“Political vendetta can never be a substitute to the rule of law”

Interview: Dharam Gokhool

‘There is also an increasing fear factor creeping in society. People are afraid of being victimised if they criticise the government’

* Which alliance will work and deliver remains a billion-dollar question.

* ‘A change of government should come by design and not by default. It requires a transformational change in our political culture and outlook’

* ‘The issue of Ramgoolam’s eventual successor is of strategic importance and will have to be resolved’

* ‘Berenger: No 2 in an eventual LP-MMM-PMSD alliance can be a risk factor. But the best person to allay any risk… is nobody else than Berenger himself’

Former Minister Dharam Gokhool expresses his apprehensions about the drug scourge that is ruining the country and the youth, with the government seemingly unable to rein in the drug ‘mafias’ and barons. He is equally concerned about the modus operandi of the SST against those who level criticism against the government. On the other hand, he finds that the opposition forces have as yet not offered any credible proposals for the country’s future and this may well play into the government’s ploy of offering freebies to induce votes in its favour, but also leadership issues have to be settled one for all in the LP and MMM.

Mauritius Times: An eye-opening event in the UK, this week, has been what has been described as the “final humiliation” for Boris Johnson over the Partygate scandal as MPs backed the scathing report which found that he deliberately lied to the Commons and just seven Tories voted in his favour. We may disagree with the British over the Chagos, but there’s a thing or two we could learn about the real Westminster model from them, isn’t it?

Dharam Gokhool: For readers of Mauritius Times, let’s briefly contextualise the Partygate scandal in UK. During the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020 and 2021, when governments across the world were imposing rigorous restrictions and hardships on the population to protect their health, in the UK, the then Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, convened Government and Conservative party staff to several gatherings for festivities, in blatant and total violation of Covid-19 public health restrictions and when “people were dying or in funerals”. In one of these gatherings, Boris Johnson celebrated his birthday; another one was organised a day before Prince Philip’s funeral.

Independent reports confirmed multiple breaches of the Covid-19 regulations and in spite of attempts through lies, misrepresentations, bullying, outside and within Parliament, the Partygate scandal was brought to the attention of the UK public and the world, through the unflinching efforts of the media, the opposition and some top civil servants. Police investigations led to fines being imposed on most of those who attended the gatherings and “made Downing Street the address with the most Covid-19 regulation penalties in the country”.

Among the findings of an investigation by Cabinet Office Second Permanent Secretary, Sue Gray, mention is made of the following:

“Some staff wanted to raise concerns about behaviours they witnessed at work but at times felt unable to do so. No member of staff should feel unable to report or challenge poor conduct where they witness it. There should be easier ways for staff to raise such concerns informally, outside of the line management chain.

In a world where imperfections seem to be gaining ground, the British system of government may not be a model of perfection, but there are ample examples to support the view that British institutions do and can function and deliver. The Partrygate scandal and its sequel is one such example.

Boris Johnson had violated the very ethos of the Westminster model of governance based on integrity, public trust, transparency and accountability. Because of this sordid political drama, Boris Johnson lost the support of his party members and his humiliating downfall as PM as well as his resignation as MP followed.

The UK Partygate scandal and its outcomes hold strong lessons for both politicians and civil servants, be it in UK or in Mauritius.

* As regards the political culture that obtains here, there has been recently the amendment to postpone municipal elections for a further two years, which is now the subject of at least five different appeals for judicial review by the Supreme Court. Many people think that this postponement is a deplorable and deeply inappropriate political decision. What can we expect the appeals to achieve if successful? Force the holding of early general elections?

The timing and the justification of the postponement of municipal elections by government has raised some legitimate concerns in the public, in particular among the urban voters, as to the real intentions and motivations of government. If government were confident to win the municipal elections, postponement would not have been on its agenda. Government kept on harping that municipal elections would be held but then, as the deadline for dissolving the municipal councils approached, it abruptly changed its mind. It’s an indication that government does not want to take any risk, hence the recourse to a postponement.

