Having done my schooling and college in Chennai, I've made numerous trips to the Marina beach with friends and family. Amid all the hustle and bustle, stands the famous sculpture Triumph of Labour, made by the legendary sculptor and painter, DP Roy Chowdhury.
As a youngster, I didn't understand the significance of the four men shown as part of the sculpture, who are labouring to move a rock. The beauty of the sculpture is difficult to express in mere words and most people who have visited Marina beach probably would have gazed at it for a while.
I accidentally discovered its significance, when a friend shared with me an article about it. The sculpture was installed on January 25, 1959, under the beautification drive initiated by the K Kamaraj government. It stands at the spot where the first May Day was observed in India by M Singaravelu Chettiar, in 1923, when he founded the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan.
Being closely associated with the Congress, Chettiar initially wanted the Congress to take charge of the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan and absorb it as the labour and farmers' wing. He later went onto become one of the founders of the Communist Party of India in 1925. Chettiar is also credited with forming the first trade union in India, on April 27, 1918.
With the start of globalisation, the labour movement has lost steam, but it still cannot be ignored. So long as there is exploitation, there is scope for its rise once again. Despite the popular jokes against the ideology, none can wish it away. Not even parties like the BJP, whose supporters deride the labour movement and socialism with the choicest abuse, blissfully unaware that the party's constitution clearly states that socialism is one of the principles that it is to be guided by. Of course, the BJP has been anything but socialist, and yet it has never seen the need to delete the word from the party's constitution.
Such blind dislike for anything to the left of the political spectrum is one of the maladies of our times. Very often, when people espouse socialist thoughts, they are slammed as supporters of repressive regimes. This undue abhorrence, of any ideology is what has hampered our political discourse and severed it from rational, enriching discussions. With poor engagement and participation in political discourse, political parties seldom practice the ideology they espouse.
As we blindly take sides on the political spectrum, we forget that the essence of socialism is to ensure that labour is not exploited. How many of us would not like to be assured of a minimum wage? How many would support wage theft (restricting rightful pay under various pretexts like not paying for overtime, wrong classification of work, etc).
Those opposed to labour rights often cite the example of the US as an industrialised country sans the socialist movement. However, even in the US, there have been movements like the Fight for $15 (a protest demanding minimum wage assurance and the right to form unions), the Occupy Movement and others. In fact, a Pew Poll in 2011, revealed that 49 per cent of Americans below the age of 30 viewed socialism positively.
When the US, which was notorious for its McCarthyism is beginning to embrace the "S" word, it would be foolish for India with its rich history of socialist thought to make the same mistakes that the US made in the past.
Instead of looking at May Day as yet another holiday, political parties and civil society will do well to introspect and realign our paths. We need to understand and discuss the problems our farmers face, and the plight of our artisans. We need to think about the weakened labour laws and the conditions we work under in the corporate sector. If we do not make this a part of our political discourse, we shall be doomed to continue having uninspiring leaders. As Plato said, "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors."