Mass Action and Modi

Last week, millions of workers in India launched a general strike — a dramatic effort to combat Modi's anti-labor policies.

Workers on strike in Haryana, January 9, 2019. CPI(M) / Twitter

On January 8 and 9, millions of workers in India launched a general strike, disrupting key industries, blocking train lines and highways, and participating in rallies and demonstrations denouncing the anti-worker policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The strike was the third of its kind since the BJP came to power in 2014, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi serving as the perfect avatar for the party’s program of neoliberalism and strident Hindu nationalism. It is likely the last such strike before the next national-level elections, slated for April and May.

The results of the upcoming contest will be important. Progressive activists know that another BJP victory would accelerate the creeping authoritarianism of Modi’s government, strengthening the violent forces of reaction at the expense of workers, farmers, women, Muslims, and those from the oppressed, “lower” castes. So, does last week’s massive strike provide any clues about the prevailing political and electoral mood?

The unsatisfying answer is that it’s extremely difficult to say, especially because the mass action was largely symbolic. The one- or two-day general strike is a peculiar form of protest in India. Workers have employed it over a dozen times since 1991, when Indian policymakers responded to an economic crisis by introducing a raft of reforms that accelerated the privatization and liberalization and of the Indian economy. In recent years, general strikes have been called by a coalition of national-level trade unions, each of which is affiliated with a major political party. The most vocal supporters have been the unions tied to the two mainstream Communist parties, the CPI and CPM, and to the Congress Party, once the party of Indian independence and now an ideologically rudderless opposition party. All of these formations, along with their affiliated unions, see the BJP as their enemy and see the strike as a tool to attack the government’s pro-business labor reforms. In the case of the most recent action, union leaders are particularly concerned with proposed amendments to laws governing trade union activity.

But the general strikes have rarely sparked immediate policy changes. As I have argued in my analysis of two previous general strikes, such actions may be symbolically powerful, but they are hollow unless backed up with further agitation. Because they are time-limited, a one- or two-day strike may be a minor irritant for state and capital, but — like more conventional, localized strikes against employers — they only become effective when they threaten to stop production for prolonged periods of time. And national-level trade unions have been unwilling or unable to make such a threat.

One- or two-day strikes, then, highlight the many difficulties facing the Indian labor movement and the broader left: the challenges of organizing a workforce that is overwhelming composed of informal-sector workers, who have always been poorly represented by trade unions; the insidious structure of labor relations in the country, which encourages negotiation with a paternalistic state rather than militant action; and the divided nature of the labor movement, exacerbated by the existence of national-level unions whose main loyalties are to a particular political party, not to the working-class movement.

The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh or BMS, the trade union affiliated with the BJP, actively campaigned against the recent general strike, calling it a political ploy. And on the other end of the political spectrum, left critics of the “mainstream” Communist parties, and especially of the CPM — which has helped rein in neoliberalism’s worst excesses at the national level, while implementing pernicious forms of neoliberal rule at the state level, most notably in West Bengal — have questioned the wisdom of collaborating with the morally bankrupt Congress Party. Nevertheless, many independent unions and activists have supported the strike, staging militant actions around the country, sometimes triggering violent police repression. And organizers throughout India have recognized the importance of reaching beyond traditional union strongholds and building strength in India’s vast informal sector.

There are other glimmers of hope. While the CPM may be on shaky ground politically and electorally, the party’s peasant wing, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), has seen a surprising resurgence, showing the strength of rural India’s discontent with the current government and suggesting possibilities for a broader coalition against the BJP. Most notably, AIKS was behind a resoundingly successful protest march in western India in early 2018, one that drew attention to the devastating agrarian crisis wrought by decades of neoliberal, pro-industry policies. This was followed by a sizable protest in Delhi in November 2018. And one of the most promising aspects of the recent general strike was the support extended to it by various peasant organizations, including the AIKS. Still, the efforts to forge a new progressive movement in India — one that unites not just workers and peasants, but also women and the oppressed castes — are in their nascent stages, and face many formidable challenges.

At a more immediate, electoral level, anti-BJP forces were buoyed by the BJP’s drubbing in recent state-level elections. It is difficult, of course, to extrapolate national-level trends from state polls, and the party that has benefited from BJP’s recent electoral decline, the dynastic Congress Party, hardly inspires confidence. (Like the Democratic Party in the US, Congress is its country’s second-most-enthusiastic capitalist party.) But for activists in India, any electoral setback for the BJP provides welcome breathing room and buys time for the hard work of building a political force that can counter the Indian right — not just electorally, but at the more intimate level of social norms, religious discrimination, the family, and caste relations.

For last week’s general strike to be more than a symbolic gesture, it will have to feed into a movement that goes beyond the limitations of its main organizers and finds a way to channel the energy and complexity of India’s fights against capital, against caste, and against patriarchy. The country’s future depends on it.