Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dangerous U-Turn

Over the last month, President Donald Trump has made some stunning reversals on his foreign policy agenda. A man who vowed to end the thoroughly unhelpful and endless US interventions in the Arab World, best highlighted by former President Obama's disastrous interventions in Libya and Syria, now seems to have completely overturned his own position and is ready to go beyond his predecessor in terms of regime change and, who knows, boots on the ground?

It all began with the horrific chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria, which the Trump administration has blamed on the brutal Syrian dictator Assad. If the allegation is true, it would not surprise anyone, for that is how Assad and his father before him ruled Syria with an iron hand. The US attack on a Syrian airbase from where the chemical attack was allegedly carried out was a just and fitting response to Assad - no dictator in this world should be allowed to use such Nazi methods without consequences. The attack oddly silenced the massive army of Trump critics in the US, with CNN going as far as calling him 'Presidential,' not that he needs the praise. As TAC rightly noted, nothing seems to please the Beltway like war. But this was not war - it was a warning shot to Assad, and the message was clear.

Except that the very next day, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Healey, decided to declare war anyway, explicitly stating that regime change is the goal of the Trump administration as far as Syria is concerned. This goes beyond what the Obama administration did (declaring war and looking for regime change without committing direct military intervention or even publicly committing anything) and is dangerous, because it will leave a void for al Qaeda and IS to fill, which they readily will. Like it or not, Assad represents the most credible bulwark in Syria against terrorism, just as Saddam Hussein did before he was bumped off in the invasion of Iraq. For some reason, all this feels like an old, dusted story - does Trump really want to have an Iraq of his own to deal with?

Trump's U-turn is dangerous, for reasons that he himself has pointed out many times before with respect to Iraq. Assad is a brutal dictator, and it is best to keep him in a constant state of worry about International humanitarian intervention - but not regime change. For, without Assad, Syria will fall to IS and AQ, completing the vicious circle started by Bush Jr. (Iraq) and Obama (Libya and Syria). And it will be the US that will bleed the most, while Saudi Arabia's skeleton 'Islamic coalition' (which is not even on paper yet!) watches. This is a policy that the US can do without. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Dramatic War

Hannibal: Fields of Blood
By Ben Kane

My latest favorite writer of historical fiction, in my staple era of the Roman Republic/Empire, Ben Kane, continues to warm my heart with some action-packed wartime drama (what else from Rome?). Continuing from Enemy of Rome, Fields of Blood is the second part of the tale of the Second Punic War, and the fighting gets more fierce than ever.

However, as is necessary for historical fiction, the principal characters from the previous book continue to develop. Kane does end up creating a whole new ensemble of characters to justify some of the storyline, and that quickly became confusing. That did not, however, affect the general flow of the story, which was written masterfully. Most importantly, I did have to keep looking back at the map of Italy, which goes to show how well-researched the work is.

I'll definitely be reading more from Kane in the coming months!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A lesson from Modi to Trump

Chaotic is perhaps a charitable way to describe President Donald Trump's first two months in office. His defeat at the hands of Democrats as well as his own Republicans on the AHCA in the House, as well as his double defeat in court over his EO on travel from certain countries, have severely dented his image as a 'deal maker'. At this point of time, all he seems to be decent at are signing EOs and talking trash to the media (which is a skill in itself). So where does he go from here?

Trump seems to have underestimated the amount of resistance built into the system that he will have to deal with. In that, he has parallels with Prime Minister Modi after his spectacular victory in 2014 and once-in-a-lifetime parliamentary majority. No sooner did the BJP win that majority did the Opposition decide to turn the Rajya Sabha into a veto against a democratically elected government; indeed, the Upper House is so powerful that the government has time and again resorted to the Money Bill route to bypass the reckless opposition there. In Trump's case, the Presidential system makes this even more complicated, for even though his party enjoys a majority in both houses, they are not beholden to the President. Indeed, in the AHCA case, it was the Republican Party itself that sunk the bill, helped in no small measure by Speaker Ryan's odd tactics (hiding the bill in the basement, for example). In Modi's case, the government had to eventually buy peace with the Opposition - or use very creative means to break its unity and thus corner naysayers. Trump will clearly have to do the same thing, but whether Speaker Ryan can do that or not is in question after the AHCA debacle.

But even before the legislative tussles, Prime Minister Modi faced a problem: leaks. In a government that has a permanent bureaucracy that has been leached by the Deep Congress for decades, preventing information from getting out before it was time was going to be very difficult. Indeed, one of Modi's earliest campaign's was to discipline the civil service and end the culture of leaks. And that has largely been successful: in the initial days, all sorts of speculation and information kept leaking out to the media in a case of Sore Loser Syndrome. But by the time of the last Cabinet reshuffle, not one journalist knew about Smriti Irani's surprise removal from HRD, which was the biggest headline of that event. Demonetization was another exercise that would've been impossible without a water-tight information system. This is not to say that the media should not have information - it is absolutely essential they should - but there is a difference between information and access. The media has a right to obtain information and pass it on to the public; journalists do not have a right to privileged and exclusive access to information that rightly does not belong in the public sphere (yet).

