Policy Drivers & Ill-Advised Faux-Pas

A turmoiled government cannot afford further ill-advised faux-pas that could jeopardise our long-term
strategic interests.

Heritage City was to be the shining marvel at no costs to Mauritian taxpayers, the vanguard of new horizons, a dearly cherished legacy to the nation. On the strength of the PM’s personal publicly repeated attachment to the project, dissenting concerns, however troubling, not just from Opposition forces but from numerous sensible quarters, could be cavalierly dismissed.

The empowered twin team of Ministers Bhadain and Soodhun industriously led the charge. Cabinet duly went along for much of last year and the High-Powered Committee seems to have been comfortable at all vetting stages. A special Cabinet meeting considered presentations by Stree Consulting around July and diligently approved again. Until the “remise en cause” one week later by the Minister of Finance himself, reversing that collective decision and placing the PM squarely in minority, a momentous occurrence in SAJ’s long and illustrious career.

The simmerings continued though and the resulting burlesque “on-off” episodes have occupied headlines ever since. At this Tuesday’s inter-ministerial Lepep meeting called by the PM himself to push for the project’s “revival”, decision was unexpectedly announced that Heritage City was indeed definitively buried. Press headlines clearly alluded to disinformation and misguidance of the PM by his own trusted Heritage team. This long overdue demise raises evidently many legitimate questions, some obviously political, others about the consequences of unprecedented misleadings or miplaced trust that may have taken place at highest levels, still others, more intractable, about the resilience of our institutions, our system of checks and balances and the general robustness of our democratic functionings when key decisions and priorities are at stake. All so “Westminsterian” in appearances.

A bulwark of stability

Let us digress a moment to the largest functional democracy in the world. It can be said to lie at the other end of the spectrum of institutional functionings, where the administrative cadres and their higher echelons cannot be easily either dismissed, summarily transferred or otherwise cowed by political change of guards. In a country of such vastness and complexity, facing inside challenges and outside threats, such a bulwark of stability can be relied upon to provide best advice, unalloyed with fear or favour to the body politic of whatever hue. After general elections, the campaign pledges and promises still have to be weighed, filtered and assessed by the relevant administrative authorities, minimising the risks of political populism and demagoguery even if at the cost of a somewhat cumbersome decision-making machinery.

The Modi or Congress promises of One grade, One pension is a case in point of a campaign pledge which was scrutinised to avoid the country massive financial implications. Last year’s public announcement by Indian PM Modi that India was considering the purchase of French Rafale fighter planes sent Paris (and other competing warplane exporting capitals) in a flurry of overheated activity, believing the “deal was done”. From an Indian perspective, it more accurately meant that “India is ready to discuss”!

And before a final decision is taken, every Air, Naval & Land divisions of the army, every finance, legal, manufacturing and foreign service department will independently scrutinise the deal terms and package to make their best informed views and suggestions available to PM Modi and his political negotiating team. The actual purchase may take place two to five years down the road and may not even be signed by a Modi-led government. It is the price for resilience and a national consensus giving the body politic full leeway to enunciate policies while submitting the latter to fuller background analysis and preventing polity from doing lasting damage on questions so vital to the nation.

The resilience of top Indian financial and internal revenue cadres on the vexing issue of the revision of India’s double taxation avoidance agreements is another testimony that the political heavyweights can only exert limited influence over top administrative echelons and can only extend so much patronage to overseas friends. Our excessive reliance over the years on polity to counter-balance top-level administrative decision-making machinery had inherent limits. They came to a natural end this year when our own inexperienced negotiating team buckled so easily under the Indian Financial Services pressure. Neither Indian PM Modi nor the SAJ visit could alter the course in substance thereafter, except possibly, sweeten the pill if conditions were conducive to such a request.

Institutional drift

To come back to our own shores, the regime elected in December 2014 has unmistakably pushed our institutional balance between polity and top administrators to the other extreme of the spectrum, to the extent that even the holder of the Office of President of the Republic was designated as a political appointee who had to vacate office after elections. But the institutional drift was ever present, no doubt caused or accentuated by two factors which have had an enormous underlying impact.

