A nationwide strike by workers is relegated to the back pages, even as PM Modi ‘models’ for a communications brand in a front-page ad

Bank employees march through south Mumbai on Friday as they participate in a nationwide strike demanding a hike in wages. Pic/PTI
Bank employees march through south Mumbai on Friday as they participate in a nationwide strike demanding a hike in wages. Pic/PTI 

The contrast could not have been starker: on Friday, while 180 million Indians went on strike, their main demand being a raise in the minimum wage, the newspapers had a front page ad for Reliance’s new telephony service featuring “Mr Reliance”, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s name for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Incidentally, Kejriwal, passionately hated by both BJP and the Congress, has proposed to raise the minimum wage; his Lt-Gov, a shameless marionette for Modi, has grudgingly agreed. Meanwhile, Reliance, whom Kejriwal said Modi was “modelling” for, was formally accused of stealing 11 billion cubic metres of gas from an adjoining ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas) block in the Krishna-Godavari basin; a committee headed by Justice AP Shah decided Reliance ought to pay the government Rs 11,000 crore. This did not stop ‘Mr Reliance’ from granting an interview to his government’s debtor’s TV news channel, though mercifully he answered insipid questions with blander platitudes.

Lost in this din was the fact that 180 million Indians found it necessary to strike work. Newspapers don’t like covering organised labour; though the strike struck the banking, telecom, mining, and transport sectors. Newspapers were more bothered about Modi’s interview and the Jio roll-out, as well as an absurd statement by some dinosaur-like Muslim clerics about ‘divorce by talaq’ in their community. If newspapers do report on strikes, they like to talk about the disruption it brought to ‘ordinary’ life. There is no clearer evidence of how corrupt newspapers have become — that they serve capital’s interests, not labour’s, and this is particularly jarring in our rich nation of poor citizens. (The real ‘news traders’ are not the workers in the media, as the bonehead bhakts will tell you, but the media’s corporate owners.)

Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu called the strike illogical. His logic? He felt that the government had already increased the minimum wage by 42 per cent, so there was no cause for strike. This sleight of hand tries to finesse the Seventh Pay Commission’s recommendations for government employees and the one-rank-one-pay decision for ex-servicemen as the equivalent of labour-friendly wage-hike decisions. Obviously, the beneficiaries of those decisions do not reflect the conditions of labour in India, though the decisions are correct in themselves because every salaried person or pensioner ought to get more money, no matter what, both because they deserve it and because India needs to boost consumption in a stalled global economy. Organised labour’s demand was that the minimum wage be brought to R18,000 a month, in line with the Pay Commission award. You may mistakenly believe that it only impacts rude bank staff —who are much maligned, and, as we know thanks to outgoing RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan, are not the culprits behind the lakhs of crores of bad loans that has hampered banking and private investment — but it impacts daily wagers in almost every job. And you wonder what kind of government plans against the strike (and not against the effects of the strike), as Modi did in formal governmental meetings last week.

Most in the urban middle-class were, in fact, unaware of the national strike on Friday. As it is, the upwardly mobile look upon labour and unions as unwashed irritants to economic growth (though that growth benefits crony capitalists the most). It helped that mainstream news did not focus much on the strike, in the way that it ignored the Dalit marches in Gujarat in protest against the recent Una outrage. It was quite different, say, 40-odd years ago — when George Fernandes led the 1974 railway strike, it was part of a popular anger that eventually forced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to imposed Emergency a year later.

Part of the ignorance is that the middle-class does not bother to try and understand what drives workers to get out on the roads, in the sun, and strike; similarly, it does not bother to try and understand what drives Kashmiri boys to risk life and sight and prison, and come on the streets and protest. The corporate media does its part in anaesthetising the public with meaningless whispers of Bollywood spats.

There is a happy ending though. In the way that Modi agreed to Kejriwal’s proposal to hike the minimum wage, his government will inevitably agree to workers’ demands. It cannot afford to not do so; it has to fight the UP election next year, and 2019’s general election looms larger every day. It can justify raising wages, in that boosting consumption helps generate additional economic growth. This is okay. All that matters to the common woman is that she get whatever break she can, particularly from a government that is ‘reliably’ of the rich, for the rich, and by the rich.