BAI Affair: ‘We still have to take the lid off everything. We hardly know anything’

Interview: Milan Meetarbhan

The “Lepep” years will be remembered as those of the tribalisation of the State”

There should be no repeat of what started in 2015. A newly elected government must vigorously pursue the policies and reforms for which it was voted in office and not be deflected by vendetta politics’

Following the Labour Day political meetings and some statements made about the BAI affair, Milan Meetarbhan, who is a constitutional lawyer as well as political observer, shares his views on the form and contents of these meetings and on evolutions on the political scene as the country gears up for its next general election. As regards the BAI, he says that “we hardly know anything yet except for what some of the participants themselves have said about the most extensive act of expropriation and reversal of economic dilution in the country,” and adds “the truth must be established as to how and why one of the biggest conglomerates in Mauritius was dismantled within a few days…” Read on:

Mauritius Times: Many political analysts are saying that the take-home lesson of the Labour Day political meetings is that the Labour Party (LP) would have won the day… in spite of the MBC-TV. It’s rather surprising because it did not look like there was a groundswell of support for the LP operating at the level of the electorate during the last few months, as happened in 2014 for the then Alliance Lepep, but the LP now seems to be back in the game. How could this happen all of a sudden?

Milan Meetarbhan: There is no doubt that the Labour Party which is viewed as the major challenger to the regime, including by the regime itself as shown in the consistent public statements of its leader and spokesmen, has created a new momentum in this electoral campaign since last week .

A party which has been resisting attempts to wipe it off the map by a regime bent on its elimination and which started mobilizing its supporters only a couple of weeks before the May Day rally managed to show that it is still alive and kicking. This will certainly give a boost to the party’s morale as it readies to fight the next elections.

* But isn’t it another of those default reflexes of the electorate that keep the musical chair going?

Not necessarily. 2014 was a freak election. What has happened since, has also been exceptional. The country has seen resignations of one President, one Prime Minister and of at least 9 ministers. In three years, the country has had three Presidents, two Prime Ministers and three Finance Ministers. On top of this, we have seen countless scandals. People want stability and decent politics.

* When you look back over the past four and a half years, what is your assessment of this government’s mandate?

I believe that historians will look back at 2014 as a turning point in Mauritian politics. This will be so for several reasons.

First, because of the outcome of the elections. Against all odds, an alliance of two major parties was defeated. Then what followed immediately after the elections was unprecedented. The leader of the majority party who had vowed before the elections to get the outgoing Prime Minister jailed, presided over a government which went to unprecedented lengths to settle scores and destroy the leadership and supporting infrastructure of its main challenger.

Only a few weeks after the elections, the former Prime Minister’s residence was raided and the former PM was arrested. At about the same time two foreign executives swore an affidavit stating that at a late night meeting three Ministers pressured them to make certain allegations, threatened them and offered incentives. This was followed by a wave of arrests and a systematic campaign to harass and get rid of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

2015 will be remembered as the annus horribilis of democracy in modern Mauritius.

The last four years have also been marked by an unprecedented surge of nepotism in the public sector. A scandal-ridden government has shown utter contempt for public opinion and continued with its appointment of relatives and cronies to crucial positions.

To crown it all, this period in our history will be remembered as the one during which a Prime Minister vacated office in order to anoint his son as Prime Minister. This blot on our democratic mores will forever be remembered as starting the second half-century of the history of independent Mauritius with a shameful chapter.

This period will also be remembered as the one during which not only MPs, Ministers and even the President had to be demoted or forced to resign but also when the conduct of parliamentary proceedings took a turn for the worse.

The “Lepep” years will be remembered as those of the tribalisation of the State. This is not the place where we want to be.

* Winning the day on the 1st of May is one thing. There is a long way to go before the LP can really — on its own or in alliance with another party — move in at Government House. There’ll surely be many a pitfall ahead, and the current Prime Minister has set the tone of the forthcoming electoral campaign with his caution to parents regarding the safety of their daughters. Things promise to be pretty rough, it appears. What do you think?

The importance of May Day rallies is still part of our political folklore. In an election year it takes added significance as the size of each party’s crowd is supposed to give an indication of the party’s rating ahead of the elections. This may not in fact be the case but this is what the party leaders believe. This view by the way is not necessarily shared by public opinion which is very skeptical of the means used by parties, especially those in power and with the deepest pockets.

There are people who only look at the size of the crowds and those who will pay more attention to what is said at those rallies. Live steaming of these rallies enables a wider section of the population to listen and assess the parties and their proposals for the future.

Whilst a large segment of the electorate and specially the younger generation wants to know what the parties stand for, how credible they are by virtue of their past record and how credible their respective teams are in terms of capacity to govern and deliver, they are disappointed at the discourse of some leaders which both in their tone and tenor is the same as that of the 1960s.

