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India: Can workers halt Modi’s offensive?

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The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 336 out of 543 seats in the election to India's Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament), an increase of 195. Although there has been much talk about a landslide victory, Modi only secured 31 per cent of the vote. This is yet another indictment of the undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system that India shares with Britain.

Nonetheless, the swing to the BJP of 12 per cent was there for all to see. The previously ruling Congress Party, which had been in power since 2004 and for 49 of the past 67 years, had presided over an economy afflicted with declining growth rates since 2008, high inflation and rampant corruption, alongside chronic levels of poverty throughout the country.

Despite the neoliberal policies of the Congress Party that helped turn India into a cheap labour market for world capitalism, corporate interests were losing patience with Rahul Gandhi’s government and the stagnant economy. Modi has been wooing big business for some time. A poll of 100 corporate leaders showed 74 per cent wanted Modi to be prime minister. To prove his credentials, Modi used his record in office in Gujarat, which includes fast growth and investment in infrastructure.

Modi’s many rich admirers include Ratan Tata, the former boss of the largest Indian firm, Tata Sons, and India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. Fellow Gujarat-based billionaire Gautam Adani’s personal wealth surged $4.1 billion in eight months. This is the equivalent of making $25 million a day in a nation where some 800 million people live on less than $2 a day! This is a direct result of Modi’s pro-market policies as chief minister in Gujarat.

The Indian stock market and rupee both shot up in anticipation of a Modi victory, as news came in of his ‘landslide’. Although this rally has now run out of steam, the newly won business allies believe in his ability to grow the economy and face down any threat from organised labour.

Modi’s past
Modi’s background is in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary right-wing Hindu nationalist group that runs over 45,000 branches and camps where arms training is among one of their activities. Similar to the BJP, it is based on supremacist Hindu ideology, which argues that non-Hindus may live in India so long as they accept the superiority of Hindu culture. It was this belief that led a younger Modi to join BJP leader LK Advani on a chariot procession across India in 1990, with the aim of destroying the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

In 2002, Modi was widely regarded as instigating the Hindu riots that saw over 1,000 Muslims murdered in Gujarat. Western governments had distanced themselves from Modi after he was implicated in the massacre. Even George W Bush refused him a visa to the US in 2005 on the grounds of ‘severe violations of religious freedom’. Now that Indian big business has changed its tune regarding Modi’s desirability, the West soon followed suit.

Modi’s “image managers” have been hard at work seeking out European and US ambassadors to rid them of his sectarian hardliner image. His isolation effectively ended in February when the US realised a regime change was coming and sent their ambassador to meet him for talks. President Obama has since congratulated Modi on his victory and invited him to visit the US.

In a period when inter-imperialist rivalries are sharpening as evidenced by the events in Ukraine, the US will move quickly to counter any potential Russian/Chinese bloc.

Modi has been a frequent visitor to China, encouraging Chinese investment in Gujarat. This has not gone unnoticed and the US will conveniently forget his gory past if it means a reliable ally in Asia.
The West’s new position is best summarised by the Economist: “Although we did not endorse him, because we believe that he has not atoned sufficiently for the massacre of Muslims that took place in Gujarat while he was chief minister, we wish him every success.” Why should a massacre of 1,000 Muslims get between business friends? After all, the West can turn a blind eye to fascists in the Ukrainian government, so why let Modi’s past interfere with the West’s imperialist ambitions?

Rout of the left
If the Congress Party suffered its worst ever electoral defeat, then this was matched by the decimation of the vote for the two Communist Parties of India – CPI and CPI (Marxist). Even the traditional power base of the CPI(M) in West Bengal saw a dramatic decline – unsurprising given their role in the slaughter of peasants during the Singur-Nandigram land acquisition struggle in 2007-08.

Both CPs had attempted to forge a Third Front independent of both Congress and BJP with several smaller regional and bourgeois parties. An indication of the calibre of such allies was shown when the leader of Assam regional party, Asom Gana Parishad, announced he would not rule out joining a BJP-led government. Other parties in the projected front already had experience of partnering BJP in regional governments. The unravelling of this “democratic and secular alternative” was no great surprise.

In fact, there was nothing to rule out the CPs’ support for a new Congress-led government had the latter got anywhere near to power. This, they argue, would have been “justified” as they thought it was imperative to stop the BJP. They had already propped up a Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government for four years before being booted out.

Any time the CPs have supported Congress or entered state governments, they have pursued pro-market policies. Is it any wonder that workers don’t see them as an alternative? The CPI(M) manifesto for this election was a nationalist and reformist programme with no mention of socialism or expropriating private industry. Instead, it talked about “encouraging the private sector to invest in manufacturing and services sector” and “protection of domestic industry” with a limit on foreign direct investment.

Building the fightback
The CPs’ parliamentary road to reforming capitalism will leave both groups without any real strategy to defend the Indian working class in the dangerous period opened by the election of Modi. The BJP are preparing an almighty attack on workers that will involve the dismantling of energy and fertiliser price subsidies, social spending cuts, the gutting of restrictions on layoffs and factory closures, wholesale privatisation and opening up the economy to foreign companies.

Indian workers will need to put themselves on a war footing. Revolutionary socialists must intervene in this crisis with a clear programme of action around the fight to defend workers’ interests, against communalism and against women’s oppression.

The might of Indian workers was there for all to see last year when a two-day general strike saw tens of millions take action against anti-labour policies and rising inflation. The battles ahead will not require a parliamentary strategy but a reliance on working class action to head off Modi’s attacks. The general strike weapon will have to be used again, but next time workers need to stay out indefinitely to secure a real victory.

Modi will use Hindu communalism to divide workers. During the election campaign, he vowed to remove all Bangladeshi Muslim migrants from West Bengal, an area that has seen communal violence recently that left 40 people, mainly Muslims, dead. It is clear that ethnic minorities and migrants will have to organise self-defence and demand support from all trade unions.

After the rape and murder of a young woman from Delhi in 2012, a mass movement against rape and abuse of women took to the streets throughout India. The tens of thousands who demonstrated reflected a mass anger at women’s position in society and the institutionalised discrimination they suffer.

Women’s oppression in India, as elsewhere, is closely linked to capitalist exploitation, where women are treated like commodities or house slaves. There needs to be a fight against all forms of sexism in society from the workplace to the home. A working class women’s movement needs to be built in India and internationally, but all workers need to fight for equal pay, state provision of childcare and decent housing with a minimum income for the unemployed.

In the coming days, it is essential that an alternative revolutionary way forward is mapped out in all these arenas of struggle, so that India can rid itself of a capitalist system that only offers chronic poverty, communal violence and endemic women’s oppression.