For a Free and Democratic Society

Every citizen must realise that whatever our job or occupation or responsibility, we are the trustees of our democratic order and we should never violate that trust

By Sada Reddi

The perception that a general malaise is gripping the country is not very far from reality. For the population, there is no longer a single doubt aboutthe urgent need to address various failings confronting the country. But the big question that remains is: how do we do it? No one has a readymade solution, but there is a vast amount of experience that should be tapped to forge a new direction for a free and democratic society.

The parliamentary system, albeit a restricted one, has been in place since the 1886 elections. Our citizens have assumed that parliamentary government and state institutions will keep on improving with time, but they seem to have suddenly discovered that it was wrong to assume its linear development would be maintained. They have now come face to face with the unsuspected hidden dangers that have burst out in the open and are trying to turn the clock back. They also realize that institutions also decay and perish unless they are revitalized and revived and given a new lease of life.

The statistical expression of the malaise can be easily found in the rising inflation, the depreciation of the rupee, growing indebtedness and balance of payments deficit, unemployment, and poor governance. The recent report of the Director of Audit shows the waste of public resources and public money collected in the form of taxes. The Extended Programme has been such a failure that the authorities are afraid to reveal that about only 2% of the 3000 or so candidates examined have probably attained the necessary level at the examination. Now has been added to the growing list of grievances the (mal)functioning of the parliamentary system and of most of our institutions,and therein may lie the many ills of society.

Political scientists would surely probe the issues affecting our country and reach a different conclusion but reflection and action by society have to start right away pending further action and measures to be taken at a later stage. It has been clear to many social scientists since a long time that our democratic system has been sliding towards a patrimonial system for the benefit of a new corrupt oligarchy,for very often underlying ethical principles have been violated with impunity.

Laws, procedures and conventions

Nevertheless, on balance, barring some weaknesses, the system has worked more or less satisfactorily for a long period of time and several conventions informing it were respected. Those principles and conventions were derived from a long tradition of parliamentary government inherited from the Westminster model. We may have forgotten that a parliamentary system is not merely a series of laws and procedures inscribed in our Constitution. Rather, it is also grounded in a number of conventions that have to be observed and respected if we want the system to operate usefully and efficiently and above all democratically.

It is true that in the past conventions have often been flouted and ‘To hell with Erskine May’ had been hurled at the President of the Legislative Council. This is not surprising for it took time to learn and get a good grasp of parliamentary skills; it seems today the learning curve will take a much longer time what with our present political culture or the lack of it. This is evident during most sessions of the National Assembly. Even worse, independent institutions are being disparaged and the principle of the separation of powers is being thrown to the winds while a section of the police force on which the public could rely for protection has fallen low in their eyes. 

In the end, many feel that they cannot rely on various institutions to secure a redress of grievances given the way they function. Members of the Assembly cannot engage in a debate that fairly identifies issues and proposes durable solutions because our parliamentarians have been regimented to vote blindly either for or against. Most of them have lost their ability to be critical, creative and innovative and to reach a balanced judgment on the many problems faced by the nation. It is true that we have adopted an adversarial style of parliamentary politics, but this does not mean that members of the National Assembly cannot shed their blinkers when public interest requires it. As a result, questions and complaints are made, but few concrete actions are taken – so much so that Question Time appears to be a futile ritual to most citizens.

One consequence of the parliamentary system being reduced to a mere ritual is that the checks and balances that should act as a brake on the Executive have been weakened. Although all governments must share in the blame for the present situation, nevertheless previous ones had in the past shown restraint in exercising power. Perhaps we failed to realize that not all politicians have a culture of restraint, and some might shockingly go to extremes while still employing the rhetoric of public interest even if they are at the same time feathering their own nests.

Though it is a well-known principle, it needs to be reiterated that parliamentary sovereignty rests on the principle of the sovereignty of the people. Parliamentarians are meant to represent ordinary citizens, whose concerns they voice out through parliamentary questions, to the Executive, ask for clarifications and explanations. In other words, they are supposed to keep the Executive on its toes and make it accountable for their decisions. Parliament does not share power with the Executive but expresses the suspicions and public opinion on any wrongdoing of the Executive and forces it to respond and to take action, to the extent of even bringing about the revocation of ministers.

Watchdog of the public interest

Any abuse of power and authority by the Executive can encroach on the duties and responsibilities of public officials and public officers. Though there are laws, regulations and procedures which inform the relationship between the Executive and public servants, undermining and subverting this relationship can open the floodgate for poor governance, inefficiency, wastage of resources, and the bullying of public officers to act against the public interest. The public interest is not the same as the private interests of the Executive. But it is Parliament, excluding those who form part of the Executive, which has the role and responsibility as watchdog of the public interest.

On the other hand, civil servants and public officers have been entrusted with the responsibility to implement policies in the public interest. They have been recruited and trained and must abide by the procedures laid down in the Constitution and in other legislations and regulations. Their conditions of service have made their posts permanent to ensure the continuity of the State and their commitment to public service and their independence. They have to collaborate with the government of the day for the implementation of its policies, but they have to follow prescribed rules and procedures.

civil servants are like the lawyer who provides all the information to his client and then awaits instructions from him to be implemented within well-laid down procedures. Civil servants in Mauritius have fulfilled this role pretty well. It is well-known they have implemented the policies of one government and the opposite policies with the same zeal when a new government comes in. But to ignore conventions, to bypass procedures and harass civil servants who have a responsibility to serve the public interest will lower the morale of our public officers, weaken the role of our institutions, waste their time in useless and unnecessary action and finally leave them with no possibility to tackle important problems facing the country.

The only compensation for any maladministration is that it is the Minister who is responsible for any wrong decision imposed on the civil servant under his watch. Even there too, when one would have expected members of the Executive to resign on a question of principle, they remain stuck to their ministerial posts, unless revoked, and persist in their wrongdoing with impunity. One flicker of hope is that judicial institutions act as a bulwark against injustices; and it is our hope that that they will continue to uphold our Constitution and promptly deliver justice.

Fixing the system

How do we fix the system? One could argue that there is no way to fix a decayed system from inside, especially when many of our institutions have been subverted. Yet the democratic deficit must be addressed. A law commission may take up various issues and sensitize public opinion on potential solutions. Academics may continue to investigate the flaws of the political system and suggest possible remedies. Citizens and citizens’ organizations can come up with various suggestions, educate the wider public and propose solutions. Every citizen must realise that whatever our job or occupation or responsibility, we are the trustees of our democratic order, and we should never violate that trust.

At the present moment we also have a unique opportunity to benefit from the experience of some of our senior politicians and citizens who know the system inside out and the conditions that are necessary to maintain and safeguard a free society. Their efforts should be pursued in that direction, but they would need to work out the modalities that will help bring about effective action. This must be done in the most democratic manner possible.

The present challenge is to revive the principles of and conditions for a free society and it is refreshing that many are already doing so — activist lawyers, social activists, NGOs, religious leaders, journalists, trade unionists, politicians, and countless other individuals. We all have to register our protest in whatever peaceful way we choose. It is very important to do so. Protest is legitimate in a democracy, and it is to be encouraged.

Sada Reddi

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 14 April 2023

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