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THE contrast could not have been sharper. As its entry into the new year, the NDA government, particularly the BJP, confidence bolstered by its electoral victory in Gujarat, organised the first ever conference of People of Indian Origin (PIO). The gathering of over 2000 representatives of the diaspora unsurprisingly foregrounded ethnic patriotism based on a glorified rendering of our civilizational past. The focus was as much on attracting capital flows as leveraging the growing importance of the diaspora in the countries of their residence.

But even as this meet demonstrated a rising self-confidence in the Indian elite and its desire for a more influential role in world affairs, the irony was lost on no one. A regime, which in its political imagination remains deeply troubled with its Muslim and Christian minorities, regularly demanding loyalty tests from the former, saw little contradiction in expecting the PIOs to advance Indian interests. And, as a sop, it was willing to consider dual citizenship.

But even as Delhi was showcasing the glories of ancient Indian (Hindu) culture with help from luminaries ranging from Amartya Sen to Sir Vidia, a very different mix of Indians were seeking to construct their own brand of internationalism in Hyderabad. For five days in early January, the city played host to an unusual gathering of social movement activists and public intellectuals. The Asian Social Forum – over 10,000 individuals drawn from political and social movements, mass fronts of political parties, NGOs and networks, and from a range of countries – came together to demonstrate that ‘Another World is Possible’.

True the ASF was an organisational nightmare, not unexpected given the mammoth challenge of arranging travel, accommodation, visas and, above all, the social space for hundreds of panels and performances. Nevertheless, to just have pulled if off without major glitches (barring the disappearance of M.F. Husain’s painting loaned for the occasion) with no help from the administration and to have discussed a bewildering range of concerns from capital flows and speculation to religious identity and nationalism is no minor feat. More so, since it was the first attempt by an Indian non-party, non-government alliance to host an international gathering.

Unlike the Delhi conclave with its focus on attracting capital and leveraging a ‘muscular and masculine’ India to promote an aggressive nationalism, the ASF sought to challenge both state nationalism, seen as engendering insecurity both internally and externally, as also the logic of capitalist accumulation which destroys both nature and community. Central to the political imagination of the ASF, in fact all anti-globalisation struggles and movements, is the contestation of the growing hegemony of right-wing neo-liberal economics and politics, the foregrounding of capital over labour, and the shift towards a new social Darwinism.

Possibly this is why Hyderabad was the chosen venue. The city is touted as Cyberabad, its attention directed towards a Singaporean future with roads, lighting, flyovers, parks and telecommunication connectivity benchmarked to international standards. Of course, in this project there is little space for the hundreds of cotton and tobacco farmers, the weavers and the fisherfolk who are committing suicide in desperation, their livelihoods destroyed by rampaging capital and insensitive public policy.

Nevertheless, questions remain. Are events like the ASF and the enthusiasm of the thousands who gathered foredoomed to remain marginal, with little real possibility of influencing policy outcomes? Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist project, and the growing influence of the US, its allies, MNCs and multilaterals like the World Bank, IMF and the WTO, the space for smaller countries, communities and peoples to plan their strategic responses has shrunk. Equally with politics, even democratic, electoral politics becoming a corporatist enterprise, the common citizen is being alienated from public engagement.

That is why a mere reiteration of ‘politically correct’ slogans and a gathering of the marginalised and disaffected will no longer do. Without acquiring political weight such that both mainstream parties and state power are forced to accommodate the articulated concerns, events like the ASF will remain a colourful sideshow. It is instructive that even the left, despite the presence of its mass fronts and ideologues, formally did not own up the meet.

The challenge, in these ideologically confusing times is to not only move beyond the state vs market or local vs global binaries but to evolve institutional arrangements that provide creative engagement space for community and civic concerns. Just as the citizen has to be more politically active to be heard, formal political entities have to turn more civic. Only then will another world become possible.

Harsh Sethi