The Acting Vice President N. Ramsoondar and Magistrate M.I.A. Neerooa of the Intermediate Court delivered a judgement on 30th June in the case instituted by the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) against Minister Pravind Jugnauth.
ICAC was suing the Minister for having committed the offence of conflict of interest pertaining to a provision of the Prevention of Corruption Act 2002 (POCA). The case related to the execution of an official document, along with other officials of the Ministry, by the Minister concerning reallocation of identified saved budgetary funds, at a time he was serving as Minister of Finance under a previous government.
It has to do with the acquisition by the government of land and building from Medpoint Ltd – a company in which the Minister’s sister had a shareholding – for the purpose of establishing a National Geriatric Hospital. Following Cabinet decision in which the Minister chose not to participate for reason of being conflicted, papers relating to the reallocation of budgetary funds were brought by officials to him, in the aftermath of the Cabinet decision already taken to acquire the property, to close the deal before the end of the fiscal year 2010 due to end shortly.
The Court has found the charge of conflict of interest levied by the ICAC against the Minister proved beyond reasonable doubt. An offence has been committed and it is deemed a criminal offence under the POCA. The judgement is determined entirely by reference to section 13(2) of POCA which states that –
“where a public official or a relative or associate of his has a personal interest in a decision which a public body is to take, that public official shall not vote or take part in any proceedings of that public body relating to such decision”.
The court finds that the Minister was a ‘public official’, was serving in a ‘public body’ (the Ministry) and that, despite being aware of the fact that any decision to act with the government deal involving his sister, a shareholder and a ‘relative’, he nevertheless approved, along with officials, the decision to reallocate the funds saved by the then Ministry of Health for this project.
The court has therefore concluded that it is established beyond reasonable doubt that, by signing the official document, Pravind Jugnauth has committed the offence of being in a situation of conflict of interest. For the court, it is irrelevant in the present case that Pravind Jugnauth declared his interest when the matter was brought earlier before Cabinet where he decided not to participate in the discussions. The court has determined the matter on a purely technical point, notably the Minister’s participation, at the stage of executing the Cabinet decision, in the signing of the official document, irrespective of whether he did so in good or bad faith.
Beyond the further legal recourse he may have to appeal the judgement before the Supreme Court, this judgement has implications for other political protagonists currently being investigated by the police for interference in the allocations of government contracts. It may have more far-reaching consequences for politicians who have not been treading carefully on the razor edge of the legal sword.
Pravind Jugnauth, who was the Minister of Technology, Communication and Innovation in the newly elected government of December 2014, has taken the decision to step down from his ministerial position forthwith, following the judgement given by the Intermediate Court. This will have repercussions in the existing political establishment, inasmuch as he was being seen in certain quarters as the most probable successor of Sir Anerood Jugnauth as the future Prime Minister of a government alliance between the MSM, the PMSD and the ML. Various assumptions made heretofore on future political management will be disrupted.
If Pravind Jugnauth goes on appeal, as expected, against the judgement and that takes some time to be resolved, a certain amount of new uncertainty will be injected into the political configuration. Hopefully, SAJ will hold the government fort together in the manner he has done so far. Hopefully also, the necessary serenity with which a country should be governed will not be unduly perturbed by the verdict handed down by the court. The court is, of course, unconcerned by the political fallout of its purely legal and technical decision.
There exists a risk however that the more it takes time to recompose matters after this verdict, the more fissures and cracks could seize the political establishment of the country as a whole.
As things stand today, Labour has failed to gather around it most its core supporters who abandoned it in the wake of the December elections. Most likely, as the Labour leader keeps appearing before the CCID on the serial charges being levied against him, confidence in the party’s revival will keep sinking. In the context, the misfortune currently visiting Pravind Jugnauth will not likely yield dividends to Labour.
As for the MSM, Pravind Jugnauth has decided that, after stepping down as Minister, he will carry on as leader of the party. The longer the legal sword of Damocles will remain suspended on his head, the less likely he is to fortify the opportunity provided by the results of the recent elections to the MSM as an alternative to Labour on the ground.
If it is SAJ as PM who will keep winning the spurs for the MSM, it will not necessarily benefit Pravind Jugnauth. There is a risk therefore that the MSM – especially its leader – might come out weakened by this episode. Hopefully, that will not trigger some sort of ‘surenchère’ on the part of the MSM’s present partners, notably the PMSD and the ML.
Were events to take such a turn, however, it is most likely both the PMSD and the ML will also come out weakened in the process. Those who supported them to defy the Ramgoolam-Bérenger concoction of Electoral Reform and a Second Republic last year will feel let down and exposed once again to the same risk. They will start looking for credible alternatives beyond the latter two parties.
Will the MMM bridge the gap so created and recuperate those of its traditional supporters it lost both in the general and municipal elections? Unlikely as it looks on the face of it, previous supporters who find no credible party in whom to rest their hopes for something better, may revert back to the MMM the more gaffes are committed by the PMSD and the ML. The MMM will then feel a resumption of its traditional support.
Emboldened by the weakness in which both Labour and the MSM would have thrust themselves, as a sequel of the present decision of the court, the MMM may contemplate visiting yet unexplored political territory to secure a wider voter base. The question is whether it will rally support enough to want to be reborn from its ashes again after having been trounced in two successive elections. For it, the strength will come from the weaknesses of its potential political adversaries. Mainly, from the sterile but mutually destructive bullfight the MSM and Labour leaderships are actively and unceasingly engaging in for the sake of personal ambitions or the settling of scores, oblivious of the permanent damage they might thereby be inflicting on their collective traditional voter base.
* Published in print edition on 3 July 2015