Modi Can Be Stopped

It will take worker agitation and a broad front of popular forces to chip away at Modi's power over Indian politics.

A rickshaw driver waits for customers in Delhi, India. Evgeny Zotov / Flickr

We know that there was a massive nationwide strike in India on September 2. But it’s difficult to say just how massive it was. Jubilant trade union leaders asserted that the turnout was unprecedented, and that roughly 150 million people, or over 10 percent of the Indian population, had participated in the strike.

The central government scoffed at the figure, and said that life had proceeded more or less normally on the day of the work stoppage. Industry leaders seemed torn between downplaying the strike and blaming workers for the loss of business; one industry lobbying group claimed that the strike cost the country 250 million rupees (about 4 million USD).

Whatever the exact numbers, the walkout clearly had an impact, though it affected different regions and sectors unevenly. Cities and states with stronger traditions of left politics enforced the strike much more effectively; Kolkata, long a center of radical organizing, was effectively shut down. Public-sector unions responded to the strike call with particular energy, as workers from government-owned banks, transport services, defense companies, and coal companies took to the streets in support of the nationwide action.

The strike was organized by ten central trade unions, national-level organizations with ties to major political parties. The twelve demands put forth by the unions focused on reversing decades of neoliberal policies and resisting the aggressive, industry-friendly reforms pushed by the recently elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Particularly important were demands to raise the minimum wage, provide universal social security, guarantee pensions for all workers, facilitate timely registration of trade unions, end the practice of contract (temporary) work, and enforce existing labor laws.

The unions were particularly opposed to the BJP’s proposed reforms to labor laws, which would exclude a huge number of workplaces from government regulation and would further heighten job insecurity. Taken together, the twelve demands were a strong call for workers’ security and dignity.

However, for many who endorsed the strike, the actions of the central trade unions were too little, too late. The BJP started pushing its reforms as soon as it assumed office in May 2014, but this was the first coordinated effort of the major central trade unions against the policies.

The lead-up to the strike further underscored the weakness of the central unions. Throughout July and August, leaders from eleven national unions met with high-level government officials, including Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. In response to these discussions, one of the unions, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), decided that the government was making efforts to incorporate labor’s suggestions and argued that the strike should be called off.

This was hardly surprising. The BMS is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which styles itself as a non-political “cultural organization” but is in fact a militant Hindu nationalist group that has for decades provided the shock troops for the BJP. Though the BJP and the RSS are closely allied (Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, began his career with the RSS), there has recently been friction between the two groups.

Among other tensions, the RSS has worried that the economic and agrarian policies of the BJP may hurt the workers and farmers who form an important part of the organization’s base. Hence, the RSS-backed union was willing to join ten other central trade unions in condemning the BJP’s proposed labor law reforms and calling for a general strike.

But both the RSS and the BJP recognize the benefits of their close relationship, and occasional tension does not imply an outright break. Having made its point, the BMS backed out of the strike at the last minute and lobbied the other unions to follow suit. (Meanwhile, its parent organization, the RSS, began a three-day meeting with top BJP officials the very day of the general strike.)

The leaders of all ten other unions refused to call off the strike, but their initial willingness to work with an affiliate of the RSS — a group known for its violent religious chauvinism — calls into question their political judgment.

While fully supporting the strike, many on the Left, then, have voiced concerns about the unions who called the strike in the first place. The weakness of mainstream Indian trade unions both parallels a global decline in organized labor and exhibits the idiosyncrasies and complexities of Indian politics.

As in many countries, Indian trade unions are mostly remembered for their past glory, such as the 1974 all-India railway strike. And again, following the international pattern, Indian unions have declined due to external factors (the rise of neoliberalism, major shifts in industry and production, state repression) as well as internal ones (a growing gap between union leadership and rank-and-file workers, cooption of popular leaders, internecine power struggles).

But the existence of unions like the BMS points to the particularities of the Indian situation. The big central trade unions are defined by their affiliation with major political parties; the BJP has the BMS, while its biggest rival, the Congress party, has its Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). As India’s Communist Party has splintered beyond recognition, it has spawned its share of affiliated trade unions; the Communist Party of India has the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has the Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation has the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), and so on.

This pattern can be traced back to the fight over AITUC in the 1930s and 1940s. Initially, this union was not explicitly affiliated with any party, and the Congress and the Communist Party of India (CPI) struggled to gain control of it. When the CPI began to develop a decisive edge, Congress showed its displeasure by starting its own union. Ever since, the fate of the central trade unions has been tied to the vicissitudes of mainstream party politics.

Further, Indian trade union politics has been marked by the strong involvement of a paternalistic state in labor disputes. As the political scientist Achin Vinaik notes, “The system laid down for resolution of trade union issues encourages anything but class struggle methods. It puts a premium on third-party intervention by the state which, time and again, plays a decisive role.”

