“The way the prime minister dealt with the Soodhun episode betrays his personality even more”

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Following his appointment as editor in chief of Radio One, Weekly speaks to Finlay Salesse about his new role, given the current political atmosphere. In his usual outspoken and candid manner, he talks about a scandal-hit government, a leadership crisis and what he thinks was the real reason that finally pressured the vice-prime minister to step down.

You have recently been promoted to the position of editor in chief. You must naturally be happy but aren’t you also worried about the implications of this in the current political atmosphere?

I think it’s a wonderful occasion to get back in business again. I started as editor in chief and, for reasons that everybody knows, I lapsed for a few years and now I am being asked to take charge of the newsroom once again and to boost it again. As you know, we have been falling a bit in the ratings for some time and it’s high time we stopped that trend and climbed back again.  

How do you propose to do that?

By creating a feeling that we are a team without giving privileges to anyone and refocus on our objective, which is to inform. Also, since I have been given total editorial independence, we need to know where Radio One is going in terms of information and have a clear, visible and particularly audible editorial line.

Recently, there has been a polemic about the role of a journalist. How do you see your role as a journalist in Mauritius?

A journalist is by definition an opposition journalist. He is in opposition to the government as well as to the opposition. Our job is to ‘put the knife in the wound’, without fear or favour.

In the case of the video about Showkutally Soodhun which has resulted in his dismissal as a minister, would you have given it to the prime minister or diffused it?

I would have done what your colleagues did: pass on the hot potato to the prime minister. In fact, it is a subtle way of transferring the pressure onto him. He could not pretend that it was a plot against the government, even though Ivan Collendavelloo is still saying that it was a plot to destabilise the government. The onus was on him to act.  Considering the Yerrigadoogate and the fact that La Sentinelle has denounced Soodhun in so many other cases, one more would have been too much. So yes, I would have done the same thing.

Did the prime minister react according to what you expected of him?

Well, Pravind Jugnauth first tried to pass the hot potato on to the police commissioner, hoping the latter would take so much time get trying to get the witnesses to come forward, perhaps they would not come, then the police would have to determine the authenticity of the video, and Mr Soodhun would have continued to wear his white robe and go on pilgrimage. There has been pressure and Soodhun had to go. This government has been wrapped in scandal for the past two-and-a-half years and its popularity has sunk so low that they will probably discover petroleum if they go any lower. I mean it has been one scandal after another from the way the BAI affair was dealt with to the latest affair concerning Soodhun. They have beaten all records in all spheres and deserve a place in the Guinness Book of Records. At this rate, either the backbench will get overcrowded or they will lose their majority. The prime minister cannot put everybody out unless he calls for a general election…

Would that be a good thing?

I don’t know but I don’t see how this trend will stop. Maybe there will more scandals that will force more resignations.

Were you expecting Soodhun to resign just as minister, or also as member of the National Assembly?

This government has a good majority; they could have afforded his resignation as an MP. Now, purely in cynical terms, is it realistic to expect that a prime minister who has not participated in the No 18 by-election risks another by-election in No.15? He cannot afford to do that. He is not suicidal. In ethical terms, it is terrible. Just imagine Soodhun coming to parliament on Tuesday! That would be embarrassing for the government. Unless he goes on a long leave like Kalyan Tarolah.

But Tarolah did not go on leave; he has been attending parliament for five to 10 minutes at a time.

Yes, we now have fleeting MPs, coming and going just for attendance so that their seats are not declared vacant…

Is this moral?

Of course not! But ‘moralite pas rempli vante’ as the mentor said. I make the difference between my conception of morality and how I feel about many MPs continuing to breathe the air of parliament. In political terms, Jugnauth cannot afford to let these people go.

Does that not put him in a weak situation?

Any government that loses two people in such a short time is on its knees. The position of the government is totally weakened. That is why everyone is blackmailing them. Jugnauth gives me the impression that as Sartre said, he is a grand cadavre à la renverse (a big cadaver upside down) with everyone picking at his soft belly. With the Anerood Jugnauth of 1983, do you think someone like Sanjeev Teeluckdharry would have dared complain that the per diem he is receiving is not enough? He would have been out before he finished his sentence! If a government can tolerate that, it can tolerate anything. So everyone is allowed to do anything and Pravind Jugnauth’s hands are tied.

What is the cost to the country of this total lack of leadership that you are describing?

That is why the country is not well. Beyond Soodhun, as many people have been saying, we seem to think that there is an exclusion system in place – a system that is designed to deliberately exclude one category or the other, sometimes it’s the Muslims, sometimes it’s the Creoles, sometimes it’s along the lines of casteism…

What is likely to happen when there is no leadership in the country?