For President Trump, the task is somewhat more complicated. The US allows for many political appointees who can be removed by a new president, so Trump is not hobbled by a permanent bureaucracy (although there are career bureaucrats in the underbelly of the Beltway). However, the US Government is much larger than the Indian one, and Trump has been extremely slow in replacing political appointees for all sub-Cabinet level positions. His top priority should be replacing all of them - a witch hunt of leak-providers is a sheer waste of time when there is a much more effective solution. On controlling the bureaucracy, President Trump, who has a phone call with Prime Minister Modi on the BJP's victory in UP the other day, can certainly exchange a few notes. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The (very) Fast and Furious

Closing off this round of elections was the tiny coastal state of Goa. For a small state, politics in Goa is highly fragmented, with several small parties that have their local area of influence. In 2012, Manohar Parrikar was to Goa what Narendra Modi eventually became to India in 2014 - the tallest, most respected leader who had the total support of his party. But with Parrikar being moved to Delhi as Minister for Defense (and he did quite a splendid job there), and an ineffectual Laxmikant Parsekar superseding Dy. CM Francisco D'Souza to succeed him. Couple that with the defections in both the Congress (which lost some prominent members to the new formation, Goa Forward) and the BJP (over the medium of education issue), the turncoat MGP, as well as the dramatic entry of AAP in the state, and the water quickly became murky.

Before the elections, the Congress was virtually written off, having lost many members and being ridden with factions, led by a galaxy of leaders who were all short-lived CMs. However, its spectacular comeback under state president Faleiro Luizinho, defeating six sitting Ministers including Chief Minister Parsekar himself, made it the natural choice to lead a coalition. However, that's where the party was held back by its unending factionalism that was simply no match for the new Modi-Shah BJP. Within a few days, the party brought back Parrikar (who has hinted several times that he disliked working in Delhi), negotiated terms with the MGP and surprisingly Goa Forward, and cobbled together a majority. This is an even bigger achievement than in Manipur, where the party also sealed a coalition but with parties that it was already allied with outside the state. The fact that Parrikar was acceptable to Goa Forward speaks volumes of his dominance over the politics of Goa. And while all this was happening, the Congress was left fighting itself, with AICC-in-charge Digvijay Singh being unable to manage the situation. Thus, the Congress was left to lick its wounds and protest in Delhi, while Parrikar once again became Chief Minister in Panaji.

Two interesting and related outcomes from the state. One, with the defeat of so many ministers, a majority of the BJP's MLAs are now Catholics, while the Hindu majority is better represented in the Congress! This is quite a contrast to the party's strength at the national level, where it is the natural voice of Hindus. And two, AAP has once again proved to be all hype - or as the chief of Goa Forward Vijai Sardesai called it, 'Delhi pollution'. The party contested all 40 seats and lost its deposit in 39 of them - with its CM candidate Elvis Gomes finishing third in his constituency (and also losing his deposit). There's nothing more to be said of a party that has a part-time CM and full-time Twitter troll at its helm. 

Dodging a Bullet

In the historic 2014 elections, where the Modi wave decimated the opposition is almost the entire country, Amritsar was the seat that the Deep Congress chose to highlight, for it was there that Arun Jaitley, fighting his first ever Lok Sabha election, was defeated by the Congress. But the Punjab had a bigger story - after making history by returning the SAD-BJP government in 2012, the state not only defeated Jaitley, who is #2 in the Cabinet today, but also gave the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) four MPs, even while its own star, Arvind Kejriwal, was roundly defeated by Modi in Varanasi.

Cut to three years later, with AAP having formed a government in Delhi (again) with a near complete sweep of 67/70 seats, and the party rightly saw Punjab as ripe for the picking, hoping to free itself up from the glorified municipality that is the half-state of Delhi and take control of a full-fledged state. There was reason to be confident, there was vision, and there was determination. The only thing lacking was execution - which ultimately turned its hugely hyped campaign into a fiasco. For, AAP chose to be the most dishonest party of all. Now, all parties resort to lying to sell themselves - they make false promises, they create fake controversies. But few have been as brazen as to fabricate a victory altogether!

For the year preceding the election, the entire country (!) was subject to questionable 'independent' surveys that gave AAP over 100 seats in Punjab, thus another Delhi-like sweep. And this was not by some random party worker - it was by Kejriwal himself. And while these did confuse the electorate, three factors turned the pendulum against AAP:

