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FIJI: Mahendra Chaudhry should ponder over some of his decisions:


Paper 889                             08.01.2004

by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan 

It is now over two years that the dispute over the formation of the multiparty cabinet has been pending in the Fiji courts on some issue or other. The latest issue is a reference to the Supreme Court on the interpretation of section 5 of Article 99 of the 1997 Constitution over the proportion of seats to be allotted to the opposition in forming the multi party cabinet and this is pending for the last six months. The case is likely to drag on for some more time.

The Supreme Court is said to have fixed the multi party Cabinet case on May 11 and 12 in 2004. This would mean postponement of induction of Labour Party members into the cabinet for six months or even more.

Some points to ponder:

- It is time that the Fiji Labour Party leader ponders over his actions ever since Qarase took over as Prime minister on the basis of elections held under the 1997 Constitution. It is particularly necessary as most of the people of Indian origin have voted for Chaudhry’s Labour party in the hope that their interests will be looked after by the Party leaders. But if the Party leaders particularly Mahendra Chaudhry continue to be adamant, it is these poor people who would suffer in the long run.

- Chaudhry has effectively told the fourteen members of his party selected by Qarase for induction into the Cabinet on the basis of the Supreme Court judgement, not to accept the cabinet posts.

In one of our earlier papers on Fiji (paper no. 783) we had made the point that it does not matter whether his party has 14 or 17 as contested by Chaudhry and posed the question whether the three seats would make the difference in protecting the interests of Indo Fijians. We had also posed another question-"Is it better to fill up the cabinet with people with unimportant portfolios or act as a solid and responsible opposition to take care of the interests of the party in general and the Indo Fijians in particular? Chaudhry continues to be arrogant.

- On 28 October Prime minister Qarase openly accused the Fiji Labour Party of keeping the Indian community out of his cabinet. He also added that the Party is equally responsible for preventing farmers from securing the 50 year leases being offered to the tenants.

The bulk of the Indian community are tenant farmers and are at the mercy of the native land owners particularly when leases expire. It is necessary for the government to intervene that the farmers are given adequate compensation or alternate land in the event of lease not being renewed. The Native Land Trust Board have offered 50 year leases under the Native Land Trust Act to the farmers who are mostly Indo Fijians. But the response has been poor and it is said that it is due to the opposition of the Fiji Labour Party to the offer. The FLP has demanded that any resolution to the land issue should guarantee long-term security for farmers and basic human rights.

The question is whether the Indians who for generations have been at the receiving end and at the mercy of the land owners for their livelihood should not break out of the hold of the landowners by getting trained for alternate employment and different skills. We recall Chaudhry in one of his meetings in Delhi mentioned the need for alternate skills for Indo Fijians. But there has been no effort to pursue such training. For example India is in a pre eminent position to provide skills in IT sector. Chaudhry instead of blocking the lease renewals should allow the farmers to go for a long term lease and in the meantime train the farmers on alternate skills. Though this is not a short term solution, it would help the Indo Fijians in a big way over a period of time.

- We have always held that the 1997 constitution is the best that could have happened to the Indo Fijians. Qarase and his colleagues and many other scholars have held the view that the constitutional provisions relating to power sharing are unworkable. ( See paper no. 741 by Victor Lal of Oxford University) While Qarase’ stand is appreciated considering the way he is being thwarted to carry on with a cabinet of his choice, it should have been the endeavour of Chaudhry to ensure that the constitution is made workable as it is the best that one could hope for. Instead it appears that Chaudhry is out to prove that the Constitution is unworkable!

- By the time the court cases are settled Qarase would have completed three fourth’s of his term.

The economy is doing well with the GDP growth of over 5 percent last year. In industries, except for Sugar other foreign exchange earners like tourism, garments, fish, gold and mineral waters are doing well.

Qarase’ government is getting legitimised. The European Union has agreed to unblock millions of dollars that were meant as aid for primary and vocational education. The European Commission is set to discuss renewed cooperation with  the Fijian government. The European aid commissioner had said that they "recognized the efforts made by the Fijian government in promoting national reconciliation and ensuring a return to rule of law and constitutional conformity."

Relationship with Government of India has also thawed. India is sending three advisers to help the revival of the sugar industry. Fiji is set to open a High Commission in Delhi. The government has also sent a large delegation with a minister as leader to attend the second "Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations starting on 9 January at New Delhi. A cultural troupe is also accompanying the team.

Fiji is also an active participant in the Pacific Islands forum and the Japanese are getting more involved.

The present Police Commissioner Hughes brought from Australia is doing an excellent job in pursuing the case relating  to 2000 coup without fear or favour.

Is it now time for Mahendra Chaudhry of the Fiji Labour Party to reconsider his stand lest he loses the trust of the Indo Fijians who had all along depended on him for a better life for them?