THE POSSIBILITIES FOR MAURITIUS AND INDIA
By Pranay Gupte
(Published in The Hindu, India, May 5, 2010)
Today (May 5) is Election Day here in Mauritius, and there being no electronic tallying of votes the winners and losers for the island-nation’s 62-member national parliament won’t be known for several hours after the polls close at 6 o’clock in the evening because each ballot cast by 880,000 eligible voters – out of the country’s 1.3 million population – would need to be hand counted.
The campaigning for parliamentary seats in Mauritius’ 21 constituencies legally ended at 6 p.m. yesterday (Tuesday), although long caravans of cars sponsored by the various political parties continued winding their way through the island’s towns and hamlets well past that deadline. There was much noise making, tooting of horns, and the occasional yell in support of favored candidates. Nothing unusual there, of course, it was politics as usual. But even the bright symbols of various parties did not have a patch over the stunning and unspoiled environment of colors that only millions of years of being a volcanic island could produce.
Nothing unusual as the campaign ended on Tuesday -- except for one thing. Some friends of Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam worried that his three-party alliance seemed in a much tighter race against the Mouvement Militant Mauricien, led by the veteran leftist Paul Berenger, who once served for two years as prime minister. Seeing Mr. Berenger’s picture on campaign posters, I was struck by how well he’d aged since I last interviewed him – 31 years ago, when I was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Africa. His rhetoric remains as fiery as before, however; the source of his party’s funding from whites of French descent remains steadfast, too.
Mr. Berenger has promised radical reforms of Mauritius’s political and economic system, although his manifesto is freighted with the sort of political platitudes and placebos that one would expect in a multicultural society where his ethnic group is in a distinct minority compared to the majority Hindus, Christians, Creoles, and Muslims. His only tenure as prime minister was not widely considered a success, and an incipient one might quite possibly bring turmoil that a generally tolerant polity like Mauritius doesn’t need at this time, especially when its economy is rapidly making the transition to the digital age.
Several far-thinking Mauritians – particularly those supporting Mr. Ramgoolam of the Mauritius Labour Party for a second consecutive five-year term as prime minister – also seem concerned that in the unlikely event that the MMM wins today’s election, among Mr. Berenger’s targets may well be business houses and others friendly with Mr. Ramgoolam.
There’s little question that continuity in office presents Mr. Ramgoolam a renewed opportunity to strengthen his country’s relationship with India, especially in light of the fact that China is furiously wooing Mauritius and other African states for better economic positioning. Mauritius is the largest provider of foreign direct investment (FDI) to India – almost $12billion annually – but influential business and social leaders contend that the bilateral relationship can and should be deepened.
Such an enhanced relationship would be particularly important in view of the fact that Mauritius has traditionally looked toward Britain and France for political and economic cues. That’s at least partly because India has yet to assert that Mauritius, given its strategic location off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, has the potential for becoming a Singapore of the region.
Such an assertion – and the concomitant political and economic implications – would widen education and technological ties between the two countries. When Mauritius teamed up with India and opened a state-of-the-art medical center here last August, the hope was that the enterprise would engender other joint ventures in a variety of fields, including engineering, computer science, information technology, medical research, business processing, tourism, and agro-industries.
But that hasn’t happened to the extent that last year’s collaboration seemed to invite. China, meanwhile, has seized the opportunity of expanding its manufacturing presence in Mauritius, and a drive around this 2,040-square-kilometre island’s charming communities shows how steadily the Chinese presence has grown in recent months. In short, China hasn’t created a “ghetto” here: its government clearly has encouraged its formal and informal representatives to mix with the local population.
Such mixing, along with strengthened technical and other ties would be salutary, and readily doable for India. It seems to me that India and Mauritius are natural partners: both are lively multi-party democracies, both have long traditions of cultural exchanges, and both are committed to a post-globalization world that emphasizes better education and heightened economic opportunities for an increasingly young demographic cohort.
The 63-year-old Navin Ramgoolam is certainly a man who sees enormous possibilities in greater cross-fertilization between his country and India. Whether the 65-year-old Paul Berenger shares that view is questionable, not the least because he represents a sensibility of another era. If I were a betting man, I would go with the current prime minister for developing fresh policies that would benefit two countries of shared heritage and longstanding friendship.
(Pranay Gupte is a veteran international journalist and author. His next book is on India and the Middle East.)