Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Commentary - Cow mania in India reaches murderous proportions

The last few days India has been busy debating diet. Which is okay if people are only debating! But now people are getting killed over ‘alleged’ consumption of beef. Incidents are being concocted in sensitive parts of the country to trigger an atmosphere of animosity, suspicion and violence. Yes, the reference here is to an incident in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh when a Muslim family was falsely accused of storing beef in the house and the head of the family was lynched by a mob of local people – except that not all the people were local. It turns out that the violent threats to the Muslim family were made from a temple loudspeaker by a priest who is absconding but who seems to have been involved in other similar incidents in the area. So the question is - are the so-called fringe groups from the Hindutva fold getting more active and organized these days.

It is indeed true that ever since the NDA government came to power last year, the fringe voices and groups have felt empowered and have kept the communal pot boiling. Despite the strong opposition from the civil society, the political parties have failed to respond to take matters head on. Prime Minister Modi for instance has made no comment on the beef murder. The mealy-mouthed UP government on its part has failed to take its investigation far enough.

We face three possibilities here – first, the fringe groups are beyond the control of the government or the RSS, the government does not find it important to respond to the incidents, and third that these groups are blessed and actively encouraged by the BJP-RSS – all of them really amount to the same. Beef is being used as a weapon to mow down basic democratic rights. 

Among all the voices opposing such anti-democratic moves, the one that strikes as the boldest and the most unambiguous is a piece provocatively titled ‘A beef-eating Hindu demands his rights’ by Swminathan Anklesari Aiyar of the Swaminomics fame. His statement carries a highly personal tone but a reader concerned with the fate of democracy in India will appreciate its far-reaching implications and echoes.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Why Bihar election is a national battle in more than one sense

by Ratnakar Tripathy

As we approach the 5-phase elections between 12 October and 5 November 2015 the Bihari voter is both flattered and bemused by the sheer scale of attention the state is receiving. Understandably so as given Bihar’s history of relation with the Centre, an abrupt upsurge of attention after long-drawn-out neglect can be rather baffling. Why Bihar elections have acquired a near global significance may seem obvious at first glance – the trouble is it isn’t. Of course it has been repeated umpteen times that the BJP needs to accumulate enough members in the Upper House of the parliament for which it must reap enough seats in the state assemblies so in the long run it will have enough numbers to push its legislative bills at the centre. But this is a slow and patient job to be carried out through several impending state elections. It hardly explains the torrid urgency and the desperateness of Narendra Modi who would have addressed sixteen rallies and up to forty public meetings all over the state by the time the state elections in Bihar come to an end.

There is a strange subliminal, almost mythical side to such intensive campaigning by none else but the country’s Prime Minster in a state election. Unless you want to explain it by pointing out Modi’s temperamental fondness for speeches and rallies or his long stint as a pracharak [propagandist] in the RSS! The fact remains that day by day the figure of Nitish as Modi’s chosen target may be getting larger in public consciousness within and outside Bihar at the national level. The more attention Nitish receives from Modi the larger his national image may become over time. This is the unavoidable risk both Modi and BJP president Shah are taking. On the other hand every dent made in Modi’s image by Lalu and Nitish can only reduce his stature. But we will revert to all this later. 

To come back to another simple and obvious explanation for the near ‘hyperbolic’ importance of Bihar elections - after the debacle in the Delhi state elections, Modi needs to redeem his honour in a hurry before being declared all hype and no substance among the wider international political and business circles.  In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, NDA bagged 31 out of 40 seats in the state. A significant decline in the outcomes of the assembly election in 2015 will prove with forensic clarity that Union Government’s popularity is heading downhill at an alarming rate. And a defeat will be calamitous for the BJP-RSS, shutting them out of this part of the country for some time to come.

This explanation could be nuanced further by adding that Bihar may prove to be a critical test case to check if the Modi rhetoric is seen as credible by the Indian voter even in the future. Modi’s high-sounding promises to Bihar are not just lavish they also carry a highly ‘personal’ tone as a saviour who must yank Bihar away from the Nitish-Lalu vice-grip. Because of this they just might surpass the limits of credibility leaving the voter more wary than convinced in the coming days. So the success of Modi’s rhetoric presumes a mind-set of high or even reckless hopefulness and trust among the voters – a state of mind difficult to sustain among the generally fickle voter. Nitish on the other hand projects himself modestly as a safe bet and little more. It is thus likely that even during the five-phase election between 12 October and 5 November, many different popularity waves may rise and drop. Right now there is not even a ripple on the ground among the voters even though the politicians and pollsters without fail seem perpetually agitated. The fact remains once done with Bihar, Modi and Shah will get busy with other states awaiting their elections. But the Bihar voter needs to be convinced, however briefly, that they will remain the cynosure, and won’t be dismissed by the duo in a hurry! 

