Constitutional Appointments: Ethnicity & Merit
The next few days will be dominated by the issue of appointing a successor to Mr Paramasivum Pillay Vyapoory as Vice-President and, in the same breath, the President of the Republic. The latter appointment will attract more attention given the importance of the post in our constitutional set-up, but also because of the political and ethnic colouring that such an appointment carries in a plural society like ours. One other consideration that has lately surfaced and will surely come into play in the decision-making process is the need to ensure that the next holder of the post is not likely to cause harm to the reputation and image of Mauritius.
To convince voters from as many diverse ethnic groups as possible to vote in favour of the parties or alliances contesting elections, public statements of intent are usually made by party leaders as to who would be appointed to top positions. The Alliance Lepep had in 2014 accordingly announced that the President of the Republic would be chosen from the Muslim community while the Vice-President would be from the Tamil-speaking group of the population. The same holds true for the Labour Party-MMM’s Alliance Sociale, which had also come out publicly with the names of their nominees before those elections. It has not been any different in 2019.
A Tamil-speaking candidate was first proposed, Mr Menon Murday, an MSM candidate fielded in the elections of 10th December 2014 in Constituency No 13, but he was defeated in the elections. There was an element of scuffle around this appointment within the MSM. The then Prime Minister expressed his doubts about his competence to be appointed to such an elevated position. It was decided then to appoint instead Mrs Vidya Narayen, a retired Supreme Court judge, said to belong to the same ethnic group as Mr Murday.
Mrs Narayen declined the offer made to her, choosing to remain outside of controversies that her proposed appointment had sparked in this context. After her dignified exit, other names from the same group had been proposed and the choice ultimately fell on Mr Paramasivum Pillay Vyapoory, whom we should in all fairness acknowledge that he served with dignity in the roles he was called upon to honour, namely Vice-President and Acting President of the Republic – barring some minor controversy around his friendly association with a South African businessman.
Overall, therefore, Mr Vyapoory has served the country well. That stands in sharp contrast to the earlier occupant at the State House, whose muddled exit is being investigated by the Commission of Enquiry headed by Judge Ashraf Caunhye. The saga that played out at the national level involving the former President was a most shameful ‘first’ inflicted on our Presidency to date with an ex-President ultimately hauled before a Commission of Enquiry.
The question has been raised in some quarters as to whether it is necessary and imperative to choose someone for high positions from specific ethnic groups. Or whether it would have been better to appoint persons of high integrity and personal worth, irrespective of ethnic considerations. Whether it has to do with the post of President or Vice-President of the Republic, one has to remember that the Vice President acts for the President in his absence and that a person no less than the Chief Justice is called upon to temporarily assume office “where there is no Vice-President”. The presidency is a high constitutional post which also confers several privileges and advantages on the incumbent.
One should not jump to the conclusion that, because an appointment at such a level is being made after taking into account the symbolic importance of the incumbent in the context of the country’s plural character that the one being appointed would not also have merits to qualify for the post. Many could also argue that it would be in the country’s interests to choose symbolic representations in high positions of the State from among the best we could have from any specific section of the population.
However, while such symbolism is no doubt of relevance so as to maintain a certain balance and representativity given our pluralism, no government should feel constrained by this nonetheless dubious criterion. For the country’s sake and its international standing, at all times merit should be the overriding criterion.
In making such a vital choice, it is therefore of the utmost importance for the profile of the individual to be carefully scrutinized on the basis of information subtly gathered not only about any qualifications possessed and track record, but equally if not more relevant are inputs from reliable sources in both his/her personal and ‘working’ environment that would testify about the personal qualities such as integrity and character of the person. Anyone with a propensity to seek the limelight or to be a media ‘salebrity’ is unlikely to be a serious or credible contender, as we have sadly had to experience.
* Published in print edition on 29 November 2019
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