Chetan Ramchurn: “The Labour Party is now a truly national party with all components of the population represented”

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Following the general election last week, Weekly speaks to Chetan Ramchurn, citizen and entrepreneur, to ask his opinion about the run up to the election and its outcome. He discusses why he thinks the Alliance Morisien won and what he thinks will be the future of the Labour Party and the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM).

What are your feelings as the electoral process has drawn to an end?
I expected the short duration of the campaign to heighten its intensity. As is customary, both sides took jabs at each other, this time with much more hits under the belt than before. It was often dirty and hollow. None of the sides swayed a majority of voters but that is to be expected from a three-cornered fight. 

Apart from the campaign, how do you interpret the results?
One way of interpreting things is that six out of 10 people did not vote for the government, seven did not choose the Mauritius Labour Party  (MLP) and eight rejected the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM). No new personality or movement emerged with many of the voters drowned in the maelstrom of promises, attacks and proposals. It was impossible to break through the noise. 

You must admit, though, that a Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM) saddled with so many scandals raising its head above water is a great achievement. Don’t you think?
It is. They cunningly shed many of those members that were unpalatable to the population. This strategy fitted perfectly with the story that has been sold to the population; Pravind Jugnauth is not a bad prime minister who is unfortunately surrounded by incompetent figures. An upgraded personnel and a severely wounded opponent made the pitch for incumbency stronger and contributed to the Alliance Morisien’s win.

In an interview to Weekly in September 2019, you expressed the view that one way to change the narrative would be to “oppose the artificiality of this regime with something more authentic with real measures to uplift the population.” Was that done?
No! Instead, the response was greater artificiality. Photo ops countering photo ops. The MSM had a first mover advantage in one of the chief battlegrounds:  an increase in old age pension. That the MMM and the MLP had to outbid the same was a win for the MSM.  The Art of War is timeless. “Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.” 

There is normally a palpable euphoria after the results are out as was the case in 2014 after Lepep threw the MMM/Labour alliance out. Are you feeling the same euphoria now?
2014 was a huge upset with two of the biggest parties falling. People vehemently rejected the idea of a second republic and there was the great confusion over who would be truly wielding power. The upset was celebrated in befitting fashion with the MSM chosen as a weapon by the electorate to sanction the MMM and the MLP. The last five years have been marked by a high number of scandals and the mushrooming of several onerous projects. The minimum wage, despite being unplanned and hurtful to many Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), is a progressive move as is the negative income tax. These were popular measures. For many of those who voted for the MSM, the progress achieved was worth another run. For those who voted against, the perceived mismanagement and corruption, the concentration of power in a clique was the clarion call for change.

The result of the election led to a blame game between voters. Justified, in your opinion?
We should not go for a simplistic analysis of the results and cast the blame on those who voted for continuity.  Instead, we should understand why people voted the way they did. The aim of politics should be to unite. People from urban and rural areas want the same thing: good living conditions and progress for their family and the country.  The MSM has worked around casting Ramgoolam as the bandit and at some point in the last few months, he admitted being one. It was an attempt to thwart Jugnauth’s darts but it might have played against him. He was honest enough to admit that he is not a saint. No one is but the MSM has worked hard around casting young Jugnauth as one. That image is likely to be shattered in the future.

There are allegations of dishonest means being used to rig the election. How far do you agree with this?
There have always been dishonest means used in elections. The resources used are well above prescribed levels. Our Electoral Supervisory Commission is crippled and is not actively involved in monitoring the campaign. I have not experienced same first hand but some of my friends have had issues with their names not in the voting lists. It has happened in the past as well but it seems to be more acute this time around.  An investigation into same would help clear the doubts that some people might have. 

Very few political observers predicted a victory for the MSM. Did you?
It was clear the MSM had an advantage over the others. The hype created around Pravind with four major events (the Island Games, the budget, the visit of the pope and the soft launch of the tramway) since January 2019 has been used to good effect. They have been campaigning since 2014 and had completely annihilated Ramgoolam’s reputation. Added to that they have poached some of the more visible former members of the MMM, leaving it in tatters. In the last interview to this publication, I averred that, “The opposition parties can sit and watch and ultimately lose. Or they can puncture the MSM’s storytelling and expose the manipulations.”Not only did they sit and watch but they aped some of the measures of the MSM. Could they have shifted the battleground to another area? Yes, but they did not or chose not to.

