Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2014 > Socialism in the Indian Ocean

Mainstream, VOL LII No 26, June 21, 2014

Socialism in the Indian Ocean

Saturday 21 June 2014, by Dipak Malik

The small island of Mauritius, literally a dot in the Indian Ocean, with a checqured history of people migrating becomes an interesting spectacle of Indian as well as European social history, particularly of the 18th century, embe-dded in the deep-seated malaise in society and economy in the age of the Empire.

Actually, the Indian labour diaspora was a two-way traffic: one internal, where the Assam tea gardens were recruiting hapless poor peasantry from the parched land and rocky heights of Bihar and Chota Nagpur, and the other was a rather bizarre sight of human merchandise packed like sardines being sent across the seas and oceans to such lands where newly acquired spluttering giant machines had started turning sugarcane into sugar in the British colonial empire at its high noon.

Mauritius was the first chosen land of this experiment starting from Indian slave traffic. As early as 1728, the French Governor of Pondicherry, Lenoir, sent 28 Indian slaves. The slave migration was converted later on into indentured labour traffic, which continued till 1925 only to be stopped after the adverse report by Kumar Maharaj Singh, a colonial officer from India.

But Mauritius in 2013 looks quite spruced up, confident and despite its size, a star performer as far as the indices of development go in the African continent; yet the island has been beset with problems after ‘the King Sugar’ lost its title due to the vagaries of global trade and rapidly changing consumption pattern, parti-cularly since the nineties.

The island even now has sugar as the mainstay though its kitty is steadily being supplemented by the service industry and tourism as a result of a strategic relationship with Africa, particularly South Africa, on the one hand, and with Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent, on the other.

The Mauritian model of unity in diversity in society, state and governance is much more functional than it is in India. Mauritius offers a peep into how an inclusive society can be built.

Wading through the crowded bazaar lanes of Port Louis around the main business district, we could easily smell the din and bustle of any Indian suburban town. It was but natural that the mainstream politics in Mauritius would veer around its working class, who are predominantly of Indian origin, as well as sections of the middle class too. This island being a natural habitat of working class and socialist politics now, its sheen is gradually lost as most of the parties are enmeshed in the new dynamics of privatisation, liberalisation and globalisation which this tiny island has accepted rather as a compulsion. Having built an exten-sive welfare state, Mauritius is now facing its own mid-life blue due to overstretching. For a tiny island like Mauritius there are few options: it can hardly opt out of the global system on its own but it can bring some calibrated changes from below which may be on the agenda of Bérenger, the current Opposition leader, and his party, the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM), reversing the superpower-driven globalisation process.

We had a full itinerary to meet various public figures and social workers of Mauritius. One significant meeting that we had was with Paul Bérenger, one-time premier of the island republic and now a formidable Opposition leader in the Mauritian Parliament.

Bérenger is perhaps the lone participant of the 1968 revolutionary student upsurge in France who made it to the prime ministership. Figures like Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Régis Debray, who were the vocal faces of the revolt, are still around the transformation agenda in Europe; a third, Rudi Dutschke, died early at the age of 39. This was a movement which changed the face of the world despite its inimitable flow of ultra-romanticism 51 years after the 1917 October Revolution. 1968-69 was the beginning of radicalisation in India too. The Congress party, having its sway on Indian politics for two decades, lost its claim to hegemony with the formation of non-Congress fronts all over India except in South India but it was not a romantic revolt a la France. This writer was also a participant in the tumultuous events of 1968 in India.

With 1968 far behind in the closet of history, Bérenger has become a hope for Mauritian democracy as he represents the working people and a section of the middle class asking for a change from the merry-go-round politics which often reeks ultimately of some sort of hegemonic sway. Bérenger in fact is bringing back ideology in an ‘ideology-dry space’, a complicated task indeed.