None of the above readings contradict each other. They also sit squarely with a simple but near accurate view of Bihar elections as a confrontation between the BJP-RSS’s visions of development and that of Nitish-Lalu that goes back to the secular socialist tradition of Lohia and JP. The problem here is all these explanations do not throw adequate light on the crescendo of anxiety shown by all the concerned parties in the Bihar elections. 

The fact is matters have gone far beyond this simple two-way confrontation between the NDA and the Grand Alliance of Nitish-Lalu and the Congress. The puzzle here is – what are forces like Shiv Sena, Owaisi’s AIMIM, and Mulayam’s SP doing in Bihar? Mayawati’s BSP, Sharad Pawar’s NCP, all of whom are contesting significant number of seats in the state are around too. On top of this the once colossal Congress seems to be cowering under the ample umbrella of the ‘Grand alliance’ as it’s commonly known. To get a sense of the bizarre, you may consider the presence of the Panthers Party from J&K on the list. But the biggest puzzle here is - why has Mulayam’s SP remained outside the Grand Alliance and put up candidates for all the 243 seats in Bihar?

Why does an election to form a government in a state look like a national level contest like never before? The answer may be the election is also about wearing the mantle of the ‘main opposition’ leader at the national level.  Mulayam is here not with a hope to win many seats nor as just a spoilsport for Nitish-Lalu. He is in Bihar with the conviction that the Congress is nearing its end in the terminal sense and that there is an enormous vacuum to fill up as the Gandhi dynasty is stripped of its remaining halo. He is here to remind both Nitish and Lalu that he is the answer to BJP-RSS juggernaut, the most legitimate provider of a grand umbrella under which all the opposition parties must assemble meekly. In his perception, Nitish emerges as a usurper rather than an ally.

So the Bihar election is a multi-layered affair – it is about forming a government in Bihar, of course. Unfortunately for Modi, it is certainly about his career graph. But irrespective of who wins, it is also about taking charge of the opposition in the coming months and years irrespective of the election outcomes. And the reason Mulayam may seem as desperate as Modi-Shah or Nitish-Lalu duo, he probably assumes that the Modi graph will continue to plummet at a sharp pace, the Congress will go deeper into a coma and there is a grand national role waiting for him round the corner. Whether Mulayam’s reading is accurate will remain an open question for another month.

Postscript: any report on the Bihar elections that does not make a frank admission of the following should be seen to suffer from both – a sense of drama and a due respect for facts: the 2015 state elections in Bihar are one more round of battle between the upper castes [represented by the NDA] and the middle castes [represented by the Grand Alliance] in Bihar – the only difference this time around is they depend entirely on proxies to make their moral and numerical positions strong – the support of Dalits, and the Extremely Backward castes [EBCs], a congeries of above-100 small segments that add up to above one fourth of the population of Bihar.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Syria and Middle East Quagmire

One cannot use the word Syria in any traditional sense as the borders imagined by Sykes-Picot agreement are no more in force. Syria is disintegrated, unlikely to be put back in the same manner despite Obama-Putin agree that as the end goal. Neighboring Iraq is in no better shape as well and again unlikely to come back in any coherent manner.

Putin wants Sykes-Picot kind of role for himself and in his mind he offered a chair at the table to Obama. In his world, it was implicit that USA and West would ignore criminality of Putin's client - Assad - for getting an option to carve out spheres of influence. Putin may label ISIS as the contemporary Hitler; but for West, Putin-Assad alliance looks more like Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. There is less incentive for USA and West to join in Putin's scheme when for true stability demise of Assad is essential. Vocal democracies of West make it practically impossible for any Western Government to side with Russia in propping up Assad; regardless how many claims Putin and Assad do that they are slaying down IS

In totalitarian worlds of Putin and Ayatollah of Iran, war crimes committed by Assad is not a problem. In their world, ability to carry your writ regardless of public opinion is the manifestation of true political power; it is thuggery at geopolitical level with least regards to international norms. Putin and Iran know that with a military intervention, they will not be able put back the old Syria. What Putin wants is:
- to protect his military presence in Syria so as Russian Navy retains access to Mediterranean and
- to retain the client state of Assad, in howsoever weaker form as possible, to serve Putin's whims.

