Mauritius: Paul Bérenger - "I plead guilty!"

10 September 2019
interview

This interview was carried out in 2015 and published in Weekly on 12 November. Then-Leader of the Opposition Paul Bérenger gives his views about a range of issues. Parts of his answers are prophetic. We thought of publishing it online today to feed into the debate about what is going on within the MMM. It sheds a new light on the leader who looks battered today.

The man is imposing! A character straight out of the British House of Lords. Yes, he is forceful and even loud-mouthed, but underlying his speech and his every move, there is a high dose of humility - the kind of humility I have not seen among his younger peers.

We got to his house on the dot. We knew his character and we could not chance starting the interview on the wrong foot. He was standing at the door to greet us and took the time to exchange a few civilities with the driver and the photographer before we started the interview.

Talking to Paul Bérenger on a one-to-one basis, you see a different side to the man. Far from the madding crowd, the stern, at times off-putting mask, falls off and I discover a well-read man, aware of just about everything going on in this country and elsewhere. A man who abhors imperfection and flies off the handle in the face of stupidity. So we made sure we asked him stupid questions. We invite our readers to enjoy the show.

So how is the country? I started. His answer was immediate: "The country is in deep trouble, deeper than it has ever been. Sap dan karaille tom dan dife."

So the karaille is the MMM/ Labour alliance? I chanced. "No, of course not," he shouted. "The karaille is the previous government with the Labour Party, the PMSD, throughout and the MSM until the MedPoint scandal. That is the karaille. But now we are in something even worse - dife! Dirty dife that we have had for the last 10 months. As for the MMM/Labour alliance, you all went hysterical, including Weekly, about the second republic because you did not read the text but all that is behind us now. We got butchered because of Navin Ramgoolam, who gave the impression that nothing would change and we deserved to lose because people wanted change. And they still do."

His English is impeccable; his thoughts lucid. So I continued: Why, hasn't there been change? "Of course not! Unless by change you mean change for the worse. Things have gotten worse," he replied.

I tried to sound innocent: What has gotten worse? I asked. "Everything!" he shouted, surprised that I could be so blind. Then he turned the question to me: "Tell me what is better?"

His anger had started building up. So I tried to fuel it. Isn't there more transparency now? I asked before running for cover.

His reaction was immediate and his tone of voice did not disappoint. "You must be joking! You have a good sense of humour which I unfortunately do not share," He said. Then he continued, "Transparency, hum," he sniggered. "It's obvious! They don't even reply to questions in parliament! In terms of nominations, appointments, competence etc., things are much worse."

But people are still happy with the government, aren't they? I asked. He sounded terribly irritated: "You must be joking! I don't know on which planet you live," he replied. "There is complete disillusion today in the country!" he said stressing every single syllable of the word "disillusion" in case I was too stupid to understand it. "We are at a turning point."

Are you going to suggest again that elections are around the corner?

"They might be. What is important is that the opposition should stand ready. Those who were elected never expected to be elected so we ended up in a serious mess," he said.

Whatever the mess may be and irrespective of whether people are happy or not, they have a three-quarter majority so they do what they like, including passing the bill which you qualified as a "dangerous and scary constitutional amendment".

He interrupts immediately. "Even that they don't have! Now with Danielle Selvon's resignation, even less." I dipped my toe in the water. What do you think of her resignation by the way? He smiled. At least this question made him happy. "I salute her courage and I believe it is the beginning of the end," he said. I chanced another one: Will she join your party? Hard luck: "For the time being, she will sit as an independent member of parliament. Later, time will tell," was all I could get out of him so I went back to the government's majority: With the two MPs from Rodrigues, the government can still have a majority, I said.

(He raised his voice) "As far as I know, Rodrigues does not belong to the MSM! As far as I know, I said," he repeated. "But maybe you are all better informed than me."

I know few people who are better informed than Bérenger about anything. As for being better informed about local politics, no, Sir.

OK, what if the Mouvement Patriotique...He interrupted: "They said they were not going to vote for the bills," he replied, and, as if to avoid disappointing, he added, "for once they said something intelligent!"

And the PMSD? "Even they are grumbling, though not publicly. Maybe like the old man in the old days, they will threaten or buy people. Otherwise, I don't see them getting the majority to vote this Bhadain's rubbish piece of legislation in. It is a crime against the constitution! And I must say it was blessed by Anerood Jugnauth. It is too easy to put the whole responsibility on Bhadain."

So you don't think it will go through, do you?

Almost ignoring the question, he said: "For the first time, there is resistance to Jugnauth. His style is to threaten and bully. Now it seems that this style does not work anymore. Anyway, even if the bills go through, they will hit a wall in the Supreme Court and I totally agree with Antoine Domingue about that. I don't think we will even need to go to the Privy Council."

Even with the new amendments to the bills? I asked.

He sounded almost irritated as he snapped, "The amendments are insufficient and do not go far enough. The legislation is still dangerous and unacceptable."

Now, many political observers are surprised by the silence of two people. The attorney general and your good friend Ivan Collendavelloo... He interrupts: "You are surprised. I am not surprised at all! This attorney general, he is a child!" As if that was not enough, he added: "He is a childish child. And I have a lot of affection for children. I mean for an attorney general to meet at 2 a.m. and threaten people with the help of Bhadain and the little one. You call that an attorney general?"

What about Collendavelloo, I asked? "He's in bad company with Anil Gayan and Ravi Rutnah..."

But seriously, people had placed high hopes on him.

"But people have the right to be wrong!" came the answer. "I am personally not surprised. What he has done in the Central Electricity Board (CEB) saga is shameful. He is manipulating information in a very shameful way. But this is nothing new."

I tried another provocative question: He is hoping to take over the MMM, isn't he?

This was greeted by a hearty laugh: "What a bloody nut! Do you know that ever since he left the MMM, not a single member or delegate has even mentioned his name? He has his qualities. He and I did a lot for the judiciary. But he is a part-timer who no one takes seriously at the MMM."

The conversation somehow led to the financing of political parties and Bérenger talked lengthily about the coffers, the Sun Trust, and other scandals like MedPoint before he started bragging about his track record: "The MMM is the only party which has been clean throughout. Where in the whole world have you ever seen a former prime minister who owns nothing but his house? This house where you are sitting is the only thing I possess. And I inherited a house which I sold to buy this one. How many other politicians can say that?" he asked.

He seemed in a good enough mood suddenly for me to start provoking him again: When you had the opportunity as prime minister to bring in legislation to regulate political party financing and introduce a declaration of assets legislation, you were not interested, were you?

He flew into a temper: "Who said I was not interested? You say anything and you present it as the truth! We fought for that on every occasion but the MSM did not allow us to go ahead. Neither the MSM nor the Labour Party is prepared to introduce such legislation. We've tried on many occasions. Today, instead of bringing this rubbish piece of legislation, why don't they come forward with a new declaration of assets bill? I challenge Jugnauth to do that instead of this awful and unconstitutional, anti-democratic piece of legislation."

Do you think that he is incapable of doing that?

The tone and body language he adopted seemed to challenge the government: "Incapable!"

Why do you say that?

He laughed heartily. I pretended I was not in on the joke. So he spelled it out: "Just imagine him, his son and the others having their assets made public and risking punishment, including jail! I don't think the law will ever come," he repeated.

Never?

"A declaration of assets act? I don't think so," he asserted

In any form?

"In any form," he repeated before anticipating our questions. "A law to control the financing of political parties? I don't think it will come either. Even electoral reform, although Jugnauth said that he is going to appoint a ministerial committee, I don't think he will, unfortunately. I'm sorry to have to say that," he concluded. It seemed at this point that the seasoned leader of the opposition does not expect any change at all in any legislation leading to transparency. But then again, which turkey votes for Christmas? So the answers became curt. I tried to elicit more, but without luck.

Except that parliamentary debates, for example, will soon be broadcast live.

Even that...

What are your fears?

"That he (Jugnauth) doesn't do anything, as usual!" he shouted.

You sound sceptical... I said

"At this stage I am but less sceptical than about the declaration of assets, the financing of political parties or electoral reform, less sceptical but still sceptical."

I tried to drag him onto other terrain he is very familiar with: the economy. That gave him a chance to pounce on his old friend, the minister of finance: "The economy?" he said, shaking his head. "Look at the figures! Everybody has been revising the growth figures downwards, even Vishnu Lutchnneenaraidoo's own ministry. It is only Lutchmeenaraidoo who is up there in the clouds completely. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) is now predicting 3.2%!"

It had started becoming monotonous again so I pushed his buttons: Are you saying we are not likely to achieve the second economic miracle?

His anger had reached its climax as he replied, "There has never even been a first bloody economic miracle!" he said angrily. "It's all mythology. Go back into history and do a bit of reading. There was no first economic miracle. What happened was that in 1982, we were on our knees. The old man in the Labour Party had made us slaves to the IMF and the World Bank. The turning point was the budget which I presented in 1982. There was no miracle. We took the tough decisions and put the country back on track. Then, Mr. Lutchmeenaraidoo came, picked up from there and carried on. There was no bloody miracle!" he repeated. "We did the hard work and we paid for it as usual. I don't regret anything but this talk of a second miracle is bloody stupid!"

Ok. Ok. Let's turn to the British American Investment (BAI) saga. You were the one who raised the alarm initially. Are you happy with the way it was handled?

"Not at all!" he quickly replied. I certainly do not agree with the way the whole problem was handled."

What were you expecting the government to do?

"I raised the issue during a private notice question (PNQ) in 2013. Xavier Duval was the finance minister and he had the cheek to accuse me of rocking the boat. Imagine that!" he said astonished. "Today, he is part of the gang that has made the mess they've made, when it should have been handled completely differently. They started wrongly when they got the Bank of Mauritius to meet at midnight to revoke the licence of Bramer Bank without revoking the licence of BAI Insurance That was the first wrong decision completely.

Should they have revoked both licences?

I chanced. "No! They should have put administrators and got the house in order," he replied excitedly. "If, at the end of the day, it was not possible, then they would have had to revoke whatever needed to be revoked. It is that madman Bhadain who pushed them into that. Lutchmeenaraidoo didn't realise what he was in for and Jugnauth, as usual, does not understand much. I mean vintage Jugnauth. And then Lutchmeenaraidoo phoned me to announce to me that the State Bank of Mauritius would take over."

How did you react?

"Well, I just listened. I mean, you make a mess and then you come and share the mess with me? I'm not going to join you in your mess! We agree that there was a BAI problem. We do not agree about the awful mess they have made out of it," he replied. Then, leading me to another topic, he said: "It has been mishandled completely just like the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) in India."

This was a good time for me to say something stupid. So I did: The new DTAA is a historic move for the country, isn't it? Thanks to Bhadain.

There was no disappointment: "He's a bloody nut that guy! On 16 June, Lutchmeenaraidoo with an official delegation went to India and gave a good draft protocol to Arun Jaitley, the new minister of finance of India, and of course in it, there was nothing on capital gains tax. Fifteen days later, Bhadain went there with Dev Manraj [Ed- financial secretary] and they signed exactly the opposite. I mean, it's a mad world!"

What happened in between?

"I think most of them don't understand much, including Jugnauth. On the 3rd, the cabinet here, under the chairmanship of Anerood Jugnauth, applauded that "historic move" because Bhadain and Lutchmeenaraidoo presented it as a historic move. And then they started to realise their big blunder so Lutchrneenaraidoo writes two letters through the High Commissioner of lndia here and says he wants amendments to what they've just signed 15 days ago. And then, Jugnauth, as usual, comes out of his slumber and says 'the future will tell'. So we now officially have a government of trial and error."

It was time to attack again: But although they've signed something that is not beneficial to part of the offshore sector, we got a lot of advantages which will benefit a larger number of people, didn't we?

"Bloody rubbish!" came the reply. "We should have extracted a maximum out of the protocol while working on accompanying measures and so on. What they did was choose between the DTAA and the 'corridor' as Bhadain put it. I am telling you today, it is a corridor straight to the graveyard!"

Lutchmeenaraidoo said we got a lot of advantages particularly through the 'vehicle' which al lows investment into Ghana.

