After Independence 1968 - 1985

governor_general.jpg (10809 bytes) The history of Mauritius since the return of Ramgoolam in 1935 to 1968 had been almost exclusively focused on the battle for political rights and independence. The other social and economic problems including unemployment, poverty had been quietly pushed under the carpet until the attainment of independence. However, Ramgoolam had carefully laid the foundation of the welfare state and the economic and social structure to enable the future economic take-off.

The new constitution of independent Mauritius guaranteed the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual- private property, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and protection from discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, colour, creed.

It underscored all the constitutional powers and functions of the legislature, the judiciary, the executive and of the legal and public service commissions.

The shape of Mauritius after independence was to change dramatically.The opponents of independence, mainly the Franco-Mauritians who still monopolised the wealth of the country, were quickly to come to terms with the political reality. They quietly receded into the background and thrust Gaetan Duval forward to seek reconciliation with Ramgoolam in a bid to carry on with business as usual. In political terms, it meant joining in a Coalition government with the victorious Labour Party.

In his turn, Ramgoolam was eager to reconcile with the capital owners if his government was to deliver on the economic front. Besides, it was alien to his personal culture of making friends with all and enemy with none. His priority was to bring together the new and the former rulers of the country in a bid to solve the urgent economic problems, establish social and political stability in order to attract foreign investment and technology.

Ramgoolam created this condition by holding talks with the French president Charles de Gaule, later with Pompidou. De Gaule despatched his Prime Minister, Michel Debré to Mauritius to hold talks, and finally managed to join the hands of Duval in Ramgoolam’s as a symbol of unity. Inevitably, it meant ousting the IFB from government.

One of the conditions was the postponement of elections for another five years in order to give the new coalition government time to fulfil its development agenda.

But the PMSD electorate who felt cheated in the wake of the demagogic electoral campaign of Duval hit back at their leader and found him guilty of having sparked a hate campaign against Ramgoolam during the past decade. Duval had to pay the price of the LP-PMSD Coalition with the split of his own party through the formation of a hard-core conservative splinter group, the UDM, led by the intellectuals of the party.

Worse still was to come through the vacuum left by Duval in the opposition which slowly began to be filled by a new party , the MMM, founded by Paul Bérenger in a bid to capture the former PMSD electorate and the discontented Labour electorate.

From now onward, the PMSD was to dwindle into a minority party and the MMM stepped forward as a national party led by idealistic young people with a new philosophy drawn from the European Left, especially and the after 1968 Student revolution in France.

The MMM started as a radical socialist party which preached widespread nationalisations, direct democracy, class struggle, general strikes, boycotting the capitalist economy, people’s militia and replacing parliamentary democracy by the dictatorship of the party and the proletariat following Marxist models. It drew its inspiration from Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Rosa Luxembourg,Che Guevara and established a network of friendship with the Communist bloc in opposition to the pro-west bloc of the LP-PMSD government during the Cold War years of the 70's.

For a time, it captured the imagination of the young people and of the workers who saw a new Messiah in the youthful romantic posture of Berenger. But the heady youth did not see the constructive work being undertaken by Ramgoolam and Duval after the ravages of the past.

According to its philosophy of capturing power by revolutionary means, the MMM slowly seized control of the trade unions which had been slipping away from Labour's control since Rozemont’s death in 1956. The MMM-affiliated trade unions, in the docks, in transport, in agriculture and in the municipalities went on frequent strikes which sent the economy crashing down on its heels. As a result of a series of those wild-cat strikes in 1971,Ramgoolam applied the Public Order Act and arrested 12 MMM leaders in December. This was backed up by a State of Emergency, censorship of the press, interdiction of the 13 MMM-affiliated trade unions. But the imprisonment without trial of the MMM leaders and the denial of civic liberties drew a lot of sympathy to the victims. But had the ideology-driven MMM of those heady days toppled the government, Mauritius would have shared the same fate as neighbouring Madagascar under Ratsirak's autocratic regime. The country would have lapsed further behind.

