Free speech for the body politic?


By Jan Arden

Rahul Gandhi’s attacks in prepared speeches at Cambridge and London, of Indian democracy, reportedly broken or dead while western powers are watching on, has come under intense fire as unbecoming criticisms on foreign soil of all Indian institutions from the Parliament, the Judiciary and investigating authorities in various financial fraud and corruption cases. A total absence of nuance and such wholesale statements considerably weakens the case being made by any politician. It would be akin and of the same stuff if a local big-wig were to say after nine years in power “LP did nothing while in office” to justify any of the government misfirings (water scarcity, lack of drains or social housing for instance).

A Surat court convicted Congress MP Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case (Section 499 and 500 IPC) stemming from his alleged “Modi surname” remark. Pic – Law Trend

While the new era of nationalism and pride ushered by the Modi-led BJP regime over 9 years is palpable, such a broad-brush foreign foray by Rahul Gandhi therefore could only forecast another disconnect between the Congress and the Indian electorate in 2024. While trying to backtrack, Mr Gandhi called his attacks in the UK an exercise in free political criticism, one that tries to tarnish Mr Modi personally either through the failed Rafale-Ambani narrative in 2019 and now the Adani-Modi narrative about which rumblings are raised.

The extent and scope of his free speech came under test in court when a Modi surnamed MLA complained about his 2019 campaign hustling question whether all Modis were thieves. Refusing to clarify, amend or apologise over four years, as is his right, despite the Surat court offering him the opportunity, Rahul Gandhi was condemned for criminal defamation to two years jail, a conviction which his lawyers have up till now failed to request a stay of execution pending appeal. His seat then became automatically vacant and the lodging provided to Mr Gandhi as MLA in Delhi will have to be vacated. He may yet file appeal against the Surat court judgment and a higher court will decide whether to reverse the shock of that decision. 

Free and unfettered speech by politicians on soap boxes or convenience overseas schedules has its limits and most astute statesmen avoid being aggressive or have no qualms apologising when their drum-beat fails to elicit sympathy. The current furore Mr Gandhi has raised will roll itself out as the 2023 Karnataka polls, to be hotly disputed, gets under way, but his failure to make amends may remain a considerable sore in the Congress feet.

Here Hon Pravind Jugnauth has found himself on the wrong side of the bat when derogatory comments at a Surinam gathering became public about the DPP and a Senior magistrate, in the wake of a ruling on the bail of Bruneau Laurette. The right to criticism, more so by a sitting PM against senior officers of the judiciary, who certainly cannot or will not answer, cannot be unfettered and reckless.

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Audit follow-up

Audit reports have systematically brought to light a variety of dysfunctionings in the government machinery, leading to losses and wastage that reach figures of Rs 10 billion or more these days. Matters and issues raised in such independent reports should serve as essential guidance for the authorities to amend and improve governance and such efforts over successive years would have contributed to pacifying irate taxpayers who see part of their monies being diverted for corrupt purposes or being wasted. It was particularly galling to hear of corrupt emergency procurements in public health when the whole population was under pressure from the pandemic and the Ukraine war consequences. Neither the Pack & Blister saga nor the purchase of vaccines and drugs like Molnupiravir have as yet been fully thrashed out by ICAC.

This Audit has investigated and compiled for the benefit of lawmakers what proportion of those issues raised in two previous exercises have been addressed as a measure of how the findings of Audit Reports are treated in various Ministries/Departments. It makes terrible reading that 110 out of 158 and 120 out of 159 issues raised in years 2019-20 and 2020-2021 remain still unaddressed, which adds another 230 to those issues raised in this year’s Report. Whether actions other than word salads are taken will unfortunately only be judged in the Audit Report of 2022-2023.

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NCG & Audit comments

Last week we commented about the effectiveness of the National Coast Guard (NGC), under Police command, as the only instrument, poorly equipped and structured for our maritime zone surveillance and the emergency actions that may be needed to prevent ship beachings and wreckages near our shores. The plea was to consider how to operationalise and transform the agency from a coastal structure into an independent and autonomous maritime authority which, excluding the Port-specific area, would have the mandate, resources and professionalism we might expect from a naval security squadron guarding our national interests close to Mauritius, its outer islands and on the high seas.

The following quote from the Annual Report (2021-2022) of the Director of Audit, just out this Tuesday, is a pithy reminder of what we don’t want as we move forward:

“…the number of ships available for the surveillance of the Exclusive Economic Zone was found to be inadequate. Out of a fleet of five ships, one was stranded for more than two years and was undergoing repairs, and another one was effecting limited operations due to defective rudder stock and issues of water ingress. A third ship was undergoing refit and could not carry out any operations for eight months. These impacted on the operational capability of the National Coast Guard in so far as maritime surveillance is concerned…”

There are admittedly so many other priorities in the Police Force that the fate or re-organisation of the NCG may seem peripheral. Indeed, we need only recall some dysfunctionings as reported variously by Senior District Magistrate’s findings or rulings : the older cases of alleged physical brutality and torture, the judicial enquiry in the Kistnen murder case, the absence of any response for further enquiries pressed for by the magistrate or the DPP, the provisional charge against lawyer Akil Bissessur which has been struck out, the overhauling of ADSU in the wake of ICAC’s money-laundering investigations in the Franklin affair after three or four years of trust as the main drug investigating police agency… In the meantime, the drug barons on the west coast have invested the region and infected some of our key policing institutions as implied by the PM himself. Yet the lack of any effective surveillance of coastal drug traffic over the past few years should be a cause for considerable concern about the NCG’s abilities to control those waterways between our sister islands for drug importation.

It must be recognised that the 1988 National Cost Guard Act that gave birth to the NCG is in itself sufficiently broad-ranging to cover most of the duties expected of a maritime protection agency, with in addition, Dornier aircraft, helicopters and radar stations. It has over the years benefited considerably from expert assistance from India, either in qualified crew and personnel or in facilities for vessel purchase or outfitting. It is by that Act that the NCG is fully empowered to fire warning shots, halt and board any vessel in the exercise of its duties and authority and one would assume, even more so to avert a pending marine emergency of the Wakashio type. Yet again, despite coastal radars, air and naval patrol vessels, we failed from preventing the diversion of MV Wakashio from its expected sea-route onto our coral reefs.

Further, perhaps in view of those repeated problems with some elements of the NCG flottila reported above, we rely mostly on India and other friendly nations for many of the piracy patrolling activities or search and rescue operations over our extended maritime zone. But the fact remains that our unhappy experiences with NCG ships, corvettes or frigates spending more time in repairs and maintenance are not what we should be expecting today from a more active role with the assistance of our traditional friends and allies.

The Audit Report confirms that it is high time to conduct an independent in-depth review of our NCG command and reporting structure, its flotilla needs and identify, rid and replace those naval elements that have been problematic for far too long.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 31 March 2023

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