There are major concerns about the impending electoral campaign. First, economists and observers are worried about government largesse in the coming months in an attempt to obtain votes from targeted segments of the electorate. This may be detrimental to the economy in the medium to long term at a time when there are already serious economic challenges. These measures will be unopposed as no party facing an election will dare raise its voice against popular measures. There will thus be a semblance of national consensus on measures which may be totally irresponsible and potentially damaging to national interests.

The other major concern is about the use and abuse of state machinery for partisan purposes, on a scale we have never seen before. This will create another dangerous precedent and will weaken our democratic fabric.

An absurdity of this campaign is that one of the main planks of the regime’s platform will be the realization of the tramway project which was vehemently opposed by the ruling party during the previous electoral campaign! Young people cannot be blamed for thinking that in Mauritian politics, anything goes.

* Another surprising thing that has happened in the wake of the MSM-ML meeting is the reaction of the people on social media, in the workplace or in social settings to the MSM leader’s story about daughters’ safety. The people seem to have become prudish; they would have none of this, much like Labourites reacted with angry disapproval when the recording of a private conversation between SAJ and an erstwhile party sympathiser was aired at an LP meeting. Does that mean there’s a line politicians should not cross?

People were really shocked by the outrageous and sexist remarks of the leader of the MSM who ironically is trying hard on projecting himself as the defender of private morals. Pravind Jugnauth’s communications team, which includes the public-funded MBC, has been working strenuously on building a new image for their leader. There is a perception however that the image they have constructed and the actual persona are not the same.

As the saying goes, ‘Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop’. People are asking themselves whether the prime ministerial berth is the only thing he has inherited from his father.

* It there’s more to come and politicians will cross the line anyway, it could also betray the fear within the present team at Government house of what’s forthcoming in terms of payback. We hear that the LP will have a number of commissions of inquiries to look into various “affairs” if it accedes to power next time round. There might be good reasons to review certain policy decisions, but we might be in for another round of witch-hunting during the next five years. Can Mauritius afford that?

No, there should be no repeat of what started in 2015. But the law should follow its course. If serious crimes are suspected, the relevant authorities should be allowed to act in accordance with their statutory duties without any political interference.

A newly elected government must vigorously pursue the policies and reforms for which it was voted in office and not be deflected by vendetta politics. But it should not interfere to stop independent authorities from doing their job.

There is a similar debate going on in the USA at the moment. The Democrats are split on what to do after the Mueller report. On the one hand, there are those who believe that protracted investigations or impeachment proceedings will be politically damaging. There are others who say that the course of action must be dictated by rule of law irrespective of the political consequences. If there are facts revealed in the Mueller report which suggest that there may have been attempts to obstruct justice, then Congress has a duty to act

The truth must be established as to how and why one of the biggest conglomerates in Mauritius was dismantled within a few days and whether the proper legal procedures were followed. This must be done so that there are safeguards in place and that the same abuses or lapses do not happen again in future.

* What is there more to know about the BAI affair that a commission of inquiry will inform us than what nTan has’t? The political machinations? Hasn’t Roshi Bhadain not pinned the blame squarely on Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, who would have allegedly ordered the closure of the Bramer Bank after consultation with Paul Bérenger?

Everything. We still have to take the lid off everything. We hardly know anything yet except for what some of the participants themselves have said about the most extensive act of expropriation and reversal of economic dilution in the country.

Whether it was one Minister or another who triggered the whole thing is of no interest to the people.

It happened under a government which is still in power and which has to take full responsibility for the dismantling with indecent haste of one of the country’s largest conglomerates without due process, without any form of compensation and with thousands of people being deprived of their life savings as a result of action by the authorities.

In a country where we are used to pinning the blame for everything on the Prime Minister, we cannot let the then PM off the hook so easily. The nation has listened to a tape recording of a conversation which, if authentic, shows an envoy of Pravind Jugnauth – who at the material time was only an MP and did not hold any ministerial office – discussing with Dawood Rawat in Paris and reporting back to his principal. Unless the tape is proved to be fake, light must be shown on this episode of the BAI saga.

To restore investor confidence in the country, we must not only know what happened but also what must be done so that there is no arbitrary deprivation of property in future and that regulatory action is taken in accordance with the law and rules of natural justice.

* There is also the LP proposal to adopt an Economic Offenders Act. What is the rationale of such a legislation? Is that another Integrity Commission in the making, the track record of which does not appear to be impressive so far?

My understanding of Labour’s proposal is that persons holding public offices must be held personally accountable for unlawful acts or abuse/misuse of authority. To me the title of the proposed law does not matter, it’s the principle of law involved that matters.

There are already provisions of our Criminal law which provide for offences committed by public officers/functionaries for abuse of authority. We have to decide what needs to be reinforced and also as a nation decide what safeguards we have against arbitrary and cavalier acts by those in power which result in awards of huge damages which then have to be paid by taxpayers.

