With Narendra Modi’s march to Delhi becoming more strident, as the results of the state assembly election conducted this week show, many NGOs and activist groups from across India plan to gather at a kumbh of sorts in Lucknow in the beginning of March. Their agenda – to stop his ascension to power in the capital.
Inspired by the World Social Forum, the South Asia Social Forum is slated to be hosted from March 01 to 05 in Lucknow. Its organisers hope activist groups and NGOs working among India’s marginalised communities will attend the forum, and come together to alert Indian voters about the dangers of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre and Modi as its Prime Minister.
The World Social Forum (WSF) is an annual meeting of civil society groups against hegemonic capitalistic globalisation and in opposition to the World Economic Forum held at Davos. The WSF process describes itself as an open plural, diverse, non-governmental and non-partisan space to build alternatives to neo-liberalism. The process was founded in Brazil in the late 1990s.
A WSF meeting was held in Mumbai in January 2004, the first time the WSF process was held outside of Brazil. The 2004 edition was considered immensely successful with nearly a lakh people attending from across the world and India. The World Social Forum in Mumbai gave an opportunity to activist groups and social movements from across the remotest areas of India to get to know each other. These links, activist groups believe, helped these groups to network more efficiently in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, in which they campaigned against the BJP. Activist groups believe the WSF Mumbai and the consensus that emerged from it contributed to the defeat of the NDA in 2004.
Such a claim is not easily verifiable. However, those associated with the process believe they can hold a South Asia Social Forum before the next elections where activists and NGOs could come on a common platform of anti-communal politics. The riots in Muzaffarnagar and recent social tensions in Bihar have, additionally, spurred these groups to hold the event in the Hindi heartland. There is, however, the question of money and donors. The organising committee members are submitting different cost estimates, ranging from INR 2 crore to INR 20 crore.
Sections within Left parties and the Congress are supportive of the effort, claimed sources in the organising team. Sources said Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party government is also amenable to facilitating such a gathering. Bihar’s ruling Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) is another political party that may provide moral support to the gathering.
The organisers, who believe they are already running late, if they have to organise such a meeting successfully, have held several meetings in the past two months. They want the South Asia Social Forum to be held before the General Elections if it is to have any impact on the discourse and the vote.
Similarly, the reasons for Lucknow as the venue are obvious as there is a ‘friendly’ government in UP’s capital. It is also a no-brainer that the key to Modi making it to Delhi would be the 120 seats that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar cumulatively send to the Lok Sabha. There is also the buzz that Modi may just fight the election from a seat in Gujarat as well as Lucknow, the constituency of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
But, importantly, there is disagreement over the political content of the event. Some believe that declaring it to be an anti-Modi exercise could be self defeating. “The circumstances of 2014 are very different from those of 2004. Then the public at large had developed an aversion to the India Shining campaign as also the Gujarat communal riots,” said a member of the organising team.
There is further division as well. The biggest of the groups, the Medha Patkar-led National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), has put a spanner in the works. It isn’t keen to participate in the South Asia Social Forum and has advised postponing the event to the end of 2014, which would, likely, make the event moot to Modi’s prospects.
The NAPM is of the view that the event organisers are trying to hold the event in haste and without consulting many important civil society and movement groups. It has also said that the NAPM has its own programmes and activities proposed, leading up to the General Elections, and will find it difficult to contribute in a meaningful ways to the proposed event. But it has allowed individuals associated with the NAPM to take part in the event in their personal capacity.
However, the organising committee is determined to hold the event this March. The South Asia Social Forum also plans to invite delegates from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, etc. It held a meeting in Nepal earlier in November. However, the numbers from these countries are unlikely to cross a thousand.
The South Asia Social Forum, it is also felt, will lead up to India hosting the WSF in 2015.