“This will be a very dirty fight. Nothing is off limits”

Interview: Chetan Ramchurn

The MSM is trying very hard to portray the heir as charismatic and confident. The allure of the PMSD is overhyped. The MMM is in wilderness, the Labour Party lacks a grand strategy’

‘Traditional parties have all benefited from private sector financing and in some cases there are allegations that drug money has been used in campaigns’

Chetan Ramchurn is a young entrepreneur who is not afraid to speak his mind about the prevailing political situation in the country. In this interview, he expresses his concern about some the latest measures being introduced in the Parliament such as the Declaration of Assets and the judiciary’s opposition to it and the financing of political parties. He also comments on the lining up of potential alliances in view of the forthcoming elections, and also believes like a few other observers that this is going to be a no-holds barred campaign with plenty of muck flying about to discredit opponents… Read on:

Mauritius Times: The last week ended on a more or less sour note for the Government when the Judiciary made known its opposition to the submission by judges of their Declaration of Assets to the ICAC as provided for initially in the Declaration of Assets Bill, which Bill has finally been voted by Parliament this week after the necessary amendments. The Judiciary may have valid reasons for refusing to submit to ICAC, but would you think there is more to its stand, as suggested by the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament? That it speaks eloquently of the esteem in which the Judiciary holds the ICAC?

Chetan Ramchurn: It is but the latest of a number of “hit and run” amendments or additions to our legal arsenal. Sparse are the details but great is the urgency. This was on full display with the alterations made to the Immigration Act with dubious reasons offered to explain the haste with which it was ratified. Resorting to ad hominem legislations is not befitting of a serious government. Ours has a strong tendency to opt for same as evidenced by the Prosecution Commission Bill of December 2016.

People are wary of such moves, not only in Mauritius but across the world. In an interview given in Le Monde, General De Villiers, in his assessment of the mistrust of French citizens in their representatives, avers that «Deux pelleteuses creusent cette crise de l’autorité : la bureaucratie tatillonne, plus importante malgré la digitalisation. Et le juridisme, qui complique la vie des citoyens et des chefs d’entreprise. Quand il existe un problème, on fait une loi, mais elle ne règle rien. Et les gens se demandent : ‘Où va-t-on ? Y a-t-il un pilote dans l’avion ?’»

And in our case, the pilot was never licensed to fly the plane. The dearth of consultation with the judiciary was identified by the leaders of the two main opposition factions as being the origin of this “messy” state of affairs. Duval mentioned the danger of judicial officers coming under pressure from the government through a servile arm. No thinking person would dismiss that possibility, especially when the polls are nearing and those governing would like to keep their main opponent in a legal quagmire. Still, this does not seem to be one of the previous lois scélérates, but more of a posturing device for the incumbent. He is now the tireless crusader against corruption…

While the government has seemingly opted for a one-size-fits-all legislation, the OCDE in a 2011 report entitled Asset Declarations for Public Officials outlines the necessity for different declaration systems for the diverse branches of power:

“It remains debatable whether a single declaration system should apply to all branches of power, including legislative, executive and judiciary, and to all levels of officials, from ministers to ordinary civil servants. Recognising that various categories of public officials indeed differ from each other, with different levels of responsibility and power or potential to go into conflicts of interest and corruption, countries should consider specialising regulations of asset declarations for different categories and branches of public officials.”

The MMM, through its leader, even went as far as detailing how trusts should be properly introduced in the Act’s definition of assets. Some of those intervening from opposition ranks explained the myriad of financial and investment instruments that are still not within the ambit of the act. The government would have done well to listen to these recommendations. It chose not to…raising even more doubts on the true design of this move.

* One would have thought that the legal requirements contained in a piece of legislation like the Declaration of Assets Act would be rendered effective if they would pass the test of regular and rigorous verifications by a competent body having the capacity and authority to conduct such verifications. What purpose will it serve if the declarations are left in the custody of the Speaker or the President of the Republic or any non-investigative body? Only for the sake of mere political correctness?

The Judicial and Legal Services Commission has been mentioned as that possible authority. However, it lacks the required resources and expertise. It seems to be more of a PR coup than anything else.

Image is everything and everything is image. We have a new Saint-Just. That is the message being conveyed after the flop of the budget. Not Lee Kuan Yew and the economic miracles like his father projected, but a hotchpotch of qualities. It gets you wondering about the extent of make-believe in politics. Everything is staged and some of our representatives accept any proposal that would enhance their visibility or help in their positioning with disarming alacrity. This results in getting on the zip wire in Rodrigues or bringing bills to the house without prior consultation with all those involved.

That is certainly keeping our focus away from the ever-increasing cost of the Côte-d’Or complex or the obvious issues associated with the Safe City project. But we should not worry on the latter matter for the Minister Mentor has the solution to the obvious privacy encroachment issues for those people who will have to deal with the invasive lenses on a daily basis…“they must keep their doors and windows shut”. I should probably add that they should stay at home and not do anything to thwart the son’s attempt to become prime minister on his ‘own’.

