Provocative commentaries on international issues, social development, and people and places by a veteran journalist
The Politics of Ethnicity in Mauritius
Published on April 11, 2010 By PranayGupte In International

By Pranay Gupte

(Published in Khaleej Times, April 12, 2010) 


Take away the stunning greenery and jagged mountains from Mauritius, take away the rolling pastures, take away the vast sugarcane plantations, and take away the bustling hamlets with their narrow twisting roads – and one could be forgiven for feeling that this is Dubai-in-the-Indian-Ocean, a clean place where waves wash gently on the shores and enterprise is encouraged.


Both entities have populations of about 1.5 million each, heavily dominated by people of South Asian origin. Whereas in Dubai, the nationals – the Emiratis – constitute a fraction of the demography, in Mauritius it is the original French settlers – known locally as the Francos – who are in a distinct minority. Yet it is they who own significant property, including the plantations, and it is they who dominate the economy.


One would think that such economic domination translated into political power. Not so. In Mauritius, an island-state that gained independence from the British 42 years ago, it is the Hindu majority – descendants of indentured laborers brought across by the British scores of years ago – that has a lock on government and the bureaucracy. The minority Muslims, Christians and Creoles have little say in the way Mauritius is run, although there’s general agreement that the government of Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam has been clean and also relatively sensitive to the needs of various ethnic communities.


The 65-year-old prime minister – who heads the Mauritius Labor Party – is now running for a second five-year term. A physician and a lawyer, Ramgoolam is the son of the country’s founding father, the late Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. A canny politician, he understood that his party needed key allies in order to secure victory in the country’s 20 constituencies in the May 5 election. So he’s brought in former political opponents into his election alliance, the Mouvement Socialiste Militant and the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate. “This alliance represents stability at this juncture,” Dr. Ramgoolam said the other day, promising a vigorous but transparent election campaign.


But the election campaign has already turned raucous. And it’s only a part of the drama roiling Mauritius. Because some of Prime Minister Ramgoolam’s close friends happen to be Muslims – including Deputy Prime Minister Rashid Beebeejaun – some publications backed by Franco interests have escalated attacks on those friends’ business interests. A former wire-service writer has been imported from France to lend ferocity to local journalism; leading financial officials in the French-influenced private sector have engaged in innuendo about some Muslim entrepreneurs, particularly those with multinational operations.


All this could ordinarily be dismissed as being part of the hurly burly of politics. But the social fabric of Mauritius is very delicate indeed, and when the politics of electioneering is converted into the politics of ethnic vitriol, that creates a dangerous precedent. It is not that this island – which sits atop a volcano – is about to erupt and spew political lava. But the current spate of attacks poisons the atmosphere in a way that would make governance difficult for Prime Minister Ramgoolam in his second term.


Dr. Ramgoolam has coined a new mantra for governance: “Unity, Equality, Modernity.” He knows that in order for the country to address its 8 percent unemployment rate – despite ostensibly being one of Africa’s most successful economies, with a GDP of nearly $10 billion – Mauritius needs to build new bridges to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and to strengthen its economic ties to France, traditionally the biggest trading partner of the only country where the now-extinct dodo bird was sighted by early Dutch settlers.


That bridge building means enhancing the financial-services and insurance sectors. It means serving as a platform for investments in the huge markets of Africa and Asia. It means attracting financial interest from the petrodollar countries of the Middle East, especially the United Arab Emirates. It means streamlining traditional industries such as hospitality, and encouraging new ones such as health tourism.


One recent example of Dr. Ramgoolam’s bridge building is the new Apollo-Bramwell Center, an Indo-Mauritian venture that’s universally seen as a model for attracting patients from the region and from afar who seek top-quality medical care amidst a bucolic environment. That venture, created by Mauritian businessman Dawood Rawat – a Muslim – and the Indian medical entrepreneur, Dr. Pratap Reddy, a Hindu, has also been held up as a model of cross-cultural collaboration. (Disclosure: this writer is friendly with both Rawat and Dr. Reddy.)


The bridge building also means carving a niche for Mauritius in the growing knowledge economy of the global commons. There are those who have suggested that the country’s location, its healthful climate and its non-ideological foreign policy make it ideal to serve as an incubator for a center for education concerning strategic communications and for generating fresh ideas and solutions concerning intercultural understanding. Indeed, both Prime Minister Ramgoolam and Dawood Rawat have brainstormed about this.


But Dr. Ramgoolam also recognizes that his new mantra for governance may come to nought if he does not deal forthrightly with the politically troubling ethnic divisions that have long characterized Mauritian society. He recognizes that, with the exception of Paul Berenger, a politician of French origin, the other three prime ministers of Mauritius – himself included – have been Hindus. And he recognizes that minority ethnic communities cannot be relegated to traditional cultural or socio-economic roles in a country that wishes to accelerate its development in a world of galloping globalization.


It is never prudent to predict the outcome of elections, but Dr. Ramgoolam appears to be headed toward a second term as prime minister. That would also give him a second chance to act as a social emollient, hopefully persuading the attack dogs of Mauritius that their personal attacks and political biting isn’t in the national interest – that, in the final analysis, Mauritius simply deserves better because it can serve as a model for multi-cultural amity in a world fraught with ethnic violence.


(Pranay Gupte, a US national, is a veteran journalist whose forthcoming book is about India and the Middle East.)





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