Can a wave of struggle push Modi back?

March 11, 2019

Angela Corte writes from India on the growing wave of workers’ struggle that is challenging the Modi government’s policies of neoliberalism and communalism.

NEARLY 5,000 workers rallied in India’s capital on March 3 and 4 against the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s continuing assault on the working class, answering the call of Mazdoor Adhikar Sangharsh Abhiyan (MASA), a platform of 14 workers’ organizations with representation in 20 Indian states.

A wide-ranging 17-point charter of demands was unveiled outside the parliament.

Among those demands are a monthly minimum wage of $353; the withdrawal of anti-worker reforms in labor law; the reversal of “contractualization” and the creation of permanent jobs; an end to repression on workers’ organizing; and the guarantee of housing, free education and health care.

THE RALLY is a window into workers’ growing discontent toward the BJP. Economic problems that predate the BJP have worsened under its watch, such as the agrarian crisis, marked in part by the extreme fluctuation in crop prices and declining productivity of agriculture.

On the march in New Delhi against the assault on the Indian working class
On the march in New Delhi against the assault on the Indian working class (Samantha Agarwal | SW)

Despite Modi’s election promise to create 10 million jobs, unemployment is at a four-decade high of 6.1 percent (in 2017-18).

The first term of the BJP has also been plagued by a slew of policy mishaps. One of the more disastrous was the 2016 “demonetization” initiative, which aimed to curb the flow of black money, but ultimately led to a crippling currency shortage and delivered a shock to the already precarious incomes and employment of small farmers, traders, vendors, casual and migrant workers.

The BJP’s response has been to divert attention from these multiple crises by provoking violence against minorities — and now escalating tensions with Pakistan.

As the 2019 general election draws nearer, the largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), offers dim prospects for challenging BJP rule.

While the Congress has long been a trusted vehicle for capital and the upper castes and an engine of repression and co-optation of people’s movements, it has moved in recent years dangerously close to the Hindu authoritarian ideology (Hindutva) championed by the BJP.

This was on full display in January when, in the state of Kerala, the INC joined hands with the BJP to protest against the court-ordered opening of the 12th century Sabarimala Hindu temple to women devotees.

In the state of Madhya Pradesh, the INC is erecting gaushalas (cow shelters) and cracking down on “offenses” against the cow. This is borrowed from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fascist parent organization of the ruling BJP, which has used the ideology of “cow protection” to attack and marginalize members of minority communities who depend on beef or leather for their livelihoods.

BY CONTRAST, the genuine forces of resistance to Modi and his neoliberal variant of Hindu authoritarianism come in the form of several mass movements.

These include the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (National Platform for Dalit Rights, or RDAM), which combines elements of Marxism and Ambedkarism, a political orientation inspired by the work of the anti-caste reformer Bhimrao Ambedkar; the farmers’ marches to Delhi and Mumbai which have involved hundreds of thousands of peasants and rural laborers; anti-dispossession struggles being spearhead by Indigenous people’s movements across India; and mass agitation against the BJP’s proposed “Citizenship Amendment Bill” that would legislate a majoritarian concept of citizenship based on religion, excluding Muslim immigrants from three majority-Muslim countries from Indian citizenship.

The MASA workers’ platform is part of this embryonic “new” left. While MASA itself was formed in 2016, member organizations have been partaking in the slow, painstaking work of building independent workers’ organizations for decades.

MASA’s member organizations include the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), which has been mobilizing the majority Dalit sanitation workers of Ahmedabad. Their historic, 36-day strike in September 2016 won them the regularization of 6,000 public sector sanitation jobs, employment benefits and safety gear.

Other organizations include the Forum for IT Employees (FITE), which was instrumental in registering the first union for IT/ITES employees in India and has been waging a struggle against mass layoffs in IT companies; and the Workers’ Solidarity Center (Gurgaon), which organizes and advances the class initiatives of workers in Delhi’s industrial belt and has actively supported the wave of militant workers’ activity in recent years.

Some MASA members also belong to “older” revolutionary currents that have longstanding work in rural and forested areas. These include the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), politically affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist); New Democracy, which has been organizing Adivasi forest-workers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; and the Grameen Mazdoor Union which organizes agrarian labor in Bihar.

IN ADDITION to combating the assault on workers by the ruling class, MASA also embodies a growing schism between the “new,” and the old, “parliamentary” left. It views the Central Trade Unions’ (CTUs) commitment to fighting neoliberalism as insufficient and lacking in continuity.

As MASA representative Amitava Bhattacharya put it in reference to the annual, one-day general strike organized by the CTUs: “We need to campaign for workers’ rights year-round, not just one day in a year.”

MASA has taken a confrontational approach to the CTUs and made qualified criticisms of the established communist unions like the Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU, which is affiliated to the Communist Party of India-Marxist) and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC, which is unaffiliated, but closely linked to, the Communist Party of India).

Sanjay Singhvi, general secretary of Trade Union Center of India (TUCI, the labor wing of the Communist Party of India [Marxist-Leninist] Red Flag), also a member of MASA, said:

We want working-class unity. Starting a new organization apparently seems to be against working-class unity. But we believe that today, workers need to be united on the basis of uncompromising struggle against these neoliberal policies. We don’t think such a struggle is being taken up or planned by the CTUs — especially the AITUC and CITU — as a consistent campaign.

He added: “A lot of the CTUs are not speaking out against these policies in states where political parties associated with them are ruling. For instance, when the CPI-M was ruling in Bengal or Kerala, they implemented the same neoliberal policies.”

In Bengal, the CPI-M was ousted from power after it in 2007 massacred 14 farmers who were protesting the forcible transfer of their agricultural land to the Salim Group, Indonesia’s largest conglomerate.

The Kerala Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, too, in the wake of a deteriorating economy all but abandoned its earlier commitment to equity and has ushered in privatization of key sectors like health and pursued ecologically destructive projects. “Their excuse is that there is no alternative,” says Singhvi. “But we want to assert that there is an alternative, that there can be an alternative at the all-India level.”

In addition to the criticisms raised by MASA, the record of failure by the parliamentary left in the sphere of labor includes its dearth of organization among informal workers (who comprise 81 percent of the workforce), its abandonment of a radical land redistribution agenda to avoid antagonizing the landed peasantry, and their utter neglect of special oppressions such as caste, ethnicity and gender (and the immense bearing these oppressions have on class struggle). (A magisterial account of this history is contained in The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting the Indian Left [2016] by Praful Bidwai.)

At the same time, MASA sees some scope for working with the CTUs. As Singhvi pointed out, MASA was an active part of the nationwide general strike called for by the CTUs, which brought out over 150 million workers on January 8 and 9 against the Modi regime’s anti-labor policies.

“We are not against the central trade unions — if they take up these issues in a form of a campaign, we will certainly join them,” he added. “Otherwise, even if they don’t, we will take up the campaign, and we hope that they will join us.”

It is also worth remembering that the parliamentary left and its unions are not monolithic entities, and there are a significant number of workers and organizers in their sphere of influence who MASA (or a MASA-like formation) would be well placed to engage.

MASA could actively strive to draw those workers into new agitations along with leaders or regional manifestations of left parties that are showing positive signs of reform.

As the Narendra Modi-led BJP vies for its second term in office, the formation of MASA and the mass-based agitation that it is channeling is one sign, among many others, that the oppressed will not be mollified with warmongering or cow vigilantism.

Indeed, as history has shown us, it is only the working class, in the form of coordinated political resistance that can lead us in breaking down the walls of oppression and tyranny.

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