Election petition in N°8: what the government and MBC’s counter-offensive in court look like

Avec le soutien de
(From left to right up) Pravind Jugnauth, Yogida Sawmynaden, Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun,  (Left to right down) Ivan Collendavelloo and Irfan Rahman were in Court yesterday.

(From left to right up) Pravind Jugnauth, Yogida Sawmynaden, Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun,  (Left to right down) Ivan Collendavelloo and Irfan Rahman were in Court yesterday.

This week, Supreme Court hearings on Suren Dayal’s electoral petition continued. However, it was Dayal in the dock being cross-examined by the prime minister’s and the MBC’s lawyers. What are the tactics used by the latter to rebut the petitioner’s accusations?

The battle of manifestos

The hearings into the Labour Party (LP) candidate Suren Dayal’s electoral petition continued at the 9th floor of the Supreme Court this week. On Tuesday morning, Dayal’s lawyer Robin Ramburn asked for specific documents to be lodged, parliamentary records of June 10 and 13, 2019 as well as testimony from statistician Chaya Bandinah from Statistics Mauritius. The latter told the court that in 2019, there were 224,277 people benefitting from the Basic Retirement Pension in Mauritius, with 10,235 beneficiaries from the district of Moka alone. She added that, according to official figures, there were 58,791 civil servants working in various ministries and government departments. This figure did not include employment figures from parastatal and local government bodies. According to her testimony in court, there were 1,076 firemen, 1,189 prison officers and 12,743 police officers in the country. “We do not keep such information by constituency or district,” Bandinah said. Ramburn wanted the figures in court to help build Dayal’s case that promises of a pension hike, advancing the PRB report and promising bonuses to those public officers helped sway the 2019 election. 

In the afternoon, prime minister Pravind Jugnauth, Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun walked into court, coming from Parliament. Sitting in the front row of the public benches are Pravind Jugnauth on the left, Dookun-Luchoomun in the middle, and Yogida Sawmynaden on the far right. From time to time, Jugnauth leans over to talk to Dookun-Luchoomun, while Sawmynaden keeps looking straight ahead. 

Dayal was called to the witness stand by Ravind Chetty, lawyer for Jugnauth, Dookun-Luchoomun and Sawmynaden. Chetty’s questions revealed a clear strategy: try to show what the government did was nothing new and was done by previous governments as well. After showing the MSM-ML election manifesto, Chetty asked Dayal whether he had seen it. “They had passed the budget in June and promised to increase the pension by Rs 500 and then the prime minister dissolved parliament and came to a targeted gathering (referring to the 1 Oct 2019 SVICC event where Jugnauth promised to eventually double the pension to Rs 13,500)… it’s alright to have this in a manifesto but when you trade for votes this is electoral bribery,” said Dayal. Chetty then pulled out the LP-PMSD manifesto and pointed out their promise to increase the pension to Rs10,000. “We were in the opposition,” Dayal explains, “in a manifesto you are selling your ideas, whereas the Alliance Morisien was trading; if you vote for me, you will get Rs13,500!” 

Much the same tactic could be seen in Chetty’s cross-examination of Dayal on the promise to push forward the implementation of the Pay Research Bureau report. After the 2016 PRB report, mandating the working conditions within the civil service, the government changed the interval of each report from three to five years. But just before the 2019 election, the government pledged to implement the next report as from 2021 rather than 2022. Chetty, once again brandishing the LP-PMSD manifesto asked about the promise to bring back the PRB report on a 3-yearly basis. “It was like that in 2013 and 2016, we wanted to bring it back to that.”. Under this pledge, Chetty asked, “the next report would have been in 2020?” to which Dayal replied, “I don’t agree with your interpretation.” That got Judge Chan Kan Cheong to come in, “the question is simple, if the last one was in 2016, then logically it would be…” leading Dayal to quickly respond, “the PRB would have come out in 2021 and then every three years from there,” with Dayal insisting this was an “act of bribery”. Chetty then turned to another pledge in the LP-PMSD manifesto promising, for example, to lift duties on cars for civil servants. “It was in our manifesto, it’s normal, but it’s not trading,” Dayal said. 

