The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Union Against Unity: Labor Law Suspension Drives Rift Between India’s Government and Labor Unions

Why is India’s ruling party’s own trade union protesting against the government’s policies?

Krzysztof Iwanek
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Union Against Unity: Labor Law Suspension Drives Rift Between India’s Government and Labor Unions
Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

One of the biggest changes introduced in India under the recent COVID-19 lockdown was born of a recent decision by a few states of the federation to suspend most of their labor laws. This solution proved to be as controversial as it was sweeping and sudden.

The suspensions have been introduced to dispel the threat of an economic crisis that the country is facing under the current conditions. Such a move, its supporters argue, may give companies much more flexibility and liberty from the often elaborate and outdated labor laws in the country, thus offering higher impetus for economic growth. The critics of this massive deregulation in turn point out that many of these legal solutions served as safeguards for workers’ rights and their suspension will lead to an even greater exploitation of the labor force by the employers. As Aman Thakker argues in his Indialogue:

I can’t say that blanket exemptions to labor laws for a period of three years is a “reform.” The way I see it: the free market, left to itself without oversight and regulation, will find the most efficient solution. […] However, that’s where the role of policy comes in — to move beyond an “efficient solution” to an “optimal solution,” where a balance is struck between protection of employees, and the ability of business to operate and scale. […] These current steps, in my opinion, don’t strike that balance.

It is thus hardly surprising that votaries of industrial workers’ rights in India were quick to criticize these decisions. It is also not that perplexing that one of India’s largest large trade unions, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), is set to bring out a rally against the suspensions (which is to take place on May 20). What makes the matter a bit more complicated is that the BMS is connected to India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP is a part of a larger network of a Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and many of the BJP’s politicians hold membership in that body. Apart from this, the RSS consists of a large fractal of suborganizations and sub-suborganizations. One of them is the BMS, making the trade union’s sharp criticism of the BJP’s policies a family feud.

The suspensions of labor laws have taken place at the level of India’s states and not at the central level, and only in some of the territories (though the same move has reportedly been mooted in other ones). But those that have already done so include the regions where the BJP is in power (on the state level, apart from its rule at the center). These include some of the country’s more important regions: Uttar Pradesh (the most populous state), Madhya Pradesh (the second largest state), and Gujarat (one of the hubs of industrial production and an FDI hub), all BJP-ruled as of now. Not pulling its punches, in its recent statements the BMS has criticized the governments of these states for such a course of action. It has also condemned the governments of other regions which, while led by other political parties, are introducing changes of similar kind – if on a much smaller scale – such as Rajasthan and Maharashtra, where factory working hours have been prolonged.

To be sure, the RSS is a coherent and well-organized nationalist body, at least in the limited gaze of an external observer. Internal disagreements, such as this one, are neither new to it nor dangerous enough to cause real divisions. While the organization is one, it consists of various suborganizations that reach out to different constituencies. Therein lies one of its dilemmas: how do you reach out with the message of a united nation to different groups, whose interests may not always overlap, or may even be at odds?

A large part of the RSS’s support base is concentrated in the Hindi belt, for instance, and the organization promotes Hindi for the role of the country’s national language. Yet, even if out of necessity, a massive of network of RSS schools, Vidya Bharati, teaches in various languages, depending on the region (sometimes even in English). The RSS even includes a Muslim affiliate, even if a token one (Rashtriya Muslim Manch), while other of its suborganizations, such as the religiously proselytizing Vishwa Hindu Parishad, are nearly openly anti-Islamic. The organization’s party, the BJP, is currently very well connected to the big business and many of the party’s leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, stand for freer markets. At the same time, the RSS has such branches as a farmers’ union (Bharatiya Kisan Sangh) or a trade union – the BMS.

The RSS is a nationalist organization when it comes to identity, religion, and culture, but on the matters of economy its members have been holding differing opinions for decades, broadly divided between more socialist and more pro-market views (this is a subject I outlined here). While many BJP politicians have pushed for privatization and attracting more FDI, one suborganization of the RSS is the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), which holds up the opposite idea: protecting domestic industry. The BMS shares the same worldview, coupled with its primary objective of protecting workers’ rights. Its most important ideological text, The Third Way by Dattopant Thengadi, is a fascinating attempt to arrange a marriage between nationalism and anarchism.

How significant is the BMS’s current opposition to BJP state policies? On one hand, it does not appear to change much. The position of Narendra Modi and his government is stable and such protests will not undermine it. The BJP has faced opposition from RSS suborganizations in the past and usually the party did not yield. Both SJM and BMS criticized the privatization of public companies (such as the idea to do the same with Air India). In 2017, the BMS brought out rallies against unequal pay and BJP’s policies on labor. During the previous tenure, the RSS’s education activists also wanted the central BJP government to introduce changes in the curriculum, and were displeased when their party did not fulfill their demands.

The only time where such opposition reportedly did force the BJP’s hand was in 2002, when, it was rumored, the RSS’s pressure stopped A.B. Vajpayee’s government from carrying on with privatization. The Narendra Modi of 2020 has a much more stable majority and enjoys far greater popularity than Vajpayee did in 2002, however. Seen from this perspective, the current protests have little chance of forcing the BJP governments to take steps back.

And yet the BMS and SJM (as well as some other parts of the RSS) also opposed the 2015 land reform, and in this case the BJP did give in. In that case, the pushback came both from inside as well as outside and was of powerful scale. At certain moments, the BMS appears to be torn between standing with its party and organization and marching together with other trade unions. In 2015 and 2016, for instance, it did not join the protests of other unions. However, being aloof from protests all the time would make it lose its core constituency – the workers – to other unions with which it competes.

As a trade union, the BMS did not want to trade its beliefs for its union with the BJP and the RSS. That it decided to sternly speak against the labor law suspension now probably comes not only from its worldview, but also from gauging the public and workers’ mood. Thus, while the BMS protests by themselves will not have the power to force the governments to make a U-turn, they may become a part of a much wider wave of common displeasure – and this may be a process that will make the BJP reconsider its new policies.