Analysis: Why the largest strike in history in India is a problem for the British state

Ben Wray

The largest strike in history rocks the Modi regime in India, a key ally of the UK

THE largest strike in world history, with perhaps 200 million workers taking part, rocked the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi in India.

Between 9-10 January workers across the private and public sectors engaged in the strike instigated by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Citu).

The strike and accompanying actions represents a seismic protest against Modi’s programme of Hindu nationalism and pro-business economic reform. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been placed on the back foot ahead of crucial 2019 elections.

After years of advance following their 2014 electoral breakthrough, a key British global ally faces a major challenge.

The Modi project – Hindu Nationalism

Modi’s new political force advances on two legs. The first is the ideology of Hindu nationalism.

Many of India’s founding fathers imagined the post-British Empire India as a multi-religious, secular and pluralistic state. As with many post-Empire nation states, India has been haunted by communal tensions, between majority Hindus and sizeable minorities of Muslims and Sikhs among others. Many of these tensions were seeded by the legacy of British rule.

Modi’s BJP and a host off associated Hindu nationalist organisations re-imagine India as a Hindu “rashtra”, and its broad cross-class movement has sought to spread this idea not only through elections, but through the permeation of civil society and culture.

Inevitably, this has come up against opposition from Indians who want an India of greater equality along lines of class, religion, gender and, crucially, caste. India’s caste system is tacitly (and sometimes more explicitly) advanced by Hindu nationalism. 

To overcome this opposition Hindu nationalists have launched a severe crackdown against dissidents and the left, intellectuals and trade unionists. Movements for equality for India’s lower castes have been accused of being terrorist conspiracies. Islamophobia has been given a new impetus. Some critics of the regime have been subject to violence and arrests.

But none of this, nor arrests of strike leaders over the last two days, has stemmed the tide of opposition. Hindu nationalism is now faltering on the stark class divides of Indian society. 

The Modi Project – New Developmentalism

The economic model of the ‘new developmentalism’ pushed by the BJP has intensified existing contradictions in the Indian economy. The model of focusing on external investment has seen a deeply uneven improvement in economic performance, with urban centres growing significantly but little of this new activity reaching rural areas – that is, most of India.

Attempts to reform these internal imbalances have been haphazard. Demonetisation from November 2016 has led to 90 per cent of Rupees being taken out of circulation, part of a bid to stem corruption and rationalise the supply and circulation of money. But it had a calamitous impact on the largely informal economy in India, which depends on a ready flow of cash. Likewise measures to unify some taxes across a single Indian market has created complications.
The root failure of these and similar policy approaches is the same – trying to renew the Indian economy from the top-down rather than the bottom up, by curing the chronic problems of poverty, insecurity, low education and skills and disorganisation and the base of the Indian economy, particularly across swathes of impoverished rural areas.

The consequences have been a deepening divide between the Indian corporate elite in the major cities and much of the country, where unemployment is steadily rising.


Modi’s party and its wider national alliance command both houses of parliament in India, and by May 2018 had taken control of 21 of 29 state governments.

But in state elections in November and December the party’s advance had stalled. This points to a dangerous future for Modi and the BJP. Their runaway growth across Indian society, permeating civic society and intimidating rivals, was to a considerable degree predicated on their electoral momentum – and on the mystique of invincibility it afforded them.

Like the radical left around the world, the Communist movement in India faces considerable problems. The retreat of Maoism in China from the 1970s and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s left many Indian Marxists confused and demoralised. As elsewhere, the left became deeply schismatic during this period of disorientation.

But India retains one of the largest, most powerful and most militant workers’ movements in the world, and so it would be foolish to dismiss the continuing weight of Maoist and other socialist traditions in the country and the emphasis they place on class politics and collective struggle. Some of the strike leaders arrested were members of the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), an organisation that claims a membership of over a million members and has major influence among sections of the rural poor and urban working class. 

Its stronghold state – Kerala, where the Communists control the administration – is a national hub of militancy and collective organisation.

Across the country, the left is engaging in diverse and militant protest methods – from strikes and demonstrations, to road and railway blockages. The movement is also witnessing a convergence between women’s demands for equality, caste demands and those of both urban and rural workers.

The British connection

The British Conservative party has embraced the Modi project since 2014. India is viewed as a key ally of the British state in the coming century, representing both a major site of trade and an important geopolitical actor. British trade with India has risen significantly in recent years, a trend only likely to be strengthened by the UK’s uncertain relationship with the EU.

In addition, the Indian Ocean is expected to increase in importance as a major global trade corridor, dominating sea trade as Asian influence continues to grow over the world economy.

Needless to say, these considerations have trumped concerns about the authoritarian and bigoted nature of Modi’s movement.

This flirtation with Hindu nationalism has even extended into domestic British politics. In 2015 David Cameron laid on a rock star welcome for Modi, who addressed a crowd of 60,000 British Indians at Wembley Stadium, the largest gathering, Cameron boasted in his introductory remarks to Modi’s speech, of the diaspora addressed by the Indian PM anywhere in the world.

The political rally was intended not only for Modi, but for the Conservative party, who want to shore-up a voting base among British Indians.

In the now infamous 2016 London Mayoral Election campaign, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith attempted to appeal to Hindu voters with what critics have damned as an attempt to stoke communal tensions. His election materials, targeted at British Indian areas, warned that Goldsmith’s opponent, the Muslim Labour candidate Sadiq Khan, had associated with alleged Islamist extremists and wanted to put a tax on jewellery. This was a nod, anti-racism campaigners claimed, to bigoted claims made against the Muslim community in India.

The Conservatives are part of a new global convergence of interests in Islamophobia, stretching from Europe, Russia and the United States to India, surrounding states, China and Israel. It uses this ‘security’ angle to cement its relationship with the Indian strongman.

But now, this blossoming new relationship is threatened by the inherent contradictions of Modi’s project, and the resistance and aspirations of the Indian people themselves.

Picture courtesy of Number 10