Friday, January 5, 2018

The Long Night

It's been a long two weeks. Stretching out all the way from Christmas Eve to today, Champaign, and almost the entire Midwest, has been covered in snow and blanketed by a thick arctic air mass that has sent temperatures plummeting. In the last four and a half years, I've gotten used to cold temperatures in this town - indeed, on the whole, December was actually quite warm. However, the last week in particular, as the arctic air mass has descended even further south (amazingly, bringing snow to Florida for the first time in a century), saw records lows being broken and prolonged periods of wind chill watches/warnings. It's rarely been this bad, and never for this long, as far back as I've been here.

This extraordinary weather has been hard to deal with. I've been too scared to drive anywhere because of all the snow still on the roads, I've avoided going to the gym for weeks for fear of the cold, and of course, my heating bill doubled. Oh, it has been very hard indeed.

Fortunately, the forecast looks to be warm next week (unfortunately, most of my time then will be spent in DC), followed by one last shot of frigid air, and then a return to normal. Although it's become cliche to say that I can't wait, I actually can't wait to graduate and leave this place. I really don't know how people manage to live here in this weather their entire lives!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year's Resolutions for 2018

As has become somewhat of a ritual, I went back to my post from a year ago, on New Year's Even, 2017. A very different day indeed!


Also, as has become a ritual, I make some resolutions, some promises, to nobody in particular, except myself, perhaps. Most of the time, these resolutions bomb and I keep having to move them forward by another year. Somehow though, 2017 was different. Magnificently different, for I seem to have not only met every resolution, but moved well beyond them as well. I would daresay that 2017 has been the best year of my life.

Let's review. I taught my first ever class in the Spring semester, a momentous event that was mixed in outcomes but hugely enriching in terms of what I learned. Contrary to my fears of becoming disillusioned by teaching, I loved the experience, and I am sure that this is the right career choice for me. It was also a challenging semester as I was determined to take my prelim this year, for which I had to fight tooth and nail. And of course, I took perhaps the most satisfying course I ever took, CSE 566, where I had my first go at using a supercomputer, and put my recently-acquired Linux skills to use.

Come the summer, and I finally took my prelim, passing it with ease, and thus setting up the stage to make my final lap as a student. I then bought by car (finally!) and learned the many intricacies and costs associated with having one. At the same time, my exercise goals came ever so close to fruition - I reached 155 lbs, just 5 lbs below my target. But as always, the storm clouds were gathering. Towards the end of that summer, I made my first trip to Hong Kong for a conference after going through hell to get my visa. I took the time to also visit India and renew my visa - and got hit by a 221(g). While that turned out to only be a minor delay, it really opened my eyes to how temporary everything was, and why I need to decide my future sooner rather than later. I was very, very scared. A silver lining though, was the acceptance of my fourth journal paper, and thus making my entire MS Thesis published. 

I did come back to the US though, missing only a week of the semester, and also Quad Day, unfortunately. I also moved in to my new apartment, a studio, thus finally ridding myself of the menace of roommates. The following weeks took me to Canada after just barely getting my visa, and Newfoundland was a wonderful place to visit. Back in Champaign, I tried to continue my muscle-building regimen and hoped to lose the weight I had put on in India. And that's where I tore my ACL. I never imagined before in my lifetime that I would have a sports injury - someone who never played a sport can't get injured by one, right? But there I was, limping around, in excruciating pain, at least for the first couple of days. After the headache of the rest of the summer, I had had it. I was going to pick myself up.

And raise myself I did. I attended my first ever concert, with The Script at the SFC, dragging my sorry leg to the venue. I got back to the ARC, which I permanently moved to. I signed up for next year's 5K and have put myself to training for it. I took one of my most challenging classes, ME 411, here. I never got back to the 150-160 lbs range, but my weight remained stable. And then, I won my second award at the 6th Student Symposium, adding a totally unexpected line to my CV. Talking about CVs, I began my one year as a Mavis Fellow, and thus began the long process of preparing for the job market (website - check, teaching statement - check, CV - check). I've also doubled-up on things to do to finish my dissertation and graduate.

So yes, it has been a long and eventful year, and I did everything that I wanted to do. Now, what's left? Here are my resolutions for next year. I would like to defend - this is a very big one that will be hard to keep, but I will definitely try my best. That will entail finishing (and in many cases, starting) some big-ticket projects that won't be easy, but they have to be done. I hope to also drive on the interstate at least one more time, once the weather improves. I resolve to submit at least four new journal papers this year - very ambitious by all counts, but do-able. I resolve to get the Graduate Teaching Certificate to cap off the "Awards and Honors" section of my CV. And I resolve to keep my mind-condition 4.0 GPA (that just barely survived this semester).

That's the academic part, but there's more. I will finish my first 5K this year - hopefully under 30 min. I hope to come to about 160 lbs, again, quite do-able. Three years after completely overhauling my diet, which played perhaps the most significant role in lowering my weight, I hope to add more vegetables and fiber to it. Being able to drive to Aldi should make it easier, right? And of course, I resolve to keep reading, and to be happy, for everything I've achieved.

Five years ago, I chose to follow a dream, a dream that has taken me very far from where I started. The dream if far from realized, but I came much closer to it last year. Next year, I hope to reach the final lap.

Happy New Year!

An unspeakable idea

Conclave
By Robert Harris

When I finished reading all of Robert Harris' books - especially his Cicero trilogy - I went into a sort of withdrawal. Harris is one of the best writers of historical fiction that I have read, and it was hard to find a replacement - truth be told, I never really did. When I discovered that he had recently written a new one though, I quickly picked it up. Conclave is not exactly historical fiction, because it is set in the future (a specified future, but not really in form). And what a future it is.

Revolving around the intriguing and highly anachronistic election of a new Pope in the Vatican, it goes into a variety of issues that make the Roman Catholic Church so very anachronistic - the ceremonies, the dogma, even the language. But Harris is not questioning the Catholic Church here - if anything, he is providing it with a ray of hope, sunshine to remove the rot, if you may. And in his characteristic style, quite unlike John Grisham, the other author that I am reading, it ends quite dramatically, with plenty for the reader to ponder over. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Where were the fact-checkers?

In the just-concluded Gujarat Assembly elections, the Congress Party's new president, Rahul Gandhi, essentially ran a fact-free campaign. From lying about the Tata plant in Sanand to claiming that more land was given to the Mundra Port than there was on the entire planet, his campaign rhetoric and manifesto consisted of the same of socialist freebies that brought India to bankruptcy, together with old-fashioned divisive casteism that the MSM likes to call India's composite culture.

Since 2014, a number of propaganda websites masquerading as fact-checkers have popped up on the Indian web. All of them like to attack the BJP, usually using their opinions as facts to counter the BJP's so-called errors. The good people at OpIndia have worked hard to reveal these lies. During the Gujarat elections though, these fact-checkers were entirely absent. Not one MSM journalist (apart from Republic TV, which the Congress hates very much) or website in the Left ecosystem fact-checked Rahul Gandhi - they let him lie through his teeth. Nay, they cheered his lies on.

This brings us to the same conclusion that I have been making for sometime: facts, FoE, secularism, science, etc. are meaningless for the Left. They use these high-sounding words when it suits them, and dump them as soon as they don't. The basic agenda is spreading a sophisticated propaganda to help their ecosystem. The Left ecosystem, of which the Congress is the linchpin, is a totalitarian regime that has no sense of shame or hypocrisy. They are fascists who call themselves liberals.

The semi-final year

The 2017 round of assembly elections have come to an end, with the BJP being the biggest winner of the year, having taken Uttar Pradesh in one of the most spectacular political victories in India, quite comparable to the 2014 Modi wave that brought the BJP to power with a full majority in the Lok Sabha, becoming only the second party in India's history to do so. In 2017, after the UP victory, Prime Minister Modi declared his intention to build a New India by 2022, clearly signalling that he intends to win the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The road to 2019 begins in 2018, where the BJP's local leadership will be tested. Much like Gujarat, the BJP has had long-ruling governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhttisgarh, and despite popular CMs there, they are vulnerable. Rajasthan is well-known for being a revolving door and unless Vasundhara Raje can pull of a Jahyalalitha-like feat, she looks set to be defeated in the state that gave a clean sweep to Modi in 2014. In Karnataka, incumbent CM Siddharamiah has pulled every dirty trick in the book to stay in power, and the local BJP is in disarray with two rival factions that are more interested in defeating each other than the Congress party. This is the last large state that the Congress controls, and BJP President Amit Shah will have to devote a lot of time to pull off a victory here.