Bérenger’s quest for a socialist alternative is a fresh approach in Mauritian politics as well as the global social-democratic scenario. With the world economy under duress, Bérenger feels that a new paradigm of socialism should be charted out. It perhaps would include a calibrated welfare state and increased exchan-ges under the South-South rubric. With the experience gained in the past, Bérenger would not miss the disastrous consequences of the belligerency as well as the failed and costly attempts of introducing democracy from above often through armed interventions by the United States and its European allies in the Middle East and Afghanistan. He would in all probability go for the non-aligned polity: it may augur well once again after 55 years with renewal following Bandung. It is opportune time, when Mauritius should be counted in the South Asian sphere too, since it already has a long-distance market union with the European Union. A similar exercise could be taken to build bridges with South Asia and beyond. Bérenger tried to tinker with socialism in order to reshape it. Tony Blair too in the UK proposed the ‘New Labour’ but his new labour was lost due to obscene dependence on the new Conservative agenda of George Bush and Dick Cheney. Bérenger, I hope, will weave out a coalition from below which may become a harbinger of a healthy change by deepening democracy and building a strong welfare state as well as a competitive economy in the world bazaar today. Mauritius invariably rejects to become another Singapore as it stresses more upon quality of life in sufficient dose and is not interested to join the relentless rat race. Bérenger offers an ideological platform for a more humane and superior civil society in this scheme of new socialism.

It was interesting to identify the countries towards which Bérenger looks forward for some clue to his model of ‘socialism today’. The most important amongst them perhaps are Brazil, South Africa as well as the Scandinavian countries with their model of socialism and extended welfare state. These are societies which have stubbornly rejected the American brand of return to renovated laissez-faire. Brazil has broken away from the ‘basket case’ in the backyard of the USA; South Africa is moving on a new path—partly social democratic, partly capitalist. The Scandinavian countries, in spite of the current debacle of the Left, still have a deeply entrenched welfare state and an over-alert civil society. Bérenger, however, rejected the Venezuelan model of radicalism.

Another important issue that Bérenger raised was about deepening democracy. He was of the opinion that the Opposition can keep the governing cabal on track as well as prevent the disconnect with the people which often happens once a party occupies the Treasury Benches. Bérenger had a very independent take on questions of lingua franca in Mauritius. He felt that since 1834 a specific variety of Mauritian Creole has developed and it occupies a natural space as a link language along with other lang-uages, particularly Hindi as well as Bhojpuri, the language of Eastern UP and Western Bihar, and English as the official language. India, as Bérenger was to emphasise, was the umbilical cord for Mauritians.

Bérenger reminded that the knowledge of history is essential for a political leader. He was an actor in Mauritian history and witness to the riotous 1968 student-youth upsurge in France. The statement becomes somewhat pinching when we in India find ourselves as unfortunate witness to political leaders devoid of knowledge of history being offered as a product—it is actually an exercise in imitation of the US Presidential race. Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal—all three are ultimately commodities in the electoral market produced by the electronic and mass media. As a matter of fact political parties have retreated and their place has been taken by the mass media. All three cited above are bereft of any historical knowledge as well as historical movements, except Modi, who presided over the pogrom against defenceless Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat.

Bérenger, while promoting Creole as the people’s language, was also architecting a sovereign identity for Mauritians. His politics bore the mark of the common people against misrule and unemployment. The natural inclination of a majority of Indo-Mauritians is to look towards 5000-km-distant India for succour. But Bérenger has forged a sovereign identity which blends the Indian ethos as well as the Mauritian way of life and Mauritian work culture and fair play.

While we were in Mauritius, we saw posters with Bérenger announcing an open round table on socialism today. Socialism definitely needs updating, refurbishing and Bérenger is trying to sketch out its new paradigms. It would be of significance to watch this restructuring of socialism coming from the tiny island of Mauritius, but it may infect the discourse in traditional socialist bastions like France, Germany as well as bumpy India. The 1968 student revolt’s ultra-romantics have dried. It was bound to fade out but it at least left a questioning trace in Paul Bérenger to work out a new trajectory for a contemporary variety of socialism which is able to prune its flabby sloth, give vigour to the people and guarantee a better and healthier society.

In fact Bérenger is a man to watch. He is trying to reinsert a new debate about national societies and the marginalised like the one which was initiated by the late Cheddi Jagan, the leg-endary leader of Guyana, two decades ago from another erstwhile sugar plantation colony in Latin America.

In fact the independence of Mauritius was a quiet transfer of power than a tumultuous consequence of a freedom struggle. It was more of a domino effect after the decolonisation juggernaut started affecting India and other countries. New socialism and a new long-term coalition may be a more authentic game-changer in the 21st century.

It also brings communities closer, as well as in exchange and solidarity with each other; thus Bérenger, instead of advocating raw majoritarianism is trying to build and blend a rainbow coalition which is definitely a notch above the mono-culture that settlers to the island brought from the dust-covered rural India or the row of vineyards in France or the deeper jungles of Africa. This blending of cultural baggage from India, France and Africa converts Mauritius into a new society, ready to listen to the new ideologies.

Prof Dipak Malik is the Director Emeritus, Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi.