Uteem v/s Virahsawmy
On the hazards of politics and the free debate of ideas
— S. Modeliar
“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859
This quote is an appropriate one in the context of the reactions to the avowed objective of former President Uteem to go back to active politics, presumably under the MMM banner. Since there is no precedent of a former President or former Governor General in Mauritius who has expressed such a desire, this novel point was bound to attract comments or criticisms. Such a course of action is totally in conformity with our democratic traditions and the right of the freedom of expression. To try to stifle such comments or criticisms, as Stuart Mills put it, would be “evil” indeed. The same can be said when the reaction to such comments or criticisms issue leaves the realm of rational debate and becomes personal.
Comments were made by LEX and the present author about the former President’s wishing to go back to active politics. This is a public interest matter of the highest importance. One politician of the Labour Party has also made comments on this but he went a bit further by suggesting that the former President cannot go on enjoying the privileges of a former President and at the same time engage in active politics. He expressed the view that the former President should either give up these privileges to join politics or just keep on enjoying the privileges but that he cannot have both politics and privileges.
Mr Deva Virahsawmy was candid enough to state that the former President cannot have his cake and eat it (pas capave manze banana dans deux bouttes). Mr Deva Virahsawmy was only stating his views but he did it as a politician. The former President should have seen all this coming, and as a would-be comeback politician he cannot take shelter behind his status as a former President to stifle comments or criticisms on his political move.
In a press conference held at his residence, the former President castigated Mr Deva Virahsawmy and Cabinet Ministers. This what he said: « Ce n’est pas dans mes habitudes de répondre aux politiciens de bas étage. Mais après les propos du secrétaire général à mon égard samedi dernier, j’ai pris la décision de répondre à ce monsieur d’autant plus que ses propos injurieux ont été tenus en présence de plusieurs ministres de la République qui, de par leur silence, se sont rendus complices de tels propos. »
He has also sent a letter to the Prime Minister asking the head of the government to ask the ministers who were present when Mr Virahsawmy made his statement to dissociate themselves from the statement. Calling any politician or other person “lowly” (politicien de bas étage) and accusing Ministers of the Republic of conspiracy because a statement is made in their presence on the future political career of the former President is unacceptably offensive.
What Mr Deva Virahsawmy did was to exercise his right of freedom of expression to comment on the expressed intentions of a public figure who, after serving as President, now wants to go back to active politics and is even advocating an alliance between the Labour Party and the MMM. What Mr Virahsawmy said may be unpalatable to the former President. The tone he used may have displeased the former President. The use of the expression pas capave manze banana dans deux bouttes may have sounded offensive to the former President.
But there is one underlying principle that should not be overlooked and that is the undisputed right of any citizen and that includes a politician to comment or even criticize the actions of public figures. It has been held by the European Court of Human Rights in interpreting Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, a provision similar to the one in our Constitution, that “political invective often spills over into the personal sphere; such are the hazards of politics and the free debate of ideas, which are the guarantees of a democratic society”.
Ministers, politicians or even members of the public need no permission from anybody to attend a lawful public gathering or a press conference. The Ministers had the absolute right as members of the Labour Party to be present and to listen to Mr Deva Virahsawmy. That was their undeniable right. What did the Cabinet Ministers conspire to do? Conspiracy in law means a meeting of two minds to do an unlawful act or to do an act harmful to another. There was nothing unlawful in the statement of Mr Virahsawmy. It will be up to the former President to establish that the Cabinet Ministers and Mr Virahsawmy agreed to do something harmful to him. That may be an uphill task for him because levelling criticisms on the action of a public figure and on a matter of public interest however unpalatable but short of libel cannot be deemed to be harmful.
The former President subscribed to the following when he assumed office. “I… do swear (or solemnly affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President and will, to the best of my ability without favour or prejudice, defend the Constitution and the institutions of democracy and the rule of law, ensure that the fundamental rights are protected and the unity of the diverse Mauritian nation maintained and strengthened.”
Last week we wrote: What he (the former President) has acquired by way of stature and prestige continue after he has left office and he should keep it that way instead of exposing himself to mudslinging and slurs of a political nature by joining partisan politics again. It is presumably for that reason that he still enjoys material advantages of a substantial nature after he leaves office. Morally then, should a former President stand as a candidate?
As for the debate on whether a former President should be a candidate at the elections, we hold the view that the comparison with former Prime Ministers Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Sir Anerood Jugnauth holds no water and has nothing to do with the situation of the former President because the two former Prime Ministers never left politics and never served as President or Governor General before coming back to politics.
SSR was defeated in 1982 and Sir Anerood in 1995. The party of SSR contracted an alliance with the MSM and the PMSD in 1983. Sir Anerood Jugnauth contracted an alliance with the MMM and came back in 2000. Both of them did so as former Prime Ministers and active politicians and not as a former President who should be above party politics.