The game plan for Putin is simple - go in the position of strength to the negotiation table. If few in West falls for the propaganda of "Russia brought order to Syria, Russia fought terrorists effectively"; it might help reduce sanctions against Russia as well. However, before Putin reaches to the stage of negotiations with a strengthened hand; question is will Russia avoid getting engulfed in Syrian civil war as like decades ago Soviets were bogged down in Afghanistan and more recently USA in Iraq. There is no firm answer to know in advance, especially since even after mighty efforts Putin only got a stalemate in Ukraine.

As the option of putting boots on ground is politically not feasible, nor any kind of training rebels strategy is going to work; patience is the only way out for Obama Administration. Understanding that Syria is going to be divided as well as Iraq is going to be fragmented too; Washington is likely to be more near to truth than any wishful thinking. The question is whether Obama Administration is able to articulate this reality without getting pressurized by 'sound-bite politics'. 

America's partners in the long run are going to be Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey; all Sunni states in Middle East. Supporting Saudi's in their 'quest of oil market share' so as oil price keeps going down is one of the best strategies to pin down both Iran and Russia. Longer term Kurdistan, carved out of Iraq and Syria, is likely to be a potential ally. But that will not happen unless either Erdogan withers away or he consolidates his power in the Turkish Parliament. If Obama Administration finds it difficult to establish 'no fly zone', but Turkey and France are ready to do thatwhy not let them lead the coalition of West? After all 'leading from behind' will not be a new criticism for Obama Administration. Being in the last inning, Obama Administration is free of political pressures. Given that, why not exploit that freedom and ignore 'do something calls' (which lead to more miscalculations) to serve America's longer term interests?

'Been there, done that'; yes there is that feeling. However, retaining America's military presence indirectly (via advisers) in Iraq and directly in Afghanistan; Obama Administration should be still able to address 'direct terrorist threats' if those arise. Else it is all going to be a patient long game while allowing partners to take lead and waiting for the new occupant of the White House. And since all other 'interventions' have yield poorly in any case; it might not be a bad idea.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Commentary - Interview of Asaduddin Owaisi of AIMIM

AIMIM (All India Majlis – e – Ittehadul Muslimeen) is viewed as extreme right winger Muslim party, an equivalent of Bajrang Dal sort of. MIM - its pre-independence version - was openly supporting Razakars, the villains of the first order.

But AIMIM is not just the equivalent of Bajrang Dal or Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). It is much older – started in 1927. VHP was started in 1964 and Bajrang Dal in 1984. Furthermore, AIMIM has held a Lok Sabha seat of Hyderabad since 1984 (apart from winning upto 7 seats in Andhra/Telangana Assembly). Hyderabad became ‘cyberabad’ during this phase, but AIMIM held on.

In the last couple of years, it has started spreading outside Hyderabad.

In the Maharashtra assembly elections in 2014, it surprised everyone by winning two seats and being runner up in two more. The seats won were from Mumbai and Aurangabad. The two cities are not exactly adjacent, they are over 350 km away. Similarly, the cities where it was runner up, Parbhani is some 200 km from Aurangabad and 240 km from Solapur, the other place where it was the second. The reason for this kilometre maths is, AIMIM has penetrated in a reasonably diverse area.

To put this performance in perspective, Raj Thakare’s MNS (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) managed to win one seat and be runner up in five. Winner from Pune rural, runner up in four of Mumbai and one of Nasik constituencies; all from an area of a radius of about 100 km.

Now, AIMIM is entering Bihar elections, targeting only 24 constituencies from the Seemanchal region. And that has set the cat among the pigeons.

BJP leader and Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was candid enough to welcome this.

What has Asaduddin Owaisi got for the people of Bihar? This interview gives some very important insights. He deftly quotes NSSO (National Sample Survey Organization) data, claiming his share in the ‘development’ centric political space. He blames Modi, and comments on the recent name-changing brouhaha in Delhi (Aurangzeb Road becoming APL Abdul Kalam Road) in a manner that is too sober for BJP’s liking. He pushes for Dalit and Muslim unity, which, if it comes into reality, may hit like a cyclone to all major players.