"Blah-blah-blah," he started . "Politicians from Ghana are using us for electoral purposes as elections are next year there. But when I listen to Lutchmeenaraidoo, I realise he's not even aware of the political situation there."

I thought it was time to give him a slight gift: You must have been shocked by the number of trips ministers and their friends have taken in the last few months. I mean, Bhadain has hardly spent any time in this country.

"Not just Bhadain. Lutchmeenaraidoo, Jugnauth with his son, Bissoon Mungroo and Prakash Maunthrooa. What a glorious display! Others higher up are also having a field day but I am so respectful of institutions that I won't say how high up, but it's shocking!"

You mean, the president?

"Did you hear me say that?" he asked with a sarcastic smile.

Are ministers travelling more than before?

The answer was quick: "Of course! And clearly Jugnauth does not have the power to say no. He can't say no to Bhadain!" he replied, leading me again to another polemic. "Besides, to have this guy [Bhadain] go to the UN biannual convention on corruption in St Petersburg and hit out at our director of public prosecutions (DPP)! I criticised the DPP in 2013 but I will not condone anyone at a UN meeting outside Mauritius hitting out at a fellow Mauritian. It's shameful, and unpatriotic. If only for that, he should be sacked".

Now is a good time to have a final good question: If Pravind Jugnauth's sentence is confirmed in the Supreme Court, do you see Bhadain as the next prime minister?

If I have survived this question, it is a real miracle: "You must be joking! He knows he is not in that race at all. That's politique fiction!" he shouted.

But doesn't he see himself as the next prime minister?

"Well, Mauritius is Mauritius and we are not fools. People know what Bhadain is and his behaviour, his language, his eyes... "

But he seems to be the only minister who appears to be doing things...

I was not allowed to finish my sentence: "If doing awful things qualifies you to be the prime minister, he will be the prime minister. Otherwise, he is not in the race at all."

So what will happen? I continued.

"The MSM is in deep trouble. If Pravind Jugnauth loses his appeal, he is dead. But even if he wins, I know what takes place within the MSM: those who try to raise their heads will have them chopped off. So the MSM is out. Labour is hoping that people who are fed up of Jugnauth and the MSM, the hard core of the Hindu vote, those who are disgusted and disillusioned, will go back to them. Even if that is true, it's not glorious and in any case, it doesn't take them far. So Labour is also in big trouble," he concluded.

So you mean the MMM is the only alternative?

"Yes! As a matter of fact, and I am not saying this to beat my drum."

But half of the MMM members are gone...

He did not sound as angry as I had expected, "When you take off your tie, it doesn't mean you are naked. Some of those who are gone we should not have even accepted in the MMM in the first place. I plead guilty. Some of them came from Labour or the MSM."

But Alan Ganoo was by your side for many years...

"I won't talk about Ganoo and what he would wish he could do these days. That's his problem. Ganoo is Ganoo. He won't go very far. The MMM is still very strong. The first six months after the election were the toughest in my whole life, politically. But now we are over it. The MMM is very strong and if l have it my way, when elections come, we will go alone with Bérenger as prime minister for three years, taking all the tough decisions that have to be taken and somebody taking over after the three years."

From your party?

"Yes, from my party."

And who will that person be?

"We are spoilt for choice. We have a number of people. If you don't know, you are not a good journalist."

I want to hear it from the horse's mouth...

"No! The horse will keep its mouth shut; the race is already on. If ever somebody stabs his fellow MMM comrade in the back, then I will express my choice. Otherwise I am not going to express my choice"

You will have a vote at least.

"Of course. Like everybody else."

Who will you vote for?

"A secret ballot is supposed to be secret."

No luck. Let's try one more question: What about the idea of you and the MSM going together one day?

"You want me to go to jail with Pravind Jugnauth? No, thank you."

As the interview ended, I headed for the car. It took me a while to settle, check my missed calls and reverse. As I was leaving, Paul Bérenger was still standing to wave goodbye. He did not turn his back until we had left. Manners, pedigree and class, you either have them or you don't! Thank you my noble friend, as they say in the House of Lords.

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