Indian Election Outcome Bolsters Trade Union Campaigns

Even though the right-wing party in India has been able to form the government third time, it has received lesser number of seats and depends on other coalition partners to remain in power. What role have trade unions played in this and what would the new dynamics mean for the tade union movement in India?

The largest election in the world concluded on the 4th of June, delivering a third term to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet the result wasn’t the landslide win most media predicted. Instead, Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, lost seats, winning 240 of the 543 parliamentary seats, well below the 400 seats they were targeting in the 400 paar campaign. Modi now depends on the support of two large state-based parties, teaming up with the BJP to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

An alliance of centre and left parties, the Indian National Democratic Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), won 232 seats, with the Congress party, the largest opposition party with 99 seats, leading the opposition. This is a significant win for the centre-left who had to overcome sustained harassment, arrests, frozen bank accounts and a pro-Modi media to gain votes and seats.

Why is this a win for trade unions?

Most trade unions would have wanted to see an end to the right-wing, pro-billionaire, Modi government. But the reduced influence of the BJP is a good outcome for workers and public services for several reasons.

First, the Constitution is safe. BJP was campaigning for a 400+ seat win with a manifesto titled ‘BJP Modi Ki Guarantee 2024’. Several candidates revealed that the two-thirds majority was needed to give the BJP power to change the Constitution. Moving away from a secular constitution and ending reservations for marginalised groups were the two most discussed changes. Broader changes to the independence of democratic institutions and to the balance of power with States, could have also been at risk.

But most importantly for the unions, the reduced power of the BJP will hamper its plan to force through implementation of anti-labour law reforms, pass the Electricity Amendment Bill (which promotes privatisation of energy) and pass agricultural reforms that hurt workers.

The BJP had said that their labour reforms, which merged 29 laws into four and stripped away numerous trade union rights and job security provisions, would be a priority post-election. With their popularity waning, dependence on State parties, and the need to be mindful of State elections, it’s unlikely that they can force through the changes.

Similarly, the plan to force States to privatise electricity looks weaker. PSI affiliates have campaigned extensively against the plan, repeatedly forcing the government to shelve the bill. The campaign against privatisation received significant support from the farmers protests who recognised that privatisation would deliver higher costs, particularly in rural areas. With the Northern states with large populations of farmers, like Uttar Pradesh, delivering large swings away from BJP, the government will be cautious of further alienating farmers.

Lessons for labour aligned parties

With authoritarian demagogues on the rise around the world, the Indian election offers some insights. The BJP centred their campaign on the cult of Modi, Hinduvta ideology and the construction of temples, scapegoating Muslims and distracting from the rising inequality and failure to produce decent work for the growing population. But it seems that many of the voters they were targeting saw through the spectacle and policy distractions. Most spectacularly, the BJP lost the electorate of Faizabad, where Modi began his unofficial election campaign by inaugurating the opening of a temple built on the site of a demolished 16th century mosque.

While BJP remains the biggest party in the parliament, the share of voters was lower among rural voters and women voters. They picked up seats in urban areas, and even in the traditionally progressive Southern states.

Three key lessons can be useful for progressive politics:

First, focus on policies for the people, not personality:  The Congress party has been criticised as a family dynasty and its leader, Rahul Gandhi, a privileged, ruling class elite. Last year, Gandhi initiated a yatra – a 3500 kilometre walk to listen to people across the country and call for social harmony. That walk perhaps made members of the Alliance realise that many voters are more worried about growing wealth differences, than religious differences. Many state-based parties in the Alliance also spent months talking to local people. In contrast, the BJP’s agenda was squarely and unashamedly focused on one man – Modi.

Second – it’s the economy, comrade: Modi had made enormous economic promises in earlier elections, to reduce poverty and increase jobs. These remain largely unfulfilled, which may explain the need to focus on Hindu fundamentalism. India is now more unequal than any time in its history and more unequal than the United States, Brazil and South Africa. India is experiencing “jobless growth” – a growth in profits and wealth, but not in jobs or workers’ income. And women’s labour force participation is going down. Much of this can be attributed to the enormous influence of India’s billionaire class – particularly the Adani and Ambani families. Their influence became a hot election debate with Congress contrasting the BJP’s desire to reduce reservations for marginalised groups, with the enormous entitlements given to the two billionaires.

Third, build alliances: The opposition alliance brings together 26 different political parties with hugely varying political agendas. The one concern they all shared was the erosion of democracy under the BJP and the threats to opposition parties.  The alliance was a challenging, but necessary, feat that led to agreements on seat sharing which enabled resources to be used more sensibly and limited split votes. But alliances with social movements were also important. Farmers sustained their rallies against the government outside of Delhi. Trade unions also came together under the Joint Platform of Central Trade Unions in India and were joined by sectoral and independent federations, and farmers’ organisations in a nationwide strike. Unionists campaigned locally with a sustained focus on jobs and livelihoods. Progressive groups continued to raise alarms over the threats to democratic institutions, despite risks of arrest and harassment.

What Now?

While unions have to face another five years of Modi, they might expect a slightly more balanced hearing from some media and from State governments who should shift focus to the issues of inequality, jobs growth and the need for more quality public services. Unions expect to see an increase in consultation at all levels and a reduction in attacks on unionists, activists and independent institutions. Organising locally will remain the heart and soul of the union movement in India, as they focus on what really matters to the workers and their families.