Mauritius: Electoral petition - The enigma of Anil Bachoo

Last week the former Labour MP and minister suddenly announced the withdrawal of his electoral petition, which demanded a recount of the 2019 election result in his old bastion of No.9 Flacq-Bon Accueil.

Once dubbed the 'king of the east', Anil Bachoo has seen his political star dim of late and his latest move has left a lot of questions in the air, not least concerning other electoral petitions by his party comrades.

Bachoo's political position today

Bachoo has seen his political fortunes dim since the LP's drubbing in the 2014 polls, that also saw Bachoo lose in his fief at No.9. "He has always had big ambitions, partly nurtured by others, including becoming prime minister one day," explains Sateeanund Peerthum. For that reason, Bachoo cemented his dominance in No.9 by scrupulously cultivating that constituency, whether it be repairing roads or handing out taxi licences. "So it came as a shock to him having lost not once, but twice, in 2019 as well in that constituency and that too at the hands of no great political stalwarts," maintains Peerthum.

The result of Bachoo losing his parliamentary seat two times in a row, coupled with LP leader Navin Ramgoolam sticking to the leadership of the party, with younger leaders such as Arvin Boolell, Patrick Assirvaden and Shakeel Mohamed coming to the forefront, has cast Bachoo a bit in the shade. "One would expect to see Bachoo in the forefront, but in recent years he has not been very conspicuous and hardly seen," Jocelyn Chan Low points out.

Part of the reason is that Bachoo's unique selling point within the party was his influence with socio-cultural organizations. Bachoo, unlike most of the others within the top rungs of the LP, actually comes from an active background within the world of Mauritian socio-cultural organizations, in his case the Human Services Trust. "In fact, the push from the Human Services Trust was instrumental in getting Bachoo to get into and rise in Mauritian politics in the first place," Peerthum insists. During his time in power, Bachoo was careful to continue to nurture these ties by direct donations and bringing back utensils from trips to India and prominently seen to be giving them over. With the LP in the opposition, the expectation was that Bachoo would be doing the heavy-lifting in translating his influence amongst socio-cultural organizations into political backing for LP.

It did seem to work for a time. In 2017, the long-time President of the largest and politically influential socio-cultural group, the Mauritius Sanathan Dharma Temple's Federation (MSDTF), Somduth Dulthumun, was unseated by a group led by Rajendra Ramdhean, perceived as close to the LP. Dulthumun was quick to blame his defeat on the LP, including Bachoo, pulling the strings from the side-lines. However, this success proved to the Pyrrhic. Ramdhean's team quickly began fighting amongst themselves, resulting in a two-month suspension of Ramdhean as the MSDTF's president shortly before new polls were due to be held.

The result was that in 2020, the MSDTF's leadership went to Bushan Ghoorbin whose group has been eager to eschew any political affiliations and outright denied any credit to Bachoo for his victory. The government lost its opportunity to reinstall Dulthumun and the LP quickly grew disillusioned with Ramdhean. With no perch in parliament and seeing his time out of power leading to an ebbing of his ability to influence what happens within socio-cultural groups, Bachoo has seen his star dim in recent years.

Questions about his request for recount

This is the context in which Bachoo's sudden decision to withdraw his electoral petition demanding a recount of the election results in no.9 comes. The speculation that Bachoo's move is a harbinger of yet another political shift, in this case a possible return to the MSM, is fuelled by three factors. The first is Bachoo's history of political manoeuvring. The second is that two out of the three candidates whose elections Bachoo is contesting have actually worked with him in the past. Sudheer Maudhoo for example, was a former communica- tions advisor for Bachoo between 2000 and 2002. Following Bachoo's defeat in the November 2019 elections, Maudhoo even invited Bachoo to formally rejoin the MSM. Another, Vikash Nuckcheddy, was not only an ex-student of Bachoo during the latter's teaching days at Eastern College in Centrede-Flacq but was also Bachoo's former political agent during the elections in 1991 and 2000.

