Democracy, capitalism and the left in India

Submitted by Matthew on 10 December, 2009 - 3:28

A presentation by Indian Marxists Jairus Banaji and Rohini Hensman, from Ideas for Freedom winter 2009, a weekend of socialist debate and discussion hosted by Workers’ Liberty on 28-29 November.

Jairus Banaji:

From a left-wing point of view, it’s important to emphasise that there’s always been a lack of class politics in India. That’s one of its most distinctive political features.

There are hundreds of reasons as to why that is the case, but that obviously makes a statement about the left in India in a very big way. It also raises the issue of what a class politics would mean in the context of a society that’s as complex and fragmented as India is.

I want to try and tie up the three themes of democracy, capitalism and the left; what Rohini will do is concentrate more on the labour movement, and the potentialities of a new kind of labour movement emerging in an Indian context.

Traditionally, the Indian political landscape has been dominated by a strong centre. I mean that both in the sense that we have a relatively strong central government which has to co-exist with state legislatures, state governments, in an effectively federal set-up, but also in the sense that politically, the centre has been quite strong in India. The last two elections have shown the strength and resilience of centrism in India.

That centrism, represented by the Congress Party, was severely challenged in the 80s and 90s. One form in which that challenge culminated was the horrific massacres we saw, for example in Bombay in 1992. These were right-wing massacres, pogroms against Muslims. Then we saw a similar action in Gujarat on a very big scale in 2002. Most recently violence spread through the tribal areas in Orissa which was sparked off by the assassination of a right-wing religious leader.

The Marxist-Leninists [Maoists] claimed responsibility for the assassination, but the backlash took the form of large-scale communal violence — Hindu communal violence — against mainly Christian tribal communities in Orissa.

The nationalism of the Congress Party is very strong, and has an ambiguously unifying power, but it also creates a backlash against itself, in the form of regionalism on the one hand and communal Hindu nationalism on the other represented by a party called the BJP.

The point to note about the strength of centrism, of Congress nationalism, is that it has never been effectively challenged from the left. It has always been effectively challenged from the right. In a sense, it looked at one stage as if the Indian political system was going to settle down into a fluctuation between far-right Hindu nationalism, which is communal in character and targets minorities such as Christians and Muslims, and mainstream centrist Congress nationalism - as if the whole of India’s political future was going to be an endless oscillation between these two alternatives.

The last two elections demonstrate the resilience and relative strength of centrism within India politics. The BJP is a complete shambles today. It’s been disintegrating and expelling leaders; that crisis was precipitated by the fact that it did disastrously in the last set of national elections, in May this year.

The left and Stalinism

The left in India is fragmented. It’s divided, and it’s never seriously understood what class politics is all about.

The division of the left began in the 1960s when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) split off from the Communist Party of India. That was a division that was largely bound up with the Sino-Soviet split. Then the CP(M) divided further into the CP(M) hardcore and the CP(ML), which the endorsement and backing of China at the time.

Left party politics was represented in India by these three streams. The CPI was largely pro-Congress and pro-Russian. The CP(M) is an ambivalent party that started off favouring China but then veered back to Russia. It sometimes denounced the CP(ML) as “not true Maoists”.

The CP(ML) has always had a putschist political character. They believe in guerilla warfare, and are largely rooted in the tribal areas of India which run from the northeastern tip of the country into the central heartland of the country, the Deccan.

The most substantial base that they’ve had historically has not been in Bengal, but in Andhra Pradesh, where the first split with CPI was largely a split between the CPI and the potential CP(ML). In other words, the CP(M) was never significant in Andhra; it was always the ML. Their social base is in destitute tribal communities, the most neglected and oppressed strata of Indian society.

Their official status under India law is “scheduled tribes” — STs, as they’re called — and the ML tendency has rooted itself in those parts of the country. The resurgence of the ML in the last ten or fifteen years is bound up with the expansion of capital into those areas.

Capital is looking for new internal frontiers, and the bulk of mines are located in the area. There’s been a process of effectively state-supported dispossession, which is a key factor underlying the resurgence of a new generation of the ML, a new generation of Maoists in these tribal areas.

So the left has been historically divided, and secondly, none of the broad blocs within the left has ever escaped the political history and tradition of Stalinism. They are all Stalinists. If you walk into a CP(M) office in Bengal today, you’d see huge portraits of Stalin on the wall. They quote Stalin in their literature. Stalin is a major figure and icon for them.

The CPI is less Stalinist in its mode of functioning, but it’s also the least significant politically of these forces. The CP(M) is the largest of the left parties. It has exercised power in terms of actually controlling state governments, and it’s the best funded of the left parties. It’s also the most Stalinist. The ML has had its own internal fragmentation, which reflected what was going on in China.

I can’t think of another left movement anywhere else in the world that has been so firmly wedded to Stalinist politics. When there was an abortive military putsch against Gorbachev, the CP(M) actually sent a telegram to the army elements involved in this congratulating them on their success in restoring the proletarian revolution!

