September 25, 2008 11:12:42 pm
Labour Minister Oscar Fernandes’s response to Monday’s brutal murder of a Noida-based CEO has provoked justifiable outrage. Fernandes, in ill-considered, off-the-cuff remarks, said that corporation policies should not “push” workers, and that the tragic incident should serve as a “warning”; that “simmering discontents” were responsible, caused by “disparities” between contractual and permanent workers, and that what was needed was “compassion”. Outrageous indeed — not to mention displaying a callous lack of sensitivity to a recently bereaved family — but, in an unfortunate way, typical of aspects of this government’s functioning.
The UPA government has faced, since its inception, the problem of party loyalists comfortably ensconced in key ministries. They don’t owe their positions to their competence, or to a political base. So the performance of their ministries in crucial tasks is below-par. The labour ministry, which Fernandes heads, is in charge of overseeing and reforming India’s byzantine labour regulations. It is a well-understood fact that outdated approaches to labour policy — the sort whose replacement by “hire-and-fire” policies Fernandes attacked — are major constraints on the growth of industry and industrial employment. Movement on this front has been deeply unsa-tisfactory under this government: with Fernandes speaking out of turn and betraying a daunting capacity for confused thinking, perhaps we now know why.
Of course, Fernandes had to retract his unwise comments, though only after they invited rebuffs from cabinet colleagues such as Kapil Sibal and Kamal Nath, and caused Pranab Mukherjee to call a meeting of senior ministers to discuss the fallout. Other ministers too have led the Congress down this path many times these past four years. Lightweights of Fernandes’s stripe naturally believe that they are embedded in an alternate power structure, one that doesn’t recognise the cabinet as paramount. For them, the party’s high command is the source of their authority. They have no incentive to work with their colleagues or the prime minister; indeed, they might think they have good reason to undermine the PM — for example, by periodically calling for Rahul Gandhi’s elevation. Consequently, their statements and actions will continually paralyse an effective, coordinated approach to solving India’s problems. This is a political failure for which the UPA is ultimately responsible, and for which voters will eventually hold it accountable. For now, the cabinet and the “high command” have done well to nip the Fernandes controversy in the bud. But the conditions producing such controversies remains alarmingly fertile.
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