We are bombarded by political shibboleths

EA RAMASWAMY | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on May 31, 2017

Trade unionism: Barking up the wrong tree

Catchwords such as communalism, federalism and socialism are bandied about, and core issues are distorted or forgotten

Shibboleths are the stuff of our public discourse. You can’t turn on the TV, read a newspaper or browse the net without being assaulted by them. And we have them in plenty — secularism, communalism, socialism, federalism, human rights. They are powerful weapons that serve a wonderful purpose, a fig leaf used to good effect by politicians, ideologues and celebrities who have much to hide, or have nothing left to defend themselves with.

Politicians nailed by the courts for corruption swear that they will not rest until communalism is rooted out and the flag of secularism is hoisted from the ramparts of Red Fort.

You might wonder how and why secularism is linked with ill-gotten wealth invested in farm houses and shell companies, but only if you are politically illiterate. They are trying to convince us that they have been punished not for any misdeed but for upholding secular values. But, their secularism has no place for women thrown to the wolves by that dreaded word called talaq. Indeed, being an elastic shibboleth, secularism comes to their rescue. It is secular to leave customs such as talaq to the care of the community, and communal to support a common civil code.

Human rights is another wonderful omnibus. Terrorists, stone-pelters and Maoists have human rights but not Kashmiri Pandits, or for that matter patients battling for life in an ambulance blocked by a minister’s cavalcade.

Beached whales

Champions of the public sector want moth-eaten dinosaurs that have wiped out their capital to be preserved for posterity. Nehru’s vision of socialism that glorified public enterprises as the temples of modern India offers them an invocation so powerful that even disbelievers must treat it with circumspection.

Most of these enterprises now look more like beached whales than temples to any deity, but for plenty of politicians and trade unionists socialism offers an impenetrable cloak behind which to hide a whole range of hard-to-defend sectional interests.

The latest addition to this genre is federalism, a catchphrase that has gained new life after the present government assumed office. The great virtue of federalism is that it can be used as a powerful justification for doing nothing. The government at Delhi might want reform, but what of the States? Can they be ignored in a federal structure? The defenders of federalism invoke the Constitution, which is enough to silence all criticism. But, as with all shibboleths, what operates here is selective morality.

The States have the right to stall a well-meaning law like the Real Estate Regulation Act (RERA) that offers a measure of protection to the long-suffering home-buyer, but they are under no obligation to use grants from the Centre to do something about their doctorless hospitals and teacherless schools. Federalism seems to be about rights and not responsibilities.

The paradox of reform

Paradoxically, the latest salvo in support of federalism comes from BMS, the labour wing of the BJP. The union is unhappy that NITI Aayog is pushing through reform without consulting the States. Privatisation of the public sector is on top of the think tank’s agenda. For trade unions this is an existential issue. Without the public sector their support base would simply vanish.

The second sticking point is the suggestion that workers should be offered a fixed tenure rather than permanent employment which, in its present form, has become a major block to employment generation in the formal sector.

We can understand the union’s displeasure. What we cannot understand is its silence on some truly outstanding provisions of the reform package. Why are they not welcoming with the extension of social security to the informal sector? Why are unions not more nuanced in their assessment of labour reform? The provision of social security to 95 per cent of the workforce is surely worthy of some praise from those who speak for labour!

That indeed is the problem with the present discourse. We are being fed with shibboleths, defined by Webster’s as “a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning”.

This perversion of ideas and concepts has been accomplished by parties and ideologues to suit their partisan purpose. They are throwing words at us hoping to convince us that what they are offering is an idea. If we don’t sit up to this it is our fault.

The writer is a labour relations and HR consultant

Published on May 31, 2017
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