ELECTIONS IN MAURITIUS OFFER PROMISING PROSPECTS FOR INDIA
(Published in The Hindu, India, May 7, 2010)
By Pranay Gupte
Now that the three-party alliance of Navin Ramgoolam has won 41 of the 60 seats in the Mauritius national parliament – more than double the number of Paul Berenger’s leftist Mouvement Militant Mauricien – there is general agreement that the 63-year-old former physician and lawyer has obtained a powerful mandate to implement economic and social reforms in his second consecutive term as this island-nation’s prime minister.
Some of those reforms eluded him during his first term, and, indeed, a few unpopular measures that Mr. Ramgoolam introduced – such as a national residential property tax, and another tax on interest from savings – spurred flight of capital in certain circles. The expectation is that such measures will be reviewed and possibly eliminated.
The prime minister has also pledged a more aggressive “democratization” of the economy – ensuring, among other things, that ownership of the vast sugarcane plantations that are currently controlled by the minority whites of French descent is also made accessible to other communities in this country of 1.3 million people dominated by Hindus. Creoles, Christians and Muslims also compromise larger sections of the demographic cohort than the Francos. A special “democratization unit” has been formed in the prime minister’s office, and its workload is certain to be amplified.
Mr. Ramgoolam’s election victory has also brought relief to several business supporters who had been targeted by Mr. Berenger and his financial backers. They had been apprehensive that the Berenger group would subvert, if not entirely destroy, their commerce.
The 65-year-old mustachioed Mr. Berenger, silver-haired and wearing an open-necked blue shirt, appeared at a gathering of followers early Thursday evening and promised to continue “fighting the good fight,” and promised to work toward national unity. He was gracious about the prime minister’s victory – a sentiment not necessarily appreciated by many in his audience – but asserted that the elections were not free nor fair. Mr. Berenger chided the national television network for blatantly favoring the prime minister’s alliance in order to ensure its victory.
The Ramgoolam alliance’s victory, however, will most definitely be welcomed by India, not the least because Mauritius contributes $12 billion in foreign direct investment to India, by far the biggest annual FDI from any country. Mr. Berenger -- a former prime minister himself -- while publicly proclaiming his fidelity to an “umbilical relationship” with India, has been known to privately express a desire for strengthened commercial and political relations with France and other Western powers.
India’s chief election commissioner, Navin Chawla, has been here for the last several days at the invitation of the government. He wasn’t an official observer, of course, but other Indian representatives in Mauritius must feel emboldened now to suggest stronger technical, educational and computer-science links between both countries. They are surely mindful of the disappointment of influential Mauritian business leaders that such ties were not deepened by India in the last few years.
But they are also mindful that Prime Minister Ramgoolam enjoys a warm personal rapport with his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Yesterday, therefore, there were renewed expectations that Mr. Ramgoolam’s new term could usher in an era characterized by enhanced bilateral economic and political relations.
Those expectations took into account a public position by Mr. Ramgoolam that the Indian Ocean coral atoll of Diego Garcia – part of the Chagos Archipelago -- would be turned over to Mauritius by the United States, which has maintained a large military base there since a 1971 secret agreement with the British Labour government of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. That agreement called for Diego Garcia to be leased to the U.S.; the military base has been used by Washington for missile launches and naval operations against suspected terrorist havens in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also parts of Africa.
Some Indian critics have long felt that the American presence on Diego Garcia represented a form of political hegemony in the Indian Ocean, territory that ordinarily should be viewed as within India’s sphere of influence.
Mr. Ramgoolam has also suggested that Mauritius co-administer Tromelin Island, currently a French territory.
But one major issue of concern to India that may crop up during his new administration is that of China’s growing economic presence in Mauritius, and its ambition to widen political influence throughout Africa. For example, China is building a new palm-frond-shaped airport here; it is also creating an industrial city from where goods will be re-exported to Africa and Europe.
It is not that Mr. Ramgoolam is particularly wooing China, although its contribution to the local economy has been welcomed. It is India that has lagged in taking timely advantage of the economic opportunities available in a country of high literacy and aspirations to become a high-tech center for the region.
Such geopolitical considerations, of course, weren’t quite the stuff of the main conversations yesterday in Mauritius as the election results poured in, and the winners celebrated at rallies while losers lamented without seeming to be grieving. Politics, after all, is not only about democracy, it is also about deportment.
There was wide delight that Mr. Ramgoolam’s second term would represent stability and continuity – his trusted lieutenant, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Rashid Beebeejaun won from his constituency in the capital of Port Louis, in what had been considered a difficult race.
It was also noted that, in addition to Paul Berenger’s general political loss, the opposition front bench had been considerably weakened by the defeat of three of his closest aides. The craggy old leftist has now only his own shoulders to lean on, at least in parliament. But who said politics was fair?