You have heard people talking and the general feeling which we all share is that these people are filling up their pockets because they know they won’t be around after the next election. So the attitude is ‘let’s make the most of it because we won’t be here in two years!’ You cannot have so many people in such positions of power and responsibility, having to appear before a judge, a commission of enquiry on drugs... This is causing considerable damage to the country. Soodhun has contributed a lot to smear our reputation when he took it upon himself to sever our relationship with Qatar without informing the minister concerned! We really are on a ship and there is no equipment to guide us. We are looking for short-term waves and may soon hit an iceberg. Where is the lighthouse?

In the National Assembly, which is the other way of shedding light on what’s going on, there are constant clashes between the opposition and the speaker. As a former parliamentarian, do you find that normal or worrying?

That shows that everybody’s nerves are frayed. There is road rage and then there is assembly rage. Nerves are raw and the speaker does not help. I knew Sir Harilal Vaghjee when I was a young MP. He was a man of great culture and great tolerance and he had a sense of humour that could diffuse any time bomb. I have the impression that Maya Hanoomanjee has a short fuse and no sense of humour. She may also have a hearing problem in the left ear. And shouting won’t lead you anywhere. A teacher who shouts in the classroom cannot impose his authority. I know her personally, she is not a bad woman, but she is in the wrong position. She was a candidate who lost in the last election and perhaps she will be a candidate in the next election. It is a very embarrassing situation.

Considering the situation you have just described: an ungovernable country with no leadership and a prime minister at the mercy of his MPs, some people are asking for the opposition to resign and provoke an election. Is that a solution in your opinion?

Yes, but does the opposition today have that kind of credibility? The by-election in No.18 has laid bare all that separates the opposition parties. Paul Bérenger and the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) seem quite lenient towards the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM) and the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD) quite lenient towards the Labour Party. I get the impression that this by-election will reveal the tactics put in place for the coalitions to be formed for the next general election.

You accuse Bérenger of being lenient and yet he comes out very hard accusing Pravind Jugnauth of not having any leadership…

(Laughs) Did you hear what Bérenger said about Navin Ramgoolam a few years ago? He can say one thing one day and its opposite the next day.

What are we reproaching him with now? Isn’t he playing his role in the opposition?

He hasn’t taken very many positions. One press conference a week to say the same thing over and over again is not really playing his role.  

What other forum does he have?

The MMM used to have great pull some time back. If they told their supporters to jump in a lake, they would have jumped in the lake. That has changed. Look at his choice of candidate in No.18 [Nita Juddoo – Ed], we suddenly find out that Ramduth Juddoo is a historical militant after having been an MSM minister! In fact, during the breakup, I remember that Judoo held an MMM meeting one day and the next day, he was in the MSM! If this is the definition of a historical militant, I am a pre-historic one.

Now, because of the problems you have talked about and the ones the by-election is likely to create, should the opposition not be pushing for a general election instead?

Of course. If you can put pressure on the government to call a snap election, it would be best for everyone. It will soothe the atmosphere and get rid of the incompetent, corrupt, greedy and lazy members and we’ll have a new, strong government.

Why isn’t that happening then?

Well, the problem is that getting so many MPs to resign is not easy. So many of them don’t hold a job and their salary as MPs is the sole revenue they have. So I don’t think there will be consensus within the opposition. I don’t think all of them would be keen to resign to save the country.

Coming back to Soodhun, what do you think is the single main factor that contributed to his dismissal?

One of the reasons why Soodhun had to resign is because reports from the police coming up to Pravind Jugnauth were very bad. People were organising themselves for more than peaceful demonstrations.

What about Cardinal Piat’s visit?

Cardinal Piat is not the guy next door; he is the representative of Rome in Mauritius. He has a moral stature. He was invited, I am given to understand, and he said to Pravind Jugnauth, ‘We can’t accept this because the Catholic Church has, one way or another, contributed to building national unity and Soodhun’s comments are likely to unravel everything we have built’.  I have been given to understand that he also told the prime minister that he could not control what his priests would tell their congregation on Sunday. We have seen some priests on Facebook saying that their community could not be treated with such contempt. The verbal violence was building up and rising to a crescendo. It could have exploded. There was the fear of physical violence. So there was no choice. Soodhun had to go. He had become a big liability. Jugnauth could not do otherwise. He would have kept him if he had a choice.

Do you see Soodhun’s dismissal as a manifestation of Jugnauth’s leadership?

No. The way he dealt with the episode betrays his personality even more. Instead of taking an immediate and clear-cut decision to dismiss Soodhun, he waits for four days and then there is no dismissal but a ‘common agreement’ and then Soodhun does not immediately go the State House to hand in his resignation. On the contrary, there is total confusion about his whereabouts… None of this shows any leadership, though appointing Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo on the front bench shows courage.

In the middle of this crisis, do you think the president of the republic could have played a role in appeasing the tensions?

She should have. But she is not in a position to play that kind of role. After what has happened with Álvaro Sobrinho, L’Oréal and all the globetrotting, she is so thickly protected that she does not even let journalists get anywhere near her, let alone be in a position where she can have her voice heard. Her hands are tied because of her own doing. She no longer has the moral authority to talk and be heard.

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]

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