As is the case the world over, the coronavirus crisis has exposed all the inadequacies, incapacities, and the insoluble contradictions of India’s capitalist state. In popular terminology, India is labelled a “democracy” because the world’s ruling class wants people to believe that their system is thriving and going forward in every corner of the globe.
The economic label they fondly and deliberately attribute to countries like India, with its vast market and natural resources, is “emerging economies”. But the crisis triggered by Covid-19 has revealed the reality and the failure of the ruling regimes in these countries stand stark-naked.
The 21-day lockdown (now extended until May 3rd) was announced in a shoddy and authoritarian way by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. He was well trained in giving out orders during the time he spent as a loyal functionary for Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS or Nationalist Volunteer Cadets). On March 24, just four hours’ notice was given of the complete lock-down to be complied with by a mammoth population of 1.34 billion. It shows the inept nature of these capitalist representatives, especially in neo-colonial countries like India, where policy-making and the execution of decisions are aimed at scoring points against political adversaries and treated as public relations exercises.
India – a country of meticulous social distancing!
In a country as densely populated as India (with 464 persons per sq. km), the order of social distancing is more easily decreed than carried out. The irony is that Indian society even today practices the despicable relic of feudalism in the form of ‘casteism’ and the social ostracism of Dalits and Adivasis (aboriginal people). It is very well suited to exercising the so-called social distancing, aimed at checking the spread of the coronavirus in the country. It is trying to force 1.34 billion people to stay away from each other to avoid disease and death. As many health experts are saying, if drastic measures are not followed country-wide, 30 to 40 million Indians could be infected by Covid-19 in a couple of months. It is anyone’s wild guess as to how many would live to see 2021.
Within minutes after Prime Minister Modi declared on national television that the country would shut down for the next 21 days, the privileged upper-middle-class, with hefty salaries, thronged shopping malls and marts to grab everything, especially food items. It was unbelievable coming across empty shops; even soaps and cleaning liquids were all taken. The middle class and the rich, who are the mainstay of support for the right-wing Modi, are full of praise for the prime minister’s “visionary” actions.
The ruling BJP may deliberately wish to forget the demonetisation fiasco of November 2016, when their conjuror prime minister did the vanishing trick of countermanding 86% of the currency of high-value notes. Almost the entire country had to run helter-skelter to exchange their savings for the new currency through the banks. For nearly ten weeks, there was utter chaos in the entire country, resulting in the deaths of more than 180 people, due to stampedes and exhaustion while standing in long, never-ending queues.
The lock-down instigated panic buying by the privileged and the moneyed; supplies in all supermarkets and Kirana stores (corner shops) started drying up. This comes at a time when the state’s weakened public distribution system (PDS) has been systematically destroyed since the onset of neo-liberalism, three decades ago. Consequent to this, food distribution was thrown into utter chaos owing to widespread supply shortages.
The country is said to have 14 to 16 million migrant workers (from within the country), but unofficial estimates place the number way above the official count. The migrant workers engaged in construction, road building, ancillary industries, and various other hazardous jobs – who make a significant contribution to the much-touted GDP figures – have been left abandoned during this crisis. Now they are subjected to harassment by the local mafia, usurers, landlords, and loan sharks. The abrupt country-wide lock-down has been a death warrant for many migrant families living in the shanty towns of large metropolises and other towns. Most of them do not enjoy social security benefits or tickets to other welfare.
India’s societal curse – the caste system – has a built-in structural apathy and animosity towards labouring classes. The privileged sections of society – particularly those with comfortable incomes and owning and controlling resources, like land, access to drinking water, factories, houses – show complete disdain towards the real wealth creators in society – the mass of blue- and black-collar workers.
The regime under the Modi government is avowedly anti-poor for two reasons. Firstly, unlike the Congress Party governments before, its social base is not the poorer sections of the population. It is a party fundamentally of traders and the “successful” middle classes. It unabashedly represents the Indian elite’s disdain for the labouring poor, which is so deep-seated that it makes it impossible to admit that the poor might even be essential people.