What are the reasons behind the defeat of the Labour Party and the MMM in your opinion?
Sun Tzu believed that “All warfare is based on deception”. Image can be everything. Even cosmetic changes can make the difference. The MMM’s front bench was made up of people that we have seen for way too long. The MLP chose to keep many of the candidates that had lost in 2014. In short, there was not a compelling enough attempt to portray change on their behalf. Ramgoolam’s Plaine Verte speech was doctored to cast him in a negative light. Do I believe that it is the sole reason of his defeat? No, but it has contributed to it with those close to the MSM were quick to condemn him. The mudslinging against him dates to pre-2014 and his many attempts to get rid of this image were in vain. That those in power chose to indulge in character assassination makes perfect sense from a strategic point of view. Sun Tzu again states that “in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.” Hurting Ramgoolam was a sure way to victory for them. 

The electorate has decided to give a plebiscite to most of the turncoats. Is that a setback in our politics?
We should probably distinguish between those who were given tickets by the MMM in recent months and those who chose to ally themselves with the MSM overnight. For the purpose of clarity, Steven Obeegadoo was driven out of the MMM by its leadership. He had been humiliated time and again because he called for an aggiornamento to salvage the MMM. Kavi Ramano left in 2015 and became one of the founding members of the Mouvement Patriotique in 2015. If I remember correctly, he was disgusted with the way things were run in the MMM and the absence of meritocracy. I would find it hard to reconcile the militant philosophy and the MSM one. Both seem to have the same issue with Obeegadoo choosing to stay with the Plateforme Militante and Ramano not joining the MSM as of yet. We will see to what extent they manage to keep their militan identity while working next to the Jugnauths.

The MMM registered a worse score than in 2014, though admittedly, it was the only party not in an alliance. What is the reason for such a dismal performance?
Twelve of its candidates were elected in 2014. In 2019, it has managed to get nine of them returned. It chose to go alone and seemed to rekindle the passion of yesteryears in former supporters. Many in the media like the MMM for its glorious past and have overhyped it without bothering to question them about their plans for the country. What does the MMM stand for today? If it is about managing the country, even the MSM can do that. They have to aim higher and be explicit about their plans for Mauritius.

So what is the future of the party in your opinion?
It has recruited some promising young blood but will have to take the time to nurture them and let their voices be heard. Reducing them to mere echoes would be counterproductive and preserve the status quo within the party. It has to stop blaming the system. The First-Past-The-Post system has flaws but it has guaranteed us stability.

The Labour Party seems to have become a party of minorities with more Muslims and members of the General Population than Hindus. Is it taking a new orientation or is this a temporary setback?
Another way of reading that would be to say that the Labour Party is a truly national party with all components of the population represented. It seems to have lost the trust of many because of the image of its leader and the fielding of candidates that were way past their sell-by dates. Still, it has already done better than in 2014. Progress for the masses is in the DNA of the party but since 2005 and the free transport measure, it has not achieved that aim. It has to look within and come back with bolder proposals. That the MSM outflanked it during the last mandate is a cause for concern.

What is the future of the MLP in your opinion?
It will have to weather the present storm and work towards the emergence of a new leader. It has a rich history and the governing alliance will be overconfident and is likely to make mistakes. It will rise eventually. It has been a cyclic switch between the MLP and the MSM. Once one is weakened, the other takes over.

A petition is being circulated to declare the election null and void. Did you sign it? What will be the final aim?
No, I did not. It is not that I have blind trust in our institutions. I do not for there are a number of political nominees that pollute them. Still, I have not witnessed any wrongdoing first hand. There are rumours that specific families with an allegiance to the Labour Party or the MMM have been left off voting lists.  Our institutions, like Caesar's wife, must be above suspicion. They would do well to clear any doubts people might have raised about them.

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