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What purpose did the WSF serve?
January 21, 2004
"But what good came of it at last?"
-- The Battle of Blenheim, by Robert Southey
One may well ask that question after the World Social Forum winds up its ongoing Kumbh Mela (as many have named it) in suburban Mumbai. There is no doubt that the WSF is a famous event, a victory of event management, of getting across voices with an axe to grind from all over the world, but at the end of the day, one has to ask what came of it all, and the answer remains unknown (at least to most of us).
Was the purpose of the rally an event to allow the professional protestors (remember Barbara Streisand in The Way We Were) to simply let off steam, to allow leftist or intellectuals or both strut their importance on stage even as they become increasingly impotent in public life? And after all the abuses heaped upon the United States and neo-liberalism (a strange choice of words considering that President Bush is supposed to draw his strategy from the neo-conservatives), are those who thronged the WSF any closer to influencing policy?
This is not to discount public opinion as an increasingly important -- perhaps one of the most important -- force in shaping policy goals, but only if such opinion is directed for a specific goal, for a clear demand. The millions of men and women who protested against the US going to war in Iraq in February were incredibly effective: many countries that had doubts about attacking Iraq backed out from joining the US-led coalition. Such public opinion forced Tony Blair to acknowledge the opposition to the war and tread carefully. This is because the protestors were clear about what they were protesting: No War!
Similarly, it was the massive force of public opinion, especially opinion voiced sans violence, that has been the mainstay of a number of movements such as those for environment, rehabilitation, and, most important, civil rights. In each case, the maximum was achieved by public opinion when the goal was clear and the method of protest simple and direct. To the leaders of such movements goes all credit.
By contrast, the WSF seems to be absolutely unclear of what it is all about. The common themes are a sort of anti-Americanism, anti-globalisation, yet in India today, this makes very little sense. Tragically, there are many Indians today who simply hate all things American or the American way (read markets, capitalism, etc). For such persons, hating America is a sort of identity badge; rhetoric over reason.
In the American continents, the US looms as an oversized Big Brother. Every time the dollar rises or the NYSE index falls, it has a huge impact upon the jobs and lives of ordinary Latin Americans, and the resentment against the US is understandable. Thus, in these countries, US is blamed for all ills, real and imagined. And for decades, if not centuries, Latin American nations have been trying hard to meet the challenge of the US' overweening power over them, but as of now, in vain. It should thus be hardly surprising that outside Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, the strongest, and often the most radical and inhumanly cruel, Communist and Marxist (anti-American) movements were in Latin America. The absence of a strong and vibrant middle-class in these countries and the huge disparities between the rich (seen as pro-US) and the poor only exacerbated the violence and sentiments.
Yet, such conditions do not apply to India. On the contrary, in the South Asian sub-continent and context, the citizens of our smaller neighbours such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka view India the way Latin Americans view the US --oversized, overbearing, and over here! And every time there is a problem within these countries, politicians take recourse to bashing India.
And even as those gathered at the WSF bash the US, there are groups within that have unabashedly sought US help, not the least being the Tibetans who are present at every world event demanding rights for Tibet. (The Tibetans need to do recheck whether their presence at such events is a long-term asset).
Moreover, there is no doubt that the Dalits and Adivasis in India have reason to cry out against the present state of affairs. But Dalits and Adivasis would do well to remember that what made them so powerless historically was not globalisation but anti-globalisation. They were shackled by the village economy that gave them a specific job, a specific role, and absolutely no chance of improving their lives. This was further reinforced by India's command economy that, while making some concessions, gave them little actual power, which remained with the upper-caste babus.
The Dalits and Adivasis would do well to realize that they have a better future not in a closed economy, the kind advocated by the Leftists (who are invariably of the upper-caste origin), but in an open system that respects the producers. Yes, the process of change is painful, but far less than remaining at the bottom of the ladder made by Manu.
Ramachandra Guha in The Telegraph (December 27, 2003) raises a very important question: If the Leftists are against the current kind of capitalism, could they kindly suggest an alternative method? It is easy to blame the market, but as every shred of evidence shows, most of India's problems today have been caused by the State.
But then, for the intellectuals and Leftists to accept that the State has its limitations would require intelligence.
It is also worth asking: would such a huge event even have been allowed in a Communist country? The last time some kids took to the streets in Beijing, tanks greeted them. In that, it is to India's credit that dissenting voices are allowed their say, and a reflection of India's strength in the non-governmental organizations that the WSF is a success.
But it is the lack of providing an alternative, of another way, that reduces the WSF to a college debating club. The WSF says Another World is Possible. But what is that world?
Otherwise, as Old Kaspar says in the poem above, It may have been a great victory, but he cannot tell what good came of it all.
Also Read: Of symbolic and real fights
Also Read: Of symbolic and real fights
Amberish K Diwanji