Many millions involved in country-wide bandh

A massive national protest is taking place today (20 September) against the so-called ‘Big Ticket Reforms’ in India, seen as a further ‘invasion’ of multinationals at the expense of the mass of the population. Radio and television reports say that workers have blocked railways in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states. Calcutta and Bangalore are virtually shut down. Elsewhere the response has been more patchy but the issues raised are of enormous importance to socialists across the country.

India’s Congress-led government - the United Progressive Alliance – announced a decision to further open up the economy to investment from abroad. This includes allowing FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in multi-brand retailing of 51%, in aviation - 49% and disinvestments in four Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs). Earlier, the government increased the price of diesel by Rs.5 a litre and limited the number of so-called subsidised LPG gas cylinders per household. All of this is fuelling inflation; prices are soaring.

Without having made a single noteworthy contribution in terms of either increased expenditure in social services or pro-people economic policies during its tenure, this heartless government seems hell-bent on pursuing neo-liberal reforms come what may. The only cheer-leaders for the government’s latest moves have been the Indian capitalist class and foreign investors, who have constantly berated the government for not being bold enough and accusing it of ‘policy paralysis’. Time magazine recently dubbed the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, as an ‘Under-achiever’!

The opposition, including within as well as outside the UPA, have predictably made their criticisms of the latest government move, especially over FDI in retailing, for their own political reasons. This has once again put in question whether the government will complete its full term in office till 2014. FDI in multi-brand retail has been a contentious issue for a long time with direct implication for the small retailers who employ more than 40 million workers in this sector. The opposition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, called for a Bharath Bandh (total shut-down) on 20th September, similar to that called on 31st May to protest against the petrol price hike.

Whether this government survives or not, the Congress party will definitely be the biggest loser in any elections if it continues with such brazen neo-liberal policies. Congress must be day dreaming if it imagines it can re-live a second 1991 moment when Manmohan Singh, as the then Finance Minister, unveiled the first set of neo-liberal reforms.

It is even more ridiculous to hear the central government stating that it is up to the respective state governments to implement FDI in retail if they want. Big retailers like Walmart do not actually need to set up shop all over India to achieve their objective. Once they are in, they will directly or indirectly have an impact by trading with different regions, irrespective of whether the state governments allow FDI in retail. For instance, already they have started their operations in the name of ‘Easy Day’. The Bharti group’s ‘Easy Day’ operates close to 70 stores in Punjab alone. In Bangalore, they have already sourced space for their first outlet near Virgin Mall, Hebbal.

Who benefits?

The only beneficiaries in this whole gamut of measures will be the foreign multinationals and the Indian capitalist class. Whether it be FDI in retail or FDI in aviation, the Indian corporations have been on the look-out for bailouts in what have mainly been loss-making ventures in both aviation and organised retailing. Whether the money will actually come in is another question depending on other factors like the global recession etc., but they will definitely have an impact in the long term. The entry of FDI in aviation will mean the end of the national carrier – Air India. It can certainly not withstand further competition after the systematic destruction that has been wrought through the bureaucratic meddling and ‘open skies’ policies of the last two decades.

Similarly, in the name of doing away with the exploitative middle-men in the retail sector, all sorts of myths have been created around FDI. It is supposed to bring in jobs, benefit the farmers and decrease prices for the consumer. All the facts available have proven the contrary. Big retailers like Walmart have systematically destroyed jobs and livelihoods among local communities in the US. They follow highly exploitative labour practices, are bad for the environment, increase prices in the long term, produce the monopolisation of the retail sector and much more.

As we have explained before in relation to the petrol price hike, subsidies are a total fraud being carried out against the people of India, with consumers ending up paying far higher prices than the standard price in the international market. (See Real culprits behind Fuel Price Hike) The LPG limit of just 6 cylinders per year, in the name of doing away with unauthorised usage of subsidised cylinders for commercial purposes, is another outrage that is being perpetrated by the government.

