Millennium Post

Modi and the working class

The western ‘developed’ – the parenthesis of developed is on account of their increasing poverty of these nations – watched India at a moment of truth during the recent World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) ministerial meeting to pass a Trade Facilitation Agreement. They wanted to query the new government in New Delhi what ‘messages’ they wanted to send to the ‘world’.

Narendra Modi government’s first engagement with a crucial item on an enormously important economic side of diplomacy showed an ability to touch a raw nerve that left the richer countries chafing at the edges. In the process, Modi has been able to underline his supposed interest in the plight of the neo-middle class. This is the class that got its resources from the expansion of the financial base of the country during the two decades of a largely chimerical economic liberalisation that only produced ‘growth fundamentalism’.  

Indeed, this is reflected in the plight of 167 Maruti Suzuki workers who continue to languish in Bhondsi jail even after two years of incarceration without trial or bail. The story of these people and their families, approximately 1000-odd individuals, remains hanging in fear, uncertainty and privation.

These were the workers who were drawn into a police dragnet, following a major industrial violence with which the Maruti Suzuki management impugned the labour in their relatively new Manesar plant. On 18 July 2012 a labour eruption that burnt to death Avanish Kumar Dev, a general manager (human resources), and gutted the management offices, security booths and the fire safety section. In a letter published in Kafila, written by one of the workers held in Bhondsi jail had stated that Dev was the man who had helped them form a trade union in February 2012, after prolonged labour agitations the year before. He had written that Dev was even hounded by the senior management though he had given in his resignation. The higher-ups did not accept it.

His killing thus could be an elaborate ruse to haul up the workers on serious charges of killing and arson. The letter by the worker says ‘That day (18 July, 2012) the shop floor was full of outsiders who were musclemen’.

While the police have filed its charge-sheet, no court of law in the country has yet passed a judgment that could convict the workers. Without conviction, they lie forgotten with their pregnant wives giving birth to children uncared for; their mothers, fathers and other loved ones die in shock of their offspring being criminalised by first, their powerful and well-connected management body, and then the state.

For, each of these workers had their background check conducted by the Maruti Suzuki management before they were inducted and none of them had any criminal past. Even the largely wailing press, that had its sympathies for the losses accrued by the Maruti management, won’t investigate the story to sharply focus on the guilty.

Strangely enough, the arson that gutted the offices of the management, security booths and fire safety stations, did not affect in any way the shop floor production line. Those were the key assets of the plant, which used to produce 1500-1700 cars of various types every day then. From the total workforce of about 9,400, the 2,500 workers who were sacked since 2011 agitations constitute the neo-middle class.

But Maruti Suzuki was creating distinct divides between the workers at the main Gurgaon plant and the new Manesar plant. The Manesar men were younger in age and drew less money as salaries, while there were also more contractual labourers, who were individually off the books of the company but collectively constituted a labour contractor’s army. They were not just ill paid but also enjoyed few benefits.

It worked well for the bottom-line of the company, and kept its market capitalisation healthy. It robbed these members of the neo-middle class constituency of Modi’s  – that has been quite intelligently carved out to underline the Hindu, right wing definition of the BJP’s new identity – off any prospects of growth. And with all the threats of amending the labour laws in the name of modernising it, these workers can expect more testing times.

Modi had taken a position on the Maruti Suzuki issue. Perhaps, Bhupinder Singh Hooda was proving not fully convinced about coercing the workers enough. So, then Gujarat chief minister had invited the Maruti management to shift their plants to Sanand – the sublime land he had created where the waters were placid.

The fact that the Maruti Suzuki management were not as ‘decisive’ as the Tata Motors management, who had shifted from Singur with their tails between their legs, is probably a testimony to some serious arm twisting by the state, the almighty power, the ultimate arbiter in such times.
Who would Modi choose then, being at the front and centre in the country’s political realm: the 2,500 workers who have been sacked, the supposed neo-middle class constituency. Or the bourgeoisie?  

The author is a senior journalist
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