The General Strike called by the ten largest central trade unions CTU’s on Tuesday, September 2 was a tumultuous success. The trade union and communist leaders who had anticipated a maximum of one hundred million workers participating in the strike were flabbergasted at the sight of more than 150 million coming out on a total one-day general strike that paralyzed India
CPI General secretary S Sudhakar Reddy said, “Great success I should say. [The response] was more than expected. It is one of the biggest actions of working class and manifestation of their unity against anti-labour policies of Government". The response of the biggest left party, the CPI (M), was a bit muted. “The strike was 'successful' despite Centre trying to 'dissuade' workers from proceeding with the agitation at the eleventh minute. Apart from dissuading RSS-affiliated Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, they could not succeed in dissuading any other CTU from proceeding with the strike”, the party said in a statement. Union leaders claimed that the strike had affected the functioning of essential services like banking, transport and supply of power, gas and oil. The CP-affiliated AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress) secretary Gurudas Dasgupta termed the mobilisation as “magnificent”.
All those ex-lefts, liberal analysts and the so-called ‘socialists’ and ‘communists’—those merchants of doom and gloom — have been refuted not just by the massive turnout of the workers but by the intensity of the strike. Their analysis and dismissive cynicism towards the role of the Indian proletariat has been proved terribly wrong and absurd. A wave of enthusiasm and courage swept across India on this fateful Tuesday. Even the most right-wing bourgeois television channels and newspapers had to admit the thumping success of this day of action by the Indian working class and the youth. In reality this general strike stunned the anchors of the corporate media and the analysts of the ‘left' who had virtually written off the Indian proletariat as a force to reckon with.
India’s most prominent liberal paper, The Hindu, reported: “Normal life was affected in various parts of the country, including West Bengal, Tripura, Kerala and Karnataka, as 10 CTUs today went on day-long nationwide strike to protest against changes in labour laws and privatisation of PSUs. The strike affected transport, banking operations and other services in various parts of the country".
The media house that is most representative of the liberal Indian bourgeois, NDTV, reported: “About 15 crore workers are on a nationwide strike and essential services like banking and public transport have been hit in many places… In Kolkata, women activists from the Left were seen being dragged by the police. Banks, shops, and many schools are closed and all public transport is off roads. The bandh [closure] has also impacted southern states. Around 3,500 government-run buses are not running in Hyderabad [Deccan] and public transport has also been hit in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. Schools and colleges are closed in Bengaluru. Ten major trade unions have called 'Bharat bandh' over the government's pro-business initiatives, after talks with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley broke down. Many banks have shut their doors for the day all over the country. Long lines of commuters and school children were seen waiting at bus stops in many cities across the country, including national capital Delhi, while passengers were stranded at airports as taxis and rickshaws stayed off the streets.”
Such was the fear struck in the bourgeois by the strike's success that within hours after it ended, news of the strike was removed from the television news bulletins and expunged from the screens of the bourgeois newspaper websites.
Even the Western media could not conceal the huge impact of this strike. The BBC reported in the afternoon: “Workers across India are staging a day-long strike to protest at the economic policies of the government. They say the 'pro-business' policies of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government will put their jobs at risk and hurt ordinary people. The unions are demanding the government drop plans to sell off stakes in state-run companies and change labour laws. Reports say some 150 million workers — mainly in banking, manufacturing, construction and coal mining industries — belonging to 10 major unions are expected to stay away from work on Wednesday. The strike appears to have hit public transport, with long queues of commuters and school children seen at bus stops in many cities, including the capital, Delhi".
The unions were demanding that the government dump plans to sell off stakes in state-run companies. They are also opposed to the government's proposed labour reforms expected to diminish the influence of trade unions and make the labour market more ‘flexible’. CTU’s 12-point charter of demands also included urgent measures to contain price rises and unemployment, strict enforcement of basic labour laws, withdrawal of the proposed “anti-worker” amendments in labour laws and stopping the disinvestment and privatisation of PSUs. They also demanded universal social security cover all workers and a minimum wage of Rs 15,000 per month. Bank unions were also protesting against the government’s plan to revamp the working of the public sector banks. Several outfits representing informal sector workers also supported the shutdown.
However, the most important aspect of this strike was the molecular pressure that was building up amongst the workers for a long time. Not very long ago, under the previous Congress-led coalition government, there was a similar general strike with the participation of 100 million workers. When the ‘business friendly’ Hindu chauvinist demagogue Narendra Modi won a landslide victory in the elections in May last year and came to power in a BJP government with almost absolute majority in the parliament, the Indian and world corporate bosses were jubilant. The Modi regime started off with an array of ‘reforms’ to boost rates of profits for their clientele. But even with such euphoria of the Hindu right and the reactionary Indian ruling classes, these got stuck in their inception. The seething pressure from below was palpable and even Modi’s regime along with India’s bourgeois opposition parties could neither ignore nor defy it. Paradoxically there was also a mounting pressure from the corporate world on Modi and his government to bulldoze through those ‘reforms’ of cuts, austerity measures and anti-labour policies. His imperialist bosses scolded Modi for not carrying out these ‘reforms’ fast enough. Less than a week ago, The Economist, Modi’s ardent supporter, wrote in its August 29 issue, “The prime minister is a forceful communicator. But he postpones the arduous job of getting things done… Mr Modi cares more for the theatre of politics than the hard grind of passing laws or accomplishing reforms through compromise. A former cabinet minister complains that Mr Modi’s rhetoric is way ahead of his plans... Investors grumble that promises to simplify tax laws, cut corporation tax and privatise state firms have come to little.”
Perhaps after witnessing this massive general strike The Economist will understand what was actually stopping Modi and of whom he was afraid. Despite these pressures, Modi has carried out unprecedented measures to please corporate capitalism. In their first annual budget, Modi and his finance minister Arun Jaitley slashed an astronomical 25 percent in taxes on corporate incomes. In the meantime, to continue his socio-economic onslaught against the Indian masses, Modi tried to divert attention by churning up the religious sectarianism and whipped up anti-Pakistan chauvinism by his nationalist/Hindutva rhetoric. The military elite and the Islamic fundamentalists were more than happy with Modi across the Radcliff line in Pakistan. The venomous hate speeches of the various groups of the Hindutva from the RSS to VHP [Vishva Hindu Parishad] relentlessly smeared Muslims and Pakistan. This fed directly into the vicious religiosity of the monsters of Islamic fundamentalism whose social base was rapidly eroding. The military skirmishes along the LoC in Kashmir and the international Indo-Pak borders have been increasing with rising casualties, strengthening the reactionary forces on both sides of the divide.
Congress, the main opposition party in India was not only decimated in the May 2014 elections but it is difficult to see how their fortunes will recover. Most other bourgeois parties are regionally limited and are based on caste, creed, ethnic, linguistic, narrow nationalistic, communal and religious prejudices. The Communist parties got the highest seats in the 2005 elections. In the states of Bengal, Tripura and Kerala that were ruled for thirty five years by this Left Front, comprising of the two main communist parties, the CPI and the CPI (M), along with other smaller parties, they carried through policies of neoliberal economics leading to demoralisation and revulsion amongst their mass support base. The land they distributed in West Bengal in 1978 was forcibly extorted from the peasants by the same left government after the 2002 elections. The CPs not only abandoned the programme of socialist revolution a long, long time ago, but their neoliberal economic doctrines were not much different from the social democratic parties of Europe in the last decade, and other bourgeois parties ruling in different states of India, including the BJP.
This led to their disastrous defeats in the subsequent elections. In last year’s election these communist party leaders were campaigning for ‘secularism’, ‘democracy’ and Keynesian capitalist economics. While Modi demagogically called himself a ‘tea vendor’ fighting a Prince born with a golden spoon, referring to Rahul Ghandi, the leader of Congress. This rhetoric only worked because the left parties had abandoned class politics and refused to reject Indian capitalism, which has devastated the lives of India’s oppressed masses, 860 million of whom live in absolute poverty in the notorious filthy and crime-infested slums of India's cities. This led to the historic defeat of the left with the lowest-ever seats in the parliament. This was the ultimate fate of the policy of ‘parliamentary cretinism’ adopted by the CP’s leadership.