These groups literally slaughter each other; not the CPI so much, but the CP(M) and the CP(ML) literally murder each other’s cadres in Bengal today. That is the shambles that they have reduced themselves to.


Meanwhile, there have been sweeping changes in the corporate sector in India.

The distinctiveness of the Indian social formation is the peculiar strength of domestic capital. Traditionally it took the form of large business houses but in the last fifteen years it’s become a bit more complicated.

Some of the old business houses have disappeared. New and very powerful business groups have appeared since the 1980s. Key among them is the Ambani Group. Their flagship set of companies is called “Reliance”.

They dominate the oil industry and the private sector, they dominate telecom. They started off as a textile business but diversified into petrochemicals, and from their went into oil and from oil into telecoms. They control state governments and influence central government policy.

The 1990s saw liberalisation in India. 1991 was the beginning of new economic reforms, and that was an enormous spur to the expansion of these sectors of domestic capital. But they first smashed the unions, and eroded union strength for a period of fifteen to twenty years before the turn to liberalisation. Through the 1970s, there was a gradual erosion of union strength. The big textile strike in Bombay in 1982 was effectively broken by the mill-owners. The liberalisation of 1991 was preceded by this sustained attack on organised labour and on the unions.

Today, only around 7% of the Indian labour force is organised into unions. 93% are unorganised. That’s partly the result of that war of attrition by management against labour. The chronology doesn’t start with liberalisation. 1991 was not the commencement of the class war against organised labour; it went way back into the 70s.

The capitalist restructuring follows that period of smashing the unions, of dismantling unions power. The restructuring of Indian capital is no longer concentrated on the workplace but concentrated on corporate structures and the relationships between them. Mergers and acquisitions, which weren’t known in the 70s, took off in a big way in the 1990s. The globalisation of Indian business, the outward drive of Indian business into other markets, also started.

The big difference that liberalisation makes is that it sends out a signal to big business that the government is willing to cooperate with them in a very close partnership.

It’s this partnership between business and government that defines the whole of the 90s. The media became a major force in that process. There is not a single television channel or newspaper which is not controlled by one of the business houses or business groups. You used to have independent journalists writing for the mainstream press; you don’t after the 1990s.

All journalists are on contract, and some of the best journalists are left to fend for themselves in terms of freelancing. The complexion of the Indian media has become uncritical, slavish and servile. We just do not have the kind of media where serious political issues can be debated in any way. That is one of the main upshots of liberalisation.

The left, in Britain and the US in particular, has characterised this entire period as one of “neo-liberalism”. I have some problems with that characterisation. Obviously from one point of view, this is neo-liberalism; the opening up of markets, the expansion of markets elsewhere, and the emergence of a new regime of accumulation. Welfare expenditure and public expenditure are all being cut back in various ways.

But “neo-liberalism” seems to imply that there was something there that was worth defending in the first place, that in the 60s, 70s and 80s there was something equivalent to the NHS here that was worth defending. But in India there was nothing of that sort of thing. There was the Public Distribution System in India, which was important. But we never had a health service in India, you don’t have subsidised housing schemes. Aspects of the social wage which were under attack by neo-liberalism from the 80s onwards didn’t exist in India to start with.

The attack on organised labour began well before 1991. The unions had already been dismantled when the economic reforms began in 1991, so the causality is not exactly as it’s often made out to be, where neo-liberalism is the original sin. Even the public sector has, to a large extent, retained its dominance. It hasn’t necessarily been privatised. Private business has been allowed to expand into new areas which were formerly reserved for state capital.

Given the strength of nationalism within Indian political culture and the variety of forms it’s taken — from the secular, multicultural nationalism of the Congress to the fabrication of a Hindu nationalism which the far-right identifies with — to argue for class politics is to argue against the stream. To argue for a form of internationalism which we have never seen the left arguing in India. There’s never been internationalist class politics, or politics focusing on the working class as an agency of political and social transformation. There’s never been a vision of that from the Indian left. The working class is there in the rhetoric of the Indian left — everyone will pay lip-service to the workers and the proletariat — but it isn’t there in terms of the focus of the work that the left does.

Rohini Hensman:

I’ll say something about the challenges facing the labour movement first, and then something on the initiatives that have been taken.

The greatest obstacle to organising is the number of “informal” workers in the labour force. By “informal”, I mean that they are unregistered, workers whose status is not recognised, and whose employment is not registered.

There are many subdivisions, but there are three major ones. One is those who belong to the so-called “unorganised sector”. That is defined in Indian law as enterprises or establishments which employ less than ten workers (if there is electric power) or less than twenty workers without electric power. These are not formally registered or regulated.

The workers have no legal rights which can be enforced. Companies have employed various stratagems in order to put as much of their production as possible into this unorganised sector, so that their workers are completely “informal”. Sometimes it’s as crude as dividing a workplace up into segments, each of which contains less than twenty workers, or sub-contracting to small-scale enterprises. That’s one of the ways they broke the unions - by sub-contracting out work to this unorganised sector so the larger workplaces were broken down.

