By Sada Reddi
The perception that a general malaise has gripped the country is not very far from reality. For the population, there is no longer a single doubt that there is an urgent need to address various failings confronting the country. But the big question that remains is: how do we do it? No one has a readymade solution, but there is a vast amount of experience that should be tapped to forge a new direction for a free society.
The parliamentary system, albeit a restricted one, has been in place since the 1886 elections. Our citizens have assumed that parliamentary government and state institutions will keep on improving with time, but they seem to have suddenly discovered that it was wrong to assume its linear development. They have now realized the unsuspected hidden dangers that have burst out and are trying to turn the clock back. They also realize that institutions also decay and perish unless they are revitalized and revived and given a new lease of life.
The statistical expression of the malaise can be easily found in the rising inflation, the depreciation of the rupee, growing indebtedness and balance of payment deficit, unemployment, and poor governance. Now has been added to the growing list of grievances the (mal)functioning of the parliamentary system that may itself be at the core the many ills of society. Political scientists would surely probe the issues affecting our country and reach a different conclusion but reflection and action by society has to start right away pending further action and measures to be taken at a later stage.
« One consequence of the parliamentary system being reduced to a mere ritual is that the checks and balances that should act as a brake on the Executive have been weakened. Although all governments must share in the blame for the present situation, nevertheless they had in the past shown restraint in exercising power. Perhaps we did not realize that not all politicians have a culture of restraint, and some might shockingly go to extremes while still employing the rhetoric of public interest… »
It has been clear to many social scientists since a long time that our democratic system has been mostly a formal one, for very often the principles underlying it have been violated. Nevertheless, on balance, barring some weaknesses the system has worked more or less satisfactorily and several conventions informing it were respected. Those principles and conventions were derived from a long tradition of parliamentary government inherited from the Westminster model. We may have forgotten that a parliamentary system is not merely a series of laws and procedures inscribed in our Constitution. Rather, it is also grounded in a number of conventions that have to be observed and respected if we want the system to operate usefully and efficiently and above all democratically.
It is true that in the past conventions have often been flouted and ‘to hell with Erskine May’ had been hurled at the President of the legislative Council. This is not surprising for it took time to learn and get a good grasp of parliamentary skills; it seems today the learning curve will take a much longer time what with our present political culture or the lack of it. This is evident not only in the motion brought by the Leader of the Opposition against the Speaker but also in the weakening of institutions, delayed justice, abuse of authority, denial of social justice and many more ills.
In the end we all know that we cannot rely on the way the present political system is functioning to obtain a redress of grievances. The conventions that should guide the ethical behaviour of some of our parliamentarians also have been thrown to the wind. Members of the Assembly cannot engage in a debate that fairly identifies issues and proposes durable solutions because our parliamentarians have been regimented to vote either for or against. Most of them have lost their ability to be critical, creative and innovative and to reach a balanced judgment on the many problems faced by the nation. It is true that we have adopted an adversarial style of parliamentary politics, but this does not mean that members of the National Assembly cannot shed their blinkers when public interest requires it. As a result, questions and complaints are made, but few concrete seems to happen such that question time may appear to the citizens as a futile ritual.
One consequence of the parliamentary system being reduced to a mere ritual is that the checks and balances that should act as a brake on the Executive have been weakened. Although all governments must share in the blame for the present situation, nevertheless they had in the past shown restraint in exercising power. Perhaps we did not realize that not all politicians have a culture of restraint, and some might shockingly go to extremes while still employing the rhetoric of public interest.
Though it is a well-known principle, it needs to be reiterated that parliamentary sovereignty rests on the principle of the sovereignty of the people. Parliamentarians are meant to represent ordinary citizens, whose concerns they voice out, through parliamentary questions, to the executive, ask for clarifications and explanations. In other words, they are supposed to keep the Executive on its toes and make it accountable for their decisions. Parliament does not share power with the executive but expresses the suspicions and public opinion on any wrongdoing of the executive and forces it to respond and to take action, to the extent of even bringing about the revocation of ministers.
The public interest
Any abuse of power and authority by the executive can encroach on the duties and responsibilities of public officials and public officers. Though there are laws, regulations and procedures which inform the relationship between the executive and public servants, undermining and subverting this relationship can open the gate for poor governance, inefficiency, wastage of resources, and the bullying of public officers to act against public interest. The public interest is not the same as the private interests of the executive. But it is parliament, excluding those who form part of the executive, which has the role and responsibility as watchdog of the public interest.
On the other hand civil servants have been entrusted with the responsibility to implement policies in the public interest. They have been recruited and trained and must abide by the procedures laid down in the constitution and in other legislations and regulations. Their conditions of service have made their posts permanent to ensure the continuity of the state and their commitment to public service. They have to collaborate with the government of the day for the implementation of its policies, but have to follow prescribed rules and procedures. They are like the lawyer who provides all the information to his client and then awaits instructions from him to be implemented within well-laid down procedures.
Civil servants in Mauritius have fulfilled this role pretty well. It is well-known they have implemented the decisions of one government and the opposite policies with the same zeal when a new government comes in. But to ignore conventions, to bypass procedures and harass civil servants who have a responsibility to serve public interest will lower the morale of our public officers, weaken the role of our institutions, waste their time in useless and unnecessary action and finally leave them with no possibility to tackle important problems facing the country.
The only compensation for any maladministration is that it is the Minister who is responsible for any wrong decision imposed on the civil servant under his administration. Even there too, when one would have expected members of the Executive to resign on a question of principle, they remain stuck to their ministerial posts, unless revoked, and persist in their wrongdoing with impunity.
How do we fix the system? One could argue that there is no way to fix a decayed system from inside, especially when many of our institutions have been subverted. Yet the democratic deficit must be addressed. A law commission may take up various issues and sensitize public opinion on potential solutions. Academics may continue to investigate the flaws of the political system and suggest possible remedies. Citizens and citizens’ organizations can come up with various suggestions, educate the wider public and propose solutions.
At the present moment we also have a unique opportunity to benefit from the experience of some of our senior politicians who know the system inside out, and who know what conditions are necessary to maintain and safeguard a free society. their efforts should be directed in that direction, but they would need to work out the modalities that will help bring about effective action. This must be done in the most democratic manner possible. The present challenge is to revive the principles of and conditions for a free society.
* Published in print edition on 4 August 2020