Guest Post by SANJAY KUMAR
Ramesh has been working as a daily wager in a Government of India office in Delhi for ten years. He is one of the army of peons, office assistants, security guards, gardeners, and cleaning staff which government offices, city municipalities, hospitals, schools and colleges of the metropolis employ regularly. He is a graduate, but gets the wage of an unskilled worker. He is among the fortunate ones who at least get government mandated minimum wage. Most private employers in the city violate the minimum wage act; either they pay less than the mandated amount, or make daily wagers work more than eight hours without any overtime.
Ramesh was pleasantly surprised this April when he noted a more than 30% increase in his wages. His daily wage that stood at Rs 360/ earlier was now Rs 513/. This was due to a Government of Delhi notification issued on 3rd March, 2017. The news was covered in the inner pages of some newspapers. Most TV news channels ignored it. Hence, it is not surprising that employees like Ramesh who are not associated with any organsiation of workers were not aware of this increase.
Ramesh and his parents are ardent AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) supporters. He has voted for the party in all three elections since 2013. Earlier his family had been long time Congress supporters, like most of the inhabitants of the slum colony they live in. They switched to AAP in 2013 assembly elections with some apprehension. Ramesh was thrilled when his neighbourhood friends running roadside stalls told him that the local police had dared not come to collect their regular hafta during the short lived first government of AAP. By 2015 his family and he were firm supporters of the party. Now, he feels a personal stake in it and was disturbed at the drubbing AAP received in the recent municipal elections. His explanation for the debacle is ‘aapsee phoot’ (inner bickering). He also half-believes that voting machines are rigged and can name municipal wards where he feels sure that AAP actually got more votes, but the BJP was declared winner. Unlike many in the media and middle classes of the city who have heaped scathing criticism on Arvind Kejriwal’s politicking and loud mouthing, he is not ready to blame him, even though he is no fan of the Delhi CM.
The behaviour of the AAP and an average working class voter like Ramesh throw open a window to the inner workings of Indian electoral democracy, specifically its hidden assumptions, biases and silences. For instance, during the municipal election campaign AAP did not publicise that they had increased the daily wage; while there were many banners promising ‘house tax maaf’ (no house tax) and taking swipes at BJP leader Vijendra Gupta on all main crossings of the city. What explains this reluctance to take credit for increasing wages? The annulment of house tax would have helped only affluent house owners. It mattered little to the core voters of AAP, residing in teeming bastis, mohallas and slum colonies of the city. On the other hand, they would have welcomed any increase in the minimum wage. What explains this reluctance to foreground in the public domain the concerns of the core voters of the party?
There is a proximate reason for this silence. Last August too the Delhi CM had announced an increase of 50% in the minimum wage in his independence day speech. The traders’ wing of the party immediately threatened a strike. Its convener warned that the ‘upward revision in wages will not only lead to “laying off” of workers but also result in complete industrial and trade “shutdown” in the national capital.’
AAP’s silence on minimum wage increase is actually symptomatic of a general character of mass politics in India; its reluctance to raise class issues that directly affect large numbers of Indians. Class is considered divisive, and raising demands for manifest class interests as needlessly confrontational. This should be contrasted with many other liberal democracies. Both the Democratic party nomination hopefuls in the last US presidential elections had made increasing the minimum wage a part of their campaign. Bernie Sanders’ campaign had promised $15 per hour as the federal law, which is more than double the current minimum wage in most of the US. An increase in the minimum wage forms an explicit part of National Front’s Marie Le Pen’s campaign in France too. Instead of raising issues with a clear class edge, mass politics in India resorts to populism, which is marked by vague appeals in the name of the Indian people, and grand promises and exhortations, rather than definite plans of action. This has a long pedigree, going back to Gandhi’s promise of ‘Swaraj’ within one year during the 1919 Non-Cooperation movement. Similar claims were also made during the Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements. All such popular movements folded up before achieving their declared aims, yet repeated failures had little impact on the continuing appeal of populism. ‘Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas’ is the latest in the long list of populist slogans. While Gandhian promises of Swaraj round the corner could at least be justified for galvanising Indians for struggle against a powerful alien rule which prevented them from becoming masters of their destiny, this justification holds little water in free India, where ‘We the People of India’ are supposedly our own rulers. Populist politics now is the justificatory discourse of a state power that continues to see itself as a ‘mai-baap sarkar‘ patron of people.
The continuing domination of populism in Indian political discourse raises questions about some of the fundamental assumptions of liberalism. Every citizen’s political and moral autonomy is the starting principle of liberal political imagination. Freedom of expression and association, etc. are believed to create a public domain, in which every citizen, at least formally, participates equally, and in which something like a ‘public opinion’, enjoying public approval, gets formed. State’s legitimacy crucially depends upon respecting the ‘public opinion’. The revolutionary thrust of liberal imagination can not be discounted. It creates a unique notion of human self that is private as well as public. The liberal imagination however, misses is the reality of economic and social power. Indians having different economic resources, castes, gender, religion, etc do not have equal access to what passes off as public domain. The Gramscian concept of hegemony better captures the reality of societies under liberal political arrangement. Agents of different interests in a complex society do not have equal capabilities and organisational strength; nor do they get an equal chance in the arena of public domain. Rather the rules of the game are so set that certain specific powerful interests are successful in projecting their interests as the general public interest. The powerful are able to draw consent from others for their continuing domination over society. The end result, paraphrasing Marx, is that the the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of its ruling social groups. Hence, it should not be surprising that the minimum wage, which directly concerns economically weakest of Indians, finds little echo in the dominant political discourse in the country.
Among all the interests whose conflicting demands create strife in society, class interests are perhaps the foremost whose contestants have very different motivations about whether their conflict should enter the public domain. Employers prefer the invisible hand of the market nudging the one- on-one private deals with workers, because the latter can refuse what is on offer only at the risk of unemployment. On the other hand, workers have always known that their strength lies in numbers. All successes by working people, whether it be the reduction in the number of working hours, or a decent living wage, have been the result of collective struggles. Hence, it is in the interests of working people that the level of a decent minimum wage becomes an issue of public debate and a hot topic of political contestation. Let Indians in public determine what should one of them working for eight hours a day should be getting. After all, how Indians are living, should be of prime concern to them. If recommendations of the 15th Labour conference in 1957, and later Supreme Court judgments regarding minimum wage are followed, then according to some calculations the minimum wage in 2016 came out to be Rs 26,000/ per month.(http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Do-we-need-a-minimum-wage-law/article14616002.ece). The minimum wage in Delhi is half of this rate even after the latest increase. According to the latest economic survey released by the city government the average wealth generated per worker (who is defined as anyone working full time) turns out to be Rs 75,000/ per month (calculated from one worker for three citizens and the reported per capita SDP of Rs 3 lakh)(http://delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/DoIT_Planning/planning/economic+survey+of+dehli/economic+survey+of+delhi+2016+-+2017 ). The new legal minimum wage is about one sixth of this average output. Most Delhites employed full time, and with overtime, get less than even one tenth of this figure. It indeed says a lot about the nature of politics in India that a party which draws a significant proportion of its support from daily wage workers like Ramesh chooses to be silent about its own achievement in increasing the minimum wage in Delhi.
Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi.