Saturday, January 13, 2007

Chaudhry's Legacy - 12 Janury 2007 - Transparency begins with the commander

The appointment of Mahendra Chaudhry as Finance Minister and his political sidekick, Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, as Youth and Sport Minister in the interim cabinet line-up is a slap in the face of those who shared, if not supported, the interim Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama's desire to launch his much promised clean-up campaign.

I have begun with the two FLP parliamentarians because in the minds of countless thousands of taukei Fijians, Indo-Fijians, Chinese-Fijians, Euro-Fijians, and General Electors, these two MPs were largely responsible in frustrating at every twist and turn the successful operation of ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's multi-party government. Although there is no "smoking gun", their inclusion will give credence to the ousted Opposition leader Mick Beddoes' claim that Mr Chaudhry, as Mr Qarase claims, was involved in the December 5 coup.

It is also quite likely to play into the hands of extremist commoner Fijians and their chiefs who might be already secretly brooding and planning their next course of action. It is no exaggeration to suggest that many disgruntled Indo-Fijians, fed up with the political leadership of Mr Chaudhry since the last general election, might now join forces with their counterparts in the Fijian community to thwart the Commodore's much vaunted clean-up campaign. They might simply refuse to co-operate with him.

Mr Beddoes claims that Mr Chaudhry harboured aspirations to return to government. Protesting his innocence, Mr Chaudhry claimed that his appointment as Minister for Finance, National Planning, Public Enterprise and Sugar Reform was a "strange twist of destiny", a reference to his appointment 20 years ago as the ousted PM Timoci Bavadra's Minister of Finance. Mr Chaudhry went on to claim that he only accepted the position after consulting his family, the FLP party officials (which ones?) and the National Farmers Union. He was not bothered about the constitutionality of the Interim Government because there were more serious issues to look at like reviving the economy and uplifting the living standards of the people. "A lot of work needs to be done under my portfolios and the plan right row is to get a briefing on all of them," he said.

Although Commodore Bainimarama has stated that one of the conditions for those accepting cabinet positions in his government is that they must not contest national elections, Mr Chaudhry is already saying that those who have joined the Interim Government should be given a chance to contest. He said that politicians who serve the nation diligently and honestly should be given a chance. Does he have Mr Vayeshnoi in mind, who entered politics only in 1992? He also claims that he was not contemplating another term anyway but then went on to declare: "I will cross the bridge when I come to it. At this point I'm not thinking about it. I have just accepted this office so it will keep me in politics for a while I guess," he said

Will the Commodore allow Mr Chaudhry's views to be considered further in future cabinet meetings? There are already murmurs in the Indo-Fijian villages and around the grog bowls that Mr Chaudhry will use his sugar portfolio to consolidate his National Farmers Union, and maybe even secure Indian government funding for the ailing industry, and by the time a general election is called, would have passed his secure seat to his heir apparent son Rajendra Chaudhry, his former private secretary when Chauhdry senior was Prime Minister until his overthrow in 2000.
Mr Chaudhry's contrary view also has frightening echoes of his deputy FLP leader Vayeshnoi, who as Minister for Energy in the ousted government had defied Cabinet responsibility to speak out against the multi-party government policies, and went on to vote against the 2007 Budget.
Mr Chaudhry, who claimed he was proud of Mr Vayeshnoi's defiant and contrary views, supported him.

There are other compelling reasons why Mr Chaudhry should not have been considered for any role in the Interim Government, even if he is genuinely committed to help steer the nation forward, and has a wealth of expertise in finance. The clean-up campaign is not only about finding a few thousand dollars here and there in the "dozens of files" relating to alleged corruption in the Qarase government. The Constitution is in a mess. We thought that an independent body would have been asked to look at the contentious position of the Leader of Opposition following the establishment of a multi-party cabinet. We will recall Mr Chaudhry fought tooth and nail to prevent Mr Beddoes from taking on the position until the President ruled against Mr Chaudhry. There is, also, debate about whether we should have a multi-party cabinet or a multi-ethnic cabinet. There are, also, allegations of vote rigging in the last election. Mr Chaudhry is supportive of a general inquiry into the matter.