* It would appear that the refusal of the Judiciary to submit to the ICAC has not gone down well with the latter body, according to a daily paper. The contention of ICAC being that the Judiciary also falls under the purview of the POCA. How do you react to that?

The greater the responsibility, the more the scrutiny. It applies to the judiciary as well. But who should they report to? Is there a truly independent institution that will not toy with them to serve their masters? Pierre Rosanvallon, in ‘Le bon gouvernement’, writes about the addition of a fourth branch to the existing powers;

“Le Conseil du fonctionnement démocratique (gardien des principes juridiquement formalisables de la démocratie d’exercice (l’intégrité des gouvernants et la transparence des actions et des institutions au premier chef) […] veillerait à la protection des lanceurs d’alerte. Pour être efficace, il devrait avoir un pouvoir propre d’investigation et être en mesure de formuler des injonctions contraignantes adressées aux administrations et aux personnes. Il pourrait publier un rapport annuel sur l’état de la démocratie, les gouvernants devant publiquement s’expliquer sur ses critiques et se prononcer sur ses suggestions. Ce rôle majeur impliquerait qu’il ait un statut renforcé par rapport à celui des diverses autorités indépendantes actuelles et qu’il soit constitutionnellement reconnu comme relevant d’une forme spécifique de pouvoir, distinct de l’exécutif, du législatif et du judiciaire. Faire reconnaître ce « quatrième pouvoir » est un des enjeux essentiels de l’instauration d’une telle démocratie d’exercice.”

A Council watching over the state of our democracy that would derive its investigative powers not from the existing three branches of government but from an independent fourth one would be best equipped to carry out this task. It would offer safeguards to whistleblowers and ensure the integrity of our decision makers at different levels.

With a political nominee at its helm, the commission fighting corruption does not inspire much confidence. In recent times, it has earned some successes that are high in buzz value. The onslaught against diamond-adorned platinum grills (stylised as grillz) and the ensuing need for a dentist will generate some attention but there are a lot of sharks in full feeding frenzy and they are the ones that should be targeted.

* Linked closely to the declaration of assets issue is the financing of political parties, through official donations by corporate and individuals as well as through their funding by black money by the same financiers. What is being proposed in the Political Financing Bill tabled by the Government for its First Reading, last Tuesday, looks like we are going for the continuation and indeed the consolidation of private sector financing of political parties, with the Government having dropped the idea of financing by the State. What’s your take on that?

It was to be expected. the Political Financing Bill is aligned on what mainstream parties have practised for years. They are now not only preaching it but going as far as trying to legislate same and is merely the affirmation of their belief that the government is a doormat for private interests. Most of our representatives are mere pawns in the hands of the bourgeosie. Zom patron and Zom tablisman.

We have witnessed the Rs 15 billion fiscal exemption on smart cities (bear in mind that the government is ready to sell the country’s assets to generate Rs 11 billion for debt repayment), the introduction of the flat tax, IRS & RES and the ‘mari’ deal Illovo…Let us not fool ourselves, this is merely the laying bare of the usual behind the curtain dealings.

* Politicians who are averse to taxpayers footing the bills of political parties may have good reasons to take that stand, but the alternative is no better, don’t you think? The undue influence that financiers are likely to hold over the public policy making process, and which would explain why decisions blatantly against the national interest pass unopposed by the People’s representatives – that will continue?

The financing of political parties is a complex issue and a simplistic take on it will further damage our democracy. The immediate reaction is often one of rejection with the accompanying reason that we should not involve taxpayers’ money to finance some of the hopeless candidates we have. But that would be short-sightedness on our behalf. Would it not be better to dictate the rules of the game instead of letting the private sector impose its neo-liberal fantasies? I said it earlier that the state financing of political parties would be crucial to ensure that the allegiance of those elected is first and foremost to voters and not to financiers. Transparency should also encompass the assets of the state and include a more rigorous control on land; the allocation of leases should be monitored and regulated so as to prevent the kind of generosity towards ‘petits copains’ we have witnessed and are witnessing.

Is it the magic solution to all woes? No, but if the right cadre is implemented it would be a step in the right direction.

* What do you think is sought to be achieved by the Government when it comes at this late hour, some six months before the National Assembly will stand dissolved, with this Political Financing Bill, and that without any guarantee that it will go through given the unlikelihood of it being able to raise a majority of three-quarters in the Assembly?

The government is keeping its opponents busy, entangled in debates and more importantly on the defensive. The PM is setting the agenda and the others are following. Not all of them though. The Leader of the Mauritius Labour Party privileges absence and has created obvious breaches in his opponent’s defence since the 1st May gathering. Even the first measures he has advocated as part of his ‘Rupture’ have been copied by the government. Since he is rare, he is hard-hitting when he intervenes.

