In the 1980s the bureaucratic rulers of the Soviet workers state tried to appease imperialism by cutting back on aid to countries like India—aid which had formerly given those countries a measure of protection against neo-colonial exploitation. The Congress government in India responded by rewriting economic regulations to attract foreign capital and by starting to sell off the country’s large public sector, which still employs the great majority of its unionized workforce. As a direct result of the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, these programs of liberalization and privatization were intensified in the early 90s under the BJP government. When Congress came back to power in 2002 its prime minister, Manmohan Singh—an Oxford-trained economist who under the previous Congress government had been the architect of the liberalization drive—vowed, unsurprisingly, to continue it. Liberalization under the new government may have a “human face,” as the Prime Minister promised, but its hand still wields a policeman’s club.
Aided by these policies, Indian capital has been on an anti-labor offensive. The labor economist Barbara Harriss-White writes that “since the 1980s, the corporate sector, determined to secure flexibility and to control pay, have worked their way down a ‘menu’ of tactics to fracture the workforce, reduce numbers and erode workers’ rights,” including plant closures, lock-outs, attrition, contract violations, moving production to dispersed locations, and outsourcing. As a result, the relatively small portion of the workforce that receives regular wages and has some degree of legal protection, as opposed to the huge number who are casually employed, was reduced in the years between 1977 and 1994 by as much as one-half (India Working, 2003).
The workers movement in India has a defensive struggle ahead of it. Only about half of those in the shrinking sector of regularly employed workers are in unions, and those unions are fatally fragmented. Right after Independence the Congress party moved to split the workers movement and dilute the influence of the Communist Party in it by setting up its own trade union federation to rival the formerly unified, Stalinist-led All-India Trade Union Congress. Since then the unions have been parceled out among a growing number of political parties, including in recent decades regional, communal, and caste-based parties. There are even unions formed around individual charismatic leaders. (See Sharit Bhowmik, “The Labour Movement in India: Present Problems and Future Perspectives,” The Indian Journal of Social Work, January 1998.)
Indian labor needs to reorganize itself (by a process of fusion) along industrial lines. It needs to fight to organize the great mass of industrial workers who are casually employed—and even those currently unemployed and looking for work, whose numbers, as the liberal columnist P. Sainath points out in The Hindu (July 28, 2005), “almost equal the population of South Africa.” Unemployed and casual workers are rightly seen not as competitors of the regular workforce, but as their allies against the bosses. And the Indian workers movement needs to take up the special oppression of women and low-caste workers, whose exclusion from regular work forces them into the swelling casual labor market.
These tasks require a new political direction, and the mass reformist workers parties—the CPI and the CPI(M)—are the biggest obstacles to finding one. These thoroughly corrupt and bankrupt Stalinist outfits seek only to help administer the bosses’ state, as they do today in several states and did in the center from 2004 to 2009. The CPI(M)-led government of West Bengal is notorious internationally for its efforts to displace and brutally repress impoverished low-caste and Muslim peasants in the interests of Indian and foreign-based capital.
The guerillaist Naxalites of the new CPI (Maoist) formation, on the other hand, have no role at all in the workers’ movement, basing themselves as they do on the peasantry and on semi-nomadic tribals. The only time they invoke the working class is as part of a mythical “bloc of four classes” together with peasants, the urban middle classes, and the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie.” Class collaboration is thus written directly into their program. Though presently under the gun of the bourgeois state in Operation Green Hunt (against which they should of course be defended), the Maoists explicitly seek an alliance with sections of the ruling class such as that recently consummated by their co-thinkers in Nepal.
When cops were caught on camera viciously attacking a demonstration of striking Honda workers in the state of Haryana in 2005, provoking nationwide outrage, the national secretary of the CPI, demonstrating his reflexive reliance on bourgeois state power, pronounced, “There are labor laws in this country and all this could have been avoided if the management had taken care to study them carefully before setting out on a confrontationist path.” In fact, not only do the Indian labor laws apply only to a small fraction of the workforce, what protections they offer are full of loopholes and almost never get enforced on the workers’ behalf. Relying on the bosses’ rules only ties up struggles in court for years on end. Indian labor can’t play cricket to win!
Analyzing the perspective for India in 1930, Trotsky concluded that even though the urban working class there was far outnumbered by poor peasants (and by an even greater proportion at that time than in Russia in 1917), “all those social peculiarities which made possible and unavoidable the October revolution are present in India in still sharper form.” He added: “So far, there is only one ‘condition’ missing: a Bolshevik party.” Over seventy-five years later, that’s still the case. A workers-led social revolution in India would do a lot to inspire and aid a political revolution in China—and vice versa. A nuclear-armed workers republic in either country could help defend a proletarian revolution in Japan. For permanent revolution in India, and socialist revolution throughout Asia!