Cassam Uteem: “Being apolitical as president does not mean being politically illiterate”

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With the Caunhye Commission against Ameenah Gurib-Fakim in full swing, Weekly speaks to former President Cassam Uteem on what he makes of it. He also shares his opinion on the problems of appointing a nonpolitician as president, the Lam Shang Leen report on drugs and the current state of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM).

The commission of inquiry on Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is going to revive the polemic about her exit from the State House. Do you think the commission was necessary?

With due respect to the learned judges presiding over the commission of inquiry and who should have been spared this delicate and ungrateful task, it’s to me a wild goose chase or, if you wish, of a foregone conclusion! The only proper way of dealing with the situation the country was faced with at the material time, assuming there was an alleged attempt at usurping the powers of the Executive by the then president, would have been the strict adherence to the provision of our Constitution.

What do you mean? Is instituting a commission of inquiry not allowed by the Constitution?

The short answer is of course, yes, it is! My contention is that if our president had allegedly indulged in acts considered to be anti-constitutional or conduct unbecoming of the holder of that Office, the procedures laid down in the Constitution for such matters should have been followed, at the appropriate time.

Are you saying that nothing is likely to come out of the commission?

Not much that is not already of public knowledge or in the public domain.

What do you think should be done to avoid the country another humiliating episode?

The powers and responsibilities of the head of state and those of the head of government should be more clearly spelled out and be subject to no ambiguity. Moreover, the Office of the President should, among other things, be more adequately staffed and provided with Constitutional counsels independent of the State Law Office (SLO) who would help guide the president’s actions and decisions whenever required, especially as guardian of the Constitution.

What’s wrong with the president asking for advice from the SLO?

Let me take an example to explain why, according to me, the president ought to have counsels other than those of the SLO but not necessarily excluding the latter.  All government bills usually go through a process of consultation, drafting, often consolidation and re-consultation before they are presented in their final form. The drafting of the bill sometimes gives undue weight to meet the wishes of the minister concerned to the detriment of other serious considerations. These bills go through the National Assembly, are debated and voted with or without amendments before they are presented to the president for his/her assent. It may happen that the president is not agreeable with certain clauses of the bill which could be, according to his/her interpretation, unconstitutional, in which case s/he would be likely to ask for legal advice or for a second legal opinion. From whom? Surely not from the same SLO that gave clearance for the bill to go ahead? Based on personal experience and often as a result of conflicting views between the head of state and the head of government on certain important issues I have been privy to, I firmly believe that the Office of the President should be able to benefit from expert legal advice other than that of the SLO on request, whenever required. It is also my considered view that political acumen should be one of the essential characteristics of the holder of the highest office of the land if only because of the highly sensitive political issues he/she often has to deal with in the exercise of his/her powers and responsibilities.

Why should the president be necessarily a politician? Isn’t the post apolitical?

Being apolitical does not mean being politically illiterate. It means being above party politics, not being politically motivated or biased but certainly being politically sensitive. Somebody with no political culture, administrative or diplomatic experience cannot be expected to deliver as a head of state and can very easily commit blunders with serious repercussions both internally and externally. 

The previous commission on the drug trade highlighted quite a number of findings. Which of these come as a surprise to you?

What surprised me, as a concerned citizen, was not the rot but the extent of the rot that has permeated our society and the number of white-collar professionals, otherwise highly respected and often remunerated out of public funds, in whom the public had put their faith either to protect or defend them or to uphold justice, who have proved to be outrageous fakes, behaving like rogues and privy to the most dangerous and dubious trafficking and drug peddling that put at risk the lives of so many of our youngsters. It’s simply shocking!

Are you talking about the two politicians – Roubina Jadoo-Jaunbocus and Sanjeev Teeluckdharry – who have had to step down from their positions following the findings of the commission? Do you think they should have left the National Assembly considering the seriousness of the allegations made by the commission?

I believe those allegations are tantamount to an indictment and the honourable way out should have been resignation from the National Assembly or, if parliamentary rules allow it, leave of absence should have been requested until one’s name is cleared as a result of a judicial review.

Before the shortcomings of the police were highlighted by the Lam Shang Leen commission, you were telling us in a previous interview that you were shocked by what was going on in the police force. Were you comforted in your assumptions by these findings?

I remember saying that the situation in the police force was chaotic and dangerous because never before, to my knowledge, had there been so much interference in its day-to-day running from those wielding ministerial power. In the past, only the prime minister, who was also the interior minister, would give policy directives of a general nature to the commissioner of police. Today, instructions are received from ministers and acted upon diligently by the high cadres of the police force.

In some cases, even MPs have been giving directives to the police as in the case of Sudesh Raghoobur…

That’s a flagrant case of unacceptable interference for which he must at least have been told off by his party leader or even by a commissioner of police bent on the respect of his prerogatives. When juniors are witnesses to such actions from their superiors, how do you expect them to behave? When punitive transfers of honest police officers take place because, in the performance of their duty, they happen to book relatives of those close to power, what reaction do you expect of them? This is how the rot starts and once it does, temptation of easy money does the rest. There are of course those who are rotten and take advantage of their position, as those in the Anti Drug and Smuggling Unit (ADSU) who have been denounced by the commission, to become accomplices of the underworld. They deserve the harshest of punishment.

