On 25th January 2011, the leader of the MSM party, Pravind Jugnauth, then Minister of Finance and Economic Development in the government headed by Navin Ramgoolam, was charged and put under arrest by ICAC for having acted in breach of section 13(2) and (3) of the Prevention of Corruption Act 2002.
Notably, for having given his approval in a situation of ‘conflict of interest’ in the capacity of a “public official” to allocate funds going towards the settlement of a deal involving the purchase by government of the MedPoint Hospital, in which his sister had a significant shareholding.
He did what’s expected of a minister in the circumstances: he resigned his position as minister. It took some time before the judgement was delivered on 30 June 2015 by the Intermediate Court which found him guilty of having acted from a position of ‘conflict of interest’. The court sentenced him to a year in prison. This sentence proved to be the beginning of a major upheaval on the political side, although Pravind Jugnauth appealed the Intermediate Court’s decision which was considering commuting the sentence to ‘community work’.
The uncertainty sparked by the situation was gruelling for the new government in place since December 2014 of which Pravind Jugnauth was also a Minister. He had to resign from a ministerial position a second time after the Intermediate Court sentenced him in June 2015. The political situation kept deteriorating thereafter. SAJ as Prime Minster held the fort together but something was clearly amiss. Things have been getting out of hands.
Several controversial and not necessarily productive decisions were endorsed by the new government in the interval, the latest of the mishaps having been action that has all but nullified the good standing of Mauritius’ Double Tax Avoidance Agreement with India, putting in jeopardy a whole sector of economic activity. Abstracting from the collective cool-headed decisions that are taken in matters of our international diplomacy, one minister had gone as far as to commit Mauritius to one side of the perpetual conflict pitching Saudi Arabia against Iran. Another minister has had to resign on an accusation of “seeking gratification by a holder of public office”.
The want of governance could not have been more clearly visible than when Minister of Finance Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo found himself in a head-on public conflict with the Minister of Financial Services. His confidential banking transaction found its way in the public domain, the intention being clearly to embarrass him and force his resignation from Cabinet. He was shifted away to Foreign Affairs. The coalition members of the government also did not carry enough weight in the public eye to present even a semblance of serenity in the tumultuous circumstances plaguing the government. Such has been the pandemonium that the public has been losing all hope that the government would do anything good.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court came to the conclusion that the Intermediate Court had erred in its judgement for not having substantiated enough the ‘conflict of interest’ which Pravind Jugnauth would have been involved in. It also was of the opinion that Pravind Jugnauth was merely involved in giving an administrative decision in a matter that had already been substantively decided upon at other levels and that this did not constitute being involved in a conflict of interest. It could not therefore be interpreted as a wilful intent to use his office to favour a related party in the deal.
The judgement of the Intermediate Court was thus overturned and Pravind Jugnauth is no longer hassled by the travails to which he has been subjected all this while. Were the DPP not to proceed on appeal on the grounds of legal flaws in the Supreme Court’s decision, he would be able to undertake his normal political activities free from the legal entanglements which have plagued him the past five years. If so, that could give the government a “second chance” to redeem itself in the public eye.
We have to look at this latest development in a broader perspective. As it is, it is clear that the government is short of a lucid coordinator who could prevent it splitting apart. The lost sense of pragmatism and orientation of government action in quite a few domains also needs to be restored. Liberated from the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging upon his head for long, the question is whether he could rally a clear-headed leadership the county has started missing for quite some time now.
Clearly, he doesn’t have a choice but to provide that kind of leadership, not for redeeming himself, but for the good of the country as a whole to give it back the confidence and trust it has been losing. He has to overtake the fissiparous tendencies that have come into play, threatening the very credibility of the government. It’s a big challenge but it has to be taken up. Pravind Jugnauth has already been sworn in, since after the Supreme Court’s judgement, as Minister of Finance. This position gives him a huge amount of responsibility. Not only has he to stop the shortcomings of public policies so far. He also needs to introduce a concrete plan of work to set the economy on a realisable path of growth which decision-makers in both the private and public sectors will consider plausible and practicable. And, hence, endorse and be willing to join efforts for its realisation in the country’s superior interests.
While politics and the future of politicians are important, more important is the need to prioritize decisively, for the good of the country, a convincing departure from the series of bad initiatives which have eroded trust in government action so far. It is not immediately important whether he accedes to the position of Prime Minister or not. Were he to signal that power and position are less important than giving back the country all it has been missing out, this in itself can give him the qualifications for a higher calling in the governmental hierarchy later.
Mauritius needs all its resources to fight its way up against the numerous odds besetting the global economy. Good leadership can make a big difference. Short of such and strong and well-meaning leadership, the coalition partners of the government themselves risk finding themselves in the “carreau-cannes” in a not too distant future. Self-interest should therefore egg them on to find out and support such a strong leadership within their ranks at the risk of continuing to fudge it up all.
* Published in print edition on 27 May 2016