In the aftermath of the humiliating defeat in the May 2014 elections most left leaders were in a grim state of hopelessness, cynicism and demoralisation. Some called Modi’s victory the triumph of fascism. Others came up with the perspective of a prolonged period of stark reaction and rejected the possibility of a resurgence class struggle by the Indian proletariat. Some even defected to the BJP and other right-wing parties to continue their perks and privileges of being in government. However, the resounding success of this general strike has not only refuted their perspectives but has brought forward the revolutionary potential of the Indian workers and the youth for the world to see. The trade union leaders had to give way to the rising tide of workers' revolt from below. They were in a way forced to call this general strike. Their credibility and leadership was at stake if they refused to respond to the rising anger of the workers.
However, even with the success of this strike, the onslaught of neoliberal capitalism will stop nor the problems and hardships of the workers be resolved. Negotiations will be protracted and can drag on for months without any positive outcome. The aim of the ruling classes and its Modi regime will be to exhaust the workers and damage their fighting potential and moral. The politicisation of this class struggle is the burning need at this moment in time. There is ferment in the CPs but its degree and intensity is not yet clear. Although they have been decimated in the electoral field no alternative party or tradition of the working classes has emerged as yet. The conflicts in the leadership, especially the CPI (M) are now in the open. Unfortunately, these polemics are not of an ideological or political character but mainly organisational and personal accusations and criticisms. But a whole new generation of youth and activists has emerged in the political arena more than 25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the capitalist counterrevolution in China. The older generation of the leadership and activists of the CPs were demoralised by these colossal historical events. These left leaders and intellectuals lost faith in ‘socialism’, which was in reality its caricature — Stalinism — which they naively or opportunistically followed. This was reflected in their politics of retreats, compromises and capitulations to capitalism for whole period of time. Several retreated even further from the Stalinist theory of two stages to one stage: i.e., bourgeois democracy.
However, the disastrous rule of capitalism in India is creating immense revulsion towards the system. As most parties subscribe to capitalism there seems to be an aversion amongst the masses and the youth to politics and parties in general. Yet in this turbulent period there will be accidental parties and figures emerging in this vacuum and the sharp process of a new political awakening that opens up now. Aravind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadami Party’s ascent to power in Delhi is just one example. But these will be temporary and superficial phenomenon and ultimately as the class struggle surges ahead these will vanish and the impacts of the struggle on the political consciousness of the youth and the workers will open up new avenues for the growth and development of the forces of revolutionary Marxism. However, this will be a protracted process precisely because of the weakness of the forces of Marxism that will constitute the subjective factor for a successful revolutionary transformation. It remains to be seen whether the communist parties can take the leadership of these new waves of class struggle or whether they have been doomed by their long-time compromises with capitalism in the name of democracy, nationalism and secularism. Their refusal to learn from the mistakes of the past and to adopt a revolutionary path for the overthrow of capitalism can lead to their political extinction.
But one thing is certain. This general strike signifies a turning point in the class struggle in the subcontinent. It is a fact of particular importance that this strike succeeded so triumphantly even when its own leaders did not expect such a massive participation and support for this historic landmark. Capitalism as a historically obsolete and economically redundant system has failed to develop or improve India. Rather, it has intensified the poverty, misery, disease, ignorance and deprivation amongst the peoples of India. Even the slightest respite in the plight of the masses cannot be achieved within the confines of this dreaded system. But now the processes will accelerate in this epoch of sharp turns and sudden changes which India has entered. Sooner rather than later the perspective of a revolutionary change will be put on the agenda. This strike action has glaringly exhibited the potential of the Indian proletariat to unite and fight as a class in this vast and diverse land. A socialist revolution here will not only transform and emancipate the masses in India but it will lead to the revolutionary victories throughout the Indian subcontinent, which hosts more than 40 percent of world’s poverty. In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, there cannot be separate alienated revolutions but a wave of interconnected revolutionary insurrections leading to the creation of a voluntary socialist federation or a USSR of the South Asian subcontinent. That would in reality mean the salvation of about one fourth of the human race. Its impacts on the world stage are unfathomable!