Will the government get over the turmoil?

Tit-bits

SAJ’s last press conference had become pressing. Under other circumstances, this could have awaited the PM’s return from the UN mission, his pulpit delivery to world nations on this important initiative and the outcome of General Assembly deliberations and a crucial vote for a non-binding opinion of the International Court of Justice regarding the Chagos sovereignty issue. The situation report that would naturally follow such an event would, for all PMO communicators, have constituted a prime stage for the news announcements served last Monday by SAJ.

But events were conspiring to upset any such imagined plans, just as they were on the economic front, where progressively less and less people were willing to buy into a “feel-good factor” or enthuse about some of the social elements of the national budget. The dark spectre of an eclipse, however temporary, was threatening not just the skies.

The ominous sequence of events saw an isolated animal infection case, on an isolated farm, in the geographically isolated island of Rodrigues evolve into a major FMD epidemic storm, wiping out animal farming there and engulfing Mauritius in its wake. Independently of Qurbani considerations and the inglorious sanitary backdown of the harassed Minister last Sunday, we have to recognise that Cattle, Dairy, Deer and Pig farms have all been put at heavy risk. This is not being alarmist as we are not even assured whether a similar outbreak of salmonella or some odd poultry flu in Rodrigues won’t wipe out a national agro-industry there or here. That sufficient preventive action has accordingly been taken to contain the risk?

In parallel, the handling of government’s education reform agenda, the disregard of parental and educator concerns around Nine-Year Schooling and their obvious consequences and the light-footed amendment of the PSSA Act were bad enough. The underlying discontent is still brewing.

More disquieting has been the treatment of a Lepep government electoral pledge to “take charge of all SC and HSC fees indiscriminately to all pupils”. The requirement of a 90% attendance criterion by the Education Ministry appears to be a late correction of what could be perceived as a Lepep’s originally untenable proposition. The corrective effort was so bungled up in 2015 that it had to be shelved, pending a better planned implementation this year.

Had the Ministry’s main preoccupation been really with the attendance and discipline issue, it had advance knowledge of issues and a full year to mobilise its considerable resources and engage all partners into a real analysis of root causes of absenteeism in non-exam and exam years, identify remedial action to make attendance meaningful rather than perfunctory and thus prepare a consensual approach for 2016 early on in the year.

Few expected that IVTB House advisors, the MES and the Ministry staffers would repeat in 2016 last year’s tensions through a series of contradictory circulars and last minute demands on parents and students feeling stressed out only a few days from such important examinations.

It cannot be said to be an under-fed and under-staffed Ministry lacking in resources or time to devote to important pedagogical matters, however mundane. Given the apparent weak preparation in anticipation of the event, should the Ministry get over its obdurate intemperance, forego 2016 and get things properly organised the third time around?

Events were threatening to take an altogether uglier turn with the shifting public perceptions developing around the fate of Mr Kailash Trilochun, a star legal advisor appointed by the regime itself to several institutions, and whose pugnacious defence in the ICTA saga, where serious allegations were made and enquiries are under way, was lifting the veil on some disturbing questions.

The ongoing instability from all this had to be addressed rather urgently but it took the burlesque “cafouillages” around the rewrite of very official Cabinet communiqué to precipitate matters and drive home the need to restore a sense of order from ineffective functioning seen at too many levels. Chaos may be more perceived than real but perceptions often overshadow reality.

A parting legacy

This quest was addressed at this week’s urgently needed press conference, where in his own inimitable truculent style, the PM basically announced two key decisions:

a) First, the decision by SAJ to “reconsider” with governing alliance Party leaders and Minister Bhadain the issues raised at the Cabinet meeting of 5 August which had led to the demise of the Heritage City project as repeatedly announced by Hon Pravind Jugnauth. It is undoubtedly a remarkable feather in Minister Bhadain’s personal cap and a tribute to his persuasive abilities and standing in SAJ’s fold.

But the handling of the whole affair leaves room for questions. If the Minister of Good Governance, who had spearheaded and somewhat bulldozed the project through with the blessings of SAJ, Cabinet and the High-Powered Committee, has every reason to celebrate the upcoming “revival”, have the strong reservations expressed in different quarters about the project’s massive costs and its “montage financier” been dispelled?

Second, in the light of trickling press information from the ongoing CCID enquiry regarding Mr Sanspeur’s role in the demise of Heritage City, will this “reconsideration” have a bearing on the Minister of Finance’s judgement on the whole matter and on his entourage? Pravind Jugnauth has up to now extended unfailing public support to his senior most advisor who, amongst other responsibilities, heads the Board of Investment, State Lands and State Property Development.

b) If that Heritage City revival could be profoundly embarrassing for the Minister of Finance, Pravind Jugnauth, the latter will undoubtedly console himself with the second key SAJ decision, namely, the long held-out public announcement that Pravind Jugnauth would, as leader of the majority alliance partner, accede to the post of PM following SAJ’s now imminent departure from office.

As a long career politician and legal mind, SAJ confidently feels this political transition rests on constitutional grounds and numerical safety for the MSM in Parliament, enabling him to ignore calls for general elections from political opponents and ride out public grumblings as he caters to the immediate. SAJ’s resignation as PM does not clarify his future role as to whether he remains in Cabinet or in Parliament. But it does put an effective end to the 2014 quasi-mythic tandem team of a now distant “economic miracle”.

Where is Jupiter’s thunderbolt?

The singular element emerging from the press conference is the announcement by SAJ that, while he will be bowing out of office, there will also be an imminent Cabinet reshuffle. Does this mean that it is he, as the outgoing PM, who will decide the composition of the next Cabinet? Hopefully not, since such a reordering would have indeed been expected from the incoming PM, freely exercising his new positional authority and mediation skills.

In our system, the PM ultimately stamps his authority by choosing the new pecking-order of Cabinet colleagues and appointees, commanding respect and loyalty through personal qualities backed by the inbuilt ability “to hire and fire”. SAJ is fully aware that Jupiter’s thunderbolt and its deterrence value must come with the function. But, as outgoing leader of the Lepep alliance, does SAJ feel that he cannot do otherwise than arbitrate the delicate power transition with least ruffled feathers and minimum damage?

This could be a Pandora’s box if mishandled. Who, for instance, will inherit the Finance portfolio, or those dealing with large investment projects? Where will real powers of effective decision-making lie? Who will arbitrate conflict in an arrangement not entirely ordered by the incoming PM? The many unknowns and unresolved questions offer a sobering perspective on Pravind Jugnauth’s projected access path to PMship. The uncertainties may also worry investors and the population at large. The latter have to know who ultimately holds the strings of power.

It looks as if the coveted PM-position for Pravind Jugnauth comes with some strings attached: Heritage City revival and a Cabinet reshuffle managed by an outgoing SAJ himself. Is this really so?

A couple of weeks ago we commented that“…the MSM has the somewhat daunting responsibility to show what the party stands for, how it harnesses the country’s talents and resources and what it can actually deliver, from this most singular of vantage points where it is in sole control of both central and local government. Most advisors reckon that the heavy responsibility now rests on Hon Pravind Jugnauth, in his triple capacity of party leader, Minister of Finance and PM in waiting.”

The above mentioned double caveat of PMship indicates that the incoming PM, Pravind Jugnauth, may not have the latitude and the full trappings of authority the post calls for. There are obviously deeper factors of realpolitik that are at play. It will be instructive to analyse the winners and losers of the great game in progress and evaluate how the unfolding events might consolidate or further affect the country’s stability, sense of direction and future development.

U.C.

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