Last Wednesday, there was a commemorative meeting for George Fernandes, the last democratic Socialist leader in India. Of course in India no politician can deny being socialist since the Preamble (thanks to Indira Gandhi) declares India to be a Socialist Republic, and the People’s Representation Act (thanks to Rajiv Gandhi) requires every candidate fighting an election to declare that S/He is a Socialist!
Even Jana Sangh, the older avatar of the BJP, used to swear by Gandhian Socialism. Nehruvian Socialism, which was the Congress’s brand, was patterned on British Fabian Socialism. The Communist parties were modelled on Leninist Socialism. Once Indira Gandhi embraced the Communists and neutered them, George Fernandes was the only opposition on the Left for Indira Gandhi.
Nehruvian Socialism initiated state ownership of ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. The enclave was occupied by workers of nationalised industries ensconced in protective labour laws which keep the manufacturing sector small. India’s world-class textile industry was destroyed by the policy of discouraging factory-made textiles. When the global textile trade was liberalised in the 1990s, Asian countries rushed in with big textile factories, except India.
And then there is the government bureaucracy, the only place with life-time jobs with guaranteed rising incomes, interest-bearing provident funds and pensions. These islands are protected by the politicians who also enjoy privileges. Socialism for the few, Indian style.
George Fernandes was an outsider in this world. In 1974, he led the railway workers’ national strike which was unique for a nationalised industry. (The Rail Workers’ Union had its offices inside the Rail Bhavan!). Indira Gandhi was furious and put the strike down in the most brutal manner. Then she imposed Emergency. George led the fight against the Emergency.
Socialism in India has never looked after the poorer workers in the private informal sector. They are the overwhelming majority, but they do not count. The plight of migrant informal sector workers in the last few weeks would not have gone unchampioned if George Fernandes had been around. He would have led them and won battles for their health and welfare. Instead, we witnessed a most disorganised and heartless intervention by various states helping ‘their’ workers in a tragic spectacle.
The pandemic has exposed the sorry state of India. Early on, the package announced made sure that the public sector and government employees would be protected. Dearness allowances postponed but not reduced. No one thought of the millions outside the ‘Socialist enclave.’ Indeed, in discussing the plight of the economy even last July in the First Budget of the new government, there was more worry about boosting sales of Maruti cars, providing credit to the middle class to buy consumer durables, and cutting corporation taxes and income taxes for the minority who pay it. If the total amount in Non-Performing Assets of public sector banks had been distributed to the crores too poor to pay income-tax, let alone afford a loan from the nationalised banks, their life would have improved. Banks were not nationalised to benefit the poor.
India has the chance even now of beginning anew to build an economy which provides full employment for the many, and support for the few who are out of work. To build a Socialist society for everyone.
George would like that.
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