Now that the appeals have been filed, and the aggrieved parties have clearly spelt out the important constitutional nature of the issue, which essentially has to do with a fundamental right of the citizen to vote and choose their representatives in the municipalities and also to stand as candidates for municipal elections. What is preoccupying people’s mind is how expeditiously the Supreme Court will deal with the appeals. Will it expedite matters and come to a conclusion within a reasonable time limit?

Next, if the conclusion is favourable to the petitioners, will government file an appeal to the Privy Council? That may take some time. And has its own risk, with the Trinidad and Tobago judgement of the Privy Council in the background.

It’s only if the appeal goes in favour of the petitioners and government does not envisage an appeal to the Privy Council that the issue of elections, municipal and/or general, will arise.

* Many Mauritians have serious concerns about the things that have been happening in this country during these few years, especially those related to law and order: drug trafficking and the tracking of drug traffickers as well as so many allegations of drug planting and arrests of individuals perceived to be opponents of the government, etc.What’s your reading of this rather peculiar situation?

Nobody can deny the fact that the drug scourge is the biggest threat to our society. It is spreading like wildfire, and it is destroying families, our youth and children. Even many of our educational institutions are no longer safe. In many homes, there are drug victims, and many parents are helpless. It is a real human tragedy.

The number of drug addicts is now nearly 100,000. The age profile of drug addicts is also changing with more and younger people being hooked on drugs. There is also a feminisation of drug addicts.

The Lam Shang Leen report and its recommendations do not seem to have made a dent in the fight against the drug scourge. Dedicated social workers and opinion leaders are repeatedly warning us that we are losing the battle against drugs. Drug rehabilitation programmesare failing.

The recent Vimen Leaks are terrifying and had a chilling effect on the population, with alleged connections and dealings of people engaged in the fight against drugs with drug traffickers and drug barons. In the wake of the leaks, the recent interview of the Head of the Special Striking Teamto a private radio, and the circumstances prevailing at the radio station during that interview, together with the unjustified presence of a number of unidentified characters, if anything, raises many questions. Was it an attempt to intimidate and silence the journalists or any whistle-blower?

The drug scourge is a problem which concerns all of us, but it is government which is equipped with institutions and resources to wage a relentless battle against drug traffickers and drug barons. The authorities claim that since 2014, some 15 billion rupees worth of drug has been seized. To many people, this is only the tip of the iceberg. How many billions worth of drugs have been sold on the market? How many drug barons have been arrested and sent to prison?

Mauritius is a small place; everyone seems to know everyone. Why is it that agencies IRSA, ICAC, MRA, FIU, ADSU, SST, funded by taxpayers, are incapable of tracking and trapping the big drug barons?

The Pareto principle states that organisations can spend 80% of their resources to achieve only 20% of their outcomes and claim that they are successful. Are many of our agencies fighting against the drug scourge victims of the Pareto principle?

* We do not know whether what we have seen so far is indeed the tip of the iceberg, but when the Prime Minister, who is responsible for law and order, has himself alluded to the infiltration of the mafia in our institutions, then there must be something awfully bad that has crept into the system which any responsible government ought to have tackled head on, isn’t it?

That is one of the most disturbing and enigmatic statements ever made by no other person than a sitting Prime Minister, who is also the Minister of Interior and therefore one of the best informed personalities of the Government and the State.

Most of the institutions, with very few exceptions, are headed by people appointed by the MSM government. With the President of the Republic, he is also the guardian of our institutions. Since January 2017, Pravind Jugnauth has been our Prime Minister. Is it an admission that our institutions are no longer under the purview of the central government and that the mafia is in charge?

The Prime Minister also repeatedly reminds us that he does not believe in allegations and sticks to evidence and facts. With some notable exceptions as in the St Louis gate scandal where the Deputy Prime Minister, Ivan Collendavelloo, is allegedly involved.