Bachoo himself has denied that his dropping of his electoral petition means that he is thinking of switching sides to the MSM. He points to the Supreme Court ruling on his petition on 30 October. In a statement on Facebook, Bachoo said that, "19 out of the 34 paragraphs of my petition were considered 'frivolous and vexatious" and that the paragraphs struck out by the court "were the substance of the petition upon which I was relying". Since Bachoo is now the second politician, after Atma Bumma, to formally withdraw his electoral petition, it is important to note exactly which part of the petition the court struck out, and which it kept in. The first thing to note is that the court struck out 15 paragraphs from Bachoo's petition: paragraphs 11 to 22 and 31 to 33.

What these paragraphs related to were three of the arguments that Bachoo's petition was making: the first being the irregular composition of the electoral register (the unsuccessful opposition candidates have argued that 6,800 voters being left off the rolls skewed the result against them). The second being that the date chosen by Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth to hold the polls, coinciding with school exams; and a third point that one of the election staff at the polling station was related to a government candidate. What the court ruled was that these were irrelevant to Bachoo's demand for a recount in no.9. What the court refused to strike out were paragraphs 34 to 52 of Bachoo's petition which related to the transportation of ballot boxes, the time taken to count the ballots and the computer room used for the first time in the 2019 election. These the court kept in, refusing to strike them out as they were "necessary in the sense of being relevant to the core issue" of Bachoo's demand for a recount.

It is true that, when it comes to which parts of the electoral petitions to keep in and which to keep out, the Supreme Court has been inconsistent. For example, the same arguments that were rejected as "frivolous" in Bachoo's (the electoral register and the date of the election) were not struck out as irrelevant in Supreme Court decisions regarding the petitions of Lormus Bundhoo (on 30 October - the same day as Bachoo's decision), Suren Dayal (on 27 November) and Navin Ramgoolam (on 8 December). But it is also equally true that Bachoo's electoral petition is hardly the only one where these bits have been struck out by the Supreme Court. In fact, precisely the same bits (the electoral register and date of the election argument) were rejected in Jenny Adebiro's petition (on 10 November) and that of Bachoo's party comrade Ezra Jhuboo (on 20 November). Bachoo's suddenly pulling the rug out, by arguing that the Supreme Court rejecting those bits of his petition renders it meaningless, puts them in a tough spot given that the court chucked out the same bits out of their own petitions.

Contacted by l'express, Adebiro forcefully denied that she had any intention of withdrawing her own petition. "Of course, I intend to continue with my petition, why should I withdraw it?" Bachoo's fellow party-member Jhuboo is more circumspect, "I have not taken cognizance of what Anil Bachoo has said, I will be meeting my own lawyers soon and decide on the way forward".

One argument can be that the specificities of the result of no.9 were such, i.e., the margin by which Bachoo lost was so small, that taking out the bit about the electoral register made it pointless for Bachoo to continue with the petition. Here too, there is a glaring problem. Bachoo lost out to the third elected government candidate, Vikash Nuckcheddy, by 2,132 votes in no.9. The margins by which Jhuboo and Adebiro lost were much smaller: Jhuboo lost out by just 185 votes in no.14; and Adebiro by just 92 votes in no.19. If Bachoo's argument stands true, there is even more reason for Jhuboo and Adebiro (given that the same arguments were rejected in their own petitions too) to either withdraw or not entertain high hopes for them. This is the sort of problem that Bachoo's decision has led to. This is why Bachoo's move has left people wondering about his strategy and why the riddle he has unleashed will not die down soon.

The «inconstant» history of Bachoo

Anil Bachoo's political career dates back a long time. In 1978, he joined the Labour Party (LP) and was fielded as a candidate for the first time back in the 1982 elections in No. 7 directly against Sir Anerood Jugnauth (the then MMM's prime ministerial candidate). He came in fourth with just 24 percent of the vote. But the electoral drubbing was part of a wider 60-0 defeat that saw the MMM-PSM come to power. In 1985, Bachoo rose through the ranks to become the youngest ever LP general secretary, part of a new generation with others such as Sanjit Teelock under new LP leader Satcam Boolell.