The losers, as usual, will be the working people of India who have nothing to benefit from any of these reforms. It is another story as to whether this set of reforms will spur growth once again in the Indian economy. Even if we accept this argument, such growth will only come at the expense of the working people. The previous growth story has caused great destruction in Indian agriculture resulting in over 250,000 farmers’ suicides in the last 20 years. It has left 836 million people still living on Rs.20 a day (less than $2.5 a week), according to official statistics.

BJP’s hypocritical opposition to FDI in retail. Photo: India Today

The opposition parties of India are all bluff!

Today’s bandh, called by the opposition BJP and other parties will, as always, be a state sponsored holiday in most of the opposition ruled states. For these parties it will be more to do with showing off the opposition’s political muscle rather than any systematic attempt to build real opposition among the working class and the peasantry against the government.

It is high time that all the so-called opposition political parties are called by their real name. They are no different to the aggressive neo-liberal Congress party. None of them can or will stand against the neo-liberal onslaught; there is not a single political party in so-called main-stream politics that will oppose neo-liberal policies. They make a lot of noise and act differently when it comes to the crunch.

Can the BJP headed by Modi in Gujarat, which boasts a high growth trajectory, claim to be anti neo-liberal? Is Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajavadi (‘Equality’) Party genuinely opposed to big business? Will the corrupt Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) (Dravidian progressive front) and the equally dishonest All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) (ruling party in Tamil Nadu) with all their pretensions of being competitive in “helping” the poor, declare that they are opposed to the capitalist policies which govern and guide everything they do?

Did the Left Front, led by the CPI(M), when in power in West Bengal, hesitate before shooting to kill the peasants of Singur and Nandigram? They were acting on the basis of neo-liberal policies which they pursued aggressively to the extent of earning the praise of none other than their now-turned foe, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Why is it that the national CPI has not taken a firm opposition to the multinational giant, POSCO, in Orissa? This is in spite of the fact that its own party activists are in the forefront of the historic struggle against the project which threatens the life of Adivasis and Betel leaf farmers and will endanger the ecological balance of the whole area.

The bitter truth our class has to face up to is that there is not a viable political force which stands against capitalism, without any compromise whatsoever. This is fundamentally the root cause of such profound problems. If these political opportunists were opposed to neo-liberalism and the FDI per se, they would be dead against the insane nuclear energy programme in this country. In relation to this, the 123 agreement with America came with strings attached. The multinational corporations (MNC’s) like Walmart, Boeing and General Electric went to the extent of setting up a fund for lobbying the senators who were opposing the treaty on the question of non-compliance of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Now those Shylocks are demanding their pound of flesh.

It is no doubt that the Congress Party’s days in government are numbered now. Their masters - Indian big business and the Multi National Corporations - want their dirty work to be finished quickly. 12 more nuclear plants, FDI in multi-brand retailing, brutal cuts in subsidies, aggressive privatisation are promises that Manmohan Singh is duty bound to fulfil. If a bandh is in any way going to be effective, it has to start by mobilising India’s workers and poor on the basis of challenging the very basis of capitalism. To that effect the working class must prepare for future battles by creating a genuine mass working people’s party to challenge the system of capitalism.

Neo-liberalism is part and parcel of capitalism; it cannot be opposed in sections. The whole package has to be overthrown lock, stock and barrel.

What is to be done?

The New Socialist Alternative (CWI-India) calls for the complete revocation of FDI in all sectors. We believe only a with a systematic building of the opposition by the working class, based on a genuine socialist platform, will it be possible to build an alternative against the system based on capitalism and landlordism.

New Socialist Alternative calls:

  • For a 24 hour industrial general strike against both the fuel price increases and against foreign direct investment
  • For an Immediate 50% tax on cash piles and corporate wealth to bring down prices and to pay for the fiscal deficit
  • For full nationalisation of the banks and key industries; for democratic workers’ control and management of all resources.
  • For a new mass workers’ party that would genuinely represent the interests of the working masses

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