December 2017 feels very much like an end of era. Historians who study the big history of the world note that the evolution of humanity tends to operate in cycles of 550 years. Major systems are reviewed and reinvented at the end of these cycles. Between 1450-1500 Europe was coming out of the feudalism of the Middle ages, the age of exploration and colonization had begun, the Americas were discovered.
We are, now, at the end of a cycle though we can only catch hopeful glimpses of what the new one will look like.
In our own little microcosm, the by-election of 18 has been a testing ground between the push and pull factors of status quo and a glimmer of hope. Encouraging as it was to see dozens of new faces with acumen and commitment to use the political pathway as a path of service, the results were predictable, if we go by the voting patterns of the general elections of 2014. The Mauritian electorate votes in political parties and not individuals. In this context, Bizlall’s results were particularly impressive.
That Boolell should win the elections came as no surprise, all the surveys indicated that much. He has a relatively clean political profile, has the ability to rally Mauritians of different backgrounds, has a long political track record and could be trusted to be a worthy representative of the people of Belle-Rose/Quatre-Bornes in Parliament. After all the uncouth discourse that numerous Parliamentarians have dished out to us just these 12 months, it would make sense to have in place a tried and tested voice.
That Boolell should gather more than 35% of the votes in a smashing victory is however an interesting indicator especially in a context where he, himself, clearly and openly was not convinced that he would make it. His victory is an indicator of what exactly? Did the electorate suddenly hope to see in him an enlightened renewal of the Labour party? This does not seem plausible, to us, since Boolell’s victory is Ramgoolam’s victory. Ramgoolam made that much exceeding clear straight after the results were announced in his short speech. One so masterfully crafted and so superbly delivered that it had nothing to envy from Cicero.
We started this article with the cycles of evolution but there are certain constants which endure. One of them is the fickleness of the mob that Shakespeare described so eloquently more than four centuries ago. And Mauritian politicians are a mirror image of the population and vice versa. Irrespective of the mechanisms that were put in place for this to be, the people have spoken at the by-election. They vote Ramgoolam because, despite all the legitimate reasons for which they kicked him out in 2014, they like what he represents. That says a lot about the electorate. Except that it becomes increasingly unclear as to what Ramgoolam represents today.
There was a time when close and well-meaning friends of ours rallied around him because they had seen in him a real democrat. The motivation was intrinsic. It was about building a democratic economic project as a pillar in the evolution of our postcolonial state, one crucial in the context of persisting strong feudal patterns in land ownership. But the democrat aura is long gone. So, what does Ramgoolam represent today that seems unshakeable at the turn of an era, in a time of technological innovation and even as Mugabe falls next door ?
Access to technology, which some hope will eventually become a game changer in the political arena, is not one such, yet. Government is not in the hands of Facebookers. Access to private radio is an important step in our democracy but the most powerful and revealing radio programmes do not sway elections. In the RadioPlus pre-election programme which gathered the main contenders, one could argue that Boolell was the weakest link, outshone by more engaging voices speaking with authenticity and not in the clichés that have stifled for too long. The weight of his party’s past resulted in a Boolell who was tongue-tied when challenged.
But the wind of change that was epitomized by some of the non-mainstream candidates sounds alluring only to some. It is not one that the electorate aspires to. Their brilliance constitutes no political capital. The electorate has no time for intellectual discourse. And why should it? The economy grows at a steady pace with the usual big winners and smaller winners. There is a social safety net with general social peace if not justice. The people are happy with that. Noble causes like Aret kokin nou laplaz remain just that, a noble cause!
An interesting evolution in the aftermath of 2014 is that personalities who had tried out new parties or remained independent observers and commentators, have joined mainstream parties, Bunwaree, Leckning, Maraye. Having understood that you cannot walk alone in this game and armed with a firm commitment to positively influencing the future through politics, they have joined the MMM and the PMSD. With the crashing defeat of both, it will, nonetheless, be interesting to see how they manage their ambitions from within parties which are reduced to being junior partners at the next elections.
The MMM has, by now, a well-established culture of split and schism. The splinter parties/groups are doing real electoral damage with, for example, the MP candidate Diolle, promising enough to attract the vitriol of Bérenger’s daughter, through public comments too unsavoury and un-militant to be repeated here. But this vitriol is perhaps just a vocal manifestation of the fact that the MMM has not won anything since 2000. Surely, it has not escaped their leader that votes gone to Bizlall, Diolle, Parapen could have improved his candidate’s score. He can, of course, always blame the abstentionists but, equally, people who chose to not vote did not feel militant enough to do so. And they must have had legitimate reasons to abstain.
Bérenger, for all the talk, runs the risk of being perceived increasingly as a serial loser. Coming second with 13.85 % of the votes and half as much as the winner is the only cheap sugar to coat the pill. The big question is whether Vijay Makhan would have done better? Is this another strategic mistake from Bérenger?
As a sharp contrast, Labour, in spite of what we have openly seen of its leadership and its tergiversations, still manages its internal conflicts much better. Nobody has left since Harish Boodhoo in the 70s.
What is politics if not all pulling in the same direction? After the colossal defeat of 2014 and his court cases and loots, Ramgoolam still emerges as a winner. Being a ‘bosseur’ and practising relatively clean politics will not win the day. In this game, the good, the bad and the ugly do not access the places that common sense might dictate.
Roshi Bhadain, who provoked these elections on a reckless long shot of personal ambition and inflated ego will lick his wounds and bide his time. There might not be immediate options left for him, as he has proven repeatedly to what extent he is an awkward customer for anyone. He had counted on the support of the youth but the latter have demonstrated that whilst they are thirsty for change, albeit without the diachronic understanding of politics, they are not blindly and unanimously thirsty. Nonetheless, Bhadain must, by now, be Ramgoolam’s best friend as he has opened the big door for him, earlier than anticipated and with a big bang to end 2017.
It is a shame that we will not see how Diolle would have fared in Parliament this time round. But her leader knows too well, he will only get there if he negotiates a place next to the big player. At this moment in time, there is only one, cutting its lion share already.
Unless court cases go against him, Ramgoolam will likely be safe in his seat. It is beautiful to be able to display that he is magnanimous and mature enough a leader to entertain space for a challenger in the name of Boolell. Ramgoolam rests content in the assurance that he has a compliant contender. At the next elections we will not be surprised to see Labour/PMSD versus MSM/MMM, with ML and MP vying for position.
We might be tempted to say same old, same old. But in fact, the by-election of 18 has taught us that, more than anything, Mauritian politics is about a successful management of deep-seated Mauritian realities. Some of these realities are, of course, unspeakable in public discourse, but yet real enough. We might have wished that politics was about uniting disparate factions towards a progressive dream. But in the current mirroring of the electorate in their chosen leaders and vice versa, the collective consciousness wishes to be managed and not changed.
All cycles come to an end, eventually.