Liberalisation and the Indian left

While the streets of Seattle may have dragged some of the issues surrounding liberalisation into a wider public consciousness, the newly elected right wing Indian government, supported by the main Congress opposition, is driving full steam ahead with its programme of economic reform.

While the streets of Seattle may have dragged some of the issues surrounding liberalisation into a wider public consciousness, the newly elected right wing Indian government, supported by the main Congress opposition, is driving full steam ahead with its programme of economic reform. Now it is the turn of the insurance industry to face the opening up of the market to private companies, as the small Left opposition succumbed to inevitable defeat in the Lok Sabha (parliament). (The existing companies are not themselves being privatised but they will be in direct competition with private firms.) In a long article in The Statesman, Communist party of India MP, Gurudas Das Gupta explains that Indian insurance is not only already a healthily growing industry, but that it at present invests 70% of its funds in government bonds and securities, where they can be used for public sector projects, so that opening the industry up to private businesses, far from contributing to national growth, will only divert funds to short term and speculative investment.

Large foreign firms could also afford to undercut the existing businesses and then exploit their monopoly, and he points to the appalling record of dishonesty and insolvency in private insurance industries in places like Japan and the US. Further, the nationalised insurance industry uses cross subsidies to help provide insurance for at least some of those who could not otherwise afford it - such as life insurance for selected occupations. (The Statesman 1st December 99). Nation-wide resistance to the privatisation began on 29th October, and has included two one-day strikes. Left parties and unions collected 15 million signatures petitioning against the legislation, insurance workers together with bank workers (banking privatisation is due to follow) marched on Parliament on Monday 29th November, and all the countryís insurance workers - more than 200,000 people - came out on a dayís strike the following Wednesday. In the war over insurance privatisation the Left has gone down fighting and their battle has made headline news, but it was lost long ago, and the Left leaders have mainly themselves to blame. 

The history of the Left in India is a history of what might have been, of opportunities lost as increasingly powerful revolutionary forces were suffocated by dictates from Moscow. In the last few decades, as the parties struggled to follow the two stage theory that the bourgeois revolution had to be completed before the proletarian revolution could begin, they accommodated themselves more and more to the bourgeois parties and allowed Marxism to be postponed to an indefinite future. The Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPIM) broke away from the CPI because it felt the latter was too closely allied to the Congress Party, but it too was constrained by its perceived need to work with the bourgeois parties.  In the 70s sincere and frustrated Marxists flocked to join the new revolutionary movement known as the Naxalites, after Naxalbari where it  began. They took inspiration from China and believed in a peasant revolution and individual terrorism. Rather than try to influence the workers and the existing workers' parties, they turned to the countryside and to people with no political consciousness, and when the CPI-M and Congress joined forces against them, they were thoroughly and brutally eliminated, wasting not only many young lives, but a generation of revolutionary potential. 

Any Left movement in this country has to take on not only this history of betrayal of Marxist ideas and the disillusion this has bred, but an uncompleted bourgeois revolution and a legacy of failed reformist socialism. Under the first prime minister, Jaharwalal Nehru, and what is known as Nehruvian socialism, India carried out large scale programmes of nationalisation and central planning, but with no attempt at any sort of workersí control, and the result is an industrial bureaucracy worthy of a Stalinist state. It is not without reason that people here complain about the inefficiency of their nationalised industries. To give a small domestic example: to get a telephone connection to our flat took us two visits to the telephone exchange, completion of a lengthy form including signatures from two witnesses and other supporting documents, three visits to the flat, each by two or three telephone engineers, and some extra unaccounted for rupees. To be able to make calls outside Calcutta we had to collect and complete another form, which, with accompanying passport photographs, had to be signed by a 'government gazetted officer'. That the connection process took less than three weeks was considered a great improvement on previous norms, which our neighbour put down to the telephone company having to face competition from cellular phone companies. And here he expressed the general view that the answer to inefficiency is privatisation and market competition, and for him it may be true. For those who can afford to pay for better services, privatisation will bring a benefit, at least in the short term, but at whose expense? Private firms may fall over each other in their eagerness to cater to those with money, but they will be less keen to invest in services for the poor or those in distant rural locations, and in India that means the vast majority. And even the Indian capitalists may not reap the benefits that they look forward to. 

Few Indian firms will be able to withstand competition from the international giants, as has been demonstrated so clearly in the soft drinks industry, where those old Indian brands which have survived have all been bought up by Coca-cola. And foreign firms will probably not invest their profits in India. It is not only the capitalists and aspiring capitalists who put their faith in this new medicine to cure the ills of the economy and bring the country Western prosperity. In the rush to attract foreign investment, the old Marxist parties have abandoned not only their principles, but finally even their rhetoric. When India first brought in its New Economic Policy under a Congress government in 1991 (at a time when the now ruling BJP preferred the rhetoric of right wing isolationism and protectionism) the left forces were powerful enough to have blocked the legislation, but instead, although they argued against it, they chose to abstain from voting. 

