The Elephant in the Room – Silence on Class Issues in Indian Politics : Sanjay Kumar

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.    

3 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room – Silence on Class Issues in Indian Politics : Sanjay Kumar

  1. shiban koul

    Unfortunately the working class has been degenerated and divided by the Communists parties through numberless splits in their ranks. We have more than a dozen communist parties in India with equal number of trade unions. The so called programmatic differences have blurred considerably but still they do not unite just because of the vested interest they have developed in multiple trade unions. The Communists have failed the working class not the capitalists becuase the worling class has led militants battles in India for better working conditions and better wages and working hours.

  2. K SHESHU BABU

    Party that has done some creditable work is AAP. It has been a better option to other political rivals. In the beginning, Kejriwal raised the issues of ‘ class’ by pointing out industrialists and politicians. But, of late, the party has been somewhat subdued on the class distinctions. In the present situation of murky and majoritarian politics, there is a need for ‘ class targeting ‘ as the votes of lower classes have contributed to the rise of AAP. Other mainstream parties depend on the corporates financing during elections but AAP should project its ‘ work ‘ and win votes. Instead of retorting to bjp and congress vitriolic attacks, AAP should concentrate on groundwork and educate public by its showcasing of health clinics, increase in wages, reducing power tariff and so on. It should go to the grassroots if it wants to really make an impact in the forthcoming elections

  3. It is true that that workers are divided amongst various trade unions.It is alsotrue that communists themselves are divided dozens of communist groups and parties big and small.It should also be admitted that communists have failed on many fronts.So far degeneration is concerned that is immanent.Who is responsible for that in this case cannot be said with certainty.However issue of class is being avoided by and large by everyone, in some cases ,even by the communists.The biggest issue is that the concept of class has not been disseminated in the workers.That is why we do talk of workers and not of ‘working class’.If that had not been the case the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh would not have been the largest trade union centre.This is the real failure of the communists of all hues.Developing the class consciousness would inevitably lead to class struggle which is no where to be seen.Class struggle has to be linked with the overthrow of the exploitative system.That implies the capturing of power .So far all the struggles remained confined to certain rightsand the cases of increase of ages etc.The workers’ consciousness thus is thus mired into ‘economism’.That is why the members of communist trade unions also do not vote for their candidates in the elections.There is an yawning gap between their membership and the votes their candidates get in the elections .This anomaly is perplexing their leaders also.Whether they can remove it that is to be seen.

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