| Labour's loss
The Supreme Court’s recent decision to deny public sector workers the right to strike on any grounds whatsoever and to justify this extraordinary act in the name of protecting public interest is nothing less than surprising. Equally disturbing is how that part of the Indian media with national reach and influence has, with a few honourable exceptions, welcomed this decision. The growing elitism and conservatism of our judiciary has become obvious in one judgement after the other, from that on Hindutva to the more recent one on the two-child norm in relation to panchayati office. The members of the judiciary like those in other professions cannot but be shaped by the wider ideological climate in which the middle classes and elites operate. Today that ideological common sense is shaped by neoliberalism.
Although neoliberalism is primarily an ideology about economic organization, it cannot but have a profound effect on political and social life as well. The state’s welfare and social roles are to be greatly reduced where it cannot be fully eliminated while its policing functions are to be enhanced. Thus the transition from a welfarist state to a “competitive” state requires privatization of public services as far as possible and their transformation into privately available commodities. Education and healthcare, for example, should no longer be seen, even as an ideal, as universally accessible entities made available through the state, but should become available to the private consumer with the state left, at most, to play the mopping-up role of providing resource-constrained facilities to a much smaller “targeted” community of the poorest. This is, in fact, exactly what is happening in India and elsewhere and means that the principle of public service is being systematically weakened. This reality is then covered up in the name of promoting consumer freedom of choice and convenience.
Neoliberalism means a further institutionalization of society’s biases in favour of the rich and the powerful. It means promoting greater economic and social inequalities and then justifying this in the name of private freedom and efficiency. In the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies (the era when Keynesian thinking about welfarism and developmentalism was dominant), it was considered self-evident that such inequalities were antithetical to preserving and deepening political democracy. In the Eighties, Nineties and today, these inequalities have been rationalized away as the inevitable consequence of growing freedom in the economy and society. Neoliberalism means treating individuals primarily as consumers and emphasizing the importance of enhancing consumer rights and empowerment while at the same time weakening the rights of individuals either as producers or as citizens, since citizenship rights must be universally accessible.
This is precisely what the Supreme Court has done through its decision. Just as there is a growing trend in India to weaken the meaning and practice of democracy by reinterpreting it as equivalent to majoritarianism; just as the attack on the very principle of minority rights (not just abuses in its application) is becoming increasingly acceptable; similarly we are also witnessing the erosion of the domain of citizenship and producer rights, rights of association, protest and dissent. On the one hand, the public sector is being systematically dismantled, reducing the domain of “public service” through public provision of goods and services. On the other hand, the limited powers of workers who keep this domain of public provision going are being taken away in the name of respecting “public service”. Consumer empowerment, unlike citizenship empowerment, is crucially and inescapably contingent on possession of purchasing power, that is, money and wealth.
No society that respects democracy or wishes to make it more meaningful should justify the erosion of citizenship rights in the name of consumer empowerment. Nor should it forget that producers are not just private owners of capital whose rights must be respected — indeed, neoliberalism is all for enhancing the powers of capital vis à vis labour. But workers are also key producers. In most societies including ours, the powers of labour with respect to employers, be they the state or private, are so limited that the only real power they have to defend their interests is the negative one of strike. Capital, by contrast, has far more powers, including its ability to cause public inconvenience and suffering by carrying out investment strikes (denying output and employment).
A strike is a withdrawal of one’s productive input in order to change prevailing working conditions. When private employers refuse to invest unless conditions are favourable, the response of governments and the media is not to criticize or condemn them, let alone to deny them this capacity, but to bend over backwards to give them what they want. And this even though employers have so many other powers — to hire and fire, decide production runs and content, shift facilities, and so on. As for the state behaving as employer, public investment, it is declared in these neoliberal times, must be reduced in favour of private investment, for the good of the public.
But neoliberalism alone is not the full explanation. It is the marriage of this neoliberalism with the peculiarities of the Indian polity that explains why, apart from India, no genuinely democratic society anywhere in the world has gone so far, or ever even threatened to go so far, in issuing a blanket legal denial of this kind. Not even the most conservative of governments or judiciaries in the United States of America and the United Kingdom would contemplate taking such a step.
India is the one example of a stable and enduring democracy that emerged in an overwhelmingly agrarian society and not after a substantial process of industrialization in which much of the public became workers, got organized, and through that very process fought for and succeeded in getting fundamental rights institutionalized for ordinary working people, be these the right to vote or those of organization, protest and dissent. In those societies, the historical, emotional and ideological connections between respect for workers’ rights and respect for democracy are much deeper than in India. Here, given the relative historical weakness of the labour movement since independence, there has always existed a tripartite relationship among capital, labour and the state (including its legal apparatus) in which the state is the most powerful entity and held crucial mediating ground.
As long as state managers and the ideology of the Indian elite remained progressive and welfarist, it could both promote the interests of capital and yet insist on a degree of real democratic and legal protection of workers’ and citizens’ rights. Once this elite and those who manage the state apparatuses have become prisoners of the new ideology of neoliberalism, it becomes all the more easy to do what cannot be done in other democracies. What can one say about the state of Indian democracy when both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, the two largest parties, each with strong and organized labour constituencies, have been so wishy-washy and mealy-mouthed in their response to the Supreme Court judgment'