It is not an accident that the BJP’s ideologues, time and again, surreptitiously put forward the argument of the supremacy of Hindu culture and its ‘Orientalism’. They fiercely argue that Hindutva (Hindu-ness) is unique as it bases itself on the superior social order. The Varna system that recognises the different categories of labourers and their social position based on their birth, would argue that the inequalities and inherent brutalities of this despicable social status, based on lineage, is actually Karma or fate. The government already baulks at the idea of giving them “relief”. How much more would it resist if asked to provide the poor with PPE (Personal Protection Equipment), let alone decent housing, food, better pay, grain, and above all, recognition and gratitude?
The opinion-makers – the ‘one per cent’ along with the two or three per cent of the upper-middle classes and privileged castes – have not only hogged all the resources historically but have seen to it that government policies (be it BJP or Congress) predominantly cater to their greed and not the dire needs of the majority. This grotesque reality which was hitherto hidden from the limelight has been starkly exposed during this coronavirus crisis. Democracy in India is a privilege that the minority of ‘haves’ enjoy by riding high on the bent backs and starved stomachs of the majority of have-nots.
Unprecedented rural distress
According to the Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011, “51% of India’s rural population is landless”. For farmworkers across many states, work has come to a standstill in the fields. While the government announced an economic package in March, this relief has only focused on the landed farmers. For the landless labourers, there has been no income over the last three weeks, forcing them to adopt drastic measures like reducing their own food intake.
In earlier years, the interests of the ruling class were represented by Congress Party governments. They abandoned the principles of welfarism but still tried clinging on to their “social democratic” face with measures like special ‘Food for Work’ schemes tor the hungry millions, predominantly the landless labourers. This was supplemented with work organised under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. This law, passed in 2005, guarantees 100 days of manual labour employment in a year to every rural household that applies for it. The BJP, now led by Modi, being traditionally a traders’ party, hated even this much of a diluted ‘welfare’ programme, but kept it going to show up the failure of Congress.
Democracy My Foot
When the lock-down began hundreds of thousands of young workers decided to head back home. Because of the ham-fisted way in which the logistics of the lock-down were handled, all rail and road transport was brought to a grinding halt. Many tens of thousands started walking from various cities of India, not only to join their families but also to be available for the seasonal work of harvesting. Many covered the unimaginable distances of hundreds of kilometres on foot, and others managed to hitch rides on trucks. By the time they completed their horrendous journeys to their native places, the bleeding blisters on their feet left a trail along the dusty roads of rural India. Some, especially the older people and the women, sometimes failed to complete their journeys.
“No work in the fields, no work elsewhere”
Large farmers in many villages, particularly in the north of India, decided to use harvester machines because hiring labour during the lock-down was more difficult. As a result, the farmworkers have been left with absolutely no income whatsoever.
The “omnipotent” prime minister of India, Mr Modi, has been tall on promises. Given the rate at which he has verbally promised a raft of “goodies” in his six years of rule, by this time, his favourite phrase of “achche-din” (“the good days”) should have become a reality. Now, in his recent television broadcast full of white lies, as well as many high sounding “schemes”, the announcement of ₹2,000 ($26) direct bank transfers to peasants under the PM-Kisan (farmers) scheme is hogwash. Farmers are anyway entitled to ₹6,000 ($78) annually. This is usually paid in three installments. The government has merely advanced the payment of one instalment. And even this poverty assurance has not been extended to landless labourers or the small tenant farmers.
While the Modi government has announced free rice to be available through the public distribution system, there are umpteen complaints from all across the states that the promised rice is getting siphoned off due to corruption. Those with small children are affected in a very bad way. They are even struggling to feed them. New mothers in rural areas are already starving and not able even to suckle their babies.
Poverty kills in the midst of plenty
On the one hand, millions of tons of food grains are rotting away in the store-houses of the government, but children are being abandoned by parents who cannot feed them. A shocking incident (even for India) was reported last Sunday (12th April) of a woman throwing all five of her children into the Ganga River in the Bhadohi district of Uttar Pradesh.
