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.

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[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.

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[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".

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[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.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Book Review: 'Emergency - A Personal History' by Coomi Kapoor



Coomi Kapoor has been a journalist for over four decades now. Her style of journalism was more inclined towards gossip than ‘learned’ and ‘academic’ writing. Well, let’s face it, gossip mongering is one of the most basic human instincts!

Some dig gossip about film stars and some other about sportspersons (read Cricketers in the Indian context). There is yet another group that digs gossip about politicians. I confess that I belong to the third group.

Coomi is also ‘well-connected’. Her father was an ICS, her sister is married to Subramaniam Swamy, and she is married to fellow journalist Virendra Kapoor. Together with her husband, she keeps a close watch on the corridors and doorways and windows of all the relevant places. Its not for nothing that Outlook magazine described the husband-wife pair as the ‘gossip cartel’ of Delhi!

This book does mention ‘A Personal History’ in the title. So she has declared her intentions well in advance.

But the book doesn’t get stuck in the ‘personal’ details, and there are many that she could have harangued about. Virendra Kapoor was arrested under MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) – a draconian act that was totally immune from any judicial review, the Fundamental Rights promised by the Indian Constitution notwithstanding. He was transferred to another jail and even getting to meet him once a month was an ordeal for Coomi and her few month’s old daughter. Virendra’s crime was that he raised his voice against Ambika Soni, the all-powerful associate of the reigning prince Sanjay Gandhi. Ambika had ordered thrashing of a boy who had the temerity to distribute some pro-democracy leaflets in a government program.

The book is a very captivating read that takes the reader through a variety of angles and perspectives. The division of chapters is intuitive enough and she manages to bring out a holistic picture of the intriguing phenomena called Emergency.

She doesn’t stop at 1977, when Emergency was lifted. She follows through with her Epilogue, tracing what happened afterwards, and what became of the cast members of the epic saga. In applicable cases, she provides the details till today.

The foreword is by one of the ‘interested parties’, Arun Jaitley. And yet, he has managed to maintain a reasonable balance and sanity.

Fear mongering about Modi’s intentions seems to be a popular pastime these days. I have nothing for or against it. I just noticed that we managed to suffer through the regime of and topple an equally big (if not bigger) megalomaniac. And compared to today, that happened in the era of total lack of communication. Forget about Facebook and Twitter, or even email; those were the days of postal mail and inter-city phone calls that would need hours and sometimes days to connect. Computers were mostly unheard of and internet was beyond fantasy.

It gives me hope.

Publisher: Penguin-Viking
First Edition: June 2015
Price: Rs 599