World Social Forum – Mumbai

TWO YEARS ago, it was a big thing when the then ‘socialist’ French government sent a delegation to the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. At this year’s event in Mumbai, attended by 80,000 people, ministers were no longer a sensation. With the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M) as one of the main organisers, the event was opened and closed by VP Singh, formerly both finance minister and prime minister of India. In fact, he introduced neo-liberalism into the country. Today, he has left the mainstream Congress party and is used by India’s two ‘Communist’ parties as a hired leader. They want him involved so that they can put themselves forward as a ‘secular front’ against communalism.

Many reports from the WSF contain quotes of anti-imperialist speeches delivered by ministers, as well as by authors and other participants. But their words are in no way matched by deeds. Sweden’s social democratic minister of foreign aid, Carin Jšmtin, for example, told a seminar that the Swedish government was against privatisation and neo-liberalism. Yet it is in the process of pushing through the most far-reaching privatisation programme ever in that country. At the WSF 2003, Brazil’s president Lula attacked hunger and poverty. Since he was elected, however, his administration has continued the neo-liberal policies of its predecessors.

Sushilkumar Shinde, chief minister of Maharashtra state (of which Mumbai is capital), did not receive such a warm welcome. He was immediately chased by a crowd angry at the eviction of people to make way for the construction of the Narmada Dam. The Garment Workers Union from Bangalore was present at the WSF, as was the United Labour Federation from Chennai (Madras), which had organised striking ghee (food oil) workers. There were activists from the New Trade Union Initiative – an umbrella organisation for independent unions – and from many other groups and individual workers.

The organisers of the WSF stressed the struggle against caste and religious oppression, and patriarchy. Clearly, these are very important issues. But it did mean that the fight against capitalist globalisation and imperialist war featured less prominently. In reality, these struggles are completely interlinked: the fight against discrimination is connected to the need for a socialist society which could eventually eradicate the roots of oppression and discrimination. The most alarming weakness, which was shown up at the WSF, is the lack of any independent, working class-based political alternative. The two CPs (with little to choose between them) have no different economic policy to the ruling Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or the opposition Congress party. Their aim in the election is limited to forming some kind of secular front against the BJP.

The speaker most in the spotlight was the Indian author, Arundhati Roy. Her opening speech contained sharp criticism of US imperialism, the Indian government and all politicians conducting privatisation, including Nelson Mandela, which is rare from a speaker at this kind of event. She also said that it was not enough merely to talk at the WSF. Action was also required. Roy recommended a ‘minimum agenda’, focused around (undefined) action against a couple of multi-national corporations. She did not give any alternative to capitalism, however, and argued against ‘ideology’ in general.

The overload of establishment figures contributed to a low level of participation in the seminars. Halls with 5,000 seats had only 100-150 listeners. This was the case, for example, when VP Singh spoke at the major rally on world trade. The exception was the food rights and trade seminar, attended by 4,000 people.

There was also a split-off event – Mumbai Resistance 2004, organised mainly by Maoist groups – where up to 10,000 participated. Many participants went to both MR 2004 and the WSF as they were situated close to each other. At MR 2004, non-governmental organisations were not allowed to have stalls, while they were predominant at the WSF. Their stalls and multi-colour glossy leaflets seemed to be aimed at the aid-giving agencies in Europe: ‘This is what we do with the money’.

Nonetheless, the common political theme of the WSF was anti-imperialism. The most hated figures and institutions being George W Bush, the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and neo-liberalism in general. The only real decision taken, however, was to endorse the global day of protest on 20 March against the occupation of Iraq.

Participants at the WSF exposed the media hype about India’s economic ‘boom’ and that it could provide a way forward for the world economy. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Indian politicians and economists were treated as heroes, offering some hope to crisis-ridden leaders and capitalists from the US and Europe.

In Mumbai, on the other hand, workers and youth explained the concrete facts and how they’ve got nothing out of this ‘boom’. On the contrary, the extension of privatisation and increased exploitation has worsened conditions for workers. General Electric, one of the biggest companies in the world, has set up its second biggest research unit globally in India. But in its factories, it is sacking and harassing workers. Four hundred million people in India subsist on a dollar or less per day, one third of the world’s total.

Nevertheless, the headlines hail ‘Bright times for India’. And the ruling BJP and prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, are hoping that this mood of optimism and the renewal of peace talks with Pakistan will produce a victory in elections later in the spring. Whereas some sections of the middle class can get carried along with this, workers may begin to feel that there is more to fight for. The 50 million strong general strike against privatisation in May 2003 was an important first indication of the development of a more generalised militancy.

Per Åke Westerlund (CWI – Sweden)