In short, love him, like him, hate him, accept him, welcome him or ignore him. This interview gives you a peep inside his mind, a peep that you can miss at your own peril.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Limits of Modi's West Coast Charm

I liked Indian PM Modi's Facebook Townhall meeting. PM Modi came rustic, authentic and good. So far as his SAP Center speech goes, I am bit ambivalent. But to see USA power broker Nancy Pelosi hugging him along with other American politicians is a good thing. 

Xi Jinping of China got the State Dinner with Barack Obama and an audience with many other power brokers yesterday in Washington. He wrote a big check to Boeing on West Coast at the start of his trip whereas PM Modi simply pointed out 3 Ds to Mark Zuckerberg - Democracy, Demographic Dividend and Demand and got away without signing a single check to create a gold mine of media clips to be used in election campaign back in India.[1]

And that is the thing - it is not clear having a rock star reception among Indian Americans on West Coast; what difference it would make in political calculus of PM Modi back home. Will it help him to win Bihar elections? If so then one can agree that it is a needle moving exercise given the fact that Modi's reformist agenda is stymied by lack of majority in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha); when a paltry gang of 40+ Congress MPs deployed same tactics of NDA against Dr. Manmohan Singh's UPA to bring down Loksabha.

The problem with Modi's West Coast Charm is it is bit like "preaching to choir". He does not need to sound like a Goldman Sachs Investment Banker to say he wants to grow Indian Economy to 20 Trillions Dollar size. It will grow probably with him or without him.  No investor in the world needs any more 'sales pitch' about India; it is one of the rare spots in global economy which is not under pressure apart from USA. Everyone knows India's potential; the question is whether PM Modi's government is removing hurdles which otherwise are stopping all investments which would come to India. 

In other words, there is no point in donning Donald Trump or Carly Fiorina Persona - relentless corporate marketing pitch, chest thumping and evocation of Country's greatness all the time. That is what Vladimir Putin engages in and insecure Xi Jinping strives for assurances in stars and strips State Dinners. There is no need for PM Modi to go there; he is legitimately elected leader of the largest democracy in the world. The more he solves problems back home, the more vindications would flow automatically from all over the world and then there will not be any need for any such West Coast charm. Apart from Land Acquisition Reforms, Labor Reforms (hire and fire) and GST; any contemporary government of India needs to give attention to judicial reforms. It is not OK to simply nominate movies which highlights problems of India's court system. Unless and until we have a non-corrupt law enforcement and court system, India's Capitalism will be always in the danger of lack of enforcing commercial contracts.[2] How would you grow an economy when a business person does not have guarantee that transactions she would enter will be backed / enforced fully by the might of Indian State within a reasonable time period? It is sad that successive Indian Governments have failed to recognize and implement these crucial justice reforms and Modi's Charm West Coast omits this critical reform too. 

The fear is PM Modi, an honest and obviously social media made-to-order figure who rose from Chaiwalla to Delhi Gaddi; is essentially a manipulated figure of RSS. That RSS knows with a cunning sense that this 'rags to riches' story will be enough to consume Secular Media back in India as well as the global Media; while RSS unfurls its bigoted agenda. I hope I am wrong here because we are talking future of a billion plus Indian people. But the way BJP, and in effect RSS, is deploying PM Narendra Modi in a relentless global exercise of social media driven 'image management' when real hard work is back home; one wonders whether PM Modi is simply a pawn in the overreaching game plan of Hindu Nationalism.[3] I hope that is not the case. PM Narendra Modi is a legitimate, authentic politician and we all need him to succeed in his project of bringing prosperity to India. It just seems that for such prosperity to materialize,  he will need to work hard back home rather than any kind of victory laps in Silicon Valley.


[1] One of the interesting points for me was when PM Modi literally echoed Saint Ronald Reagan - "he wants to make Indian Government smaller". If PM Modi was a candidate in USA Republican Presidential Primary, those primary voters would have simply eloped at his feet....he was so pitch perfect there. To be sure, PM Modi is right here - Indian State does need to get small from its sprawling engagement in every part of Indian Economic Pie. That is the thing, which American Conservatives forget - the sense of proportion: whether Government should grow small or big depends on what is the current involvement. In India, sure Government must contract while in USA Government has a role to play

[2] It was height of non-sense when Communist Pranab Mukerjee of UPA government tried to extract Billions of Dollars bounty from Vodafone retrospectively. Narendra Modi's government should not have that problem as Modi - quintessential Gujarat business person - is correctly pro-business politician. India precisely needs such pro-business governing attitude and glad that Narendra Modi embodies that.

[3] The obsession of Indians to get a permanent seat in UNSC is astonishing. The problem here is many Indians treat UN and UNSC as a kind of world government where 'big boys' make the decision for the entire world. That may appear so in some cases, but Indians forget the fact that India is a country which is unable to solve her own border problems with Pakistan while wanting to play a global role. Also Indians conveniently forget that there are so many cases which are decided outside of UNSC, like how Iran Nuke deal was done with full participation of Germany or the global climate accord which India essentially wants to not own or global trade agreements which are happening irrespective of UNSC. When Chinese Economy trembles, producing shock waves all across globe; it is not UNSC which comes to rescue. Sure, India deserves a permanent seat at global affairs when one fifth of humanity is within her border and India proudly conducts her affairs in a democratic fashion. But all such reforms be UN's problem rather than of India's. I would rather prefer India enjoy all its prestige grow without the responsibility of being UNSC member until rest of the world feels that India is getting a free ride there.

Court - India's Entry to Oscar

The Oscar entry for India has been declared. 'Court', debut movie of a young director will start trending now on social and un-social media. Is the movie really worth it? Every TD&H would be asking that question. The answer would be primarily subjective.

Let's look at the intent behind the question from another angle. What is different or outstanding in the movie? Not the subject matter exactly. There have been enough films in the 'courtroom drama' category. For any film production manager in India, the location hunting for a courtroom is very structured. The location should have a place for the judge to sit some ten feet high, a wooden hammer for the judge, standard Government Issue photos (Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Indira Gandhi etc) on the wall behind him, enough space between the accused box and witness box to play football and equivalent distance between the judge and the audience. The casting for the opposing lawyers is easy. There is a good lawyer and there is a bad lawyer. In India, we don’t understand the concept of right and wrong, we have good and bad. Bad lawyer will always ask embarrassing questions to women witnesses and twist the truth. Good lawyer will look constipated.

‘Court’ breaks away from this and gives a very natural, very real perspective of looking at any court and court case. Those who have had an occasion to visit a real courtroom (I have had quite a few occasions) can immediately relate to the ‘realness of the ambiance' as depicted in the movie. The story-line is simple enough. A lok-shahir, people’s poet, is arrested. The charges are usual like creating social disturbance; as well as an unusual one - abetting suicide. The film takes the viewer through journey of this court case. No, it doesn’t start at the start and end at the end. It presents sub stories by focusing on the characters individually. In a way, it is a sequential structure of sub-stories. These sub-stories are told in a perspective that beautifully balances between fiction and non-fiction.

The acting performance of all actors is simply superb. It is quite understated, but the understatement doesn’t become stereotypical and superficial like Dilip Kumar’s acting. Only the actor playing the role of the defense counsel is quite awkward. But that seems to be a ‘tactical adjustment’ (he is also producer of the film). The film would have substantially improved on its impact quotient, had the role been played by say Sandeep Kulkarni of Dombivli Fast. Other actors, especially an obscure actress named Usha Bane has given a performance that grows beyond the word ‘exemplary’.

In this film, music comes as an integral part of the story, not as a gaudy and out-of-place patch. The songs are easy on eyes, ears and brain. The location selection is amazing. After a long time, the locations play a part in the story as importantly as the characters on screen.

On the whole, the movie is definitely worth watching. But beware, it will claim some brain space and come home with you. You can’t escape thinking about it for a couple of days afterwards. Once again, is the movie really worth it? Well, find your own answer!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Beyond Boehner

“In this case there is no ‘House of Cards.’ ”
-- Xi Jinping, Chinese Communist Party Chief

I guess Speaker John Boehner thought the most impressive and emphatic way to negate Chinese President would be to ignite the real House of Cards. [1]

I like John Boehner. My political preferences do not align with his politics, but that is OK; the guy did the politics right. That is why I am sad to see him go.

I am sad to see him go because, I will be surprised if Republicans in House can find any other leader who will make the House work. They will not find any such leader not because Republican Party does not have any good politicians. It will be because, no matter who the leader is even if it is Saint Ronald Reagan (who the visiting Pope forgot to canonize when he did to someone else); the current House Republican Caucus cannot be united.

