On 29 September, a national, one-day strike, took place across India, mainly effecting air, rail and banking services. Airports and government and private sector offices were closed, as were many schools and colleges.
Unions were protesting against the Congress-dominated government’s economic ‘reforms’, in the first national strike since Congress came to power in 2004. The Congress-led government wants to sell off its state in state owned corporations, to privatise airports and to allow foreign investment in pension funds.
The coalition government is led by the Congress Party and relies on four left parties to keep its majority in parliament. India’s two main communist parties are key supporters of the ruling coalition but pressure from workers forced them into publicly opposing the government’s ‘reforms’.
Over the last few years, India has been held up by pro-capitalist commentators around the world as an economic "success story" and as proof of how globalisation can transform the lives of poor countries. Neo-liberal policies, we are told, have led to big growth in the Indian economy. Its large workforce is a popular choice for multinational companies looking for cheaper labour to ‘outsource’.
Although India is now the fourth largest economy in Asia, this has largely been at the cost of workers’ conditions and rights, and because of increased workplace exploitation. While a section of the middle classes have gained from the boom, most working people have not, and inequalities have increased. The vast majority of the rural population remains illiterate and impoverished. Gross National Income per head stands at a mere US $620 (World Bank, 2005). But, of course, the rich have become much richer.
Workers have had enough. This was shown by last week’s magnificent general strike, which involved up to 50 million workers throughout the country. This is a powerful indication of the real mood amongst the majority of working people. It shows where real power is in society - in the factories, offices and working class communities. To build on this industrial power, workers in India need a new mass socialist party that will fight for fundamental change.
Jagadish Chandra, from the CWI in India, reports on the strike and the background to this brilliant display of workers’ power.
Colossal general strike shakes country
An online news source, ‘rediff.com’, called India’s 29 September general strike the "mother of all strikes". The strike was heeded by workers in most parts of the country. This was the first general strike since the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, headed by Congress’s Manmohan Singh, came to power. M K Pandhe, leader of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), which is controlled by the Communist Party of India, CPI (M), referred to the strike as "biggest ever, since globalisation". According to major news sources, the total participation was around 40 million, though the leadership of the unions claimed it was over 50 million.
The call for the strike came mainly from the CITU and the AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress), which is under the control of the older Communist Party of India, (CPI). The unions in banking, insurance, the service associations of states, and central government employees in various cities, took part in the strike. Although Indian railways workers did not take part, Air Port workers participated.
The 29 September action showed a marked contrast with the last general strike on 21 May 2003, when workers all over the country participated spontaneously. During that earlier mass action, even the most unorganised sections of the working class, such as the low paid workers in the small and medium sized industries, and the daily wage earners in rural India, took part.
This time, there was no campaign on the ground to build for 29 September. The top leadership of the communist parties perfected their act of publicly positioning themselves against the government, which they support. At the same time, the rank and file, and even regional second line leadership of the communist-led unions, were made to believe that the "holy" Common Minimum Programme (CMP) that the communist parties bargained with the pro-capitalist Congress Party, would take care of working class demands.
However, the huge participation of workers on 29 September shows the combative nature of the Indian working class. This was the 10th countrywide general strike since the onset of the IMF and World Bank-dictated policy of economic liberalisation, which began in 1991.
Despite the class collaborationist role of the leadership of the communist parties, growing anger against the neo-liberal policies of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by Congress, was noticeable during the strike. It was this class anger that threw out of government the seemingly all-powerful, communalist, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the May 2004 general elections.
This route of the rabid communal wing of the capitalist class clearly showed that working people in India had spoken in a united voice and rejected all shades of the capitalist class. But the communist parties, given their ideological bankruptcy, gave a wholly different interpretation to the May 2004 election results.
In the service of capitalism
Painting the Congress Party with "secular" whitewash, the leaders of the communist parties indicated that some form of non-BJP alliance was needed and because Congress was a secular party, it should lead a new coalition. While the CPI was prepared to participate in such a government formation, the CPI (M) was cautious, keeping in mind its support base in West Bengal and Kerala.
As a cover for this policy, the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) was manufactured and the left-supported UPA came to power. Congress was more than happy to sign this wordy, left-of-centre document that would put them back in the seat of power. It would also help Congress to regain its aura of supposedly being the champion of working people and other toiling classes.
The Common Minimum Programme can be likened to the most soiled doormat of India. Its clauses have been sullied and violated, time and again, by Congress in power. Congress has no intention to abide by the Programme’s call for a halt to reckless privatisation or for to follow the Programme’s prescription for government to take a so-called non-aligned and independent foreign policy.
Of the 16-point charter of demands in the Common Minimum Programme, the main contentions of the left (CPI, CPI (M), RSP and Forward Block) that sponsored the 29 September general strike, were that the government was allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail and pensions, was disinvesting (privatising) the profit making public sector industries, and was changing the Industrial Disputes Act to allow a free ‘hire and fire’ policy.
In recent months, several spats have developed between the left that supports the UPA government, and the government’s main party, Congress. One fight was over disinvestment of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), which is one of the country’s ‘Navaratnas’ (‘nine jewels’). When the UPA government, led by Congress, notified its intention to disinvest a further 10% of its equity, the left parties opposed it by boycotting their participation in UPA meetings, on the grounds that the government was acting in "violation" of the Common Minimum Programme.
Although a colossal event, the 29 September general strike was used by the left parties to save face in front of angry union members, rather than as a way to develop a strong, independent left.
Coming elections to the state assemblies of West Bengal and Kerala, where Congress is the main opposition, have pushed the communist parties’ leadership to distance themselves from Congress on the issues of the economy and foreign policy.
But a dichotomy of sorts has developed within the ideology of the Stalinist left, principally concerning the CPI (M). While it has a ‘holier than thou’ attitude towards the neo-liberal offensive of the Congress and the BJP, when it comes to West Bengal, where the CPI (M) is in power, the party has a policy of giving a ‘red’ welcome carpet to neo-liberalism.
The CPI (M) gives ridiculous arguments to justify its position. Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, is described as the ‘poster boy’ of Indian capitalism by the pro-capitalist media. Some of his statements and actions have put the CPI (M) party bosses in a very awkward situation. His recent statement, entitled, "Reform or perish", is also a favourite expression of the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who told parliament, "I wish all chief ministers would emulate him [Buddhadev Bhattacharya]."
Notwithstanding the postures of the CPI (M)’s so-called ‘hardliners’ in relation to FDI and multinational companies, Buddha badly wants Indonesian tycoon, Anthony Salim (who is linked to the former Indonesian dictator Suharto) to go ahead with this US $10 billion ‘industrial township project’ in West Bengal. The investment promised by the Indonesian businessman is almost three times the amount the whole of India received in the last fiscal year in new foreign direct investment.
Even amongst supporters of the main left parties, the ‘double-speak’ policy of the CPI (M) over FDI is ridiculed. The CPI (M)’s policy statement - that FDI should augment productive capacity instead of asset acquisition; it should lead to technology up-grading of the economy and that it should generate employment - is merely a ‘reformist’ argument to hoodwink the party’s rank and file membership. Combined with this, the CPI (M) leadership make statements such as "in the era of globalisation the country cannot remain insulated" and "You see, communists, we can’t speak anymore about old dogmas. The world is changing. We are also changing. Look at China. The situation is completely different, if you compare it to before 1978". These types of comments expose the treacherous role of the Indian Stalinist communist parties.
The combative spirit of the Indian working class, on the one hand, and the crisis of the leadership it suffers, on the other hand, reminds us of the famous words of the Russian Marxist, Leon Trotsky - "the historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of its leadership".
The communist parties of India have come full circle. Today they defend capitalist ‘democracy’ i.e. defend the capitalist system while previously these parties, in words anyway, had a strategy of "wreck the bourgeois from within".
The task of building a genuine, mass workers’ party, on socialist foundations, is the urgent need of our times. This entails bringing together the best militants in the communist parties, the most politically advanced union activists and the most combative of the new generation of workers and youth that flexed their muscles so impressively on 29 September. It means forging a new mass, revolutionary socialist party of the working class that opposes propping up anti-working class, capitalist governments, and instead puts forward independent class politics to win over the mass of working people and the poor in the struggle for a new socialist society.