On the political front the PL-PMSD Coalition government was struggling to set the economy back on its feet while the PMSD was now in tatters.

In December 1973, the PMSD left the Coalition on the ground that Duval opposed Chinese aid and because of his own overtly pro-South Africa policy. But Ramgoolam was fortified with the massive entry of PMSD and IFB members who had crossed the floor to hold on to ministerial power.

Despite knowing that the youth were overwhelmingly pro-MMM, in December 1975,Ramgoolam honoured his promise by giving the youth of 18 the right to vote. The irony is that those young people did not realise that many of them would have died since infancy if it were not for the health services set up by Dr Ramgoolam.

In the field of foreign relations, Ramgoolam as also the Minister of External Affairs took a series of bold initiatives. In 1976, SSR became the first non African to be the president of OAU in the wake of the OAU Conference held in Mauritius. In the same year, the Indian Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, paid a state visit to Mauritius presumably to inaugurate the Mahatma Gandhi Institute. The holding of the second World Hindi Convention in Mauritius followed hot on the heel of Mrs Gandhi’s visit. In September, Ramgoolam presided over the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Mauritius. Feeling self –confident, SSR lifted the State of Emergency and announced elections for the end of the year. The MMM saw its opportunity and fielded candidates in all constituencies while Labour and PMSD made the mistake of standing separately so that in the ensuing December elections, MMM profited largely from the divided electorate and marginal constituencies which fell into its lap. The result was that MMM scored 30 seats, the Independence Party won 25, PMSD 7. But Ramgoolam and Duval quickly joined hands again to form another coalition government.

The MMM constituted the opposition and gradually began to learn the parliamentary game and started taming its extremist ideology as it tuned itself to play the role of a responsible opposition and the alternative government.

In the ensuing municipal elections in 1977, MMM took control of the municipalities in Port Louis, Rose Hill and Vacoas-Phoenix, leaving only Curepipe to PMSD and Quatre Bornes to LP-PMSD.

But saddled with a slim majority of one, Ramgoolam had to do a lot of tight rope-walking to keep his government in power despite the internal wranglings and the defection of a splinter group led by Boodhoo, Beedassy and Gungoosingh, also known as the Contestataires. To compensate, Ramgoolam was fortified with the arrival of MMM dissidents, including Coonjan, Venkatasamy, Jundoosingh, Augustave into the government.

Matters came to a head with the short-sighted opposition of the Contestataires who voted against the 1979 budget. They were thrown out of the government and they set out to form a new party, the Mauritius Socialist Party, the PSM, which was to join MMM in an MMM-PSM electoral alliance.

In the meantime, the country had been sinking under the weight of a series of ruinous strikes,culminating in the general strike of August 1979 staged by Bérenger. In the wake of instability sparked by the then turbulent opposition, the country failed to attract the vital foreign investments necessary to its growth.

This forced the devaluation of the rupee. The IMF imposed a structural adjustment. Unemployment rose to 20% of the population despite the employment creation-strategy Ramgoolam had formulated since 1971 with the first four-year plan.

But the Labour party had now grown into a party of elderly people who had been enjoying power far too long. At the age of eighty, Ramgoolam did not have the energy to battle against the youthful and energetic MMM-PSM.

The government dragged its feet under the mounting unemployment and debts and a tired economy, marked by an inability to reform and renew itself in the face of such a formidable opposition. The inevitable happened in 1982 with the 60-0 victory of MMM-PSM and the total defeat of the Labour Party.

However, the new government was soon to be torn by internal squabbles between Berenger and Boodhoo and Berenger’s impatience to take over power from Prime Minister Jugnauth, hardly 9 months after the elections. Bérenger challenged Jugnauth by walking away with a bunch of MMM MPs. Jugnauth, backed by Ramgoolam and Duval, rose to the challenge, and created the MSM. The MSM-LP-PMSD Alliance heavily defeated MMM in 1983.

Tired but happy and having reinstated Labour into power, Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam retired to Réduit as the governor-general where he tendered advice to the new government until his death in December 1985.

By Anand Mulloo 15.9.98