The second subdivision is workers who are “temporary” or “casual”. They might be working for ten or fifteen years in the same place, but they’ve never gained any formal status. Artificial breaks in employment are engineered so that they never complete the 240 days after which they’re supposed to get regular status.

The third way, very prevalent even in the public sector, is something called “contract labour”. It actually means “no-contract labour”, because these workers have no contract with anyone. They are hired through a labour contractor. The contractor is the one who interacts with the employer. Workers are rounded up by this contractor, and the wages are paid through the contractor.

These workers are basically employees without an employer; they are not officially employees of the contractor or of the principal employer. There are certain protocols about how they are meant to be treated, but in practice neither the contractor, nor the principal employer adheres to these. The contractors take a huge amount of money from the principal employers which never gets passed on to the workers.

“Informal” workers have tried to organise, and a few have succeeded. But the basic problem of organising here is that with these small-scale units, the company can dismiss workers and they will not be able to prove that they were even ever employed in the first place.

Alternatively, in many cases the company closes down and shifts to somewhere else, or even reopens in the same place with new workers. These workers have no redress. Unions have tried to take up these cases but with very little success.

In the garment industry in Bombay, for example, which is extremely fragmented, workers at the ground level are almost unorganisable because of this. If they try to organise, they’ll lose their jobs.

Most oppressed

There are slightly more upbeat elements, though. Some of the initiatives that’ve been launched are amongst the most oppressed sections of the working class.

They were launched around the early 2000s and were the culmination of long struggles. One was called the “Right to Food” campaign, which started in 2001/2002. There was a huge scandal because the food supplies of the Public Distribution System — which is supposed to distribute basic foodstuffs like rice and wheat to those below the poverty line — were accumulating to such a degree that they had no space to keep the food, and a few kilometres away there were people literally starving.

This campaign started demanding the right to food, but it became a right to work campaign — demanding either employment or unemployment benefit. That was quite a huge campaign, and in 2005 it yielded a government act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

It was very modest, but it guaranteed at least 100 days employment per year for one person in each household. That doesn’t sound like much, but for people on the edge of destitution it has proved to be a lifeline. These people have job-cards, they have become registered, and they’ve become a new constituency for organising which some agricultural unions have taken up.

The second was the “Right to Information” campaign, which was a grassroots rural initiative. There had been various government programmes for the employment of the rural poor, but these were run through contractors and had been dogged by terrible corruption.

For example, they had a list of 100 workers to whom they had given payment, and not a single one of them would have actually been paid. The workers in these programmes who were supposed to get the money launched this agitation for the right to know how much money was being given.

Various other things were supposed to have been done — drains dug, houses built, and so on — which were not done. In 2005, they got a Right to Information Act.

There have been huge attacks on it, as there have with the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. There have been physical attacks on people who have been trying to get information about these welfare programmes and trying to enforce the payment of wages to workers and so on. People have literally been murdered.

The third one was the Forest Rights Act, which gives rights to people in the forest belt — mainly tribal peoples — who are amongst the poorest of the poor. They’re limited rights, but they include for example rights to cultivate land instead of being displaced. That’s one of the huge problems that they face, and that’s why they’ve become the base of the Maoist movement. The state basically deprives them of their land, livelihood and homes and they have nowhere to go. This Act was won by huge organising amongst these people, which gives them some rights both to the commons and to the produce.

Another move, which started in the organised sector, has been “employee unionism”. The main unions have always been party-linked, which has huge pitfalls because it means that ultimately the interests of the workers are sacrificed to the interests of the party. It also means enormous fragmentation, because they are so many parties in India. Workers who belong to the more advanced sectors decided that they didn’t want to be part of this, and formed their own unions at the workplace or company level. These are unions formed and led by the workers themselves, which include clerical sector workers as well as factory workers.

There are some which involve management as well, and some which were started by management, but the majority are extremely independent and extremely militant.

Workers in Bombay formed the Trade Union Solidarity Committee in order to gain more strength. This was a sort of informal coordination. It was very ad hoc, but it survived because there was a need for it.

Around the turn of the century, when other workers were also getting fed-up with the ways in which the party-linked unions were letting them down, the idea of grassroots unionism began to spread, and there was an attempt to bring these bodies together into a national federation.

Ultimately, this was done through a process of very broad-based discussions and debates; controversial issues such as religious minorities, gender, caste, equality issues – all of these were brought into the discussion. The New Trade Union Initiative was not formed until 2006, but it’s done extremely well. It’s attracted unions from a number of sectors — the agricultural sector as well as urban workers — and it is going into new sectors like the forest workers.

One of the NTUI’s strong points is that it has an internationalist outlook. For example, when we had the World Social Forum in Bombay in 2004 they had a very strong presence there, and they have links to unions elsewhere.

More on the NTUI:

JAIRUS BANAJI is an economic historian, author of “Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity” and activist based in Mumbai.

ROHINI HENSMAN is a researcher and writer active in both India and Sri Lanka.

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