There are also outstanding and unresolved disputes about whether we should have ALTA or NLTA. Mr Chaudhry is in favour of retaining ALTA. There are also calls for a review of the electoral system, and whether we should have common or communal roll of voting. In light of the demographic changes, with the taukei now a majority, I thought it would have been worth examining whether the GCC should have the constitutional powers to choose a President and a Vice-President, and whether a Fijian should always be a head of state.

More importantly, who will present the new budget - will it be Mr Chaudhry? If so, will it be an alternative FLP budget? Remember, four of Mr Chaudhry's cabinet ministers voted against the 2007 budget, and their fates were hanging in the balance before the coup. This is another matter I thought that might have been examined - the fate of ministers in multi-party cabinet, and their voting behaviour on national issues. Also, one wonders whether Mr Poseci Bune will be able to carry out his reforms of the PSC when Mr Chaudhry not only holds the purse strings but also has booted out his deputy from the FLP, prompting Mr Bune to call his former boss a dictator.

The list of possible inquiries is endless. I now fear that many of Fiji's best and brightest, whether inside the country or outside, will be very reluctant to come forward with innovative ideas, or help the clean-up mission because they will conclude that Mr Chaudhry's towering presence in the Interim Cabinet, and to use the late President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara's parting words that "if Mr Chaudhry was less arrogant", will make their views meaningless.

Of course, it is a cruel and unfavourable view to hold but politics is also about personalities. I would not be surprised if a few, who are very influential in their writings and opinions, and whose views are widely respected by the general populace, will feel the same way. Nevertheless, the Commodore says he will ask Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Great Britain to send experts to Fiji to help the military begin shifting through the "dozens of files" on corruption in the country. "We need to find a systematic way of getting rid of the corruption within each government department. It's unbelievable the stories you hear, the allegations that we got," he said. "If anyone is seen with his hands in the till, it will go to the police and the police will decide whether to refer the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions through the normal process."

Well, I would ask him to ask his new Interim Finance Minister to finally tell us how much money he collected overseas from us, the Global Peoples of Indian Origin (GOPIO), and others for the Cyclone Ami victims in 2003. When will Mr Chaudhry answer my questions, which I put to him nearly a year ago titled "Where are Cyclone Ami funds?"

I had written as follows: "We were told to send our donations to the following person and account: Secretary, Mr Mahendra P. Chaudhry, National Farmers Union. Account: Cyclone Relief Fund Account No. 155728, Bank of Baroda, Suva, Fiji Islands. Did Account No 155728 ever exist for the benefit of the Cyclone Ami victims? Or did another rogue and heartless fraudster swindle us in the name of victim-hood, and ride away on a galloping horse, into the Fiji sunset? What is the truth, Mr Chaudhry? How much money was collected in total and how much of it was distributed to the cyclone victims in 2003? Did you know of the existence of Account No 155728 in your name, and that of the NFU in the Bank of Baroda?"

I call upon the Commodore to direct Mr Chaudhry to respond to my questions and those of the Cyclone Ami victims? He should also call upon Mr Chaudhry, and Mr Vayeshnoi, to resign from the FLP when the Interim Cabinet meets for the first time. And if they refuse, he should sack them. Ideally, Mr Chaudhry should never have accepted any position in the interim government, for there are many issues surrounding the general election, the Constitution, land, the NLTB, the electoral system etc, which need independent auditing, and which will have to be finally sanctioned by the Interim Government for public consumption.

The Commodore should also now make public the list of all those citizens, over 400, who applied to serve in his new Interim Government. Transparency begins with the Interim Prime Minister Commodore Bainimarama. He cannot tell us to stop lecturing him because "I have the guns". He needs the people with him in the nation's hour of need, to move the country forward. He cannot afford to alienate them.

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