High time to shift focus to more important national issues

As the weeks go by, we have the impression that ever more tales of public midemeanours will keep unfolding on the scene.

This past week, Navin Ramgoolam was arrested once again on charges relating to decisions taken by him under the Non-Citizens (Property Restriction) Act while he was Prime Minister. The usual scenario played out. Matters came to a crux on Friday. He had a longer sojourn in police cell this time until the Bail and Remand Court, sitting on Saturday and Sunday, was able to reach a decision on his request for bail.

It will be sometime before the charges being laid against him are heard by a court of law. The court may clear him or find him guilty of the charges being levelled by the police from time to time. The authorities are now after his and his relatives’ personal safe deposit vaults at a commercial bank. In his meeting with the media on Sunday last, after his release on bail, Navin Ramgoolam predicted that he might be arrested once again.

No one is saying that Navin Ramgoolam would be blameless in all the accusations being made against him. But what one is interested in is the play-out of fairness to all sides. The police should have the opportunity to convince the court that their accusations are properly grounded in law. The accused should be able to put up his defence. The court should be able to pronounce its verdict based on the charges.

The problem is the impression surfacing that the stories being ventilated in public by part of the media may be far from the actual truth in this and other cases. There may be interest in magnifying the torts from one specific angle in order to project our entire political class as being riddled with corruption. Such games are not usually zero-sum-games. The dominant economic elite will find its hands strengthened as the credibility of the political class goes under in the process.

Under no circumstances is graft to be condoned, be it by the former Prime Minister or any current or prospective holder of a high public post. But, having said this, long-enduring unproved allegations of graft may have damaging consequences.

In this respect, it is worth quoting a passage from The Economist of 9th May 2015 in which the newspaper speaks out on the current “descent into investigative madness” about graft in numerous economies. It writes: “The economic effects of graft are insidious. Bribery distorts competition and diverts national resources into crooked officials’ offshore accounts. But the cost and complexity of investigations are spiralling beyond what is reasonable, fed by a ravenous ‘compliance industry’ of lawyers and forensic accountants who have never seen a local issue that did not call for an exhaustive global review; and by competing prosecutors, who increasingly run overlapping probes in different countries”. It concludes that, given the zeal with which this issue is being addressed as investigations drag on involving a waste of management and public resources, “anti-corruption campaigners would have nothing to cheer if the cure ended up being more harmful than the disease”.

There is a clear public perception in our case that the strident stand taken by part of our media, combined with the time-to-time investigations unleashed by the police and other authorities, has started hurting the country’s image. One would have wished that justice was meted out expeditiously against whoever has been involved in wrong-doing. That would have been fair not only to the concerned protagonists on both sides of the political fence but, more importantly, it would also not have dragged the nation into a perpetual involvement with negative matters like alleged cases of graft.

People who have more important things to attend to are gradually getting fed up with the almost regular outpouring in public of stories about graft landing on the table, in the style of TV serials spewing out of the fertile imagination of film producers. There is a growing perception that a lot of it is being stage-managed to embarrass political rivals. This perception may not reflect the reality but it is catching up with the public the more new episodes are spinning out from the seemingly unending repertoire of accusations.

If true, the backlash of all that is going on also carries a worrisome prospect for the population.

And this is that it might resuscitate sympathy for Navin Ramgoolam, despite all the negative perception the population has of him. His unexpected appearance at the Executive Meeting of the Labour Party the week before last, ending up with Arvind Boolell deciding to leave the meeting as it was turning obnoxious, showed that he has started believing that he is redeeming himself from the disgrace into which he led Labour at the last elections.

Still, it will be some time before voters forgive him for the manner in which, in alliance with Paul Bérenger, he led Labour into catastrophe and the lowest of its historical lows last year. The party was severely sanctioned to the point that its historical legacy went into oblivion. In sharp contrast to all of this, the persistent thrust by the new government has the potential to portray him rather as the victim, and thus enable him to win popular sympathy. In the process, he himself might be led to believe that the tide is turning the other way.

Suddenly, people will start living once again the dangerous prospect which the Labour-MMM alliance of last year represented to them. The resurgence of this alliance may haunt them. But, as much as they abhor this prospect, they might react violently against all those who are working it up from the government side to make such a prospect a reality. Whereas the people who voted for Lepep last year were hopeful that such a negative prospect would be effaced from their memories for good, their ire would turn against the seemingly indefatigable investigators who appear to have found extensive hunting grounds and the opportunity to inflict successive humiliations on him. All this has started looking like a repeat of the same obnoxious methods which the previous government was employing against political rivals and adversaries.

One would have thought that, to avoid such a backlash against the government in place, the matter would have been left to institutions that are charged with carrying out investigations. The latter would have been expected to lodge straightforwardly and expeditiously their carefully worked out investigations and charges, without parading it out in public, to enable a court to serenely decide on the accusation in a fair, transparent, just and decisive manner.

Is the government apprehensive that, as Navin Ramgoolam claimed last week after he was released on bail, that “they have not an iota of proof” to stand up the charges being levelled against him? Is this the reason why we have apparently embarked on a seemingly unending investigative process, only aimed to hit against the credibility of the political adversary, given that the matter can be dragged on at will until a court finally decides?

If this is not the case, we are losing time, precious time. The country has other major concerns about its future. We need someone to attend and prioritize them in earnest, with results to show, not sheer promises of better things to come. Should the government’s attention turn to these more important issues, we will stop losing ourselves into the seemingly endless thickets created by investigators and lawyers.

It is true that municipal elections are at the doorstep and that the government is wanting to win over the municipalities as well. The public display of alleged wrongdoing by previous politicians will help achieve this goal, no doubt, despite Labour having decided not to participate, thus taking away some of the fire from the game. But then, one should ask the question: will we keep employing the electoral system to continue registering waves of popular discontent? Or, will we at last realize that we have indeed a very small pool of truly talented and meritorious politicians across the board in the country, all political parties combined? That, therefore, the best we could do is to optimize rather our economic and social outcomes by making this very limited pool of political talents work up the true agenda the country should have been pursuing? Without losing our way into unending legalities and forensics?

* Published in print edition on 22 May  2015

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