do. He is so unsympathetic, he pisses off everybody, he is arrogant, the way he presents things is completely wrong. If I were in government, I would not want Sinatambou to defend me! All that is doing more harm than good, though they don’t see it yet.

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