KELVIN SUDDASON *

In his keynote address, the ‘Discours-Programme’, to the National Assembly and to the nation on Friday, the President of the Republic of Mauritius, Prithvirajsing Roopun, set the tone for the government’s 2020-2024 mandate. As one of those youths with “aspirations” and whose voices of concern the President and government has heard, I felt compelled to ensure that my concerns about the President’s performance be also heard, both about its form and substance.

The Form of the Performance

In contemporary societies, political speeches are increasingly judged by the form of the performance. This relates to how the speech is performed. Orators employ three types of arguments to convince audiences; ethospathos, and logos – i.e. credibility as a speaker, use of emotions, and use of logic respectively. Since Aristotle’s theory of persuasion, ethos has been deemed the deciding factor in whether or not an oration would garner success.

It is thus important to analyse the President’s ethos to contextualise his speech. Someone’s ethos transpires through posture and hand gestures, gazes and stares, delivery, and appearance. As a postgraduate student in political persuasion – not that anyone requires a degree to notice any of these –, I noted that i) hand gestures were non-existent except for turning pages (very slowly for that matter); ii) eye movements were jerky, almost anxious and evasive; iii) the delivery was excruciatingly monotonous, slow, with very little pitch changes, and with only one hint of emotion (a smile at the mention of the setting up of a code of conduct for members of Parliament); finally, iv) the President was dressed in the blandest shade of grey, coupled with a matching grey tie and a white shirt, almost as if he did not want to stand out.

All of these point to someone still unable to shoulder the communicative responsibilities of a head of state. From an academic and performance analyst perspective, the form of the performance was resoundingly poor, morphing such an important media event into a bland and boring reading session.

Unfortunately mainstream media barely engages with the form of political performances. It was disheartening that post-speech discussions on livestreamed radio shows revolved around the technicalities of economic and social measures, turning a blind eye to this crucial element of speech analysis.

Let me now take on those substantive ‘technicalities’ with a non-mainstream media, youth perspective.

The Substance of the Performance

The ‘Discours-Programme’, entitled Towards an Inclusive, High Income and Green Mauritius, Forging Ahead Together, aims to draw a broad roadmap for the next four years of the country. It included measures (some commendable, some plain, and others perplexing) on a wide range of social aspects, from the fight against poverty, the revamping of the health sector, the boost to public infrastructure, to the re-engineering of tourism, to mention only the most salient and newsworthy ones.

As a 27-year old, the lack of substantial mention of the youth in the speech reverberated loud and clear: the bold, well-appreciated and much-needed renewal and rejuvenation of ‘old-school’ politicians in favour of fresh faces, led by Pravind Jugnauth for the 2019 General Election, seems merely (and sadly) cosmetic rather than intrinsic.

Unpacking the President’s speech allows one to conclude that, after all, when it comes to the inclusion of the youth into political life, it is business as usual. In other words, priorities have remained unchanged: government still panders to itself and to the elderly, its most cherished voter group.

The President opens with “On 7th November 2019, the population gave a clear mandate to the Prime Minister and his team,” thereby pursuing the government’s relentless attempts at manufacturing legitimacy since the election result. While the MSM-ML alliance won a solid majority of 38 seats of the total 60 at stake in Mauritian constituencies, political commentators were quick to point out that the MSM-ML only garnered a democratically-worrisome 37% share of all votes, thus questioning the government’s plebiscitary legitimacy.

The President follows with celebratory rhetoric, praising government for its “achievements accomplished so far”, “impressive performance”, and unprecedented efforts at combatting drugs, associating government with words like “leadership”, “courage”, and “determination”.

The self-praising gives way to the first – hence, most prominent – item on the agenda: the elderly. The President says,

“Our elderly are our source of inspiration and their contribution to the development of our country is invaluable. They deserve all our support in order to enjoy a good quality of life. The old age pension, the basic widow’s pension and the basic invalid pension have all been increased to Rs.9,000 since December 2019. Additionally, Government will honour its pledge to the population to bring the basic retirement pension to Rs.13,500 by 2024. Government will spare no effort to continuously provide better facilities to our elderly.”

The language is resolutely strong and celebratory, a clear example of the praise rhetoric. The elderly are described as “our source of inspiration” with “invaluable” contribution made and thus deserving of “all our support”. The President drives the point home, saying that “no efforts” will be spared to enhance their quality of life.

The President then monotonously tackles every other topic, moving on to Poverty, Education, Health, Sports, Economy and Labour for a slightly over an hour.

Within that hour, the President mentioned in passing the “youth” only seven times, with one being a plain political cliché like “Today’s youth will be the game changers in the economy of the future. The language associated to the youth is perennial political niceties, describing the youth as one with “aspirations” and “expectations” for “higher standards of living”. While many will applaud the fact that the “Government will put a special focus on supporting youth-led start-ups,” and that “schemes will be set up to encourage the employment of young people in both the public and private sectors,” a mere look at previous budgets and keynote addresses will serve to reveal that these measures are but recycled and re-used futile and cosmetic band aids. Is this what the government thinks Circular Economy is?

The only tangible measure at including the youth in national decision-making comes more than 40 minutes into his speech, with about two-thirds of the speech completed. The President says,

Government has heard the voice of the youth on their concerns about the protection of the environment. A National Youth Environmental Council will be set up under the aegis of the Prime Minister’s Office to give them the opportunity to contribute in the decision-making process.

The stark difference in treatment between the elderly and the youth speaks volume about the real extent of the inclusiveness of the government’s agenda, especially when the main rhetorical trope of the President’s speech is just that: inclusiveness and togetherness. These concepts are frequently reminded to the audience, using imagery of equality, fairness, inclusion, unity and brotherhood, this time relying on the rhetorical argument of pathos – or emotions – to cement his call for action. This is not surprising given the dire need for the MSM-ML government to rally Mauritians who remain extremely divided on the political front.

In fact, in what is the most crucial and memorable part of the speech, the peroratio – or conclusion – the President circles back to his key trope of manufacturing a sense of togetherness in his audience. He says,

“Together, we can make Mauritius an innovation-driven, high-income economy based on inclusiveness and shared prosperity.

Together we can create a cleaner and greener Mauritius.

Together we can materialize our future development goals through digitalization, state-of-the-art infrastructures and vibrant industries.

Together, we can build a safer Mauritius for all, based on higher standards of living enshrined in a culture of togetherness and harmony.   

Let us therefore, come together as a nation.

C’est ensemble que nous réussirons.”

Despite completely discarding the rule of three, which, in rhetoric, suggests that a repetition of two is incomplete, four or more is too much, and three is just right, the President hammers down the word ‘together’ for a subtle double entendre. Not only is togetherness a key persuasive strategy used throughout the President’s speech but it also echoes the Ensam Tou Possib motto of the MSM-ML alliance at the 2019 General Election, further crafting a momentum for continuity from pre- to post-election, almost as a move to brand not the alliance supporters but the entire nation with this 2020-2024 ‘collective’ vision.

What could have been a powerful pathos-imbued rallying call to Mauritians turned farcical when the President butchered his final word – in an already weakened conclusion due to the overuse of repetition and demure tone –, saying ‘réssirons instead ofussirons’.

Peut-être réussira-t-il à convaincre la prochaine fois…