Activity Sans Action

Congress has no moral right to oppose the controversial Insurance Bill seeking to enhance the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) limit from 26 percent to 49 percent. It may take another few years to make it 100 percent. The Congress Party is not against the Bill in principle, they very earnestly would like to see foreign investors are dancing in Indian market with joy. After all it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that introduced the Bill in Parliament in 2008 and reintroduced it in 2013 with 86 amendments. Now they want to send the Modi-government scripted Bill to the select committee for no valid reasons because even Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of UPA derives comfort from the fact that the new government’s budget exercise ‘is a copy of UPA’s policies’. What all they want is to delay the passage of the Bill in the Upper House where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in minority and make them somewhat relevant before the eyes of the public, particularly after the humiliating defeat in the 16th Parliamentary Poll.

The Insurance Bill is very much in line with the spirit of BJP-budget. Unlike the Congress the BJP is somewhat forthright in advocating the idea of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’. In other words they are going to leave the future of India to the market-mediated growth in every sector. Whether they are explicit about it or not, it is very much evident that in the years to come such vital needs of the people like affordable and accessible education, health and social security will be progressively denied to the poor under the cloak of ‘reforms and development’. Public-Private partnership is the general norm. It remains to be seen how quickly the BJP can execute the plan and satisfy the demands of the foreign investors. The growing inequality in income, wealth and consumption are the logical conclusion of neo-liberal policies irrespective of the political authority in power.

Given the global business atmosphere replete with so many conditionalities biased heavily in favour of foreign investors, they could sill exercise full control over a company without having 100 percent equity ownership. After China, India is going to be the major playground for global players who want total de-control of the economic regime and dependence on market forces only. If the economy is under the baton of the Uncle Sam and his western allies, they could easily influence domestic policies. Already their activities sometimes border on interference in India’s internal affairs.

Meanwhile central trade unions affiliated to all major political parties observed a day’s token strike in insurance to protest against the increase of FDI cap. Not surprisingly Congress and BJP controlled unions too joined the fray as they too apprehend losing membership in the event of massive induction of foreign capital. But this united action is too fragile to last long. On many earlier occasions they did it only to allow the situation to drift in accordance with the market momentum.

Tokenism is no answer to the privatisation drive of the government. They have failed to arrest the so-called banking reforms that will substantially reduce the job potential. And their furore over insurance business will subside in due season. The Modi government is determined to show the world that they would get things done at any cost. At the time of writing they were planning to opt for ordinance route to get the Insurance Bill activated. As trade unions, though well organised in the banking and insurance sectors, have no plan to continue agitation in a sustained manner it is difficult to check the march of foreigners who are too happy to see Modi is going to open the economy too soon, beyond their expectations. The systematic dismantling of the state sector started by the Congress will be completed by the BJP.

For one thing, employment in banking and insurance has been stagnating for quite some time, more precisely since the advent of the neo-liberal regime.

If organised sector unions regardless of their political inclination, are restless today it is because they fear further curtailment of their bargaining power and marginalisation of their organisation. And left unions are doubly worried because this organised sector—banking, insurance etc.—is the only area where they can still assert themselves with a committed section of employees, drawn mainly from the middle class with some political consciousness. But their defensive posture since the nineties when the Narashima Rao-Manmohan Singh combine started the first generation reforms, seems to have created a situation of passive resistance that is hardly adequate to meet the challenge.

Not that FDI in insurance is the only issue that affects wage-earners directly or indirectly. Panic is all around. Price-rise is a burning question that is intricately related to government’s liberal policies. But the left is simply reluctant to agitate over price-rise as if they have nothing to do because market decides everything. In a sense they too are the worshippers of the market as they have virtually reconciled themselves to the prevailing reality. They think they are powerless before the market laws as they are helpless before the natural laws.

Fortunately or unfortunately the CPI is said to be gearing up to launch a nation-wide stir against price-rise which is becoming increasingly intolerable for ordinary people. Over the years people are being asked to believe that price-movement—upwards or downwards—is market-driven. The government has nothing to do with it. By any standards the CPI’s initiative looks somewhat half-hearted as it fails to project a long-term agitational plan. Then something is better than nothing. What Joseph Stiglitz said for the American society is equally valid for the Indian society today—this government is concerned about one percent of the population.

Vol. 47, No.6, Aug 17 - 23, 2014