The court then broke for tea, with the government members leaving. But with Sawmynaden trailing a good four paces behind Jugnauth. No words had been exchanged between the two throughout the course of the hearing so far. After the break, Chetty’s questioning continues in the same vein. The government’s official plea in response to Dayal’s petition regarding the Oct 1, 2019 SVICC meeting for elderly people, officially to commemorate the international day for elderly persons, is that such meetings have been held every year by the social security ministry since 1990. And this was the point that Chetty’s cross-examination of Dayal wanted to drive home. 

After stating that the event had involved 3,400 people in 2016, 2,300 people in 2017, 3,000 in 2018 and 5,000 in 2019 (at this Dayal interjects: “The figure speaks for itself!”). “For this event, all people are given food and refreshments?” Chetty asks, referring to another point in Dayal’s petition where he talks about refreshments to the attendees. “In general yes, sandwiches, snacks, water, many of them have health issues…” Dayal responds. Now Chetty pounces, brandishing photos of the 2010 event and reading out extracts of a speech by thenprime minister Navin Ramgoolam talking about the then-government’s efforts to increase the pension. “He was not doing a campaign,” Dayal responds, “this was a welfare state policy, we all know the welfare state is the baby of the Labour Party. That event was held after an election. This is the difference between then and what happened in 2019…it was the same theme, but the context was different”. 

The point of Chetty’s cross-examination of Dayal was to show how what the MSM had done was nothing different from what others had traditionally done before. As Chetty’s questioning ended, the court went on a brief break. Jugnauth and Dookun- Luchoomun now huddled with their lawyers, while Sawmynaden was left talking alone to Raouf Gulbul, lawyer for the MBC. It was now Gulbul’s turn to grill Dayal. He told the court that he would need between four to five hours to do so. A surprised Judge Chan Kan Cheong postponed Gulbul’s questions for Wednesday. But since Jugnauth’s lawyer said that the prime minister had prayers scheduled at his house, the hearings should be held in the afternoon rather than the morning.

Literalism… or splitting hairs?

On Wednesday afternoon, the hearings resume. Once again Jugnauth, Dookun-Luchoomun and Sawmynaden take up the same seats. Jugnauth talks with Chetty and Eric Ribot while Dookun-Luchoomun and Sawmynaden look on. The session starts with Dayal back in the witness stand. 

That day it was not Chetty, but Raouf Gulbul putting the questions. His first question, however, led to a lively exchange. Gulbul started by asking about the LP-PMSD promise in 2019 to hike the pension to Rs 10,000. “It is irrelevant,” objects Dayal’s lawyer Ramburn, “if he wants to better the case of the respondents, no problem but he has to stay relevant.” A sharp barb: after all, Gulbul is officially the MBC’s lawyer, not of Jugnauth, Dookun-Luchoomun and Sawmynaden. Judge Chan Kan Cheong insists that Gulbul’s questions “must be relevant to your case of whether the MBC was unfair or not”. The barb has hit home. Gulbul retorts, “I am not here to better the case of the respondents. What I am doing, I am doing on behalf of the MBC!”.

Gulbul’s strategy on behalf of the MBC soon became clear. If Chetty’s strategy was to show how the MSM was only doing what others had done before, Gulbul’s strategy hinged on literalism and attention to detail. In building his case against the MBC, Dayal’s petition argued that even the ESC had to “call to order” the national broadcaster, referring to a missive sent by the ESC after a complaint over a programme purporting to show banking details of LP leader Navin Ramgoolam accusing him of embezzling funds from his own party. Now consider the following exchange on Wednesday:

Gulbul: “Call to order is an English term. Where is written in the (ESC’s communique in 2019 -ed.) that it is calling the MBC to order?”

