The return of the Indian working class

“The country does not mean brick and mortar; the country means its working people”. (Gurazada, the Telugu poet who galvanised millions into action against the British Raj.)

FOR A long time, India has been mainly in the news for its political instability, communal and caste pogroms, environmental degradation and so-called ‘natural disasters’, and the nightmarish scenario of a nuclear war with its neighbour Pakistan. But a single day of action on 21 May catapulted the working class of India to the top of the charts of combativity against neo-liberal policies. The unprecedented 50 million strong, all-India general strike was the biggest strike since the days of independence.

One significant feature was the participation of agricultural workers. Agriculture, which is still the mainstay of the Indian economy, provides nearly 60% of total employment. Aggressive liberalisation has deprived the small peasants and the rural workforce of their livelihood. The doing away of agricultural and food subsidies has resulted in the large-scale pauperisation of the rural people. Obeying the dictates of the WTO, the Indian government withdrew the restrictions on the import of agricultural commodities. As a result, the rural economy is in shambles. The dumping of cheap agricultural products has driven many farmers and peasants to distress suicides in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and even in Punjab.

It is these harsh facts of capitalist globalisation which drove millions of workers and youth to strike unitedly against the neo-liberal policies of the slavish Indian government. The strike saw an enthusiastic participation across the country from Kanyakumari (southern tip) to the Kashmir valley. Even Gujarat, which saw borders being drawn to separate Hindu and Muslim communities last year during the carnage, witnessed class unity in action.

On the day of the strike the trade union leaders warned the government to be prepared for further mass actions. One union leader in New Delhi said: “We think the government will open its eyes and heed to our demands. But if they want confrontation, we are ready for that also”. The bank workers’ unions have already threatened an indefinite strike. The rank-and-file pressure on the leadership was evident. Many activists among the bank workers, who are in the forefront of the struggle against privatisation, think that this united struggle has come a little too late.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) lead a ‘left front’, which rules in West Bengal, and have the biggest union following in the entire country. As their parties and the administration led by them are doing exactly the same as the central government, the union leadership lost the initiative to lead the workers to struggle. A CPI-M union leader was quoted in the press: “The state government’s decision to shut down over a dozen loss-making state public-sector units has forced us to adopt an unusually docile posture even vis-à-vis the centre’s [national government] decisions. Besides, the unions are forced to play second fiddle to the management in many sectors and that has dented the workforce’s morale”.

The general strike was a whiff of fresh air to the entire movement. Nothing will be same, as the class has experienced its unity in action. The move in some states to unite the workers on an industry basis is already afoot. To break the deadlock of the Stalinist-dominated trade union bureaucracy, new initiatives are springing up. One such is a platform called the New Trade Union Initiative, which has held conventions of workers in four regions already.

The Indian bourgeois political class, had almost written-off the workers as a class antagonistic to its interests, and instead had started calling them ‘social partners’. Inaugurating the 38th Indian Labour conference last year, India’s prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, took a dig at Karl Marx and the Indian ‘communists’: “There was a time when some people advocated an irreconcilable conflict in this relationship [between labour and capital]. History has proved them wrong”. But the gravediggers of India have shown Mr Vajpayee how stupid he was to jump the gun.

The long period of reaction had, in fact, chained the working class for a variety of reasons. The march of the communal BJP to power was a decisive factor in derailing the movement. As a prelude to this, the defeat of the 250,000 strong Bombay textile strike in 1982 had a shocking effect on the overall psyche of the working class. All the backwardness of the feudal sediment made inroads into the once formidable class fortress. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the other East European Stalinist states also had a paralysing effect on the Indian working class, given the fact that most of the trade union leadership is in the hands of the Stalinist parties. It suddenly felt that there was no rudder to steer them forward.

In the late 1980s, under the National Front coalition government headed by VP Singh, the BJP stepped up a vicious campaign against Muslims, which culminated in the destruction of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya by its communal Hindu goons in 1992. Congress initially introduced the neo-liberal policies in 1991. But the Swadeshi (Indian goods only) chanting BJP and its clan have completely prostrated themselves before the IMF-World Bank-WTO, the imperialist triumvirate, to turn a regional giant manufacturing economy into a minion vendor in the world market. It has with great success put its poisonous communal politics in the service of Structural Adjustment Programme by dividing the working class on the lines of religion, region and caste.

The working class was forced by the ‘left’ leadership (Stalinist CPs) to pass through all the permutations and combinations of ‘secular, democratic’ bourgeois politics. It was in these experiments of blunders, that the CPs, in accordance with their policy of ‘lesser evilism’, supported the VP Singh government. This gave the communal BJP enormous credibility in the eyes of the working class, who had hitherto abhorred its communalism. Within ten years, the BJP increased its presence in parliament from just two seats to an incredible 183.

But the practice of communal politics is like riding a hungry tiger: everything is hunky-dory as long as it is so. Once the tiger of communalism feels that it is not being fed properly it even eyes the rider himself. Today, all the wicked designs of BJP and its henchmen stand exposed. Everyone knows the real truth behind their mumbo-jumbo. In the 21 state assembly elections held in the last five years, the BJP has lost 19 elections.

In a span of 13 years, the successive governments have driven the Indian economy to chaos. Nearly 25 million workers have lost their jobs. In the last two years, 700,000 jobs have been cut in the manufacturing sector. More than 400,000 workers in the public sector have been displaced recently. The annual data of central statistical organisation indicates that the decline in employment is more than 8% in the last two years. The private corporations have also downsized their human resources with a vengeance: 400,000 workers have lost their jobs in textiles alone. The much-hyped new economy, the IT sector, axed 10,000 jobs last year.

The recession-hit Indian economy is trying to wriggle out of the crisis by driving down wages. While the massive retrenchment binge of the permanent workforce is on, the shift of employment to the informal sector is increasing rapidly. Out-sourcing and contract labour is a ploy used by the bosses to deny the workers even the poverty wages that the rulebooks stipulate. Further, the BJP government is planning to amend the Contract Labour Act to facilitate out-sourcing and to cut down the labour costs.

The coming year is one of general elections. Already the apologists for the ‘progressive bourgeois’ are cobbling up a third front to deceive the workers and poor peasants again.
But the time has come for a new course for the working class of India. In the days to come, the vacuum of a political voice for the working class will surely be felt. A mass workers’ party based on the rock foundations of genuine socialism will be the answer for those who seek to change society.

Jagadish Chandra

New Socialist Alternative (CWI-India)