It’s been a year since the transfer of the prime ministership from Anerood Jugnauth to his son, Pravind Jugnauth. The succession also led to the creation of a new, unprecedented position, that of the office of the minister mentor. The question has to be asked, with one year behind it: what has this position delivered? What has been the fruit of this new office?
In a televised speech in January, Anerood Jugnauth announced the transfer of power, citing health reasons, but added that he would be serving the government in another, unspecified capacity. Later on, the position of minister mentor – inspired by Singapore – was coined by the government. That allowed Anerood Jugnauth to continue sitting in parliament, the cabinet as well as keep some powers such as over road traffic, the police, Rodrigues as well as the file on the dispute over the Chagos archipalego with the UK. So one year on, what has Anerood Jugnauth’s tenure as minister mentor been like?
One big problem that the new minister mentor had to deal with was that his assumption of the new post came amidst an already prevailing general disappointment. His 2014 election campaign promised to deliver a ‘second economic miracle’, recreating a track record of strong and successful economic stewardship in the 1980s with Anerood as the prime minister and Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo as finance minister. “After whipping up this nostalgia and by raising expectations to such a pitch, Anerood Jugnauth was only bound to disappoint as prime minister,” observes historian Sateeanund Peerthum, “the gold turned out to be lead.” So with Anerood Jugnauth’s already-disappointing run as prime minister, it was not entirely clear what he was supposed to come up with as minister mentor either.
A reason for this confusion had not only to do with the fact that such a post was a complete innovation, but also that it seemed to be addressing much more mundane political exigencies, rather than a well-thoughtout plan. According to the former head of the department of history and political science at the University of Mauritius, Jocelyn Chan Low, the idea of creating a minister mentor in Mauritius first surfaced during the 2000 to 2005 Mouvement Militant Mauricien-Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MMM-MSM) government that involved a power-sharing agreement which saw the transfer of the Prime Minister’s Office from one party to another. “There was the question of what to do with Anerood Jugnauth after he ended his term as prime minister back then,” says Chan Low. “Copying Singapore by creating the post was seen as a solution because it solved a number of problems simultaneously: it allowed Anerood Jugnauth to retain high office, allowing for a smooth succession while at the same time avoiding the prospect of a by-election. But back then, it fell through because nobody was entirely clear about the idea enough to back it.” It was, he adds, “a very makeshift solution to a very specific political problem.” But in January 2017, the idea came to life, allowing a similar – albeit dynastic transfer – from father to son: Anerood Jugnauth as minister mentor and Pravind Jugnauth as prime minister-cum-finance minister.
So one year on, are we any clearer about what the post is all about? And what has been the fruit of this succession? The one single achievement that stands out is the shepherding of the Chagos archipalego dispute and securing a UN General Assembly resolution to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice for a non-binding advisory opinion. “In this one year, there does not seem to be any other achievement to show for the creation of this post,” says Peerthum. Although he adds that even this needs to be seen in its proper context: “The dossier to refer the matter to the ICJ has been sitting there since 1990 when Mauritius first mulled taking the matter there, all they did essentially was dust it off, add a few bits here and there and push the matter through”. And Peerthum should know, as then-Mauritian ambassador to the United Nations, he essentially drew it up. “Aside from that, the office of the minister mentor just seems to be an empty shell,” Peerthum argues. That is not to say that things have necessarily been rosier at the other end of the deal: Pravind Jugnauth, now prime minister, introduced some populist measures such as instituting a minimum wage and the negative income tax, but these were overshadowed by scandals that saw the resignations of Attorney General Ravi Yerrigadoo and Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of Housing and Lands Showkutally Soodhun. Not to mention a by-election that ended 2017 with a victory for the MSM’s arch-rival, the Labour Party.
But if the minister mentor has not delivered much, he has been a bit of a liability for the government and has put it in a tight spot at times. In March last year, when questioned about opposition criticisms about the government’s handling of the drugs problem, Anerood Jugnauth acidly remarked that, “does this interest me? Excuse me, but I p*ss on them!” This was soon followed by a couple of similar faux pas in October that same year. When asked about school cleaners on hunger strike protesting the fact that they earned Rs1500 a month because they were hired via a contracting company rather than directly by the schools, Anerood Jugnauth said, “I don’t give a damn about them”. The prime minister had to initiate some damage control by arguing unconvincingly that the minister mentor did not mean it in a disparaging way, before of course acknowledging that the cleaners had a point and giving in to their demand. That same month, on a visit to Rodrigues (one of the portfolios attached to Anerood Jugnauth’s office) when asked about the island’s water shortage, replied in an impolitic manner, “Have I come here to bring you water? Later you will ask me to bathe you as well!”
Then in December, instead of distancing himself from disgraced former cabinet members, former Attorney General Ravi Yerrigadoo, who is implicated in a money laundering scam and illegally facilitating a punter claim winnings from an offshore gambling website contrary to gambling laws, and Soodhun who was booted out after a recording emerged of him making communal statements regarding housing allocations, Anerood Jugnauth seemed to be standing firmly beside them. Both Yerrigadoo and Soodhun were invited and posed prominently beside the minister mentor at a private dinner in Roche-Noires organised by the minister mentor’s supporters. But that’s not all. “In parliament, he has not worked well, refusing to answer or claiming he does not know,” says Chan Low. “Everywhere else, instead of acting as an elder statesman, he is very much still acting the part of the party man.”
Most recently, this week Anerood Jugnauth criticised two magistrates who, in June 2015, found Pravind Jugnauth guilty in the MedPoint case, in which the latter has been accused of a conflict of interest when in 2010, as finance minister, he approved the purchase by the state of the MedPoint clinic in which his sister owned 86,983 out of 368,683 shares. The minister mentor said on a private radio, “I don’t know what was going through their minds when they gave this verdict.” The case will now be heard at the Privy Council. “This is in keeping with Anerood Jugnauth’s historically tense relationship with the judiciary,” says Peerthum. In the recent past, Anerood Jugnauth criticised what he termed to be lenient sentences in drug cases. In 1993, his deportation of a Sri Lankan national, while the deportation was being appealed in the courts, led to the resignation of former Supreme Court judge Robert Ahnee. “This can be counted as just another episode in that series,” concludes Chan Low.
Now the minister mentor this week has also said that if the prime minister is convicted by the Privy Council and is forced to step down as prime minister, he would be willing to step back into the Prime Minister’s Office. “This is a bit contradictory; the whole reason he resigned was because he said that his health did not allow him to continue to be prime minister, so what will change now?” asks Chan Low. “In any case, it will only further underscore how this whole thing has been dynastic from start to finish: the father resigns to make way for the son and when the son is in trouble, the father comes back!” Not exactly a great advertisement for the MSM, since technically it should be the party taking the decision, not the minister mentor.
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]