How do you tell the man to speak Truth when the whole survival of him is dependent on lying to People? That is the case with extreme conservative faction in Republican Caucus of House. These members who own their election in lying to their constituents that they can change the reality in Washington - like ending ObamaCare; like closing IRS, Fed, Education Department; stopping Gay Marriage; deciding birth decisions for women at risk; sending American Boys and Girls to wars places afar; like declaring Muslims are second class citizens in this Republic along migrants from Mexico; etc. - even when the White House is occupied by an opponent. These are the Representatives who essentially believe in election of only themselves and not in the national election of a Democratic President two times or election of filibuster-proof minority Democrats in Senate. That gang is completely oblivious to the political reality in Washington

Not just election of these extreme GOP members via gerrymandered districts depend on vilifying sensible Conservatives like Boehner; literal livelihood of likes of Rush Limbaugh and Heritage Action types depend on creating such chaos too. The more political chaos is created, the more economy gets hurt by all that; more it is all good for these Anger Merchants. More Washington descends into political turmoil, more the sale of their nonsensical, anti-science, anti-logic products to frustrated GOP primary voters. That is their business model, scalping Boehner is only a step in that direction.

The question is where will this internecine war among Republicans end. It is unlikely that the next speaker will make any headway in terms of governance. Governance is not on the agenda of these extreme Conservatives; their agenda is to ensue chaos and agitated environment until they get their way.[2] With ascend of such extreme views, it is difficult to see a Republican winner in 2016 elections. If it were a parliamentary system, we would have had split in the party to unblock the politics. Not sure whether rigid and finance driven American Political System will provide avenues for any such political realignment. Until then the 'rot' in Republican Party will continue and we will continue to see demise of good men like John Boehner from leadership.


[1] - Xi Jinping must be getting a first hand lesson in political openness is America. He must be noticing how political life of opponents of a so called weak president is no good and how in the end the same so called weak president outlasts his opponents. End of Boehner era is as much a story about 'crazy wing of Republican party' - no failure of John Boehner at all - as about the political durability of Barack Obama. You have a senate majority leader whose stated goal was to defeat Obama any which ways. He could not stop Obama reelection in 2012 nor subsequent policy enactments from Obama without Congress; meanwhile the other wheel in the Congress retires. While Xi Jinping is weakened politically due to ineffective management of Chinese economy despite massive aggrandization of power, here he will meet a leader who has brought his country's economy to a steady state as well as outlasting each of his political opponents. So much for the so called weakened power named USA!

[2] - I suspect this could be similar to the environment when Barry Goldwater pulled Republican Party to the extreme Right while winning the nomination but then losing White House in a massive land-slide against Republicans.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Commentary: How the cult of technology hampers development!

The development rhetoric in today’s India and indeed in many developing countries is dominated by techno-talk to the point of deification of technology. The techno-mania is shared across ideologies - be it Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar, or Chandrababu Naidu! By now, India has seen enough failures and disasters led by purely technology-oriented solutions and yet we do not seem to be drawing any lessons from it. What indeed seem quick fixes at first glance are actually evidences of lazy thinking and knee-jerk action. To illustrate the point in Toyama’s own words ‘In education, machines amplify pedagogical capacity. In other words, any positive impact of that technology requires good teaching first. The ironic consequence is that it's exactly the schools that most need help - the ones with under trained teachers or indifferent administrators - that technology has nothing to amplify'. 

This interview with Kentaro Toyama, a former technology researcher and ‘believer’ who spent several years in India and started Microsoft Research India in 2004 is likely not to get any immediate attention in the development din of today’s India. But now as a professor at the University Of Michigan and recently as the author of a strongly titled book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, we are likely to hear of him soon and repeatedly so. 

Lastly, this is an interview with an insider, not an armchair critic but someone who gave technology its chance for several years, and a disillusioned convert after his god failed him.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Daily Damage by BJP/RSS to Indian Culture

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, there has never been a dull day. This is the big change from the Manmohan era when the media had to take the full responsibility for keeping up a decent political decibel level through constant carping. But the daily dose of political excitement for above a year is now crossing the limits of tolerance for a democratic society in many senses of the term. While the concrete achievements of the Modi government in the realm of economy, infrastructure and foreign relations [apart from the territorial swap with Bangladesh]  are yet to unfold, the BJP-RSS duo have been hyperactive on the cultural front. It is almost as if the darkest dregs of the Indian subconscious have been unveiled on the public stage for everyone to face and examine. Is this what India really is?