The latest scandal comes again from the serial offender– Showkutally Soodhun about the attire of his colleague, Fazila Daureeawoo. What is your take on that?

What can you expect from a nincompoop?  Ask me another! The question to be asked is why and for how long such public behaviour will be tolerated and considered acceptable by the leader of the political party to which he belongs. Pray, tell, who needs a court jester or a King Lear’s fool to be part of our august Assembly?

A King Lear’s fool with a job offer of Rs17 million? Did that offer surprise or amuse you?

Neither! He seems to be able to fool some people all the time or rather he thinks he can fool all the people all the time!

The government seems to be more and more on the back foot with its only hope being the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM). Do you see an MMM/Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM) alliance panning out?

At one time, I thought the MMM/MSM alliance was inevitable and probably the only solution for the MSM to save its skin and for the MMM to accede to power again.  I am now rather sceptical because of the difficulties in finding the right formula and the higher risk of further defections in the MMM ranks, and hence weakening the alliance, in the eventuality of an MMM/MSM alliance.

What kind of formula was being considered?

I was not and am not party to the indirect negotiations that seem to be going on nor can I totally discard the fact that it might all be a question of spin-doctoring. The obvious formula is the once successfully tested so-called “à l’israelienne” formula for the sharing of the prime ministerial post during the five-year term, which is being advocated by the MMM but strongly resisted or rejected by the MSM.

Would the two be prepared to work together under this formula?

From generally reliable sources, it appears that Paul Bérenger would not be prepared to work under Jugnauth Jr while the latter, if he were to become prime minister, wouldn’t want Bérenger in his cabinet of ministers, for reasons best known to themselves. The solution would be for Bérenger to be kicked up as president, in case the MMM/MSM alliance wins the general election. That would mean Bérenger stepping down as the MMM leader, a scenario which the latter is not prepared, so it is said, to consider now or in the future, while the MSM would be favourable to such an arrangement. However,  I believe the defining moment for even envisaging an MMM/MSM alliance would be the Privy Council ruling in the DPP v/s Pravind Jugnauth case, early next year. In the meantime, the political brokers will be kept on their toes, busy moving to and fro.

But how will Bérenger justify saving a party that he himself has been qualifying as rotten to the core? Another summersault?

Call it self-sacrifice or immolation in the higher interest of the country! That wouldn’t be a first for him! Some people, however, believe that as in 1976, there will be a three-cornered fight in the next election. Let’s wait and see.

Bérenger seems to be having a spot of trouble within his party with Steve Obeegadoo leaving the party for good. How do you react to that? Good riddance or what a disaster?

What a waste! Steve Obeegadoo tried to challenge the status quo but, in spite of being aware of the way his party operates, chose to go public on certain issues he knew were considered sensitive. His clash with Bérenger proved fatal to him. He enjoys more support outside than inside his party.  That explains why he and a few others around him thought they could outsmart Bérenger but find themselves today left in the lurch.

Is he really in the lurch? If he is popular outside, won’t he find his way to power?

He can create his own political party and draw a couple of thousand votes around the country in the next general election probably not even enough to aspire to a good-loser seat in the National Assembly or his party could become an appendix to a bigger one that is prepared to accept him as an electoral partner. Or he might team up with the Muvman Liberater (ML) in alliance with the MSM, and get himself elected and, as you say, find his way to power… But all these are, at this early stage, mere speculation.

But it’s not just Obeegadoo who has left the MMM. There seems to be a haemorrhage within the party. As a former militant, does that not worry you?

No it doesn’t; instead, it pains me that the ideals which the party strongly stood for have almost all vanished into thin air. Today, personality clashes, jockeying for positions, power-grabbing at all costs, back-biting hold sway within the party at the expense of genuine ideological debate, unity of purpose and the interest in providing solutions to ensure public well-being.

Is there any way to stop the ills you are enumerating?                                                               

The answer to this question lies with the leader of the MMM and his politburo.

The opposition, still disjointed, is talking about a snap election. Is there a possibility or is it the usual wishful thinking?

The MSM/ML government will hold onto power till the last, except if the Privy Council rules against Pravind Jugnauth, when pressure on him to step down both as prime minister and MP will become untenable. There is absolutely no reason, in view of the comfortable majority they command in the National Assembly, for the prime minister to call for a snap election, in spite of the misdemeanours of several of MSM MPs, who are being encouraged to stay put in front of rising discontent in the population against the latter, lest they resign their seat and provoke a by-election.

Is Pravind Jugnauth really scared of a by-election?

This is the only conclusion any reasonable person can reach when a political leader refuses to take his party members to task and ask them to step down as MP when they have been found guilty of serious misconduct or caught red-handed in some awkward situations. I seem to remember that his party was absent for the Quatre Bornes by-election, a first in the history of elections in Mauritius when a party in power chose to abstain from presenting a candidate at a bye-election and which saw the victory of the Labour Party’s Arvind Boolell. If this is not being scared then it can only reflect the immaturity of that political party’s leadership; its failure to contest the by-election constitutes a blot on our democracy.

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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