On January 8 and 9, millions of workers in India launched a general strike, disrupting key industries, blocking train lines and highways, and participating in rallies and demonstrations denouncing the anti-worker policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The strike was the third of its kind since the BJP came to power in 2014, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi serving as the perfect avatar for the party’s program of neoliberalism and strident Hindu nationalism. It is likely the last such strike before the next national-level elections, slated for April and May.
The results of the upcoming contest will be important. Progressive activists know that another BJP victory would accelerate the creeping authoritarianism of Modi’s government, strengthening the violent forces of reaction at the expense of workers, farmers, women, Muslims, and those from the oppressed, “lower” castes. So, does last week’s massive strike provide any clues about the prevailing political and electoral mood?
The unsatisfying answer is that it’s extremely difficult to say, especially because the mass action was largely symbolic. The one- or two-day general strike is a peculiar form of protest in India. Workers have employed it over a dozen times since 1991, when Indian policymakers responded to an economic crisis by introducing a raft of reforms that accelerated the privatization and liberalization and of the Indian economy. In recent years, general strikes have been called by a coalition of national-level trade unions, each of which is affiliated with a major political party. The most vocal supporters have been the unions tied to the two mainstream Communist parties, the CPI and CPM, and to the Congress Party, once the party of Indian independence and now an ideologically rudderless opposition party. All of these formations, along with their affiliated unions, see the BJP as their enemy and see the strike as a tool to attack the government’s pro-business labor reforms. In the case of the most recent action, union leaders are particularly concerned with proposed amendmentsto laws governing trade union activity.