Well, this also is India, face it!

Unfortunately this eye-opener comes after six decades of weak-kneed ‘political correctness’ of the Congress and the Left and other parties who never squarely faced the illiberal aspects of the Hindu and other religious traditions. It is doubtful if the Indian democracy can survive without coming face to face with these demons and battling with them with full gusto.

The cultural bulldozers of the BJP-RSS duo may be seen to be moving on five fronts apart from the periodically alleged engineering of communal tensions:
1. Daily political rhetoric,
2. By trying to appropriate national heroes like Sardar Patel, Subhash Bose and even Ambedkar, which may be taken to be a fair game,
3. Transformations at symbolic levels,
4. Institutional overhauls through proxies like Bajrang Dal, Sriram Sene and Sanatan Sanstha and 
5. Control of media and snooping through internet

Let me illustrate at least the very quotidian aspect through which the duo are questioning the way Indians live their daily lives. Here are some gems, just passing observation made in public that come from one person alone, Dr Mahesh Sharma, currently the Minister of State for Culture at the centre: "I don’t think Aurangzeb was an ideal person. Only a source of inspiration can be inspirational. Aurangzeb Road has been named after such a great man who, despite [emphasis added] being a Muslim, was a nationalist and a humanist, A P J Abdul Kalam.

"Gita and Ramayana reflect India's soul. But we also respect Quran and would include best thoughts from it. I respect Bible and Quran but they are not central to soul of India in the way as Gita and Ramayana are. As India's cultural minister, I recommend that Ramayana and Gita should be part of our school curriculum and I am working extensively with HRD Minister Smriti Irani towards this."

As for the symbolic aspects – the range is immense. Right from the rather paltry matter of changing a road name in Delhi from Aurangzeb Road to APJ Abdul Kalam Road to the deadly serious matter of changing the very colour of the national flag to saffron. The argument here is India does not need secularism as India never had to suffer from theocracy – it is plain as daylight that RSS is a very good attempt at theocracy in today’s context and yesterday’s closest semblance to theocracy was run by the Brahmins and the upper castes. 

But my question today is – is this madness here to last? Well, maybe not but may be too as the daily tampering also involves institutions such as the Indian Council of Social Sciences Research [ICSSR], Indian Council of Historical Research [ICHR], and Teen Murti Museum and Library and this is just a small list of inroads made by the present government. Clearly, the assumption by BJP-RSS is that these interventions will have a lasting impact. This is where the duo may just prove na├»ve. It is true that several regimes, most notably the Congress installed their own men in key positions but they stooped only so far. At any rate at the end of five years in 2019 another reversal may happen depending on who wins the elections. The fact remains the intellectual capital generated by the Indian Right, with the exception of economic policies has been so dubious and offbeat that ironically some intellectuals from the left-liberal stream have had to bemoan the absence of intellect on the Right. They consider it perhaps so crass it seems infra dig to even argue against the florid stupidities of the Right, understandably a frustrating plight for the argumentative Indian. 

Lastly, dear reader let me leave you with the rhetoric generated by our PM in his radio broadcasts called ‘Man Ki Baat’ [Straight out of the heart]’. The following are the highlights of the 12th session of the PM’s radio talk, a mega handshake between the meek citizenry and the visionary colossus. You can decide if the banality of such rhetoric will continue to impress the Indian citizen despite the tone of presumed intimacy and rapport. 
1. 30 Lakh people have given up their gas subsidy. Isn't this a silent revolution? 
2. Mann Ki Baat has become a source of information, it has created an opportunity for expression of social strength. 
3. Earlier it was "Khaadi for Nation", now the need of the hour is "Khaadi for fashion". In last one year sale of Khaadi has almost doubled [but the actual figures indicate a 6 per cent rise only].
4. On Diwali use mitti diyas [clay lamps]. This will help the environment and will help the poor as well. 
5. Mahatma Gandhi had said that if I have to choose between cleanliness and independence as a priority, I would choose cleanliness. We too should follow him. 
6. Over 50 members of Netaji's family will meet me in Oct 2015; it will be a moment of happiness for me to host such esteemed guests. 
7. In a democracy, every voter decides the future of the country. Our Election Commission has become a facilitator, voter-friendly, all policies, schemes are voter-centric, this is a very good change. 
8. Children should be curious. They should ask questions and learn more about science. 

