Against the backdrop of the presentation of the budget and the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary debates that followed, we speak to Labour MP Ritish Ramphul about his take on the measures taken as well as the way the opposition is heading.
Now that the budget has been presented, it would seem that a large chunk of the population is happy with the measures taken. Except perhaps the opposition. Can’t you be happy when the population is happy?
We would be happy if the measures taken in the budget actually and genuinely addressed the concerns of the people. The rupee has depreciated tremendously and inflation has sky-rocketed. It was at 2.3 in 2019. Today, it is at 11%. So the money that people seem happy about today will evaporate by tomorrow. The purchasing power has been going down since last year. Government has waited until now to give peanuts to those in need. It’s too little too late.
Do you mean the government should have given more?
Yes but the main issue is where the money is coming from. It’s not coming from growth and productivity. It is coming from loans.
The government has also given money for the Wage Assistance Scheme and assistance to the tourism sector…
But where did that money come from? If you look at the figures in the annex of the budget, Rs8.3 billion came from the African Development Bank and Rs13.8 from the Agence Française de Développement. That’s over Rs22 billion! For 10 and 15 years respectively, we have to pay Rs74 million for one Rs162 million for the other every year just in interest. Who is going to pay those interests and pay back those loans? Government? From growth? From productivity? No! It is the people of this country, their children and grandchildren who will have to pay the loans and interest!
You must admit though that the budget created a feel-good factor, didn’t it?
It did create a feel-good factor because that was the intention behind the measures announced. I don’t know whether we should expect a general or a municipal election but we are no longer in the 1960s. People are now educated; that is why the Labour Party invested in free education of our population. So that they can see through what the government is doing. If Government is that generous, why didn’t they distribute the donations they got from friendly countries to the population last year? They also got nearly Rs300 billion in taxes, excise duties and income tax. Why didn’t the population benefit from that?
Didn’t part of that money go in the Wage Assistance Scheme?
No! On the WAS, they spent only Rs28.6 billion and that came from loans. But over and above this, they took Rs158 billion, including the money taken from the Mauritius Investment Corporation (MIC), from the reserves of the Bank of Mauritius. All these amounts were amassed by the minister of finance.
And what’s wrong with that?
What is wrong is that they haven’t been producing anything in return or increasing growth or investing and getting money out of those investments. We have been borrowing and waiting for friendly countries to gift us some money and depleting our Bank reserves.
But if the money is there, why can’t we use it in hard times?
The money from the reserves of the Bank of Mauritius is not there to be spent. It is there to be used for imports and prevent the depreciation of the rupee. Government has depleted those reserves. Everyone is predicting tough times ahead. We don’t know what is waiting for us. And they deplete or our savings?!
Why is everybody happy, then?
Everybody is not happy! If you look at the report of the International Monetary Fund, the IMF has already said that the money taken from the Bank of Mauritius should be returned to the Bank of Mauritius; that taking money from the Bank and placing it in the MIC is not proper procedure. It should go back to the Bank.
But the minister of finance says he doesn’t worry too much about what the IMF and the World Bank say…
Because he won’t be there after the next election! That’s why. He doesn’t care.
Are you suggesting that the opposition galimatia is going to drive this government out?
We must wait. We don’t know that the opposition is going to be as galimatia as you are saying. We haven’t yet said what our strategy is going to be.
“frankly, what is important for me is that the labour party comes back to power, raises the standards and brings back some justice and ethics to this country''
No, we don’t yet know what your strategy is or if you have one. However, we can see a scattered opposition and small parties sprouting out every now and then. All this will affect the votes of the opposition, won’t it?
This is a democratic country. You can’t prevent small parties from getting involved. Everyone has their idea of how the country should be governed. But if you look at the way people vote in Mauritius, they place their trust in the traditional parties.
But the traditional parties aren’t pulling their act together, are they?
Everyone agrees that whatever configuration there will be, the Labour Party is going to lead that alliance. We can’t have four or six leaders. There should be one leader and that is someone who has the experience and ability to lead the opposition parties.
And who is that person?
There is only one: Dr Navin Ramgoolam. He has been prime minister in the past and he is the only one who has the ability to take the country out of the dark hole it is in today. He has done it in the past.
The past was easy, wasn’t it?
No Covid, no war in Ukraine, no nothing… People tend to forget the 2008 financial crisis, the energy crisis, the chikungunya…People didn’t feel the effects of those crises at the time because of the decisions taken by the Navin Ramgoolam government with Rama Sithanen as minister of finance. People should realise that in tough times, this man managed to steer the country in the right direction.
“Do you want a government that denies you salary compensation for three years and then gives you Rs1,000 or an increase in the pension on the eve of an election while denying your child the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with the children of those who are politically connected?''
Isn’t Navin Ramgoolam’s leadership contested within the party itself?