Mitterrand and Chirac’s communication advisor Jacques Pilhan said it best, ‘Nous installons la rareté. Et donc la densité.’ The worrying part of this charade is that there is not a huge difference between the traditional parties. They have all benefited from private sector financing and in some cases there are allegations that drug money has been used in campaigns. There is no perfect system and whatever we decide to go with will have loopholes that will need to be plugged. The fascination with new laws without proper consultation is to be noted. Remember: “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”

* Would it also be the intention of the governing alliance to force opposition parties to declare their political interests in view of the forthcoming elections with their vote on the Political Financing Bill eventually?

The worrying part of it is that all the mainstream parties have all privileged private financing and are not actively campaigning for an alternate route. They have all amassed war chests over the years but will pretend otherwise.

The intent of the alliance in office is to occupy the moral high ground. Expect images of safes being showed ad nauseam and their self-promotion as paragons of virtue to be pursued.

The other goal at this stage of our political calendar would be to find common ground with potential allies. This is another ‘hit and run’ addition which for the sake of political interests leaves our country worse off and reduces MPs and parties to servants of the financial elite.

* Besides making a political point, it might also be the same motivation behind the Labour Party’s decision to table a motion of no-confidence against the Government at this stage. What do you think?

Indeed, it is a zero-risk, show of hands move. We will get to see how many walk the talk. There were vehement exchanges during the budget debates. But we are accustomed to On/Off bouts. And this is verily the season when it is most acute. Get your act right is essentially what the Labour Party is telling them. Choose your side. The timing is interesting but there is the risk that everything will be drowned in the noise that we are now accustomed to.

* What all this and the ambivalence of certain opposition parties vis-à-vis the Political Financing Bill show perhaps is that the die has not yet been cast in terms of “winning formulas” for the next elections. Is it too early for the real “tractations” and negotiations to start?

Negotiations have started months ago and the best possible deal is being sought by the different players. The parliament is a stage. MPs deifying their leaders would backstab them without flinching if their political careers were at play. The lengthy debates, rebuttals and insults should not fool us. They will look for the partner offering them the very best chances of winning.

The MSM is trying very hard to portray the heir as charismatic and confident. The PMSD claims to be the belle of the ball but as demonstrated in the No.18 by-election, their allure is overhyped. The MMM is in wilderness and while it has some solid MPs, they have no sense of direction and their allegiance to their leader’s ‘pragmatisme économique’ means that they are likely to side with those that wield power.

The Labour Party knows that there is still everything to play for. It lacks a grand strategy like in 2005. But in terms of storytelling, it has great material. Its leader has been besmirched. Many of the cases against him have been dropped. The narrative of the outsider that rises from the pits of despair to win has to be properly told.

* Whether our parties will come up with their winning formulas or not for the forthcoming elections remains to be seen, but would a three- or four-cornered fight be better for the health of our democracy?

When the three-cornered fight happened in 1976, the Labour Party was a socialist party that had democratised access to education and ensured social stability. The MMM was still on the left and its messages echoed with those yearning for hope. The PMSD, having staunchly rejected independence and with a dwindling following, was fighting for relevancy.

A four-cornered fight today would be near impossible for going alone would lead to sure casualties for two out of the four parties. It would also remind us how alike they are. It would have been a fairer fight and some bloated egos would have been rightly reduced to their just proportions but I cannot see it happening.

* The media has started talking about the mud-sling campaign that the governing alliance would direct against the Labour Party leader at an opportune time. It’s going to be a “vicious” campaign according to Rama Sithanen. The question is whether there is a limit to the viciousness that the public/electorate would deem acceptable. Can it also cut either way?

Earlier this year in this paper I stated that, “Vous ne dirigez plus, mais vous dominez toujours.” I feel the same way about this Government. It is bedlam but they are eager to implement new laws to curb our freedom and will resort to every trick in the book. The opposition parties should gear up for some serious mano a mano and that much hyped ‘Rupture’ better not be about gossamer changes.

With the fear of the ‘retour de bâton’ hovering above their heads, this will be an ugly campaign.” The attacks have never really ceased to be honest. On a pro-government private radio, some weeks back, with no coherent argument to defend his case, a noisy MP merely rehashed the scandals associated with the Leader of the Labour Party. This is what is to be expected.

The MSM and ML are disastrous for this country, indulging in useless expenses that jeopardise our independence and place undue pressure on future generations. The perception that corruption has reached new highs is prevalent. Their devastating reign does not however translate in certain victory for its opponents. The spin weaved around it will influence those that are easily swayed. Countering the governing alliance’s massive propaganda machine will not be easy.

This will be a very dirty fight and with the political personnel we have, nothing is off limits.

* Published in print edition on 5 July 2019

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