It was the day the World Social Forum 2004 opened. Of the many speakers who spoke that night, two stand out in my memory. The first was the incredible Shirin Ebadi, whose speech, like so many other speeches that day, served only to reaffirm the need for continued effort in the area of human rights and the importance of building stronger ties through forums like the WSF. It wasn't a particularly striking speech - what made it memorable was the way it was delivered, the quiet dignity of the speaker, the sense you got that every word had been carefully weighed and considered, drawing upon long years of experience fighting, and winning against, injustice.
The other speech I remember from that evening was Arundhati Roy's. Ms. Roy's speech was anything but quiet or dignified - it consisted, if memory serves, of exhorting the assembled public to direct, even violent protest against all MNCs; Ms. Roy's argument being that these companies (which included, as I remember it, Coke and Pepsi) were profiteering off the war in Iraq and as such were fair game for attack (the irony of proposing violent protest against - presumably - innocent managers in local MNC offices in order to protest the US invasion of Iraq had apparently not occured to Ms. Roy). Two things struck me about this speech. The first was the stirring effectiveness with which it was delivered - the quality of speech writing, the feel for the dramatic. The second was the sheer irrationality and empty-headedness of the argument being made once you got past the verbal fireworks. It wasn't just that what Ms. Roy was suggesting was impractical (I'm all for idealism) it was that what she was saying was ridiculous both morally and intellectually.
The contrast between these two speeches, throws into sharp relief for me the reason I have a low opinion of Ms. Roy. It seems to me that Ms. Roy has no real opinion (to the extent that an opinion can be defined as a reasoned and consistent set of ideas) all she has is a certain amount of literary talent and an overblown attitude. Protest, in Ms. Roy's world, is to be valued for its own sake and need not, therefore, be linked to either a coherent reason for protesting or a potential outcome to be achieved from the protest. There's something very adolescent in this - Ms. Roy has the petulant and combative self-righteousness of a teenager desperate to be allowed to sit with grown-ups.
Take her new piece in the Hindu protesting George Bush's visit to India, for instance. The entire piece is one long collection of indignant non sequiturs from start to finish. George Bush, we are told, is coming on a "triumphalist tour" to "wave imperiously at people he considers potential subjects". Huh? When did that happen? Last time I checked the purpose of his visit was to discuss a hugely sensitive nuclear deal, not to crow over the conquered locals like some decadent Roman emperor.
This gem of hyperbole is followed by a long rant about the venue of Bush's public address in Delhi - the Old Fort - a diatribe that, not content with being gratuitiously insulting to Bush (and showing off Ms. Roy's deep and analytical understanding of the local fauna) includes a set of incoherent pot-shots at the "rich folk who live in our poor country like caged animals" who are, apparently, "protecting themselves from the threat of vulgar and unruly multitudes whom they have systematically dispossessed over the centuries." What? Never mind the irrelevance of the venue of Bush's speech, or the speech itself. Never mind the questionable factual basis for assuming that the only people at this speech will be rich capitalists (one would have thought bureaucrats and politicians would make up large chunks of the audience. Oh, and journalists.). Never mind the long and tortuous debate about the merits of capitalism / free market and the benefits of these systems for the nation's economic development. Never mind the engrossing question of how, in a land that has been independent for a little under 60 years, and liberalised for a little over a decade, corporate CEOs could have been dispossessing the people for centuries. Never mind that many of those CEOs may be as opposed to Bush's foreign policy as Ms. Roy herself. Why in god's name is this woman ranting about India's internal socio-economic inequalities in an Op-Ed column on Bush's visit? What's the connection? Can this woman stick to a point? Does she have one?
Oh, but it gets better. Just in case you felt the issue of venues Bush will visit had not been developed enough, Ms. Roy spends the last paragraph of her 'opinion' piece arguing against Bush's visit to another venue - Gandhi's memorial at Rajghat. Millions of Indians, we are told, will wince at this. Make that a million less one. How does it matter what bogus PR stunts Bush pulls, or whether he does or does not place flowers on a stupid slab of stone? What could that possibly have to do with the real and potentially frightening outcomes of Bush's visit? If millions of Indians want to wince over his visit let them wince if / when he signs a deal that helps India take her nuclear program forward.
That deal, and its ramifications, incidentally, aren't even mentioned in Ms. Roy's article. Apparently, what the primates in Delhi Zoo think of Bush are, to her, of more immediate and pressing interest. "It is not in our power to stop Bush's visit. It is in our power to protest it, and we will.", Ms. Roy finally declares. But in her entire piece she gives us no reason to protest his visit. If Bush's visit is to be protested, it should, hopefully, be for a reason better than proving that such protest is possible. What an issue that warrants such a protest might be, unfortunately, Ms. Roy sheds no light on, blithely assuming that anyone reading her piece must already agree with her point of view on this (though, of course, in that case, there really isn't much point to the article, is there?). What then, is she protesting? Bush's existence on Earth? The possibility of transatlantic flight? And this is the sort of idiocy that what is arguably the country's most intelligent newspaper prints under the heading Opinion / News ANALYSIS!!! 
Don't misunderstand me. I'm as opposed to Bush's foreign policies as anyone, and am entirely with Ms. Roy in describing him as a war-monger and terrorist. But that's precisely why I find Ms. Roy's piece so irritating. With so many good reasons to criticise Bush available, why pick on a bunch of things that make no difference to anyone, and reinforce the stereotype that Bush protesters are just airhead liberals who rant about anything and everything. To begin with, if we are protesting anything at all, it should be specific decisions or actions that Bush might take in India, not the fact that he's visiting India at all. If that visit per se is cause for protest then are we to assume that it is Ms. Roy's position that we should never meet with our enemies, never engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue with them whatsoever? That the very presence of someone whose policies elsewhere and/ or in the past we disagree with is cause for protest. How is that going to bring us any closer to a reasonable solution of the world's problems? It is my personal belief that if we are to make any progress at all, we must put our faith in a discussion of the issues, not in this sort of blind antipathy to anything and everything associated with those we oppose, not in this sort of boorish sniping.
Ms. Roy would like to believe, no doubt, that she is an activist. That, in my opinion, is false. Activists are people who bring courage and determination to finding meaningful solutions to real problems in a carefully considered way. People who will say any old thing to get their audience worked up against the other side are just rabble rousers. Ms. Roy may have a great facility with words (though, personally, I found even the writing here fairly jarring - what was with the long drawn out animal motif; and that incredibly obvious quail hunting joke?) but that's no substitute for honest content. And the sooner we stop taking her seriously, the sooner we're going to be able to engage in real debate on real issues again.
 By way of contrast, read this editorial in the NY Times about Bush's visit to India.
Categories: CurrentAffairs, Rant