Democracy On Trial

This is certainly not the Mauritius we want as a nation

By Mrinal Roy

The new surge of Covid-19 in the country as from the 5 March has overshadowed and basically shifted public attention away from all the scandals which has bedeviled government since last year. Despite conspiracy theories, the resumption of parliamentary sessions on 23 March 2021 and the live TV broadcast of the highhanded manner parliamentary democracy is being muzzled have once again reminded people of the long list of scandals plaguing the country and the appalling state of governance with a vengeance.

The benchmarks of democracy must be absolute. They cannot be watered down. Parliamentary sessions and the tenor and standard of debate and parliamentary question time aptly conducted by a respected and impartial Speaker are yardsticks of democracy. In a vibrant democracy, parliamentary question time is therefore an opportunity for government to proudly showcase its good governance and the competence with which it is running the affairs of the country. This is certainly not the case in the country.

Lofty ideals

People who join politics must above all realize that it isa serious undertaking. It is about lofty ideals, a commitment of altruistic service to the people, a high code of ethics and propriety, exemplary good governance, promoting equal opportunities and meritocracy, ensuring transparency and accountability of government actions and public spending, relentless efforts to contribute constructively towards the establishment of a better socio-economic order for the benefit of one and all and much more.

This political ethos is applicable to all elected MPs who truly pledge to represent and uphold the interests of the people and the country irrespective of their party.

Politics is therefore certainly not about an endless game of one-upmanship, ploys and stratagems between government and the opposition to outsmart each other instead of unswervingly putting the interests of the people and the country at the centre of their initiatives and actions. The role of the opposition is to question and scrutinize government policies and actions, be incisive and constructive.

Honest answers

For too long, the benchmarks of democracy in the country have been plummeting under successive governments. Why on earth should legitimate parliamentary questions on key matters of public interest by opposition MPs be systematically scuttled through shenanigans of every kind to muddle the issue or be the object of arbitrary expulsions of opposition MPs? People expect government to provide honest and straightforward answers to parliamentary questions germane to the interests of the country and in particular those related to the use of public funds and governance. Any subterfuge or patent stratagem to hide vital information regarding public interest and the management of the affairs of the country is unacceptable to the multitude. There is growing outrage in the country at such abject ploys to conceal the truth from public scrutiny.

The recent patently unsatisfactory answers given by government to a parliamentary question regarding the alleged difficulties of the Director of Audit to have access to important documents required to carry out its audit of the Safe City project is a case in point. In line with elementary rules of transparency and accountability, how can the Director of Audit not have access to all the cost elements of the controversial Safe City project costing a whopping Rs19 billion (which has beenincapable of providing key deliverables such as video footage to help elucidate criminal cases), in order to carry out hisconstitutional mandate of audit?

Decried gambits and ploys

The people are fed up with gambits such as special purpose vehicles, confidentiality agreements, Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreements, the setting of state private companies and similar stratagems to shroud billions of Rupees of public funds in opacity outside the scrutiny of Parliament or government audit.

The latest avatar of such decried ploys is the reported setting up of a private company, the New Social Living Development Ltd, to build 12,000 social housing units at a cost of Rs 12 billion financed from public funds announced in the 2020-21 budget proposals. A total blackout also surrounds spending details from the one-off Rs 60 billion lifeline received by government from the Bank of Mauritius to boost up strapped government revenue in order to grapple with the adverse fallouts of the Covid-19 crisis as well asthe billions of Rupees advanced by the Mauritius Investment Corporation Ltd (MIC) out of public funds of Rs 80 billion to distressed private companies to bail them out.

Shameful high-handedness

A strong parliamentary opposition is an essential element of a vibrant democracy. It helps keep the government on its toes and bring its actions and policies under close scrutiny in the national interest. A constructive opposition can help build consensus on key policies for the common good and team up to expand the democratic space.

It is therefore a shame that three senior MPs of the opposition have been suspended from Parliament on 30 March for the rest of the session ending in August 2021 following motions tabled by the Prime Minister, ‘unless unreserved apologies are tendered by them to the House’. This is patently punitive and disproportionate and certainly not in keeping with the best democratic principles prevailing in the world. They are seeking redress in court which could take long. The decried ruling therefore arbitrarily prevents them from carrying out their mandate as elected MPs. This is abjectly high-handed and is certainly not the brand of democracy Mauritians want. Their suspension must be promptly ended.

Blindly complicit

In a vibrant democracy, the onus is squarely on all elected MPs and the people at large to ensure the highest standards of governance in the country and that there is absolute transparency and accountability of the government decision making process and all public funds collected and spent. For too long in the chequered political history of Mauritius, MPs kowtowing to the interests of their political leaders rather than upholding those of the people and the country have been complicit in blindly endorsing widely decried government decisions in the teeth of public interest. Subservience to party leaders is now entrenched in the political culture of the political class in the country.

Like Covid-19, we above all need as a nation to break loose from this crippling political straightjacket so detrimental to the prospects of the country. The young are imbued with a certain idealism and refreshing values. They are driven by lofty hopes and ambitions.

How can the young elected MPs therefore reconcile their ideals and values with the country’s plummeting state of governance, nepotism, cronyism and the government decision to appoint the coterie at the head of key state institutions, state companies or as ambassadors which are so disastrous to the interests of the country? How can they turn a blind eye on the lack of transparency and accountability of government spending, government procurement tenders and costly projects such as Safe City?

Can’t they measure the distress of consumers in a context of escalating prices of consumer goods fuelled by the unchecked depreciation of the Rupee despite supermarkets having the cost leeway to offer heavy price discounts of 23% to 48% during their monthly sales promotion campaigns? Are they tacitly content to bring the weight of their numbers to indiscriminately vote in favour of policies and actions which are patently against the public interest? More importantly do they discuss these key issues of governance, accountability, judicious public spending and national policies with the electorate which elected them to office or do they just sycophantically abide by the directives of their leader?

The Mauritius we want

Without the support of young MPs, no contested policy or action can be approved. Against such a deplorable backdrop, they can surely opt to leverage their numbers to bring about a paradigm shift in governance, democratic standards and policy framework. This will certainly take the wind off the sails of the arrogance and smugness of power.

This is certainly not the Mauritius we want as a nation. The hope of a significantly better Mauritius can only be realized by the bright and talented young of the country driven by lofty ideals, a high standard of ethics, a commitment of service to the people and country and the intellect to chart an innovative pathway towards a more prosperous future for the benefit of one and all.


* Published in print edition on 16 April 2021

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