“Pravind Jugnauth should call a general election within a year”

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Weekly speaks to Cassam Uteem, former president of the republic and member of the global leadership foundation, for his opinion on Anerood Jugnauth handing over the prime ministership to his son, Pravind Jugnauth. He reveals how he would have reacted had he been the president and talks about his concerns about the behaviour of some members of the government, and the image of the country internationally.

This is a time when all eyes are looking toward the Réduit for the nomination of Pravind Jugnauth as the next prime minister since the current prime minister has declared his intention to step down and hand over power to his son. As a past president, what is your feeling about this whole situation?

Actually, if you ask me, I think that the resignation of the prime minister is the best thing that could happen to the country. He’s become the shadow of himself. Through no fault of his. Nature is simply taking its toll on him. He no longer controls anything. It seems that he cannot shoulder the responsibilities incumbent on a prime minister. He has as a result tried to delegate powers when he shouldn’t have and to people he shouldn’t have. Inexperienced ministers have been given responsibilities much, much beyond the scope of their competence and they started acting like prime ministers.

What do you mean?

I mean, they started giving instructions to the police for instance. I drew attention more than once to the fact that this is the worst thing that has ever happened to Mauritius since independence. That is, ministers giving instructions to the police and even to the commissioner of police.

But, surely, this is not the first time this has happened, is it?

(Forcefully) It is the first time ever!

We all know that prime ministers and commissioners of police have almost daily meetings and prime ministers give instructions to the police, so what is new?

Yes, according to the constitution, the prime minister can give instructions about the general policy to the commissioner of police and, in certain cases the prime minister would give his own views on certain matters. However, as far as my memory goes, no other minister has been allowed to talk directly to the police and give instructions about specific cases. So, this is new and this has been happening only in the recent couple of years. It’s very, very dangerous for the country.

Are you talking about Roshi Bhadain in relation to the allegation of having given instructions to the police to arrest Gérard Sanspeur?

Yes, that is another allegation which is quite serious and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were more than allegation. There is also the case of the director of public prosecutions (DPP), where he and another minister went to the police, and the police acted on the basis of what the two ministers said.

In that case, all the ministers did was make a statement to the police. Isn’t that their right as citizens of this country?

Yes, but in the case of other citizens, I have never seen the police acting at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning! To go and arrest, not anybody, but the DPP of the country! This cannot be done unless instructions have been received from higher up, and the higher up being the prime minister himself. And this was condoned by the prime minister! This is unique. What is equally unique, not only in Mauritius but perhaps in the world is the cabinet minute saga. When cabinet decisions have already been taken and communicated to the press, without the knowledge of the prime minister, a minister gives instructions to a civil servant to change the minutes! This is absurd! Which is why I say that the prime minister would do a favour to himself and to this country if he stepped down.

In reaction to that, the prime minister said that any minister can call and ask for an item to be added to the minutes. Does that not convince you?

(Sighs) I don’t know how far the prime minister can go to defend his minister, and I don’t know what the relation between the prime minister and Minister of Good Governance Roshi Bhadain is. Here is somebody who has less than two years’ experience in politics and you know what? Before he had completed even six months, he was given the highest distinction of the land [Ed- Bhadain was awarded the distinction of Grand Commander of the Star and Key]. Do you find it surprising that power has gone to his head? This is what happens when you are rewarded for acting in a childish manner. Now the prime minister wants to go, yes, by all means go! You have well served the country in the past, you deserve a rest now.

Many people who have been vocal about his decision say that it is a disguised way to make his son prime minister when he wasn’t actually voted as prime minister. Do you agree?

I don’t but I can well understand people coming to that conclusion and thinking that is was a ploy. I personally give him the benefit of the doubt.

And you don’t see anything illegitimate about handing over the reign of power to his son, do you?

It is legally and constitutionally acceptable that the president appoints the leader who commands the majority in the House. That is my interpretation of the constitution. That leader might well be Pravind Jugnauth. He is the leader of the majority party in parliament. He commands a majority on his own but also with the help of two other coalition partners.

Is what is legal necessarily moral?

No, of course not. To prevent the country from losing its credibility and its reputation, we have to show that this is not a dynasty. It’s not a country where power goes from father to son. I would therefore suggest that Pravind Jugnauth be appointed prime minister of Mauritius and once appointed, he announces that he will call a general election within a period of time, say, six months or a year.

Why would he do that if the constitution allows for his father to pass on the power to him?

Because of two reasons: one, it is not morally acceptable for him to continue as prime minister without being mandated by the electorate. Secondly, and more importantly, that by going back to the electorate, he will get rid of the dynasty succession that will stick to him forever.

How would you have reacted if you were still the president of the republic?

I would have acted legally, but if my advice was sought, given the relationship that a president has with the political leadership and the prime minister, this is what I would have advised the new prime minister to do: take over but allow elections within six months or one year so that the image of the country doesn’t take a blow?

Do you think this is what is likely to happen?

I hope he follows this advice.

Apart from being a past president, you are also a member of the global leadership foundation, an organisation of former presidents and prime ministers in several countries. What opinion does this foundation have of our country?

I can tell you that until a few years ago, Mauritius had the highest esteem in the eyes of all members of the global leadership foundation, including the officials working at its headquarters. Mauritius was very often quoted as one of the best examples of democracy and good governance, not only in this part of the world but across the globe. I very often enjoyed this reputation personally because I was asked to give details of how Mauritius has managed when everything around seem to be so dark. I was very humbled but at the same time proud to explain how we had political leadership with a vision in Mauritius, how we had very educated people, how democracy functions in our country and how the separation of powers works in an inclusive democracy. But yesterday, members of that organisation have been sending me worrying mails to ask me what is happening in Mauritius.