His statement raises many issues. Is this infiltration of the mafia a recent phenomenon or has it been there since quite some time? Is it a mere allegation or can it be substantiated with facts? If based on facts, did the Prime Minister initiate any appropriate actions? Which ones, when and with what outcomes?Did he weigh the impact of such a statement on the employees of the institutions he had in mind?

Why is the statement being made now? Is it sheer coincidence that the statement came after some decisions by the Judiciary and the DPP’s office did not go in the same direction as expected in some quarters of the Executive?

These are some of the legitimate questions in the minds of the people. There is more to this statement than meets our eyes… and ears.

* The MSM-led governments have demonstrated that they will press on no matter what. They have been able to dominate local politics in view of the absence of a strong and united opposition and despite public protests on the streets, on social media, and appear seemingly oblivious to negative reports that foreign embassies may be posting back home. Do you see indications that this is likely to change any time soon?

There are indeed negative reports from multiple sources. So far, the government’s track record of solving problems that the population is currently facing in terms of its decreasing purchasing power, rising indebtedness, a future that is uncertain, the drug scourge that is destroying a significant proportion of our population, the dysfunctioning of most of our public institutions, flagrant cases of nepotism, favouritism, cronyism and corruption, the degradation of the law and order situation, etc., is far from being impressive.

The recent Budget Speech did not provide much political traction to government in spite of its targeted socially oriented measures. It was drowned in contradictions and controversies about its electoral motivations. Example: The 20,000 rupees grant to each and every one reaching 18 years as from 1st of January 2023 to correct its generational bias towards senior citizens has simply misfired. The developmental agenda was sacrificed for political mileage.

A majority of the population feels that the government is out of touch with ground realities. Some of these sentiments transpire in the abundantly negative comments we read and view in social media and hear in phone-in programmes of private radios. People are very critical of the abuse of the MBC-TV by government as a party-political propaganda machine.

The systematic harassment of political opponents by the police authorities and the alleged “planting” and now the “posting” of drugs is instilling a strong feeling of fear among the population.

For all these reasons, people are not demonstrating against government in large numbers. I agree that in the absence of a united opposition front, government can have its say and its way. But once the battle lines are drawn and the opposition fine-tunes its electoral strategy, the game will change.

* If that is not going to change any time soon, it would seem that AkilBissessurand the likes of him in the legal profession, especially who have been critical of government’s actions, will go on receiving parcels from abroad delivered by the postman, many of the high-profile cases will require complex and lengthy investigations by ICAC and the police… Do you think that’s indeed the way things will stay in the months ahead?

There seems to be a clear pattern emerging in the way political opponents are being targeted and the methods being adopted by the authorities. In the case of AkilBissessur, we should not forget the public statement to the effect that he was on the radar of the Prime Minister. For which reasons? Is it because he is a virulent critic of the government or is it because of his alleged connections with drugs? Which is which?

AkilBissessur and the likes of him, as you put it, are people who are quite outspoken critics of the government. As it is being argued, would they be so stupid and reckless as to expose themselves to offences of drug dealings? Mafia dons and drug barons have a different modus operandi. They are a secretive species of the underworld.

In one of the rulings, in the recent Molnupiravir case, the Magistrate commented that the authorities should not go on fishing expeditions. In a similar vein, the DPP’s office reprimanded the police authorities about any abusive usage of the provisional charges and urged them to close the enquiry at the earliest. In the Kistnen case, in spite of recommendations of the Magistrate for a full-fledged enquiry by the police, and the interrogation of former minister Sawmynaden, matters are proceeding at a snail’s pace. Why?

If the ICAC and the police do not revisit their strategies, they are likely to invite similar reprimands from the judiciary in future. And further strengthen public perception to the effect that in matters of law and order, there is a system of “deux poids et deux mesures”.

Political vendetta can never be a substitute to the rule of law.

* There’s the feeling within Opposition circles that the only way out of the current situation is through a change in government, but there may still be a large majority of electors out there who think differently and whose ranks may also increase with more goodies that will come with the next budget. What’s your take on that?

