Early this morning, on the busy bylanes of Zamrudpur (Delhi), I passed a young girl being taken to school on a cycle-rickshaw. In her lap she held fast to her day’s homework. It was a three dimensional representation of “my town,” made with what looked like a cardboard base, with houses of card and paper mache, colored by pencils and paint. It reminded me of the projects I did when I was her age, the assignment alternatively civic and nationalist: Create a Model Town. Her town, like my own, was scrubbed clean of the anomie of capitalism: houses for citizens here, a factory for workers there, a bank and a town hall, a zoo perhaps or a playground, and, of course, a police station tucked away in the corner. This town is far from our own world, where unemployment is a structural feature and where slums are the main residence of our people; where the agricultural sector sustains high levels of social distress and migration has become the standard way for survival; where social harassment of women and oppressed groups rubs the sheen off the bright landscape.
Last week, a hundred million workers in India conducted a General Strike. Eleven trade unions with divergent political traditions and programs came together to bring out their members for two days (never before in India’s modern history have all the unions joined together, and never has the working-class held a two day strike of this magnitude). They were united by a ten-point list of demands, including checks on inflation, creation of a jobs program and of strengthened protections for trade unions, implementation of equal pay for equal work, and restrictions on contract work and casual work. The Financial Times saw the demand sheet in terms of a fight against inflation. But the real issues are about building working-class power. The powerful response by the people indicates that they are truly angry about price increases of goods to satisfy their bare needs; but what was also clear is that the demands for an end to contract labor, for the right to join unions and the right for women to be paid as much as men would go a long way toward strengthening the bloc of the People against the bloc of Money. The Strike was as much about power, therefore, as survival.
The intensity of the strike was not clear in the heart of the cities or in My Town. Industrial areas, ports, coal mines and oil refineries – here the battle-lines were drawn, such that in Ambala (Haryana), a cashier at a bus depot and a trade union leader, Narender Singh was killed when he tried to stop some buses from leaving the depot. From Assam’s Amingaon Bottling Plant to Tamil Nadu’s Kalpakkam Atomic power project, the machines sat idle as workers clashed with the police. Contract workers refused to enter the Rourkela steel plant in Odhisha and the anganwadi (day care) workers in Uttar Pradesh refused their charges. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had begged the unions to call off the strike to no avail. Trade union leader Gurudas Dasgupta pointed out that the cabinet ministers deputed to speak to the unions did not include the Finance Minister – Neo-liberalism’s Myrmidon.
Statistics suggest that the unions and the Left have read the tea-leaves correctly. Prices rise daily (food inflation in January rose by almost 11 percent) as the International Labour Organisation reports that structural unemployment is fated to increase across the world, with hundreds of millions off the grid. As the industrial North falls off the fiscal cliff, southern
economies geared toward export northward will face a necessary contraction. Left Indian economists, such as Prabhat Patnaik, suggest that the only course for India is for a massive expansion of domestic demand. The current government has neither the ideological disposition nor the class temperament to undertake such a set of policies. The Parliament Budget Session opened on the second day of the strike with an agenda that will be unable to manage the crisis to the people’s benefit.
That is why the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has inaugurated a massive left-wing pilgrimage from the four corners of India toward Delhi. Caravans of the people have already begun their journey from Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, and will soon head out from Kolkata (in the east), Mumbai (in the west) and Jallianwalla Bagh (in the north), to arrive in Delhi by mid-March. This jatha or band of comrades will travel the countryside to rouse the people against the neo-liberal agenda.
The demands are six:
* Right to land and house sites.
* Curb price rise and ensure right to food.
* Right to education and health.
* Right to employment.
* Ensure social justice.
* End corruption.
The agenda is both modest (in appearance) and grand (in its claims against the neo-liberal policy and governance). Twenty years ago, the right-wing party, the BJP, organized a Rath Yatra whose agenda was the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya and the construction of a Ram Temple. Its leader, L. K. Advani, bestride a converted Toyota van, masqueraded as a Hindu God on a chariot, as he went across the country. The Yatra fueled hatred and division and summoned the worst of humanity toward riots and death. I was in Seelampur, outside Delhi, when the destruction came in the chariot’s wake in early 1992; the carnage was spectacular, with young men eager to entry History as killers (one gang leader of the BJP, with blood on his sword, was so brave that he sent his mother out during the curfew to get his daily dose of smack).
This Jatha comes from the other end of the political spectrum. It promises not hatred but camaraderie, not division but unity. The BJP threatens to revive its yatra. Like the ruling alliance (the Congress and its allies), the BJP and its allies are not capable of taking the bull of economic distress by the horns – they are joined in their fealty to neo-liberal policy. The social pendulum swings toward uncertainty and anguish, into which wades the Left, whose message of class power seeks to convert bitterness to hope. Dekh raftaar-e inquilab, Firaq, “Witness the pace of Revolution, Firaq”; Kitni aahista aur kitna tez, “How slow, and how swift.”
Vijay Prashad’s most recent work is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South just out from Verso Books.