What worries them so much?

There are two things. The dynastic succession and secondly what is happening to the former prime minister of Mauritius. Believe it or not!

What are you going to tell them?

Everything that I know! There have been cases of witch-hunt and also we have a system where when a minister comes in, he comes in with his advisers and he even appoints chief executive officers in certain parastatal bodies who are not only close to him but who share his own political and ideological views.

Hasn’t that always been the case in Mauritius?

No, this has never been the case. You appoint chairpersons or parastatals’ CEOs from a pool of people who are qualified and well-versed in the subject and some of them may not necessarily share your political and ideological views. This is how it has always been done but to say publicly that this parastatal falls under my responsibility so the choice of the one who is going to be CEO is mine, has never happened in Mauritius. Today, competence and meritocracy have no meaning any more.

Apart from the prime minister’s announcement this week, there has been another important event: The Italian court has ruled that Nandanee Soornack would not be extradited because they don’t believe the police will be impartial in their work and they deplore the intervention of the attorney general and other politicians in the case. Should that be a source of worry for us as a country?

This is a blow to the Mauritian police and the politicians involved. I was telling you that the commissioner of police seems to forget that he holds a constitutional post and that his post is guaranteed precisely to enable him to do his job properly and not to be at the beck and call of the head of the government or any other minister. The attorney general should never have been involved in this case and the police should never have arrested a solicitor whose services had been retained in the case.

This is all very well in theory but the commissioner of police can be sacked by the government can’t he?

Yes, but there is a procedure to follow. The case in point is that of Raj Dayal. He did, according to the government of the day, a lot of things that were not proper for a commissioner of police to do, charges were drawn against him and referred to the president, who happened to be me in those days. I had to go according to what the constitution says, that is to appoint an independent tribunal, which I did. The tribunal found Raj Dayal guilty on 15 or 16 of the charges brought up against him and recommended his dismissal. So, I dismissed him. (Laughs) He was elected by the people afterwards in spite of the corruption charges of which he was found guilty. Shakespeare said that the mob is fickle-minded. In many cases short-minded also, I would add. Going back to the police, the latest that we have heard, and this is simply out of this world, is that a new batch of police officers have been recruited without any interview being done! This is too important to be allowed to go unnoticed. A batch of 400 or 500 new recruits without interview! They might well include psychopaths or sociopaths, you never know. You have not interviewed them. On what basis did you recruit them?

You don’t seem to be happy with the recruitment policy of the government. Are you happy with the economic situation?

(Immediate reaction) No! The mishandling of the British American Investment (BAI) companies by an inexperienced minister and the way he went about dismantling a whole empire has left everyone with the impression that the government looked for the slightest opportunity to nationalise an institution. This does not encourage people from outside to come and invest in Mauritius. We badly need foreign direct investment to be able to create jobs. Not Heritage City, which would at best create one-off jobs but would rather put the country in debt for generations to come.

Are you more inclined towards the Metro Express?

Yes. I think we have been postponing this for too long. We are losing millions of rupees daily in traffic jams and lots of frustration among the travelling public.

You said there are lots of things which are happening for the first time and which are negative. Can we end on a positive note?

(Thinks for a long time) Perhaps one aspect of the budget is positive and should be underscored although it is not completely to my satisfaction. The issue of making the eradication of poverty one of the major objectives of the budget. However, it is not enough to provide funds because poverty is not only the absence of funds. It is not only an economic problem. It is a cultural and social problem. Poverty must be dealt with holistically and globally. We have the means to do away with abject poverty but we have to involve the poor people themselves. You cannot decide for the poor people. They may be poor but certainly not fools, they know their problems better than anybody else. Get them involved in the programme that you have if you want it to succeed.

Recently we have seen the inauguration of the Turkish Airlines office by the president of the republic. Would you have inaugurated an office for a foreign airline in this country?

The president must have good reasons that prompted her to inaugurate the office of Turkish Airlines. I would have thought twice before inaugurating the office of any foreign airline. I would think that, as a president, my loyalty lies solely with Air Mauritius. I would also have, whenever possible, travelled by Air Mauritius and I wouldn't wish to be seen in any other way promoting another airline.

Do you think that the president of the republic should have a minimum experience in politics to be able to deal with such matters?

Different people have different views on this issue. Some people think that a person with no political background should be appointed as president of the republic of a country like Mauritius. Others believe that at least a minimum experience in the political field is necessary. I am of those who believe that a minimum experience in politics would be very helpful for a president because the nature and scope of work that s/he is expected to do.

Do you agree with those – like Navin Ramgoolam – who think the post of vice-president of the republic should be abolished as it is too costly and unnecessary?

I am not in favour of abolishing the post because when the president is out of the country, for whatever reason, someone has to replace him.

The chief justice can cover for him, can’t he?

I don’t agree with the chief justice covering for the president on any occasion. The vice-president assumes all the powers of the president including giving assent to bills voted in the national assembly. We have seen a case where the president resigned and so did the vice-president in protest against a very controversial bill, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the chief justice was called in to cover for both and gave his assent to the bill. If the bill had been challenged in court and found to be unconstitutional, the chief justice would have found himself in an awkward situation warranting even his resignation.

The situation you are talking about is very exceptional, though, isn’t it?

Not really! There are bills passed in parliament on a weekly basis and they go to the presidency sometime later. So either the president or the vice-president has to be there to assent to them. Chief justices might well find themselves in a judge and party situation.

In spite of the cost?

This is what I call penny-wise and pound-foolish. One ministerial trip costs more than what the vice-presidency costs for a whole year. We have to make savings elsewhere. Not cut down on democracy.

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