The previous Minister of Finance and leader of the MSM, Pravind Jugnauth, was summoned to appear in this connection before ICAC yesterday “under warning”.
This means that the investigating body was convinced that it had sufficient prima facie evidence in its hands to be able to proceed with the arrest of Pravind Jugnauth should the latter fail to satisfy it to the contrary.
Suspecting that the arrest had been pre-meditated by ICAC on some flimsy grounds, MSM members were up in arms as soon as the investigating body decided, for reasons best known to itself, to put to a forward date the investigation of Pravind Jugnauth in the MedPoint case from the date fixed in the last week. Before proceeding to ICAC, the latter had asked the Cabinet Secretary to furnish him copy of the Cabinet minutes of the 18th June 2010 so that he could establish his innocence in the matter by producing this document to ICAC. The Cabinet Office did not meet his request, after seeking legal advice. In other words, it was almost certain that he would be arrested. This is what happened yesterday. The former Minister of Finance was effectively arrested for having acted in a situation of conflict of interest and has been released after signing up a recognizance of debt late yesterday afternoon.
This episode has aroused much disturbance. Some 500 sympathisers of the MSM gathered yesterday near ICAC’s office during the interrogation of Pravind Jugnauth, to manifest their support in his favour. This investigation has thus assumed an unsuspected political colouring. Yet, on the face of it, all looked simple enough. There were allegations that the bid specifications for the geriatric hospital had, in several respects, been made to measure for the MedPoint hospital and the question was whether it was proper to have proceeded in this direction for a government procurement. There took place a second evaluation of the property barely weeks after its first evaluation by the Government Valuer, the effect of which was to almost double the price at which it was finally acquired by the government; here the question was to establish at whose behest the second valuation was carried out and what exactly was the motivation behind it. The deal was finalised just before the end of December 2010, which had the effect of exempting the main owner of the property, Dr Krishan Malhotra, from payment of about Rs 20 million of capital gains tax which became effective as from January 2011. The question was to investigate whether the payment had been wilfully expedited to save the seller the said amount of tax. We are waiting still for answers to these pertinent questions whereas the matter now appears to have taken an eminently political course with the manifestations of several types we have seen lately.
The latest of such manifestations came from unsuspected quarters. On Wednesday last, after a meeting he had with the Leader of the Opposition, the very person who had initially launched serious suspicions about the MedPoint deal, the President of the Republic came forth with two public statements on private radios. In the first of these, he attacked ICAC for being inefficient (fané) in the matter. This was at a point of time when it was becoming clear that the guns of ICAC were decidedly pointed against the leader of the MSM, the President’s son. The second of these was in response to the question of the journalist as to whether he could contemplate resigning as President if the situation so demanded and the reply was that he was prepared to resign if it was in the “national interest” to do so.
We understand that at times emotions can take the upper hand on reason. However, it is the duty of incumbents of high office holders of the land to exert a strong measure of self-restraint when making public pronouncements. This is to protect the standing of the office they are in charge of and to maintain a certain level of decorum in keeping with the status of the office. It is our view that, as Constitutional head, it is the duty of the President to protect the public standing and reputation of public institutions. Should he hold specific concerns about the manner in which specific institutions are discharging their responsibilities, it is open to the President to record his objections to the manner they are carrying themselves in during his meetings with the members of the government. Any public expression of dissent at the level of the President is likely to impair seriously the credibility of the concerned institutions. By stating on the private radios that ICAC was inefficient, the President may have failed to act with the discretion that is expected from his office. It is in moments of great personal stress that holders of high offices have an occasion to show their mettle which is not to allow personal considerations to overtake the dictates of the public duty. The best course would be for all those who are dissatisfied with the manner of functioning of ICAC to resort to the available processes for redressing the institution; it is always counterproductive to attack directly and publicly the institutions when there are processes available for dealing with any perceived departure from the right code of conduct on the part of such public institutions.
The second statement about being ready to give up office in the national interest may send speculations about the steadfastness of the power structure of the country. At worst, it could be interpreted to mean that things would be heading to breaking point at the head of the hierarchy. There are talks already about new political alliances in the offing. Things such as this are better left out of the ambit of the exercise of power at the level of the Presidency. This position is meant to remain above party politics. It should be seen to it that this basic principle is respected to the letter. The public reactions sparked by the President’s declaration about his possible resignation indicate that this is not actually the case.
The twists and turns taken by the unresolved-yet MedPoint affair show that matters have become more chaotic with the passage of time. They have gone on to embrace the Presidency of the country. The political structure has weakened considerably as a result of all that is going on. There are risks that if this situation were to persist, the basic governance structure of the country might give way. The people can say at this point: “we have done nothing to deserve to be in this situation, so who is responsible for all this chaos?”
* Published in print edition on 23 September 2011
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