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Friday, August 1, 2003

For far too long governments in this country were held to ransom by the entrenched employee unions who were able to get almost anything they sought. Out of the total 28 million employees in the organized sector who get a monthly secure wage, 20 million are in government alone. This makes even the lowest employee in government more powerful than the 900 million ordinary Indians. In spite of getting a decent wage and having life-time security, government employees rarely deliver services of quality. Over the years there has been a marked decline in many areas and the average citizen continues to be fleeced by the babudom who harass them at every opportunity. Fearing the entrenched power of employee unions who also officiate the election process, the political class have always succumbed to the pressure.

But, last week we witnessed something unusual in Indian political arena. Ms Jayalalitha, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister took a heroic and courageous decision not to bow to the demands of the state government employees who went on a strike. She refused to be browbeaten by the sheer strength in numbers and has in fact gone one step ahead and initiated steps to dismiss them en masse and recruit new people. Fortunately the apex court brought some moderation to the issue upholding the government’s action, while urging that employees may be taken back conditionally. Most of us believe that our politicians are only capable of taking decisions which benefit them and which will ensure their hold on power. The Tamil Nadu CM has proved us wrong by exhibiting rare courage in taking a politically incorrect decision – a decision which benefits the people at large.

Contrast this with the attitude of Gujral government which capitulated to the demands of employees on the Fifth Pay Commission issue without even a semblance of resistance. Thanks to Gujral’s largesse, the state and union governments together have an additional annual wage burden of Rs 80,000 crores. This single measure has devastated the economies of most states leading them into massive fiscal deficits. After remitting power Mr Gujral said in a TV interview: “What can I do? My hands were tied. The employees were threatening to go on a strike and paralyze the whole government.” Most politicians and parties have been cowardly in dealing with bureaucracy. Even mighty governments which received unprecedented mandates were cowed down by bureaucracy. This is in sharp contrast with mature democracies. Witness the shut down (barring essential services) of American government once in 1981 when Reagan vetoed congressional spending proposals, and twice in 1995 when Clinton vetoed the budget. There was no sense of alarm in the US, and in both instances the defiant president emerged stronger, not weaker.

Mr Gujral’s decision was a complete abdication of responsibility and negation of peoples’ trust. For most of the Indian middle class he still comes across as a decent person, whereas Ms Jayalalitha due to her style of functioning is reviled. We elect our leaders to truly lead and expect them to take the tough decisions that are necessary.

If the status quo has to change and the quality of our public services and governance has to improve there has to be a drastic restructuring of our bureaucracy. A majority of the government employees are deployed unproductively where as critical sectors like education and health care continue to be understaffed. Prioritization of services and redeployment is the need of the hour. The bulk of the employees are decent and honest. Unfortunately those who are slothful and corrupt are not weeded out quickly; and the cancer spreads rapidly. Firm action to punish the guilty in time is vital.

But most of all our politicians and leaders should have the courage to lead and take tough decisions, even if they are politically incorrect and sometimes unpopular. And we need to shed our myths about leaders like Ms Jayalalitha and recognize them for their leadership qualities.

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