We are in August 1990, the 17th to be more precise. Sir Satcam Boolell QC, leader of the Labour Party, is Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Attorney General in an MSM-led government.
Sir Anerood Jugnauth is the Prime Minister and Prem Nababsing the Leader of the Opposition. Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo is the Finance Minister. The National Assembly is convened urgently on that day to debate the Constitutional (Amendment No 2) Bill. The Prime Minister moved after lunch that it be read a second time.
The situation must have been unique and bewildering to any constitutional expert. The Cabinet, the most powerful body in the nation, was superseded by party politics and the convention of ministerial responsibility to parliament completely undermined. In fact the country faced a breakdown of constitutional government. The Attorney General, principal legal adviser to government under the Constitution, was kept in the dark as to the provisions of a Bill that was about to be introduced and debated in Parliament.
The Bill was the product of an agreement between two political parties, one in government and the other one in opposition. There is no rule or convention which forbids such a collaboration save for the fact that it was being done behind the back of some members in Cabinet belonging to the alliance which had formed the government after the elections. The rules of parliamentary democracy were being trampled upon in favour of political convenience.
Introducing the Bill, the Prime Minister had chosen his words carefully, describing the occasion as the most important landmark in the constitutional destiny of the country. Sir Gaetan Duval, tongue in cheek, later remarked that what the Prime Minister actually meant was : “…à côté de cela l’indépendance est du ‘pipi de chat’… ”
The real motives behind the Bill were already understood by the population. The Bill was an emanation of an electoral accord between the MSM and the MMM. There was an eagerness to accommodate the MMM in power and its historic leader Paul Berenger in an office. The two leaders have been very good at this game in the past. In 1982 when they amended the Constitution to consolidate democracy by providing for a referendum to postpone the elections, provisions were also made to bestow power on the Prime Minister to enable him to get rid of a certain number of permanent secretaries as a punitive measure. It is all about the right packaging.
Sir Satcam Boolell and Sir Gaetan Duval should be commended for their courage and the arguments they put forward to enlighten the population. Hansard, the official reports of the proceedings of our Parliament bear testimony of their bold stand and their denunciation of how our Constitution was being violated and amended at short notice without any serious thoughts being given as to the consequences of such amendments.
And I ought to quote Sir Satcam, denouncing the treacherous plot ‘ …It is a Bill concocted by a partner in government and a party so-called officially an opposition. I do not consider myself bound by ministerial responsibility because Cabinet procedure has not been respected and the Official Secrets Act flouted. Even before the Bill in its original form was discussed in Cabinet, the MMM was in possession of a copy and had commented it in the press’.
Earlier, Sir Satcam had castigated the same MMM for their hypocrisy when in 1983 they torpedoed a Bill with similar clauses, which had as one of its objectives the establishment of the Office of President and the appointment of Sir Seewoosagur, the Father of the Nation, as its first President. The response of the leader of the MMM was a categorical ‘niet’ boasting ‘… nous ne sommes pas là pour voter à la présidence de la République Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam’.
Sir Seewosagur Ramgoolam was thus denied by the cynical move of the MMM the singular honour of being appointed the first President.
Sir Satcam, notwithstanding the sniggering and insults from both opposition and government sides, soldiered on during the debates as he raised interesting constitutional points relating to the impact of the Bill on future enactments and the confusion relating to the continued role of the Privy Council. In the end, as expected, the debates degenerated into cheap political insults and after they had ran out of arguments to answer Sir Satcam, all that the proposers of the Bill could come up with was to accuse Sir Satcam of sequestrating Raj Virahsawmy in his office, an accusation immediately denied by Raj Virahswamy to the Speaker of the House.
As Members rallied behind Sir Satcam and Sir Gaetan, amongst whom Vishnu Lutchmeenairaidoo, the three quarter votes in Parliament was never reached and the Bill aborted.
* Published in print edition on 28 March 2014