Since the beginning of the lockdown, there has been a reverse flow of migrant workers to their homes in the hinterland. Left with meagre resources to sustain themselves in cities, it is mostly workers from the unorganised sector who decided to walk to their villages. No assurances or help came their way to stop them from their long journey. Termed a “great exodus”, India has not seen a migration such as this in recent history. The crucial question today is why such a vast number of the labour force who make a strategic contribution to the economy were so easily abandoned by the state.
Workers in the unorganised sector constitute more than 90% of the total employment in the country and contribute around 40% to the GDP. According to the NSSO (2009-10), there were 43.7 crore workers in the unorganised sector of whom 24.6 crore are employed in agriculture, about 4.4 crore in construction work and the rest in manufacturing and the services sector, such as home-based workers, street vendors, mid-day meal workers, loaders, brick kiln workers, cobblers, rag-pickers, domestic workers, washer-men, rickshaw pullers, landless labourers, own-account workers, agricultural workers, beedi workers, hand-loom workers, leather workers, audio-visual workers and so on.
The sense of abandonment among this section actually came with the announcement of the much-touted relief package worth Rs. 20 lakh crore. Supposedly announced to rejuvenate the tattered economy, this package forgot to alleviate the immediate hardships of the walking workers. The package carried, instead, a tacit message: “whatever happened, happened”. But can a democratically-elected leadership simply forget to perform its duty without even considering the political consequences of not doing so? Will not the current right-wing government at the Centre have to deal with the disastrous state of the economy and its direct impact on the lower economic strata, which is now a strong component of the BJP’s voter base?
The voting pattern for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls shows that the BJP has gained more votes from the poorer rural SC/STs than it has among the educated sections. “In constituencies with high presence of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs/STs), the BJP is more popular than other parties, but in constituencies with high presence of Muslims, it is less popular. The BJP’s 2019 record is also more impressive in poorer constituencies than in the richer ones. Overall, the BJP’s appeal seems to transcend the divides of caste, education, and affluence, data suggests. But there are some differences—with the BJP less successful in more educated constituencies,” says a report published in May 2019, right after the election results.
Similarly, political analysts Sanjay Kumar and Pranav Gupta had explained, prior to the Lok Sabha polls, how farm prices and wages may be stagnating and leading to “concerns about disenchantment with the BJP in the hinterland”, yet a sharp increase was still expected in the party’s rural vote-share. The CSDS-Lokniti survey led by Kumar had predicted in December 2018 a 7.3 percentage point increase in the party’s electoral dominance over the economically weaker sections. After the results were announced the same authors wrote, “While 2014 witnessed a surge in support for the BJP among the poor and lower economic strata, this election saw further bridging of the class divide.”
It is this voter, who belongs to the weakest socio-economic strata, who has been suffering most from the government’s sheer unpreparedness during the lockdown. Reports suggest that there have 2,000 accidents and that 383 people have died so far. With the working class bearing the tremendous burden of state apathy, the question now is not the “end of ideology” but the possibility of protests against the government indifference. It is true that the poor are suffering silently. They do complain about the lack of transport facilities to take them home and the pathetic conditions in quarantine centres, but we rarely see anger against policymakers. They have been beaten by the police, asked to pay bribes for permission to travel and so on, but there is no resistance as such to the atrocities they confront—their helplessness and powerlessness has been overwhelming.
The fact that resistance is rare despite acute suffering of the working classes also has to do with how our democracy has conceptualised the delivery of welfare. This idea has structured the responses of our citizens. Put simply, our democracy has been framed in such a way that the acceptable behaviour from citizens is to aid the process of bourgeoisie development. The pretext or sub-text that has made this happen is the assurance of silent or gradual social and economic change.
This process was initiated when the political discourse changed the course of even the radical political outfits. Francine R Frankel, the founding director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) in the University of Pennsylvania has noted in her book, India’s Political Economy, 1947-2004, that after Independence the left parties did well in electoral democracy, but the assertion of identity politics—regional, caste, community, gender, and religion-based—delivered a blow to class-based politics.
Similarly, the political scientists Ronald J Herring and Rina Agarwala say in their book, Whatever Happened to Class? Reflections from South Asia, that “No one denies the significance of identity politics, but privileging identity over class raises three analytical problems...” The problems, they write, include how when political behaviour gets attributed to identity a deeper examination of why certain social groups adopt a political position does not take place. The other problem, they note, is that “identities exhibit the same explanatory ambiguity concerning politics and collective action as do classes…” In other words, inequality has a wide array of dimensions and in India caste and class tend to be entwined. The authors point out that NGO-isation of politics and the rise of an alternative intellectual model—such as the post-modernist approach—have deeply affected class politics in South Asia.
Besides, as post-colonialists have argued, after an initial widening of the gap between government and people, in the 1980s came a major shift in approach, which came to be known as “governmentality”. As part of this shift, the government reached out to people through welfare programmes and bridged some part of the chasm between haves and have-nots. This helped mainstream parties carve out a favourable support base among enough citizens to avoid trouble from them during the next stage—economic reforms.
Post-reform welfare programmes served three purposes that aided the ruling class: first, they put the safety valve on any collective resentment. Alongside, they divided groups that earlier shared common interests by including and excluding people from the benefits of government programmes. This at last weakened the established public institutions that had intended to provide a universal social security net to all citizens.
Those who got included as beneficiaries developed an illusion that their economic and civil rights are stable. This illusion is what has been stopping them from raising questions of the governments they have been electing, especially at the Centre. They still want to restrict their “empowering role” as voters in a procedural democracy whereas it is only if they bring forth the “dilemma of Indian democracy” will they help to strengthen it.
For this reason, the BJP is giving the impression, even during the ongoing migrant crisis, that it is not really concerned about electoral victory—as if that aspect is under control—and that what is bothering them is the state of the economy. The BJP is able to project confidence in its electoral successes for they have “machinery, money, Modi”, and this last factor is growing bigger, slowly taking on a cult-like image which is a danger to democracy. “What is happening is more than ‘invention of tradition’ and perhaps a little less than madness,” as commentator Ajay Gudavarthy recently wrote in NewsClick.
To come to the current schemes worth Rs. 20 lakh crore that have been proposed to make India “Atmanirbhar” or self-reliant, these are meant to consolidate the BJP’s middle- and upper-class support, which consists largely of the Hindu elite castes—who remain its core constituency. Massive privatisation has been announced, whose major beneficiary would again be the middle and capitalist classes. The massive success of banging thalis and lighting diyas sent the message that the BJP is politically safe and that the party will mobilise its vote-bank every chance it gets. The right-wing ruling class also knows that the sorry state of the agriculture sector will certainly push workers back towards the cities. In any case, the country has a “reserve army of labour” to fill the gap.
Hence, the taming of the progressive and radical political zeal at the start of the nation’s journey came in the way of the formation of a class consciousness. This loss is acutely palpable from ongoing developments. It is also a major factor influencing the status of the working class today and adding to their powerlessness. The ruling classes have found in “illusions” their saviour and for this reason they are not feeling the pressure to take any action even though many of these workers may have voted for the party in power. The situation we confront today is akin to modern-day slavery. And that is why right-wing policies and politics urgently need to be challenged.
The author is a social scientist. The views are personal.