Jean Claude de l’Estrac’s book, Jugnauth-Bérenger: Ennemis Intimes 1982-1995 can be read on several levels. It can be viewed – as perhaps intended – as the history of two men who have had an incredible impact on the political history of this country. It could also help the reader gain a deeper understanding of the major events that have marked Mauritius’s recent political history.
The book opens in the euphoria of the 60-zero victory of the MMM/then-PSM coalition in 1982 and the speech of Anerood Jugnauth, a man who, as the title of the chapter suggests, goes from obscurity to the limelight. Paul Bérenger is later introduced as the man who promises to restore and consolidate democracy. The book is devoted to the love-hate relationship between the two men and the power game which ensues. As the book evolves, we start to know both men through their statements to the press, the reaction of editorialists to their acts and the opinion of those who were involved with them. In this respect, we are offered an almost clinical analysis of their characters, personalities, their relationships to others and their relationship to power. ‘Clinical’ because the author does not offer an opinion directly. He dissects their acts in an almost dispassionate way.
Perhaps the strongest feature of the book is its journalistic style: simple, short sentences, a language that the reader can identify with and mostly the right word in the right place. Not a superfluous word and not one word missing. We thus discover slowly and painstakingly two men who perhaps would never have been friends or even acquaintances in real life – had it not been for their desire for power and the way they saw each other as being a way to grab it. Their thirst for power is however not equal. We discover a Jugnauth prepared to do absolutely anything to be and stay in power. “There is no doubt that with this alliance, I will have the majority,” Jugnauth is quoted as saying by the author, who adds a simple sentence: “The main thing is to win the elections.”
This subtle way of expressing his opinion permeates the whole book. When Jugnauth, for example, talks about a “relaxed” and “constructive opposition” with Prem Nababsing as leader of the opposition, the author’s comment, “The call was heard” is worth more than a whole chapter.
“Jugnauth’s opponents called him out for ‘corruption, the proliferation of drugs and tarnishing the image of Mauritius internationally’. They referred to articles from the international press that describe ‘A Mauritius ravaged by fraud and tarnished by MPs who are drug traffickers.”
As we discover the roles which the actors around the main protagonists played in the political saga of alliances, victory, defeat, scandals, betrayal, we are exposed to the stench of communalism and an atmosphere of hatred and revenge. Anerood Jugnauth talks openly about caste: “You who belong to certain castes...when he [Bérenger and the MMM] wanted to crush your culture, did it matter to them that you were Rajput or Ravived? Everything you have today, your fundamental freedoms, your right to vote, your dignity and your constitution, you owe to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam.”
Perhaps the most interesting – unintended? – reading of the book is made by comparing events and characters in the story to those in today’s reality. It is eerie. Disturbing, even. Too close to the skin.
The two main characters are the same now: a Bérenger still hesitant, looking for the right formula, possibly a Hindu front. A man who criticises with vehemence and conviction those he knows he might have to go to bed with the next day. A provocative man, at times rather light in his decisions. But he is also a man who stands for what is right when it is right.
The Jugnauth that evolves through the book is a man with no scruples. He is uncouth and rude. An autocratic man who uses the police and police methods, besides oppressive laws against anyone who opposes his authority. He also uses the MBC, state funds and resources for his own benefit.
We discover a man with violent and dictatorial tendencies. A climate of terror, violence, hatred and revenge characterised his reign. And he seems to even derive pride from that, “If some unionists want to bring the country to its knees,” he is quoted as saying, “I will have a law voted that will have them hanged if necessary.”
He tries to justify the heavy handedness used in his brutal expulsion of Libyans and the shock tactics of the Special Mobile Force. The author does not accuse him of lying. He subtly says, “The real reason is elsewhere.”
“The author repeatedly talks about a climate of fear promoted by Jugnauth with the support of Harish Boodhoo. He also talks about brutal and aggressive practices and score settling with the Muslims who were suspected of having voted mostly for the MMM.”
Jugnauth comes across as authoritarian and intolerant, ready to use a climate of terror against anyone critical of his actions, accusing them of being opposition agents. He introduced repressive laws “opposed by both the Labour Party, the MMM and all other parties”, such as the Public Order Gathering Act, the Newspaper and Periodicals (Amendment) Act, the Police Riot Unit. He even enacted a law to sentence those who accuse ministers of wrongdoings… rather than the ministers themselves. Editorialist Yvan Martial qualifies this law as “Machiavellian”. “If it were up to me,” Jugnauth says, “I would have laws for hanging voted...If I had been in sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam’s shoes in 1971, Paul Bérenger would have been hanged.” The author repeatedly talks about a climate of fear promoted by Jugnauth with the support of Harish Boodhoo. He also talks about brutal and aggressive practices and score settling with the Muslims who were suspected of having voted mostly for the MMM.
While Jugnauth was terrifying opponents and setting up commissions of inquiry to settle scores with them, he was lax on the proliferation of drugs and soft on his MPs – the Amsterdam Boys and others – who were caught abroad with drugs. His opponents called him out for “corruption, the proliferation of drugs and tarnishing the image of Mauritius internationally”. They referred to articles from the international press that describe “A Mauritius ravaged by fraud and tarnished by MPs who are drug traffickers.”
The author does talk about the ‘economic’ miracle’, which he attributes more to the measures taken by Bérenger. He highlights the vulgar language, which seems to be a long tradition for Jugnauth. To the workers on strike, Jugnauth had this to say, “If they are not happy, they can go and f… themselves.” His own coalition partners are graced with the terms ‘clowns’. De l’Estrac does not miss mentioning the Rs20 currency note showing the effigy of Jugnauth’s wife and the lies surrounding it.
There is nothing in the last few years of Jugnauth’s reign that suggests that anything has changed. The climate of terror, revenge and arbitrary arrests that characterised the past few years, the oppressive laws targeted to either protect cronies or punish opponents as well as the authoritarian style are eerily similar to what is being described in the book. If de l’Estrac were to write another book about the ‘intimate enemies’ today, there would be very little work to do. From a partial speaker suspending members of the opposition and the nomination of dubious cronies and ex-convicts to positions of responsibility, to the involvement of MSM members in drugs and changing the constitution without the consent of the population, and installing a climate of terror against opponents through a partisan police force, little has changed. As for the flowery language, there is an even wider selection now. In fact, the author could easily write another book covering the next few years.
The book is rigorous, based on the author’s own recollections, supported by newspaper articles, Hansard and interviews with the political players at the time. A legitimate question when writing about a period of history where you were and still are an actor is whether the events are not likely to be related in a biased way. De l’Estrac does candidly talk about bad decisions he took – such as recommending Raj Dayal as police commissioner – his own defeats, misjudgements, the criticism of his opponents etc. He cuts himself little slack when it comes to that. Naturally, he writes from his own perspective. The reader does not have to agree with his view of the events as he saw them. Everything he puts forward, however, is supported by other sources.
Though we are offered a lot of insight into the recent history of Mauritius, the narrator describes few events that we did not already know. Yet, he manages to keep the suspense from beginning to end. The book is a page turner.
The bonus is that it is not only about recent history. It is about today too and possibly tomorrow. Three for the price of one!