Politicians act with impunity and it is taxpayers who pick up the tab! This cannot be allowed to happen anymore. We need an independent group of lawyers to come up with proposals that are consistent with our legal system.

* To go back to the BAI, Roshi Bhadain has again brandished some documents in relation to “financial contributions” by the former Group to the MSM and the MMM (allegedly Rs 15M and Rs 10M respectively) before it was put down in 2015. He did not mention any contribution to the Labour Party, if any. What’s cooking, according to you?

I assume that the point being made is that those parties which have been critical of BAI have in fact accepted huge donations from Dawood Rawat. I am not aware of anything that’s cooking but I am aware of strong feelings in the rank and file of the Labour Party on future alliances. The Labour Party is a broad church and there are various schools of thought within the party on certain issues.

* We learn that the Government, for want of a full-fledged electoral reform, is now working on a ‘Financing of Political Parties Bill’ to ensure transparency and accountability of the beneficiaries of State finance. Even it becomes law before the next elections that will surely not rule out occult and vested interests’ financing for the forthcoming electoral campaign and for future elections. Neither will exclude the other, so what’s the best option?

I strongly believe in the need for electoral reform but I also strongly oppose any attempt to change the rules of the game just before an election. This applies to both changes in the electoral system and to changes in delimitations of constituency boundaries. Changes at this stage would be totally unacceptable as any electoral reform may potentially impact on voting behaviour, as studies have shown, and thus parties which have adopted electoral strategies based on existing rules cannot be subject to different rules just before the elections. This would be worse if changes are made by the ruling party which is itself one of the players. It would be like one team on a football pitch deciding unilaterally to change the rules and compelling the referee to apply the new rules which it has enacted.

It is unfortunate that the MSM which has always been opposed to electoral reform came up with totally unequitable, unreasonable and retrograde measures which were to a large extent self-serving and no consensus could consequently be obtained.

With respect to the party financing bill, it is important to know who will be responsible for enforcing the law. If, as is the case in many other institutions, the law is being flouted but the regulator or enforcer turns a blind eye, the new financing bill risks being used only to stifle some parties whilst the enforcer takes no action against the wealthiest party of the country.

* At his press conference last Saturday Paul Bérenger mentioned the need for a “mini-amendment” to allow candidates who do not wish to declare their communal belonging to stand for the next elections, as well as another constitutional amendment to provide for one-third of women candidates. He appears to have given up on the comprehensive electoral reform that he has always canvassed. The PMSD has also highlighted the fact that the MMM leader has been keeping quiet on the Metro project and the redrawing of electoral boundaries, etc. What does all this mean?

The so-called “mini-amendment” or interim solution adopted for the 2014 elections was supposed to be a one-off solution but it is becoming a permanent feature or at least a regular feature for elections to come as Parliament fails to adopt overall electoral reform.

It must be recalled that there is no legal obligation to act on the “views” expressed by the Human Rights Committee on the 1972 census. The HRC is not a judicial body and it provides views but not a judgment. Strictly speaking there are no legal consequences for the government if fails to act before the next elections. But there could be political and diplomatic ramifications for the country.

* As a constitutional lawyer and a keen observer of elections, how do you see the elections taking place in India at the moment?

I am amazed at the extent to which the largest democracy in the world has also built into its constitutional regime, powers of oversight over the electoral process which are probably second to none by its scope and reach. The Indian Electoral Commission can call to order any political party or candidate and even suspend a candidate from campaigning for a specified time in cases where there have been breaches of the electoral code. The screening of a biopic of the current Prime Minister was banned during the campaign.

In India where the Supreme Court has got one of the most brilliant records of independence and defence of democratic norms anywhere in the world, there is also an electoral supervisory framework which is a hallmark of Indian democracy.

* You have been very much involved in the legal and diplomatic proceedings on the Chagos issue. Are you surprised by the latest statement of the British government that it has no doubt about UK sovereignty on the Chagos?

Whilst this is a repetition of statements we have heard over the years, I suppose that many people were expecting the UK government to express its stance differently after the strong views delivered by judges of the ICJ which is the judicial organ of the United Nations and the highest judicial authority on international law.

To treat with such disdain the clear views of Judges of the world court on what is the law, on the grounds that there is no legally binding decision is, to say the least, unworthy of a country which champions rule of law across the world. I hope that the UN General Assembly Resolution will this time gather even more support than the initial resolution asking for an advisory opinion.

When this resolution was introduced in June 2017 some States abstained or voted against the resolution as they had their doubts about whether the subject matter was one for the Court’s advisory opinion. Now that the Court itself has removed these doubts and resolved this particular issue, I hope that these States will support the new resolution.

* Published in print edition on 10 May 2019

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