The ongoing lock-down has already triggered a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions: thousands of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres in the scorching heat and the poor dying of starvation while shameful amounts of food go to waste. As much as 77 million tons of food grains held by the Food Corporation of India are rotting away – for whose benefit? If not now, when are the rulers of this land going to use those supplies to save the starving millions?
The state apparatus
Coronavirus landed in India when the country was raging with protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), discriminating against Muslims and criminalising their very existence in the country.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear petitions questioning the CAA, on the grounds that it violates the Constitution of India, made it very evident that the BJP under Modi had dropped even the pretence of being democratic. Shutting down spaces for protests, rounding up activists for writing and reciting anti-CAA poetry, charging and arresting even10-year-old school kids for putting up defiant jokes, the Indian State clearly has glaringly shown its communal character.
As far as Modi and Co. are concerned, Covid-19 was a god-sent tool to control the vast population by instilling the fear of imminent death. They used the Covid-19 threat to further criminalise the religious and national minorities, particularly Muslims.
IT thugs on the payroll of the BJP unleashed a rumour war to foist Islamophobia amongst the people. The recent Delhi riots (predominantly anti-Muslim) gave them the necessary alibi to build a scare-campaign amongst ordinary Hindus. While every religious grouping was flouting lock-down norms, Muslim congregations were targeted and rumours of a ‘Corona Jihad’ were spread to polarise public opinion against Muslims.
The police in various states are using the curfew norms to launch a reign of terror against the people, all while the virus spreads unchecked amidst society’s most vulnerable. A longer lock-down means this will only get much, much worse.
Even before Covid-19, India accounted for a quarter of the world’s child deaths. This is because the market maximises the production of what is profitable, not what is socially necessary – luxury condominiums, not public hospitals.
Regions across the country face acute shortages of doctors and nurses, as well as basics like test kits, hospital beds, ventilators, masks and gloves, sanitary supplies, cleaning products, transportation, and almost every other element of the goods and services necessary to get out of this crisis.
This current system of society, based on a rapacious capitalist class and working to safeguard only their own interests, cannot and will not save India from the coronavirus. Instead of a total lock-down, the government could have announced a halt to all gatherings and non-essential businesses while absorbing all relevant enterprises and essential workers, equipped with personal protection equipment, receiving hazard pay and benefits, into a nationwide public health and disaster mitigation effort.
Garment manufacturers should be requisitioned to supervise the production of masks and gloves. Empty buildings and construction sites should be taken over to build hospital wards. Factories should be designated to make ventilators and oxygen tanks and delivery and taxi companies directed to transport essential supplies.
With the 21-day Covid-19 lock-down – now extended to 40 days and no additional relief measures announced – migrant workers’ distress will only increase. Signs of their burning discontent and resistance against the lock-down and its extension came to the fore recently in Surat and Mumbai, as thousands gathered on the streets. All they want is to be extricated from the continued trauma imposed by the brutal lock-down and be able to go home – the most basic of human requirements in a crisis.
Marxists and socialists will fight for all reforms that can at least mitigate the crisis situation, at the same time, explaining and warning of the utterly temporary nature of such reforms, reluctantly granted by the bourgeois who will do anything and everything to defend the profits that keep their system going.
Modi’s campaigning message about having the Hindu majority’s interests at heart stands totally exposed. The migrant workers, apart from being the lowest paid and doing hazardous jobs, were treated like dirt when the lock-down descended. They had nowhere to go. Even the idea of every Hindu citizen being equal was demolished when they were made to walk hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres on foot to reach their homes. Migrant workers, predominantly poor Hindus from the hinterlands of India – Odisha, Bihar, UP, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan, have been rudely awakened to the reality of which class they belong to, irrespective of which god they worship.
What happens after the coronavirus epidemic, or when it is going to finish, is anybody’s guess, at this juncture. But one thing is certainly predictable: nothing is going to remain the same. As Karl Marx pointed out, “Conditions determine consciousness”. Surely the virus of Corvid-19 has all the potential of revolutionising the consciousness of the working masses. That, in it, could lead to a successful struggle to free India along with the rest of the world from the deadly pandemic of capitalism.
Jagadish G Chandra
New Socialist Alternative