Here in Calcutta, the long-ruling 'Marxist' state government brutally demonstrated its determination to make the city seem attractive to foreign investors by clearing the hawkers off the pavements of the main commercial districts. Now, two years later, they have still not been found a viable alternative place to trade and claim to have suffered numerous deaths through the consequent poverty. The newspapers discuss how the CPI-M could escape a repeat of its poor election results by listening to the liberals within the party and working with the bourgeois parties in central government, and the CPI-M in West Bengal is so bankrupt of forward vision and leadership that it won't even accept the resignation of its elderly long-serving chief minister. 

Recently the General Secretary of the CPI-M was even quoted as admitting that 'you can't have a revolution in India' (The Statesman 25th November 99), and a leading party figure here told us that the CPI-M was now a fully social democratic party and had lost touch with the mood of the country's youth. The communist parties may be putting up a token fight, but they have lost all credibility. While West Bengal's Left Front government tried to prove how friendly it was to capitalist investment, the communist dominated unions diffused possible resentment to pro-capitalist policies through symbolic one day strikes, which often coincided with festivals. Even now that the insurance industry is facing such major upheavals, there is no serious talk of real industrial action, and the arguments used against privatisation are not so much anti-capitalist, as anti foreign monopoly capital. 

Amongst all this activity, no-one has addressed the underlying arguments against privatisation per se, or bothered to argue how it can only in the end benefit the capitalists at the expense of the ordinary workers. Ganashakti, the organ of the CPI-M in West Bengal, notes that the rural sector will lose out in the privatisation of the insurance industry, but does not extend the argument to private industry in general. It is more anxious to explain how the exceptional growth of the Indian insurance industry (nearly 18% compared to a world figure of 3%) is attracting the predatory American giants, and urges its readers to 'oppose such measures which mortgage our economy to foreign interests'. Small wonder, then, that workers who might once have rallied behind the red flag have turned to the populist leaders of the rising regional parties. Here in Calcutta they rush to follow the cotton sari-clad figure of Mamata Banerjee, whose rallying cry is a constant belligerent attack on the ruling Left Front and who has tied her party opportunistically to the BJP. In neighbouring Bihar, parties are increasingly divided along caste lines. But these populist leaders will not be able to solve any of the underlying problems, and this road can only lead to disillusionment and disappointment. 

On December 6th it was the turn of the development officers to demonstrate. These middle ranking insurance workers chose the favourite Indian method of a hunger strike, though this was only for a day. Here in Calcutta, they were supported at lunch time by a good crowd of other insurance workers and their union leaders, and the bank workers held a parallel demonstration in the main square. Union leaders told me that they are not against internal reorganisation, as recommended by a 1993 government committee, but that they are totally against privatisation. The union zonal secretary explained that their union was apolitical, by which he means it has no attachment to any political party (and indeed political banners were noticeably absent), but that they are totally against the opening up of the economy. Whilst the biggest threat is clearly perceived to be foreign capital, he assured me that they were in favour of nationalised industries because this enabled 'the progressive growth of the Indian economyí'. He explained that in this 'era of decaying socialist force' with 'imperialist forces in top gear' they got inspiration both from the success of the Indian liberation movement against the seemingly invincible British Empire and from the demonstrations in Seattle. 

This is the end of phase one of the insurance workers' protest. Where it goes now is to be decided by the Union leaders on the 23rd December - but what will influence their decision? As Indian workers and the few gains of Nehruvian socialism come under unprecedented attack we find the Left parties in a crisis of self doubt, but this need not be cause for despair. True there is endemic corruption and there are many party members who are there only for the perks that membership brings (especially where the parties are in power), but these are still the natural parties of the workers with control over powerful trade unions. They are where most workers will still turn for help, and if the parties are asking questions about their future role this can be an opportunity for making that role more not less important. The parties may choose to dissolve themselves into the bourgeois system, or, now they are liberated from the straight-jacket of Stalinism, they could resurrect their communist roots and become true parties of the workers and peasants. 

This month's strikes and demonstrations will not stop the privatisation of the insurance industry, but they do show that, despite frequent betrayals by their leaders, there are still vast numbers of workers ready to take a stand against the government. They cannot afford to wait for their leaders to act but must push them into action. As the effects of the New Economic Policy bite harder, it becomes even more urgent that all those who really do believe in a socialist alternative work with them to revive a genuine movement of the workers and peasants out of the decay of the old communist parties. We need to be fighting alongside these workers, explaining Marxist ideas and how they have been betrayed by Stalinism, and building cadres to take the movement forward. India is a country of enormous disparities of wealth. It has a large proletariat and a strong tradition of working class militancy and socialism. There is every reason to believe, given the right leadership, that you can have a revolution in India.