The MedPoint Jinx, Again
It is reported that former PSM leader Harish Boodhoo liked to state that he had masterminded the election-winning MSM-MMM alliance of 2000 in the premises of the then MedPoint Clinic at Paillotes, belonging to members of the Jugnauth family. This alliance trounced Labour-PMSD with a score of 3-57 in the elections. After five years, when the MSM and the MMM, once again in alliance, presented to voters, the result was catastrophic for the MSM: the Labour-PMSD alliance secured 42 seats and the MSM-MMM alliance 24. It proved to be a “crossing of the desert” for the MSM until 2010 when, in alliance with Labour, it formed part of the government, only to drop out again in 2011 against the background of another MedPoint Clinic affair. Once again, the MedPoint Clinic proved to be the stumbling block.
The Labour-MSM-PMSD government was contemplating at the time the purchase of the Clinic with a view to converting it into a geriatric hospital. Somehow, its valuation had got inflated in the process and questions arose as to whether its over-pricing had been manipulated and, if so, by whom? Pravind Jugnauth was the Minister of Finance in the government. In this capacity, he approved an authorisation for the reallocation of funds pertaining to the purchase by the government of the Clinic at the higher valuation. It turned out that this decision was conveyed only days before the coming into force of a Budget decision to impose a capital gains tax on plus-values of property transactions with effect from 1st January 2011. This tax would have been leviable on the plus-value of the Clinic against the original owners of the Clinic, but was avoided just in time.
There was, however, more to this. The Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) found the Minister’s approval to be in contravention of section 13 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 2002 (POCA). Its plea before the Court was that the Minister, having family relationship with the owners of the Clinic, was involved, as a ‘public official’ in a case of ‘conflict of interest’ in accordance with that section of the law. In protest against the arrest to which Pravind Jugnauth, leader of the MSM, was subjected in this context and which resulted in his resigning his position as Minister, other MSM members also resigned from the government. A couple of MSM members broke ranks and preferred to stay with the Labour-PMSD government. Thus, the MSM found itself dismembered and out of government barely a year after having been in power. The MedPoint Clinic had once again been the trigger of the uncomfortable situation the MSM found itself in.
The case instituted by the ICAC against Pravind Jugnauth was tried by the Intermediate Court which on 30 June 2015 found him guilty of conflict of interest under section 13 of the POCA. The court sentenced him to 12 months in prison which was later commuted to 12 months’ community service. The consequence of this judgement was to make Pravind Jugnauth resign once again from a ministerial position, notably as Minister for ICT in the newly constituted government of L’Alliance Lepep of December 2014. He was then being positioned by his party, the MSM, to succeed SAJ as Prime Minister in due course when this judgement came to upset the applecart.
One point worthy of mention in this matter is that following the judgement of the Intermediate Court, Sir Anerood Jugnauth expressed his disagreement with the verdict, and stated he was confident it would be reversed on appeal. It did not take long for Government to go for what was perceived as a form of retaliation against the DPP.
In July 2015, the ICAC started an inquiry against the DPP personally. During the same month, there were successive attempts by the ICAC and the Police to arrest the DPP. These attempts were foiled in extremis by injunction and habeas corpus applications on the grounds that the ICAC and the Police were allegedly acting under government pressure, as confessed to the DPP by the ICAC’s then Director of Investigations. This was reported in the press as forming part of the DPP’s affidavit in court; it was never denied by ICAC. On 25 May 2016, the Supreme Court allowed PJ’s appeal. Shortly after, the DPP applied for leave to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to challenge that decision.
In the meantime, in December 2016, the Lepep government came forward with an attempt to amend the Constitution and set up a Prosecution Commission made up of political nominees, with the power to review any of the DPP’s decisions with retroactive effect. The opposition, the press and the legal profession generally came out against the government’s decision since that move was viewed as an attempt to curtail the powers of the DPP and more specifically to review his decision to appeal to the Judicial Committee. A number of Ministers of members of government resigned in protest. Government’s plan was aborted, as it became clear that it could no longer secure the constitutional majority in the National Assembly to amend the Constitution.
The matter will now be heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on 15 January. What has come a surprise is the latest position taken by ICAC, which itself conducted the inquiry in the MedPoint case and went on to press charges against Pravind Jugnauth, to align itself with the stand of the legal counsels of Pravind Jugnauth. Questions will arise as regards ICAC’s latest stand and the country is entitled to some explanation.
Seen from the political front, relations between Labour and the MSM have kept deteriorating since the MedPoint controversy came up. This has been the case since long enough. Intractable harsh rivalry between Pravind Jugnauth and Navin Ramgoolam has left the common pool of voters from which the two parties draw their support in disarray. The breach so made in the voter base has given rise to a perfect opportunity for the ‘divide and rule’ formula to be opportunistically applied to the mutual loss of both the parties.
In light of this context, perhaps Paul Bérenger, leader of the MMM, has seen an unique and extraordinary opportunity opening up to him, according to an interview he gave to a foreign newspaper. He must be seeing in all the “pagaille” created by the two leaders in the wake of the political harakiri surrounding the MedPoint affair, his clearest chance to make a triumphant comeback after his disastrous defeat in the company of Navin Ramgoolam in 2014. This is the kind of situation which could involve significant power redistribution in the country. Although Paul Bérenger only threw up the MedPoint scandal in public in 2011 after the value of the property was doubled, he stands today to reap the dividends out of the rivalry of his traditional political opponents. Who can blame him for this?
At the end of the day, as the politicians spar amongst each other solely with a bid to regain power, it is the people who will be the eternal losers, in line with the adage that when elephants fight it is the grass that gets damaged. Since ideology has been dead a long time ago, and the power elite remains the same – politicians, the oligarchy, the moneyed, the financial empire(s) – the resolution of issues and challenges affecting the people will again drag as the nexuses get busy digging in afresh.
* Published in print edition on 11 January 2019
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