In this context, union leaders concentrate on establishing the “right political and administrative connections so as to take best advantage of the tutelary relationship with the state.” This tendency has marked Indian trade union politics from independence to the present day; it partially explains why the central trade unions spent so much time negotiating with high-level government officials before they went ahead with the September 2 strike.

Beyond the particularities of union politics, an enduring feature of the Indian economy has played a significant role in limiting working-class mobilization: the presence of a huge informal sector, existing outside of the formal workplaces (factories, coal mines, railway lines) that usually see union activity. The informal sector overlaps to a large degree with the realm of “petty commodity production,” a term used by Henry Bernstein to describe small-scale production by workers who have some control over the means of production.

Bernstein has largely been concerned with peasants, but Shankar Gopalakrishnan has extended this argument to analyze a large number of urban professions. In India, this would include street sellers, tailors, cobblers, rickshaw drivers, and many more. Remarkably, in census after census, the majority of Indian workers describe themselves as “self-employed.”

Often, this “self-employment” is a disguised form of wage labor or even bonded labor (as with the rickshaw driver who hands over most of his earnings to the vehicle owner, or the seamstress getting piecework rates for stitching done at home). Nonetheless, organizing workers who are at least nominally self-employed is an extremely challenging task, one for which the central trade unions have shown little appetite.

The importance of petty commodity production and of the informal sector has only increased in the age of globalization, liberalization, and privatization. Industries and professions once thought of as “formal,” from automobile manufacturing to university teaching, have been invaded by “informal” practices of contractualization, temporary work, and withdrawal of social security. About 93 percent of the Indian workforce (roughly 430 million of 470 million workers) now work in the “informal” economy.

The current push by the BJP is largely to strip away the meager privileges of the remaining 7 percent of the workforce; this is why public-sector workers (part of the “privileged” bunch) supported the strike so strongly.

The proposed labor law reforms, for instance, will supposedly make it easier for companies to do business by freeing them from the onerous regulations previously imposed on them. But given the overall informality of the economy, exceedingly few workplaces actually followed these regulations. The BJP wants to extend, and to codify in law, what is already happening on the ground.

In the face of such a grim situation, the response of the central trade unions has been less than inspiring. A one-day strike is largely symbolic. It is meant to show the strength and the restlessness of the working class.

But striking for one day is not enough to seriously impact production (no matter how much industrial lobbyists complain about the loss of money). It only works if government and industry leaders see it as a serious threat, a warning to heed the demands of the movement or risk a longer, more militant, more open-ended strike.

The central trade unions, however, have begun to treat the one-day strike as an end in itself. In many parts of the country, they did little to prepare for the September 2 action, and there is no consensus on how to build on its momentum and prepare for further action.

Yet there are glimmers of hope. Newspapers reported that the strike was particularly effective in the automobile manufacturing belt to the south and west of New Delhi, where over a million workers participated and brought the automobile sector to a grinding halt. The central trade unions had little to do with this; their preparations in this area were minimal.

For the past decade, this belt has been marked by militant worker action — and violent state repression — largely outside the ambit of the central trade unions. Smaller, independent unions, as well as other workers’ organizations and political groups, have taken a leading role. The Maruti Suzuki Workers Union has taken on the country’s biggest car company, leading a long struggle that is remarkable for its insistence on bridging the divide between permanent and contract workers.

Strikes in 2014 at Asti and Baxter factories saw the emergence of strong leadership from female contract workers. Initiatives like the Workers Solidarity Center, Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar, and Gurgaon Workers News have developed creative strategies to do the hard work that many unions avoid: mobilizing a fragmented, unorganized, and wildly heterogeneous working class. All this ferment was evident on September 2.

In other spheres as well, people have been pushing back against the BJP, contesting not only its economic policies but its religious chauvinism. The BJP has sought to fill government-run cultural and academic institutions with sycophants sympathetic to a deeply regressive form of Hindu nationalism.

This strategy reached its peak with the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, a little-known actor with strong BJP ties, as chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). The students responded by going out on strike; the action is now in its fourth month. This is staying power that the central trade unions should envy.

On another front, the government recently announced that it is dropping its controversial plans to change land acquisition laws in an attempt to facilitate “accumulation by dispossession.” The BJP had used a legislative loophole to introduce measures that made it easier for companies to grab land and claim they needed it for public purposes.

This move was lambasted across the political spectrum, with particularly strong opposition from the Left and from various farmers organizations and social movements. With its eye on upcoming state-level elections, the BJP quietly decided to let the measures lapse.

These recent developments suggest that there are chinks in the armor of the BJP, which seemed unstoppable after its impressive election victory. They also suggest the need to go beyond the terrain of traditional union organizing and to connect the struggles of contract workers, students, farmers, working-class women, and many others. Only then will Indian workers finally be able to bring their demands to the foreground of the country’s politics.