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The Power of Polemic

Harsh Sethi

By Madhu Purnima Kishwar
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 334, Rs. 595.00


Pamphleteering is an honourable art. Feisty and full of pot-shots at easy targets—individuals, causes, organizations—it can liven up a dull day. When stretched to over 300 pages, the text has a tendency to flag and becomes tiring. And when caricature turns to invective, distressing. But these, one suspects, are the occupational hazards of playing public intellectual, seeking more to influence than inform public discourse and policy-making. For those traversing what they perceive is the lonely path, unencumbered by both the ruling orthodoxy of ideas as also fashionable ‘political correctness’, overstatement becomes a preferred mode of expression. The danger is when we are so convinced of the ‘correctness’ of our analysis and enamoured with the solutions we advance, we may focus on the wrong targets and in the process dilute the power of our proposals.   The World Social Forum has often been likened to a mela, an uncoordinated and cacophonous coming together of diverse tendencies – individuals, organizations and causes. Little unites them except a deep unease with the current mode of globalization—the forms it assumes in a unipolar world. It is marked by a critique of global formations—the World Bank, IMF and the WTO, the role of multinational corporations, the fear of an unfettered flow of capital and the virtual decimation of marginal people, ideas and practices. Of course it is loud, unruly, carnivalesque, not quite like the coming together of those who matter at Davos.   To portray the WSF 2004 held in Mumbai, as in the book under review—as a gathering of the well-heeled anti-globalization brigade, a collective exercise in self-deception—represents breathtaking caricature, a callous disregard and dismissal of the concerns and energies of the many thousands who came together, often on their own meagre resources, in a carnival of solidarity—to learn, exchange ideas and strategies, and hopefully return stronger. To see it as a well-funded exercise, and that too by western donors, an attempt to co-opt the critique from the grassroots by jet-setting NGO ideologues is both an incorrect characterization as also demeaning of the immense effort put in by the hundreds of organizers.   There is little doubt that globalization is a deeply unsettling process, simultaneously enlarging and destroying opportunities and choices. No wonder there is such low consensus on its contents, pace and directions or that politicians, across the political spectrum, act cautious—one step forward and two steps back. To, in such ...

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