  1. The party (i.e., Kejriwal) questioning the surgical strikes by the Indian Army in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, going as far as casting aspersions on the Army, in which a sizeable chunk of both jawans and officers come from Punjab itself. 
  2. The party (i.e., Kejriwal) hobnobbing with Khalistani elements in Punjab as well as abroad, which led to sheer panic among the electorate fearing the return of the dark days of militancy. The party was funded largely by Khalistani NRIs, who also made up a sizable portion of its volunteer base there.
  3. The party (i.e., Kejriwal) has performed dismally in Delhi as a government, making tall promises but failing to do much. Kejriwal himself is an absentee Chief Minister, only registering his presence in special Assembly sessions that he calls to hurl abuses at Prime Minister Modi under the protection of Parliamentary immunity. The party has kept its reputation as being one in perpetual protest mode, with nothing beyond that to offer, while also supporting anti-national elements in universities (the party's youth wing, CYSS, has failed to make any inroads in the state's universities). And the state's huge publicity budget has hardly done any good.
That the SAD-BJP government was unpopular was quite well-known, and its 18 seats are probably more than it should've even hoped for. The ailing senior Badal served a good 10 years as Chief Minister, after over half a century in public life, but his time in active politics has come to an end. His son, who has been the de facto CM for the last five years, will have to work to rebuild the party after this huge loss, in which the SAD will not even be the largest opposition party. 

As for the Congress, the clear winner was Capt. Amrinder Singh, who is now is his second stint as CM. That the Gandhi dynasty left him to take care of Punjab, making the right call to sideline Rahul Gandhi's crony Pradeep Bajwa, helped the Congress register its only victory in this election cycle (and the first in two years). He held off against a vicious assault by AAP, and has probably saved the state from a very dark future. 

In all of this, there is the curious case of Navjot Singh Siddhu, the former BJP MP who formed his own outfit but eventually joined the Congress after flirting with AAP for sometime. While he did take the right call to stay away from AAP, his effectiveness as a Minister in the new government is questionable. He is going to continue hosting his TV show, which is really the only thing he is known for now. Whether he won or lost is up in the air. 

New Dawn

Historically, with the exception of Nagaland and Sikkim, India's much neglected Northeast has been the pocket borough of the Congress, as the largest organized political force in the area. And while the planes of Assam have been contested in the past, the hill states there have been more or less forgotten by everyone else. Until Amit Shah became the President of the BJP, that is, when the region finally came up on the political radar. And while the BJP did have a token presence as a junior alliance partner with the NPF in Nagaland, and a small presence in Arunachal Pradesh, it was the defection of Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam that seems to have really turned the tide around for the party in the strategic region that was once abandoned by Pandit Nehru after the Chinese invasion.

Of these new territories for the BJP, Manipur perhaps represents the real opportunity that the party has in the region. In 2012, the party did not even exist there - it had zero legislators - and the CM Ibobi Singh had no opposition in the non-Naga districts (where the NPF's writ ran large). Then, almost out of nowhere, the BJP appeared on posters and rallies, with top party leaders campaigning in the state. BJP President Amit Shah himself came after the BJP office in Imphal was attacked to warn Ibobi Singh of consequences in the elections. Still, after all that, the Congress did come within striking distance of its fourth government there, at 28 seats, with 31 needed for a majority. But the genius of the new Modi-Shah BJP, quite unlike the previous Advani-Vajpayee BJP, is to never stop fighting.

With 21 seats and the largest vote share - a radical departure from being non-existent just one election back - the BJP's Ram Madhav (the architect of the BJP-PDP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir) and Sarma got the BJP's traditional partners - the NPF (with which it has an alliance in Nagaland), the NPP (whose late founder, Purno Sangma, was the NDA's Presidential candidate in 2012), and the LJP (which is part of the ruling NDA at the Center) - as well as a few independents, to cobble up a majority, thus making N Biren Singh the new CM and inaugurating the first BJP-led government in the state. Quite a riveting finish for a party that once refused to even try to form a government without a majority of its own (which it rarely won)! With this, the BJP is in government in four of seven states in the region, with Pawan Chamling's SDF in Sikkim supporting the NDA, thus leaving only Meghalaya and Mizoram.

Two important developments from this result. First, now that the NPF is in government in Manipur, the endless blockades there have to end. The Union Cabinet has recently approved the construction if a new highway to the state, but till the time that materializes, the BJP both in Imphal and Delhi will have to work to prevent more crippling blockades that are thoroughly inhuman and illegal. How the BJP is going to placate Meiti interests while simultaneously being in a coalition with the NPF will be Biren Singh's biggest headache, and the party is clearly not out of the woods yet.

And second, Irom Shamila, the Iron Lady of Manipur, who broke her fast to contest against Ibobi Singh, came a huge cropper with just 90 votes, less than the NOTA votes. While many in the right wing have panned her for being the darling of the Delhi establishment, the fact is that she was fighting for a just cause - AFSPA in Manipur has been in place for over half a century, and has not worked, and a political solution to the situation there has to be found sooner than later if we are to avoid losing another generation of Indians there. And yet, her defeat at the hustings despite being the icon of the civil society in the state shows just how badly she miscalculated her popularity. All is not lost - she can still spend the next five years doing community work, avoiding the shoot-and-run politics of Arvind Kejriwal. Politics is hard work and not for the faint-hearted. Unfortunately, she seems to have given up already. Still, we wish her luck in whatever she works towards next. Perhaps, she should retreat into her personal life now. She has been through enough for one lifetime. 

A new revolving door?

The tiny hill state of Uttarakhand was created out of the hill districts of UP in 2000, which were seen as being neglected by the leadership from the planes in Lucknow. Since then, the state has seen quite a bit of political instability (although not of the kind that Jharkhand experienced till the BJP's resounding win in 2014), changing CMs every other year. And, far from the hill districts getting their due, the two plane districts of Haridwar and Uddham Singh Nagar have seen their populations swell, while the hill districts continue to depopulate.

It was in this sad state of affairs that the beautiful state entered the 2017 election cycle, with a tainted administration under Harish Rawat. What most people in the Delhi media circle don't realize is that, even though UK has been separate from UP for almost two decades now, the politics of the two are quite interrelated, not least because young men and women still go to UP for work. Therefore, if Narendra Modi was sweeping UP, especially Western UP, then it could only mean that UK was also primed for a BJP sweep. And that's exactly what happened, with the BJP picking up a three-fourths majority in the hills, that too without a CM face. Added to this victory is the fact that many turncoats from the Congress also won on a BJP ticket (including in Roorkee, my home of three years).

The surprising selection on Trivendra Singh Rawat as Chief Minister only adds to the fact that this was a vote for PM Modi. That said however, UK seems to be settling in to the revolving door cycle, alternating between BJP and Congress governments in states where only the two are in contention, although in recent years, the BJP seems to be winning most of those contests. While this can be bad news for the current CM, it presents an opportunity for the state to stabilize politically, and hopefully lift itself from the mess it's in. For now though, the CM needs to finish the agenda of 2000 and find a permanent capital - if hat has to be Dehradun, so be it. 

The Modi Wave Part 2

Globally, sub-national elections don't get much thought outside their area of interest. When President Trump won the US elections, few people outside the US also knew that his party had swept a majority of Governor's Houses in the country as well. In Germany, the International media celebrates the defeat of AfD in federal elections, but quickly forgets their increasing clout in the states. And in the last round of assembly elections in India, UP in particular, all the self-declared experts got it wrong. Those who considered Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity to inevitably decline - quietly hoping for a 2004-style upset in 2019 - also got it wrong.

Ending the BJP's two decade long vanvaas in India's largest state (and also the world's largest sub-national entity by population, at over 200 million people) by leading from the front, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled off what even his supporter's would've never believed to be possible - a triple century in UP. A victory of such magnitude was not build from a few bastions, but was spread evenly by geography - from the Western UP districts of Saharanpur and Meerut, all the way to the East in Gorakhpur, home of the new CM Yogi Adityanath, and Varanasi, which the BJP swept entirely for the first time in its history. The many myths created by the Deep Congress - a wave in favor of former CM Akhilesh Yadav, the silent majority behind Mayawati, Jat anger against the BJP, the age-old tradition of Muslim consolidation, and more - were in vain, as the revenge of the establishment that was in full wave in Bihar and Delhi in 2015 collapsed without a trace.

For the BJP, this victory sets the stage for another Lok Sabha majority in 2019, giving Modi a second term as Prime Minister. This will not be easy, but it is now realistic. The Prime Minister's hard work and clever politics have registered with the people of India's largest state, without which a Lok Sabha majority is all but impossible. If the new CM, who is a popular leader in his own right, can keep the BJP's flock together in a notoriously faction-ridden state party, and deliver at a minimum on the law and order front by 2019, then the next general elections will be for the BJP to win. Make no mistake, the clock is ticking and the electorate expects performance.

The Congress continued its decline in the state, coming 5th after the BJP's ally, the Apna Dal, possibly its worst performance in history in the state. What's more, the party put everything into it - Rahul Gandhi personally campaigned endlessly while his sister Priyanka Vadra led the backroom negotiations with the SP. Self-proclaimed Chanakya, Prashant Kishore, first roped in former Delhi CM Sheila Dixit, and then unceremoniously dumped her, as the party's CM nominee. In a matter of weeks, it went from #27SaalUpBehaal to #UPkoYehSaathPasandHai! And yet, it made no difference for the Congress. Their real problem is that they've become the Muslim League of this century - seen as being actively anti-Hindu, with no agenda other than 'protecting' Muslims, while keeping them in abject poverty. In the face of an aspiration for a better life and nationalism, they simply have no answer at all, and it doesn't help that their leadership (the Dynasty) does not have the slightest clue as to how to build a party organization, wrongly believing that the Delhi media can substitute for it.

The SP, as the incumbent, did quite badly, but that is not a big surprise. What's more surprising is that the whole drama of the war in the Yadav clan, and Akhilesh Yadav - 'Mr. Clean' - breaking with his corrupt family, came a cropper. Which is not to say that Akhilesh was not popular - he was - but that popularity alone could not translate into votes. It goes back to the fundamental fact of winning elections - you need organization and strategy beyond, and a real message. Akhilesh lacked all of them, and his own personal popularity couldn't make up for that.

If the Congress has been on the decline in UP since the 80s, the BSP's defeat may just spell doom for the party. From winning  simple majority in 2007, Mayawati first lost big time in 2014, and has now lost again in UP. The person who nourished ambitions to be Prime Minister should now really wonder how she can even become the leading opposition in the only state where the party has any sizable presence. This time, she tried to forge a Dalit-Muslim combination, going as far as preceding campaign rallies with Quranic recitations, but the fact is that aside from Jatav voters, who are spread too thin, Dalits themselves are not buying it. Thus, her core constituency is not with her any more, and any attempt to create a larger coalition will fail without a stable nucleus.

Lastly, this election has ramifications for the rest of the country, as well. This is the third consecutive election that has given a clear majority to a single party, firmly ending the coalition era in the state. And while coalitions do exist in many other state, they are clearly not here to stay. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A new beginning!

Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
By Ben Kane

Ah, Rome! From the ashes of the Empire that went down fighting (twice) have come many a work of historical fiction. Robert Harris was the one to have gotten me hooked to Cicero and the tumultuous transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. But I will be the first to admit that I know very little about the entire breadth of Roman history. Well, one century at a time.

One period of Rome's history that I have remained blind to is the Punic Wars - yes, I did hear of Carthage courtesy video games, but I had no idea that the Roman adjective for them was 'Punic'; and yes, I heard of Hannibal, but that's just about it - I had no idea about his miraculous trek through the Alps into the very heart of Rome. Now, courtesy Ben Kane's Hannibal: Enemy of Rome, I can start a new chapter and learn about that period.

Don't get me wrong, the novel is not written as a history textbook. But, as the author justifies, a lot of it is based on actual events and even actual characters, thanks to the Roman fetish for maintaining detailed records. Having finished this book, I intend to find the next one in the series. I think I've found a worthy successor to Harris (until he comes out with something new, that is)!

Worth a watch

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Produced By: 20th Century Fox, Marvel
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, and others
Pros: Good story, good VFX, no dragged-out action scenes
Cons: Too long
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Finally! After being subjected to the twin tortures of Zoolander 2 and Dirty Grandpa, I found a good movie to watch. Of course, it was hardly a risky affair, coming from the already popular - if slightly overdone - X-Men franchise. And, as has been the case with the last couple of films in the series, the story is going somewhat backwards, introducing some characters in less-than-flattering terms.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a standard formula film - it gets a good story from the comic books (with some modifications - credit due there), and melds it with good VFX and cinematography, basically doing everything by the textbook. Which is sad, because the director seems to have expended minimal creative energies to improving on the story - if anything, Bryan Singer should've tried to avoid some unnecessary sequences and bring down the length of the movie.

One problem with action films recently is the excessively long action sequences that go on for far too much time (cough,... Transformers...). Apocalypse steers clear of that - the sequences are timed as needed, and does not make you yawn. Overall, a movie you should consider watching. (OTFS)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Fadnavis Wave

Typically, municipal elections don't get much national coverage - the issues are hyper-local, the candidates unknown outside their wards, and the larger impact limited. But in one of India's most urbanized states, Maharashtra, and the city government of one of Asia's richest metropolises, Mumbai, rarely have municipal elections become so big. The reason? Things are changing in the state.

Today's municipal results in the state can be described as the culmination of two simultaneous and connected waves - a wave in favor of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who many in the right wing see as a worthy future successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi once he chooses to leave public life; and a pro-saffron wave that decimated the so-called "secular" bandwagon led by the Congress and NCP. For those two parties, which ruled the state for 15 years until they were unseated in the Modi wave of 2014, the results today come as a reminder of just how much ground they have ceded.

Consider first the Fadnavis wave. Less than 5 years ago, the BJP was a bit-player in Maharashtra, with only some influence in Vidharbha because of the influence of the RSS. Since 2014, Fadnavis has used political tactics together with a strong development plank (no doubt borrowed from Modi himself) to decimate the NCP which, unlike the Congress, used to have a fairly loyal and strong voter base. On top of that, he had reduced the Shiv Sena to the second pole of the state, with the BJP now the biggest party, controlling a plurality of local bodies, not to mention being the senior coalition partner in the State Government. The results are for all to see - in Mumbai, once a Sena bastion, the BJP has come second on its own, and first if you count pro-BJP independents. True, the BMC is now hung and there is going to be a major tussle for the post of Mayor of Mumbai, but the fact is that this was considered impossible a few years ago. Nothing says it like numbers: the Sena offered the BJP all of 60 seats to contest in an alliance; Fadnavis refused and broke the alliance, and won 82 seats.

Which brings me to the saffron wave. Although the BJP and Shiv Sena are clearly at loggerheads, with the latter threatening to pull down Fadnavis' government (their threat to pull out of the Central Government is mere symbolism, because the BJP has a blackmail-proof absolute majority of its own in the Lok Sabha), the fact is that they both represent the same general space in Indian politics (which is why they are fighting in the first place). As one tweet put it so well - it is center-right versus far-right in Maharashtra. Between them, the BJP and Shiv Sena control a strong majority of local bodies in the state as well as the state government itself. The NCP has been severely weakened by Fadnavis' policies regarding APMC markets and his successful Jalayukt Shivir program, not to mentioned Sharad Pawar's retirement from active politics (his daughter is more a Rahul Gandhi-image). And the Congress is and has been on a national meltdown since the 2013 round of assembly elections - the party is actually the biggest loser in Maharashtra (after the MNS, but that is a story of its own).

Will these elections have national reverberations? Highly unlikely - not even Mumbai has that much clout. However, they will have one immediate impact on the ongoing elections in UP, which is proving to be difficult for all the three major groups fighting there. Prime Minister Modi, in an election rally, brought up his party's strong performance in Odisha  local polls in a bid to convince UP voters (and this may work, because as FiveFortyThree rightly says, Indian voters tend to have a winner-take-all psyche). No doubt he will do the same with Maharashtra - and remember, the vast number of migrants from UP in Mumbai, all enabled with Whatsapp, can be a potent force-multiplier.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Oh, the torture

DIRTY GRANDPA (2016)

Producer: Lionsgate, and others
Director: Dan Mazer
Starring: Zac Efron, Robert de Niro, Zoey Deutch, Aubrey Plaza, and others
Pros: -
Cons: Everything
Rating: Don't even bother

It seems 2017 is going very badly for me in terms of what films I watch. First there was the epic disaster called Zoolander 2, and now I had the misfortune of subjecting myself to Dirty Grandpa, a pathetic attempt at sleazy humor that was not funny in the least, and was boring at best. I am not being overly harsh here - even bad movies have gotten at least one star from me in the past. But this one was in a league of its own.

This movie has only one thing going - beautiful bodies (except Robert de Niro's, that was... never mind). That's it. The storyline is flimsy at best, the characters are entirely random (Zac Efron does a particularly bad job oscillating between good boy and nut job), the less said about the acting the better... need I go on?

Recommendation? You've got to be kidding me. (OTFS)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Talking about Fake News

Ever since Donald Trump beat virtually everybody to be elected to the US Presidency, a lot of talk has been going around about 'fake news' being the means by which Trump managed to 'fool' the electorate, because of course those who voted for Clinton were the enlightened lot. This has been attributed to some sly teenagers in Eastern Europe, or to a 400 pound person in bed. The term was then taken over by Trump when he called CNN, 'fake news', which he has used repeatedly. It goes perhaps to the political genius of Trump that he showed the mirror to the mainstream media and used their own term on them!

But the term 'fake' has a certain connotation to it - it implies that everything coming from the media is the truth. In that respect, it is as much as a condemnation as it is self-praise. Except that it isn't true - the credibility of the media, world-over, is at such a low that hardly anybody believes what so-called journalists say. The trend of 'celebrity journalists' - people who are better known for their opinions than their ability to report news - has only added to this.
What we get from the media today is some facts, massively distilled through the fire of the journalist's personal opinions. And, as media is increasingly controlled by a few big corporations, these journalists then to be a part of the elite, possibly the most-hated class in the world today (and perhaps since the dawn of history?). Thus, trust in the media has declined. It didn't help that most big media houses were confidently proclaiming that Clinton would win the elections, and had to eat crow when Trump won.

So what really is fake news? There is the obvious candidate - downright untruths peddled as facts. But there is a more subtle form of fake news: opinions masquerading as facts. It used to be called propaganda once, but today it is basically CNN every night. The death of 'truth' came when news and opinions were melded seamlessly on prime time news. Trump has merely reminded the media of that 'fact'.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Republic Day Lecture: The Judicial Republic

In the grand scheme of things, the concept of the separation of powers is fairly new. For much of human history, the tribal leader, and later the King (and sometimes the Queen), was the one who made rules, executed them, arbitrated disputes, and handed out punishment. If not directly, then the ruler would delegate powers - but those powers would ultimately flow from one. The idea of electing the leader came next - but, as in France, that leader was still all-powerful. The idea of separating and limiting powers is fairly new, and therefore, quite untested.

Ideally, separation of powers calls for the legislature to create laws, the executive to implement them, and the judiciary to hear appeals about those laws. However, each of these is, at the end of the day, run by fallible humans, and it does not work as well. The classic case is when the executive usurps the legislature and creates law. While Nazi Germany is an extreme case, even within India, the 10th Schedule has essentially made it difficult for the elected majority to act against the executive in Parliament, even if they disagree with them. Thus, in India, the government at least controls the legislature, although the opposition prevents it from de facto legislating.

The Benevolent Leader
But India's experience with Westminster democracy is by no means unique. True, the 10th Schedule institutionalizes the hold of the party on both the executive and the legislature, but even without such an institutional setup, many democracies have a patronage system that more or less ensure the same thing. Perhaps that is the very nature of the system, which a Presidential system consciously avoids by separating the mandates of the two branches. Regardless, the founding fathers of the Indian Republic felt it suitable to have this system, as do many countries that are not doing that badly either.

What is fairly unique to India though, is the usurping of both executive and legislative powers by the judiciary. There is no other country in the world where judges appoint themselves, making them completely unaccountable to elected representatives or even the people, for that matter. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Indian Supreme Court is quite unique in the way it orders inquiries, institutes taxes, hears cases with extremely diluted locus standi requirements, frames regulations, and in some cases, interprets the Constitution in exactly the opposite way as the most obvious interpretation would be.

Not all of this is a bad thing though. It was the Supreme Court which outlawed the inhuman practice of ragging in colleges, possibly saving many lives in the process. In many cases, the court is the last resort for many in the face of an ineffective government and an unconcerned legislature. And yet, these is always a slippery slope - last year, in ordering people to stand for the National Anthem in theaters, the court stunningly declared that there are no individual rights, but only community rights, a move that would have made Ambedkar cringe, for he knew what community rights meant for Dalits.

The Making of a Democracy
Speaking of Ambedkar though, he never did see the Constitution as the final solution to the problems of India. He famously called it a window dressing over an inherently undemocratic country, yet he knew that it was the only chance to give a voice to those who had none. Liberalism, democracy, and free markets are the only escape for those historically oppressed. But if a Benevolent Court could order away all problems, why did he and his colleagues bother?

Because the truth is, the Court cannot fix everything. It can be a huge thorn in the political machinations of the other branches of government, but if push comes to shove, it will be ignored. As it is - there are several rulings (which are really more regulatory in nature than judicial) that states are simply sitting on. The tyranny of distance also helps - the Court can summon any officer in Delhi and would get an immediate hearing, but in far away states, it would be ineffective. What else explains the fact that old diesel vehicles seem to pollute only Delhi's air?

The truth is, as Justice Katju said, the court is so overwhelmed by pending cases, it would rather not deal with them. The courts cannot fix our democracy - only people can. And by that, I do not mean some reckless revolution. The thing about democracy is that it takes a very long time, and is quite ugly. But it lasts. The Supreme Court can dictate quick fix solutions for the BCCI, but once its attention shifts, it will be business as usual, because whoever it appoints will be people from this very society, cloth from the same yarn.

The Judicial Republic, which the recently retired Chief Justice seemed to like very much, is a myth, a chimera to sooth well-meaning hearts. A better democracy will be a long journey ahead - and there are not going to be any shortcuts.

Happy Republic Day!
Jai Hind!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

What just happened?

ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

Produced By: Red Hour Films and others
Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Penelope Cruz, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, and others
Pros: Creative
Cons: Not funny, poor acting, boring
Rating: * of 5 (1 of 5)

Oh boy, comedy - that genre that everyone thinks they can do, but few actually do well. I confess that I dislike most movies in the genre for, with the exception of a few, most of them cross the fine line between funny and ridiculous. Zoolander 2 not only crossed that line, it completed a marathon beyond it.

One word describes this movie best: boring. It was not funny at all - most of the jokes were flat and childish. Sure, Penelope Cruz had some funny stuff in her arsenal, but it just felt so hollow in the setting that it made no real difference. The movie was creative, in that the director took care to make it as absurd as possible and present that as the USP. Well, it certainly was a USP that the director deserves credit for - but that's just about it. And, to top it all off, the acting was pretty poor and barely believable. Overall, a sad mess of a movie. (OTFS)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Note: The Future of OTFS

I know that typically, the New Year's Resolutions are the last post of the year, but I had to address the drastic fall in posts on this blog this year. October had a measly 4 posts - just one a week, and about half the year has seen less than 10 a month. That is not acceptable. However, it is also a fact that it has been a busy year, and I now have very serious responsibilities of the kind I did not have 10 years ago when I started OTFS.

However, my experience has been that the blog helps me focus. I've recently learned a little about cognitive sciences and how spacing big tasks in between little ones can help. And of course, as always, writing is the ultimate stress-buster. And so I intend to continue writing, at whatever pace possible. This year had no series, and I am aware that I left the Doc on PVNR unfinished. I just don't have the time, and I doubt I'll have it next year. Changes will have to be made, the blog will have to be reinvented to meet the needs of the time.

And reinvented it shall be. The first 10 years have been great and memorable. Why should the next 10 be any less?

New Year's Resolutions, 2017

Yes, yes, it's that time of the year again, when pointless promises to nobody in particular will be made, and we can then move on. I went back to what I said on Dec. 31, 2015, and I had mixed feelings. I met maybe half my resolutions - which isn't all that bad. But then, I realized that I just push some resolutions forward. Should I stop doing that? Or is perseverance a virtue here?

Well, at this point of time, I don't really care anymore. It's been a good year - not only did I have my first journal paper, I also had my second (both first author). I passed my qualifying exam, and ran several CFD simulations, simplistic as they might be. I TAed my first class, and retrained my mint-condition 4.0 GPA (why am I still proud of that?). I won an award at a conference, I made new contacts and started to establish myself beyond my adviser's shadow. I designed two new websites, learned Linux, Python, and LaTeX, significantly increased my knowledge of computational mechanics. And as if all that was not enough, I lost 25 lbs, dropped 4 inches in waist size, reinvented my diet. and finally, finally got my drivers license. And the cherry on top of the icing: I won a bet and saw Donald Trump win the election!

Could it get better? No, really. If winter comes, can spring be far behind, as Frost once asked? However, if spring is here, can winter be far behind? After such a spectacular year, is 2017 going to be a horrible one? Murphy's Law? Well... maybe. That's true for every year, and every day in fact. I am happy that this past week, I have probably been more productive than ever before. There are still some big-ticket items to get through, but a lot of ground has been covered. I'm not sure if 2017 will be bad, but it will be challenging, that is certain.

So let's add to the challenge and get it over with. Next year, as CEE Transportation Instructional Fellow (the first and maybe only?), I will teach my first class, the culmination of years of patience and steadfastness to be what I imagined. Will it be as wonderful as I had hoped, or will I, like so many of my peers, become disillusioned by the idea of having to teach a bunch of ungrateful undergraduates? Again, I have no idea, but I do intend to give it my very best - if for nothing else, because the kids are spending money, and deserve it. A simple transaction.

But there's more I intend to do next year. Yes, I finally hope to buy that car, and move into a studio. I hope to take my prelim next year, which will be crucial to meet expected timelines. That means I will have to finally master ANSYS and AWS, and maybe even write my own CFD code, all of which will be challenging, as a PhD should be. Of course, I hope to publish at least one more journal paper (I'm already guaranteed two more conference papers). I may finally stop taking courses to that end, but I am always open to taking any good, useful courses (which means almost none of those left in CEE). I hope to continue losing weight and reach my goal of 150 lbs - although that will be very challenging indeed. I would like to finally move to real strength training and build muscle, and maybe move cardio back to the park.

Well, that's quite a lot to do, and it will keep me busy. If I do it, that is. But hey, in predicting the future, anything goes, so why not aim that high up?

Kafkaesque, as they say

Amerika
By Franz Kafka

In the high tables of the intellectual world, being Kafkaesque can be a double-edged sword: while certainly it is difficult to write in that peculiar style perfected (?) by Kafka himself, and to imagine such a bizarre world without blinking an eye, it would be an overstatement to say that it was somehow good (whatever that means) literature. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand suggested that a good writer of fiction is deliberate and meticulous. Kafka's Amerika betrays neither of those qualities - indeed, if the intention was to write a novel that would be 'good' today, it would fail badly. To be fair of course, he didn't really want to publish this work (as we are told in the preface), but I am told that this is a mere sampling of a trend.

Intent is the key here, really. I suppose if the intent was to present this very style, then yes, there was both deliberation and a meticulous dedication to meeting the end goals, even if a few details were left out in between (Oklahama?). Perhaps that's why Kafka has generated so much chatter. If only we could travel back in time and see how he wrote his work in Prague - or maybe we can check if he had a supply of weed?

Marvelously Brilliant

A Review of The Man in the High Castle

Historical fiction (together with science fiction) forms the majority of my literary interests. I have often said however, that most historical fiction is quite crude, based on just a handful of facts and a large dollop of anachronistic fiction - some authors prefer to mix American slang with ancient Rome! On top of that, when a book is adapted into a movie or TV show, it often undergoes enhanced degradation, having to reimagine the setting to suit modern audiences with little patience for nuance. Indeed, when it comes to predicting how good a work of historical fiction - whether a book or the adaptation - is, it is usually safe to err on the side of pessimism.

The Man in the High Castle, the award-winning series from Amazon, beat the odds. I don't even remember another instance of the adaptation being better researched and presented than the original material itself! Having seen Season 2 and the expansive usage of accurate Nazi history to reconstruct an entirely different scenario was wonderful to say the least. It was well-researched, no doubt, and it in fact went against the grain of the original novel by focusing on the Nazis as opposed to he Japanese, no doubt a challenge for he team building it. In the end, it came out marvelously, and I look forward to Season 3!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Deep Insights

The Art of Teaching
By Jay Parini

Next semester, I will be teaching my first-ever class of Civil Engineering undergraduates and graduate students, marking (finally) my entry into college teaching, a professions I have coveted for years. However, the closer the first day of the new semester comes, the more anxious I feel: what exactly is going on the students' minds? Are students listening to me? Am I trying too hard?

And so I picked up this little book, the thoughts of a now-senior professor of English literature, containing his views based on his many years of teaching. Some of it I could well-relate to: how having classes can help you to organize your day, making such days far more productive than those without. His views on teaching as an art rather surprised me, for I always thought that teachers are just good by themselves, but Parini says that they become good through deliberate practice. Thus, a professor must not only prepare for a class in terms of content, but also in terms of how that content is delivered.

Some parts of the book, particularly on discussing politics in class, I could not relate to because it is irrelevant to engineering education. Moreover, I strongly disagree with it, although it was insightful nonetheless. In the end however, you can only read so much - the time to teach is less than a month away, and practice makes perfect!