Political Leadership

Time For Change: For The Better?

The recent press conference of the Prime Minister on the eve of his departure definitely marks a turning point in the life of this government which came to power nearly two years ago. As much as we dislike saying “we told you so”, it is not pointless to mention that following the decision of Cabinet to “abandon” the Heritage City project we had mentioned that the impending change in prime ministership was probably only a matter of months. We had then argued that the fact that SAJ had been outvoted in his Cabinet created an unprecedented situation that was being completely underestimated by political analysts.

For a seasoned politician and Prime Minister like SAJ though who knows a thing about power and politics, all the serious implications of that fateful Cabinet decision could not have gone amiss. This is not a state of affairs that he would even begrudgingly accept. SAJ since that moment had two options: a Cabinet reshuffle, which would ensure that there would not be any repetition of a similar event OR resign as Prime Minister.

The first one would have certainly led to a direct confrontation with Pravind Jugnauth with serious consequences for his prime ministerial ambitions and for the future of the MSM party. Under the circumstances it is very doubtful that SAJ would have ever envisaged such a solution. There remained therefore the second option and an issue of timing. The recent incident concerning the total mess-up with the reporting of Cabinet decisions whereby two versions of events were publicized has been yet another public relations nightmare for SAJ’s government.

Add to this the rather insulting innuendos coming from a fairly junior lawyer such as Mr K Trilochun regarding his role in the Rs 19 M scandal, and SAJ must have concluded that at this juncture of his life he really did not have to take all this flak.

Given the above developments, the issue of whether Pravind Jugnauth could or should be appointed as a successor to his father without going through new general elections will again take centre stage. The view taken in this column has been very explicit since a long time now. The Constitution of our country as indeed the conventions and practice in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries leave no doubt about the fact that whoever commands a majority in Parliament is apt to become Prime Minister.

It is indeed very strange that so many politicians feign to ignore what only recently happened in the UK following the Brexit vote and the ouster of David Cameron from the party leadership. Parliamentarians of the Conservative Party, not even the party conference, voted Theresa May as their leader and by virtue of this fact she was promptly appointed Prime Minister by the Queen. When on earth was the name of Theresa May mentioned as a probable successor to David Cameron during the last electoral campaign in that country?

There is therefore no legal or even moral issue with the fact that he who commands a majority in the House should become Prime Minister. If ever there has been an anomaly — in our view more than an anomaly, an aberration which has been the cause of much of the misery of this government — it has been the fact that the Leader of the Party which has a majority in Parliament was not actually the Prime Minister…

Having said that, though, one should add one caveat. It is a fact that by convention, certainly so in the UK and Australia, whenever a new Prime Minister has taken over from a colleague of his own party after an internal change in leadership, new general elections have been called generally within a year of the succession. The idea being to legitimize the new leadership through a popular vote with due respect to the spirit of parliamentary democracy.

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, she stated that she did not intend to call for general elections any time soon. This was most probably because she did not find it wise to add instability to the total chaos which prevailed at the time in the UK following the shocking results of the Brexit referendum. An intelligent guess would be that there is little chance that her government would actually last through the present mandate.

When Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Labour Prime Minister, again without having to go through general elections, all polls in the country showed that he enjoyed an extremely high level of popularity in the country. Instead of immediately calling for general elections, Gordon Brown procrastinated. He was finally put under pressure by the deteriorating economic environment and was forced to call general elections in the worst of circumstances for him as well as his party. The rest, as they say, is history.

It looks therefore most likely that Pravind Jugnauth, leader of the MSM, the party with a majority of parliamentarians in the House and at the head of a largely dominant coalition will most legitimately become the next Prime Minister sooner rather than later. Will he then go on to call general elections within a reasonable delay with a view to secure a popular mandate for his leadership? The answer to this question remains uncertain. It would depend on a series of factors which are far from predictable at this point in time.

The acquiescence of MSM Members of Parliament as well as the reaction of the ruling coalition parties will determine the condition under which the baton will be passed between SAJ and Pravind Jugnauth. At first glance it would seem that the latter may face an uphill battle as he does not enjoy the kind of authority that his father carried almost naturally in view of his long and successful career. Furthermore the government which he will inherit is presently deeply undermined by internal conflicts and a lack of collective discipline and coherence.

Finally the prevalent consensus among all analysts is that the greatest weakness of this government has been its utter failure to impress a sense of direction and vision to its economic policy. As Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Pravind Jugnauth has been recently credited for having presented an “interesting” budget, to quote the words of the Leader of the Opposition. Only to see its effects completely nullified by the ensuing exposure of yet another “scandal” which has obliterated the burgeoning “feel-good factor” in the country.

The fact that he will be the “seul maître à bord” (leader of majority party/coalition and head of government) in the new scenario will set the premise for more institutional stability by removing the present ambiguities and shared loyalties of many in the party and government. This is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for achieving some of the radical changes which the country has been crying for over more than a decade now. The rest is essentially a matter of leadership.

It is true to state that there is some scepticism about the ability of the anointed Prime Minister to take up the challenges ahead. Given the high hopes which were raised by previous contenders for the position only to be completely ruined by their ensuing performance, the new one needs at least to be given a chance. Although as a nation, we would probably have wished that our next Prime Minister would not be of the “dynastic” sort, at least this one has the benefit of coming from a different generation…

Rajiv Servansingh

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