No! We have had the annual congress and he was elected as leader again. Everyone was present there and everyone gave their blessing to the election of Navin Ramgoolam as leader of the party. But true it is, there is a call from the younger generation of the party for the renewal of the image of the party. Steps and decisions should be taken in that direction to meet the demands of the younger generation.
What does the young generation exactly want?
They want to see young politicians who should share their views and concerns and who can lead the country together with Navin in the direction that they wish.
And what exactly is that direction?
They can see the number of corruption cases, waste of public funds, drugs, police torture, nepotism…They want a change of this way of governing.
“the labour party is a national party where everyone is represented and no one is discriminated against. What this government is doing right now in terms of dividing the people on ethnic lines and polarising the country is very dangerous. We need to put an end to that.''
Didn’t all these ills exist when your party was in power?
There was some abuse but never to this extent, no way! We have to fair. The level of corruption and abuse of power we are going through under this government is unprecedented! Never seen before, never will be!
What is the relationship you have with the other opposition parties?
We have a working arrangement at the level of parliament.
Outside, we don’t have any such arrangement. My personal opinion is that there has to be a reunification of the opposition parties. That will probably come if the municipal or general elections are near.
All of them?
I mean, how would an alliance work with l’Espoir, for example, with so many leaders, so many expectations, so many ambitions…?
I am not saying l’Espoir. In the Labour Party, we have a vision, an objective, a set of principles that we will never give up and a philosophy that is known. We are working on a manifesto and if others, in l’Espoir, agree on it, we are open to them.
Does that mean that there will be no discussions with l’Espoir as an alliance and that discussions will rather be with individual parties?
Exactly! We will be in discussion with parties who embrace our vision and philosophy and agree on our manifesto.
Is that the official line of your party or your own opinion?
It is the line of the Labour Party. I don’t see the population accepting an alliance with so many leaders each with their own agenda, their own way of doing politics and governing the country. I don’t think such an alliance will get very far.
So which parties will you be working with?
That is for the leaders to decide. What I know is that we are not interested in an alliance with l’Espoir as an alliance.
What about the after-Navin Ramgoolam?
There are many ambitions, some expressed, others repressed, there were statements made to the effect that Ramgoolam would share the leadership with someone else from the party etc., where are we in that power share? I don’t know. What I do know is that right now, there is no issue with Navin Ramgoolam’s leadership. Everyone agrees he will lead us into the next general election and that those who embrace the vision we have will join us in our efforts to throw this government out of power.
What about your own ambitions?
You know, frankly, what is important for me is that the Labour Party comes back to power, raises the standards and brings back some justice and ethics to this country. More importantly, the Labour Party is a national party where everyone is represented and no one is discriminated against. What this government is doing right now in terms of dividing the people on ethnic lines and polarising the country is very dangerous. We need to put an end to that. Sadly, with the restrictions imposed by the government, we are unable to have meetings and resume our political activities. So we are waiting for them to lift the sanitary restrictions.
What if they don’t?
Then we will take them to court.On what grounds? The government can say that the restrictions are meant to protect the people. No, restrictions have to be proportionate to the health situation. You saw the judgment given by the Supreme Court of India, which said that whatever restrictions you are taking have to reflect the health situation and level of danger in the country. Now once the restrictions have been lifted, we will start our activities again like going to the towns and villages and explaining to the people our strategy, what we have to offer etc.
Do you genuinely think voters are interested in the strategy, manifesto, vision for the country…or are they interested in the leader and in how much money they are getting?
There are several types of electors. There are those who are faithful to the party no matter what, there are those who will look at what they are getting and there are many more who look at the long-term interests of the country and who realise that one or two thousand rupees will not help when the country is bankrupt. We will be talking to those who want the country to produce more and spend less so that their money can buy them as much as it did in the past. We will be meeting those who have had enough of corruption and nepotism and would like their sons and daughters to get jobs when they deserve them and not spend their time going for interviews only to find out cronies and their children get all the jobs. We are interested in those who know that lack of meritocracy as practised by this government will lead the country to bankruptcy.
Is that what people are interested in?
Would you be interested in Rs1,000 or in the long term future of your child?
My opinion doesn’t matter. It’s those who vote for an increase in pension and a few hundred rupees more that you should be asking.
OK. I am asking them: Do you want a government that denies you salary compensation for three years and then gives you Rs1,000 or an increase in the pension on the eve of an election while denying your child the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with the children of those who are politically connected? Are you interested in Rs1,000 more in a bankrupt country that is taking huge debts, spending without counting and forcing your own children to pay back? You know, in the past, we did increase the old-age pension but we didn’t do it on the eve of an election. We did it after the election and we first worked for the money we gave. What do people want? A responsible government that works for the money before sharing it or a government that disrespects seniors by abusing their vote?
And what is your answer?
People are waiting for us to propose solutions to their urgent problems. The Labour Party has the solutions. It has always had them and it has the experience and sincerity to implement them.