Remember the cruel boredom of early morning school assemblies? I never recovered from the banalities of those speeches and have no idea how I escaped permanent brain damage.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Serve People, Not Ideology

"Service is never ideological for we do not serve ideas, we serve people" 

-- Pope Francis in Havana 

This is a timely, powerful advise from this popular Pope. In no subtle terms he is asking Cuban rulers to keep aside long past expired state ideology of Revolution and keep the focus on serving Cuban people. Till America had frozen relations with Cuba, Cuban Revolutionaries had an excuse to blame America. This Pope helped Barack Obama and Cuban rulers to unfreeze relations between these countries. It is time for Cuban Revolutionaries to get their act together and keep focus on Cuban people. Pope Francis is absolutely right in characterizing what is going in Cuba - slavish adherence to outdated Communist Ideology at the cost of people's welfare. It is not sufficient for Cuban rulers to grant only religious freedom to Cuban people. Equally important is Cuban Rulers open Cuba's Economy and grant the basic freedom of doing business to entrepreneurs. Cuba cannot just keep on circling around by retaining hurdles for booming private business. It needs to fully embrace private business and sensible reforms to embrace 'private property and foreign capital' fully. World and Cuban People can understand that full scale multi-party political system may take time and may have to wait.[1] But the priority should be accorded to open Cuban Economy and support private initiatives. That is the import of Pope's homely. 

Cuba is not the only country which needs some dressing down in this regard. America is in a desperate need of listening to Pope's advise too. Two centuries old democratic discourse of America sadly does not prevent her for falling for such extremism. Good that this Pope will get a chance to educate American Lawmakers directly and one hopes that he fully exploits it. There are lawmakers who are destroying American Jobs with impunity in the name of adherence to extreme Right wing Economic Ideology and with his sensible message, this Pope can help stop such insanity.

American Presidential Election Campaign is never known for any less controversial pronouncements or any civil discussion. But ever since Barack Obama occupied White House, Tea Party and essentially stupid Republicans are having a field day in making such outrageous statements in the name of freedom of speech. But even on this background of extremism, what Republican Candidate Ben Carson is saying is unacceptable and unthinkable - he says a Muslim cannot occupy White House. Our Constitution says:

"...but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

-- Article VI, American Constitution

There is no law to forbid a non-christian to be a president. The whole history of our Republic is separation of Religion from State and here we have a shameless candidate trying to impose his version of Christian Shariya on this Republic - again all in the name of serving some version of American Christian Ideology. There are always racists and Islamophobic extremist voters in this country. The job of someone seeking a public office is not to stoke such deranged thinking but to help these voters go away from such faulty opinions. Instead of that in Ben Carson (and to a large extent most of today's Republican field), we have an extreme form of pandering to Christian Evangelicals in America. It is not someone's religion which would disqualify a person for a public office in USA; rather it should be demagoguery which Carson is practicing here which should disqualify him for the public office. [2]

By reminding rulers that their job is to serve people and not ideology; Pope Francis has set an appropriate tone to his visit to USA. This land needs some education in this regard and Pope Francis is a perfect teacher to impart those lessons to our politicians at this time. We need to hear from this Pope:

"my religion is all about serving people and there is no place in my books for using religion to garner votes or to serve your political purposes".


[1] - Don't try to convince Marco Rubio or his cohort of Republicans who oppose any kind of legitimate economic relationship between these two countries. Again, for Rubio Ideology before pragmatic efforts to serve people. That same Rubio, we have never heard blaming Republicans of past for opening economic relations with China while we are still waiting for any kind of political liberalization in that mammoth Communist giant. It is always 'selective' logic with these politicians. 

[2] - Coming from India, it just amazes me that India had three Muslim, one lady and one Sikh Presidents; twice elected Sikh PM; gladly accepted a foreign born Christian as Chairperson of  the ruling coalition; elected twice ladies as speaker of house; twice elected a lady PM; all in relatively young life of Indian Republic. At no point anybody in India would tolerate the kind of non-sense Ben Carson is spouting here. Just because USA is shielded by oceans on two sides and historically there is much less migration of Muslim people to this land does not mean Ben Carson gets an opportunity to establish some kind of Christian Caliphat on these 50 states.