However, Bachoo soon broke with the Labour Party. In 1987, a group comprising of Anil Bachoo, Sanjit Teelock, Yousuf Mohamed and Simadree Virahsawmy began pressing for Satcam Boolell's resignation in favour of having Navin Ramgoolam (then in London) to return to Mauritius and lead the party. They were also campaigning against a proposed alliance between the LP and the MSM led by Sir Anerood Jugnauth for the 1987 elections. However, unable to convince Ramgoolam to return at that time and pull Labour towards a rapprochement with Paul Bérenger's MMM instead, Bachoo left the Labour Party to found a new party, the MTD, with himself as its leader, Teelock as its secretary general and Virahsawmy as its president.

During a press conference held at Marie Reine de La Paix Social Center, Bachoo and Teelock explained that they were pressured into signing a document pledging not to challenge Satcam Boolell's leadership over the party. "This was simply a breakaway of the Labour Party and it marked the beginning of what would characterize much of Bachoo's career from here on out, running from one political leader to the other," says historian Sateeanund Peerthum. The MTD contested the 1987 elections as part of an alliance with Bérenger's MMM against an MSM-Labour bloc. It also marked the shift of Bachoo to constituency No. 9, Flacq-Bon Accueil, an area which would be marked by his political dominance for decades to come. But in the 1987 polls too, Bachoo failed to win a seat.

Bachoo's political rise, properly speaking, began with the 1991 elections after the MMM and the MSM came together. The MMM had a quota of 27 seats in the alliance and Bérenger insisted on handing two tickets out of the party quota to Bachoo and Teelock. Bachoo would become commerce minister. However, as relations between the MMM and the MSM soured, Bachoo began aligning himself increasingly with Anerood Jugnauth, joining other ministers such as Rama Sithanen, Michael Glover and Mahen Utchanah against what they saw as Bérenger's increasing heavy-handedness within the cabinet. When the MMM-MSM alliance broke in 1993, Bachoo refused to join the MMM moving into the opposition along with LP and stuck with the MSM. The argument from Bachoo was that although he had been elected on a ticket given by Paul Bérenger, a faction of the MMM (that would eventually become the RMM led by Prem Nababsing) that contained a lot of the MMM's leadership had also decided to stay with the MSM, so he was not doing anything different.

When Anerood Jugnauth suffered his own massive defeat, the MSM-RMM on the losing side of the second 60-0 result in Mauritian political history, Bachoo too found himself on the losing side. Following the episode, Bachoo applied to formally dissolve his party into the MSM, even though the move was opposed by Teelock. "Throughout his time allied with and within the MSM, Bachoo had a good relationship with Anerood Jugnauth all the while, the two were quite close," Jocelyn Chan Low, former head of the department of history and political science at the University of Mauritius, tells l'express.

Following another alliance between the MMM and the MSM in 2000, Bachoo found himself in power once again, becoming minister of public infrastructure between 2001 and 2005. And once again elected from No.9. "Bachoo always had greater ambitions and assiduously cultivating No.9 was part of that strategy," says Chan Low. However, things started to sour at the MSM too when it became clear that Anerood Jugnauth was grooming his son Pravind as the next leader of the MSM. Once again, shortly before the 2005 elections, Bachoo unleashed another bombshell. Leading a band of dissidents out of the MSM that included old allies such as Megduth Chumroo and newer ones such as Mukheshwur Choonee, Bachoo moved into an alliance with the LP under Navin Ramgoolam, denouncing the drift of the MSM under a rising Pravind Jugnauth and his opposition to attempts at electoral reform. "This is how Bachoo has survived politically: by switching sides at the right moment and always looking to end up on the winning side," argues Chan Low. Bachoo ended up as environment minister between 2005 and 2008 before once again taking up the public infrastructure ministry. His run continued through 2010 until 2014 when the LP lost power. "The one constant in Bachoo's political career is that his political leanings have always been inconstant," quips Chan Low.

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