Dayal: “The ESC said there is substance in the complaint.”

Gulbul: “There is no call to order. Prima facie there is substance. Prima facie does not amount to a call to order.”

Dayal: “The ESC found there was substance in the complaint by Patrick Assirvaden.”

Gulbul: “It says prima facie there is substance, but where is the call to order?”

Dayal: “The ESC pulled its ears in other words.”

Gulbul: “Pulling the ear is not the same as calling to order.”

The lawyer for the MBC then pulled out a letter from April 2010 penned by MMM’s Rajesh Bhagwan to the ESC complaining about the amount of time the MBC devoted to then-prime minister Navin Ramgoolam. “You said this was the first time that the ESC came out with a communique…. now we see in 2010 when Navin Ramgoolam was Prime Minister and Dan Callikan was Director General of the MBC, there were complaints against the MBC to the ESC,” Gulbul told Dayal. To this, Dayal responded, “Yes, but the ESC did not say there was substance to these complaints. The ESC did not take out a communique saying there was substance in this complaint as it did in 2019.” Gulbul then asked Dayal why the LP did not avail of its right of reply offered by the MBC in response to the programme that had attracted the ire of the ESC. “We saw how the MBC was working. It had already shown which side it was on. We did not see the use of it,” Dayal responded.

Part of the MBC’s case is that it is not against the LP, but that the latter has been hostile towards it. To show this on Wednesday evening, Gulbul showed two clips of Patrick Assirvaden from meetings on May 1, 2019 and October 11, 2019. The clips showed Assirvaden telling the MBC to leave the party’s meetings and that the party did not need it. “Patrick Assirvaden said that the MBC would come only at a time when there is no crowd and show that. They played a dirty game,” Dayal argued in court. Gulbul then said that the MBC had faxed two letters on Oct 7 and 15, 2019 to the LP asking for its planned events that it could cover but had received no reply. Gulbul then said that the MMM had sent its planned event list. “I will not reply on behalf of the MMM, I speak for the LP… I have nothing to do with the MMM; we refused to fall into the MBC’s trap,” Dayal argued. Gulbul then pointed out that the PMSD too, LP’s ally at the time, had sent its list of events to the MBC. “It was the PMSD who invited them, not the alliance as a whole,” Dayal responded. “Did the PMSD fall into the trap? Did it complain to the ESC about the coverage it got?” asked Gulbul. “The LP complained. The PMSD did not complain… the MBC passed a fake news against the leader of the LP,” came the reply.

Things soon took another literalistic turn when it came to a clip of an interview of the MBC’s Anooj Ramsurrun, where the MBC official acknowledged that though he got instructions from the prime minister, he did not face any pressure from the latter, who in fact told him to air opposition criticisms of the government too.

Gulbul: “Ramsurrun says he is not under any pressure from the prime minister.”

Dayal: “The clip shows him saying that the prime minister tells him how to cover the opposition.”

Gulbul: “He does not say that the prime minister tells him how to cover him or his ministers. Did you hear him saying that in the clip?”

Dayal: “He said that the prime minister has the right to give him instructions.”

Gulbul: “That does not mean that the prime minister gave him orders.”

Hearing postponed

Thursday was supposed to be a big day for the case. Salim Muthy, Ivan Collendavelloo, Rajendra Ramdhean and officials from the PRB and the MBC showed up to serve as witnesses as the case continued. Also coming to court was electoral commissioner Irfan Rahman, seated next to and chatting with Suren Dayal. Unlike other petitions, Dayal’s petition is not focused on the electoral commissioner’s handling of the elections. Once again, Jugnauth, Dookun-Luchoomun and Sawmynaden took the same seats they had over the past two days. Dayal’s lawyer Ramburn told the court that Dayal was not feeling well and had been advised by his doctor to rest for two days, leading to the case being postponed to next Monday.

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