Challenges Facing the Bank Employees' Movement

[This write-up was originally written for a souvenir of the Punjab National Bank Employees Association]

Bank employees constitute a key contingent of the modern Indian working class. Historically this contingent has played a major role in the movement for bank nationalization and in resisting the onslaught of neo-liberal reforms since the advent of the New Economic Policies in 1991. The fighting solidarity of bank workers and their comrades in the insurance industry has been significant in putting up a powerful resistance to the assaults of global capital on the strategic financial sector of the Indian economy.

Faced with the spirited and united opposition of bank employees, the architects and designers of neo-liberal reforms have redesigned their strategy. Instead of insisting on outright privatization of nationalized banks, they have embarked on a two-pronged strategy of promoting greater penetration of foreign banks and subverting the banking policy from within.

The countrywide growth of the network of nationalized banks in the 1970s and '80s was powered by a thrust on mass banking and priority sector lending. But the neo-liberal reforms have brought about a steady shift in the focus of banking operations: away from mass banking to '(elitist) class banking' and from greater thrust on agriculture and infrastructure to speculative activities in share markets. It is this shift which has led to a series of mega scams involving billions of rupees, and systematic conversion of huge chunks of bank capital into non-performing assets.

The crudest upshot of this subversion of banking policy can be seen in the countryside in the revival of usury and rise of debt-driven suicides of farmers, artisans and rural labourers. The much advertised kisan credit cards have just been no answer to this mounting debt burden and exacting financial and human cost of usury. In order to save the banking industry and the interests of bank employees, the bank employees' movement must squarely challenge this ongoing subversion of banking and the cancerous growth of usury in the rural economy. In recent past, the bank employees' movement has taken a commendable initiative in exposing the corporate defaulters who have gobbled up huge chunks of public money. The movement must now urgently question the two-pronged attacks on the banking industry by private usury capital and the 'plastic economy' of foreign banks.

Alongside this broadening of the agenda of the bank employees' movement, it is also important to broaden the horizons of class unity and sharpen its edge. Beyond the financial sector and public sector, bank employees can play a key role in forging closer ties of solidarity with the predominantly unorganized segments of the working class as well as the aggrieved peasantry. The crisis of the banking industry is intimately associated with the dynamics of the agrarian crisis and it is possible and necessary to develop a more powerful and broad-based worker-peasant unity to confront and defeat this crisis.

Equally important is the question of challenging the ongoing 'labour reforms'. Here again, the reforms cannot be measured solely in terms of the exact amendments being smuggled into the industrial disputes act and related laws. The thrust is on effecting a 'paradigm shift' in industrial relations and the overall environment of the trade union movement in the country. One look at recent judicial verdicts and the emerging pattern of Gurgaon-style 'governance', and the intentions of the rulers become crystal clear. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has openly articulated the interests and demands of the emerging 'militant employer' in his gospel of economic growth and 'advice' of responsible conduct to Left trade union leaders.

What is more striking is that this emerging discourse has been thoroughly internalized and absorbed by even the CPI(M)-led Left. While Jyoti Basu was happy with vilification of so-called 'militant trade unionism' and glorification of 'work culture', his successor has taken it upon himself to change the 'mindset of the working class'. He can make the most preposterous moves to woo foreign capital and embrace the dogma of the market and justify it all in the name of shedding 'Marxist dogma'! No wonder why Buddhadev Bhattacherjee has emerged as the most coveted corporate darling among India 's current crop of chief ministers. Buddhadev is hopeful that he can overtake the Chandrababu Naidus and Digvijay Singhs and yet avoid their electoral destinies simply because he happens to be the product of a party which has powerful organizations among workers and peasants. The 'grip' on workers is one of his biggest selling points.

While challenging the economic and labour policies of the central government, the Left-led bank employees' movement certainly cannot ignore this new threat emerging from within. Just as it is important to retrieve huge amounts of bank capital that have deliberately and systematically been converted into non-performing assets, it is no less pressing to save the asset of organisation from being misused as a selling point and bargaining chip by neo-liberal ideologues masquerading as communist leaders through ironies of history.