The determinant skewing of the equilibrium towards the polity was enthroned by the Constitutional amendment of 1982 which ensured the soap-box ruled the roost and our top administrative cadres, particularly the younger generation, quickly learned to play the new game, sometimes with oozing sycophancy for their political overlords. Such a situation cannot guarantee fair, reasoned and objective advice or assistance to political decision-making.

No political regime or alliance, even those with a constitutional majority to that end, has obviously thought fit to review the situation or amend the wide and powerful scope of that historic twister every generation has lived with since 1982. That a new regime should have the mandate to bring in an incoming team of advisors and appointees is inevitable and probably desirable. But the mechanisms for appointment to strategic posts and the scope and span of the 1982 Constitutional amendment should at some stage be on the table for intelligent review.

The second twist occurred with the dismantling of the Economic Planning and Development Ministry and its integration into Finance and Economic Development. That move, no doubt justified by its proponents on grounds of greater efficacy, undoubtedly deprived successive governments of a mechanism to provide through a dedicated team of economists and sectoral specialists a separate autonomous view of development initiatives and their reconciliation into longer-term national interests. In effect, with the possible exception of financial services, Finance is the single most important decider for all ministries through their budgets and a formidable overseer of numerous national development and regulatory agencies falling under its purview.

That has in effect laid the foundation of a political twin team, PM and Finance, that wield a web of almost total control over the government’s functionings. No wonder that was the basic and sufficient formula of the Lepep alliance during the 2014 electoral campaign, with SAJ and Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo as the respective figure-heads of the “economic miracle” to come. Against a more confused decision-making team, its hazy second republic and the “usure” of on-off public negotiations of LP-MMM, history has had its say.

But the point here is whether the country should have, beyond the direct influence and purview of either of these two formidable power centres, an autonomous ability to consider, evaluate and advise on matters of national interest that have larger and longer range repercussions than budget or office term horizons. It could constitute also a breeding and formative ground for the development of several Mauritian sector specialists if they are organically associated with most if not all foreign expert missions commissioned in various sectors. Rather than a Ministry it could take the shape of an autonomous Institute whose very credibility would lie in its freedom from political jockeying and its ability to handle and provide independent and public or confidential advice as necessary to commissioning authorities from the public sector.

Economic diplomacy and its derailment

One last point is not institutional but impinges on the formidable challenges facing both our traditional and economic diplomacy and the impression of its derailment over the past two years. I am not here going to refer to the national issue of sovereignty over Chagos and the renewal of the Diego lease to the US directly. Following the condemnation by the Maritime Tribunal in the Hague and the upcoming lease renewal by this December, SAJ has chosen a course that now entails discussions with a notoriously fickle Foreign & Commonwealth Office. He will have to be on guard and has to be wished well.

On his state visit in March 2015, Indian PM Modi made a series of offerings to the highest Mauritian authorities and, in particular, a concessionary line of credit of US$ 500 M and an agreement to redirect the US$ 200 M earmarked towards the Light Rail Project. The high-level meeting ended on this message to SAJ: “I consider our security cooperation to be a cornerstone of our strategic partnership. We intend to quickly build the petroleum storage and bunkering facilities in Mauritius.” The essence of that very meaningful message was lost, ignored or even dismissed around the budget 2015 which occurred one week later.

Fortunately, it seems to have been rediscovered with the visit of Hon Pravind Jugnauth to India this month and the adjusted position of the now Foreign Minister Lutchmeenaraidoo, heralding that a new awareness of geopolitics, our allies and friends and our enduring strategic interests may be taking place at highest levels. Our foreign policy has been out of the loop for most of two years with costly consequences and we should, with better strategic concertation, avoid unchecked Ministers like Soodhun or even the President of the Republic barging onto the scene with statements or actions that are neither timely nor even appropriate.

A turmoiled government cannot afford further ill-advised faux-pas that could jeopardise our long-term strategic interests.

U.C.

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