The current political situation is rather paradoxical.

From what I gather from my interactions with a cross-section of people I come across and what is being discussed and debated in the media and in the National Assembly, there is a growing public perception of considerable public resentment towards government. The general feeling is that government’s agenda is not responding to the priorities of the population. There is also an increasing fear factor creeping in society. People are afraid of being victimised if they criticise the government.

On the other hand, with the approach of the general elections, the same disgruntled people may be swayed in favour of government with more goodies. This possibility cannot be ruled out completely.

That is why I keep on saying that the opposition forces should not think of removing the government on the basis of current public discontent against the government.It would be a mistake for the opposition forces to underestimate the capacity of government to turn the tide in their favour.

A change of government should come by design and not by default. It requires a transformational change in our political culture and outlook, where politics is based on the “Service to Society” ideal. The prevailing culture of “chatwarism” is based on privileges for the few, for a clan.A majority of the Mauritian people espouse the values of fair play, meritocracy and justice and are allergic to the “chatwarism” culture and practices.

People are prepared to change and will change provided that the opposition forces come forward with a credible alternative.

The opposition’s main responsibility is to build public trust in how they can offer a better deal than the present government. It requires a lot of dedicated groundwork, backed by a constant dialogue with the electorate on matters of direct interest to their lives and livelihood.

* Change can only happen if the people, convinced that what is on offer is a credible and workable alternative, vote for change. Do you see that forthcoming?

I understand that there are on-going discussions for forging an alliance of opposition forces and, admittedly, it is a complex and complicated exercise. But building trust with the electorate is not an overnight, quick-fix affair. Secondly, if there is to be a change, people have to be convinced that the change will be sustained and will last.

All this takes time and a lot of preparatory work. As to whether the opposition can offer a credible and workable alternative, at this point in time, all i can say is that there is a lot of groundwork awaiting the opposition forces.

* Political observer and journalist JC de l’Estracwas telling us recently that “given the current circumstances, with Bérengerin the position of number two” in an eventual LP-MMM-PMSD alliance and “a relatively old Ramgoolam”, the choice of Ramgoolam’s eventual successor in the Labour Party is strategically crucial for both Labour and the alliance, if the latter materializes. Do you share the same views about that?

With regard to the issue of Ramgoolam’s eventual successor, it is indeed of strategic importance and cannot be avoided because it will be raised during the electoral campaign. The issue cannot be left hanging. It will have to be resolved.

As to Berenger being in the position of number two in an eventual LP-MMM-PMSD alliance, it can be a risk factor. But the best person to allay any risk, if such risk exists, is nobody else than Berenger himself.

Even with the best and most expensive crystal ball, it will be impossible to predict political attitudes and behaviours of people in power. Here I am reminded of a phrase coined by Berenger himself: la dérivepouvoiriste. According to him, many politicians unfortunately become victims of this phenomenon, once in power, which baffles many political analysts, including myself.

This is valuable political wisdom that should serve as an antidote in an eventual political alliance. The privileges of power should not deviate politicians from their responsibilities to the population.

* It seems there is an undercurrent of opinion and apprehension within the Labour Party which holds the view that another Ramgoolam-Berenger alliance will not work after all, and that an LP-PMSD stands a better chance to make it next time round. Do you think that’s a well-founded opinion?

In the present electoral system, based on the principle of First Past The Post, vote splitting will be to the detriment of the opposition forces and to the advantage of government. It must be avoided at all costs. Or will the opposition forces take the risk of facilitating another mandate of five years of MSM government?

Also, in a three- or four-cornered fight, there is the risk of a hung assembly. At this juncture, the country needs a stable government.

The apprehension that another Ramgoolam-Berenger alliance will not work after all is but one side of the coin. This is the darker side. There could be a brighter side of the coin as well.

In a context where societies and the world are battling with the phenomenon of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity), politics is no exception.

Which alliance will work and deliver remains a billion-dollar question.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 23 June 2023

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