2018 is also a big year for the northeastern states. The long-running Left Front government of Manik Sarkar is facing an unprecedented challenge from the BJP, which managed to win Assam and Manipur and where NEDA convener Himanata Biswas Sarma has laid a lot of groundwork for a tough fight. In Mizoram though, there appears to be little alternative to the Congress, despite the Prime Minister having devoted a lot of time to the state. In Nagaland, the Congress continues to be irrelevant as the ruling DAN of the NPF and BJP seems unstoppable. However, the confusion in the state following the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the secretive Naga Peace Framework Accord can make this difficult to predict, and a lot comes down to what side the Church is willing to take in the Christian-majority state.

The final state in 2018 is Meghalaya, home of former NDA Presidential candidate, the late Purno Sangma. It is here that incumbent CM Mukul Sangma seems extremely vulnerable, with Modi already having sounded the poll bugle there and with a strong ally in the NPP, led by Sangma's son. This state seems likely, for now, to go to the BJP. As of today, the BJP and its NDA partners control 19 states in the Union, a historic position that only the Congress of Nehru and Indira could once boast of. In 2018, they will be tested again, and the results will determine the final results of the great battle of 2019. 

The revolving door spins

The Himachal Pradesh election was a no-brainer for the most part. The state has the habit of alternating between Congress and BJP governments, and this time proved no different. The incumbent Congress was easily defeated by the BJP, which is set to swear in its government in the state.

With one hitch - the BJP's declared CM candidate lost the election. It was perhaps the only exciting moment of the election - which was completely ignored by the Congress' national leadership - and now leaves the party having to decide a new face to run the government in the hill state. Another notable event was the victory of incumbent CM Virbhadra Singh's son, thus christening yet another dynasty in the private limited company that is the Indian National Congress. 

Dark clouds on the horizon?

The Gujarat Legislative Assembly elections were, by all counts, the most hotly contested this year after Uttar Pradesh, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP swept to a historic three fourths majority. No wonder then, that the final results have also been hotly contested.

First, the facts: the BJP won the election, as expected, with a comfortable majority despite running the state for 22 years and despite the tallest leader of the state, Modi himself, no longer being in the fray. The BJP improved its vote share from its 2012 performance, although it was far below its extraordinary vote share of 60.1% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. However, the BJP's tally fell significantly while the Congress has notched up its best performance in decades.

A number of factors have been attributed to this. Looking at the data, the BJP swept Surat, the industrial hub of the state as well as a bastion of the Patidar movement, indicating that the party was not affected by demonetization, GST, or the Patidar movement. In Saurashtra, the rural part of the state, the party collapsed, and this is where the Congress secured its large gains. Speaking of the Congress, while it did not declare a CM candidate, all its top state leaders lost their seats, while its external acquisitions - Jignesh Mevani, Aplesh Thakore, and Hardik Patel - seem to have helped the party. The first two of the three won their seats as well, and Mevani seems to already be on a roll with his foul-mouthed comments against the PM.

In the long-run, the Gujarat elections indicate some dark times ahead for the right wing. Yes, the BJP won despite the odds stacked against it. But the Congress seems to have rediscovered its pre-Sonia Gandhi formula of using caste divisions with soft Hindutva. Under Sonia's overt minority-pandering, the party created a Hindu backlash that united various castes. Under Rahul, the party seems to be going back to its old ways of acting Hindu while covertly pandering to Muslims. This poses the biggest threat to the nationalist project, and it remains to be seen just how far it can go. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars for the 21st Century

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

Produced By: Lucas Film, Walt Disney, and others
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and others
Pros: Excellent story, great acting, excellent effects
Cons: Too long
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

An inter-generational story in a galaxy far, far away is always difficult to maintain. For some, Star Wars is the story of Luke Skywalker and his battle against Darth Vader. For (a few) others, it is the story of how Anakin Skywalker was born of the Force, to bring balance. Both of these however, are legacies of the last century. What about this century? What does it mean for this generation? These are questions that JJ Abrams failed to address in The Force Awakens, which felt like a rehash of old scenes with new faces (and some social justice mixed in). It was a crisis: could the iconic pop culture story turn into a dud?

Fortunately, Rian Johnson decided to take these issues head on, and in doing so, has provided a template for us to move beyond the hagiography of the Skywalker clan. In The Last Jedi, the final links of this trilogy to its two previous ones is broken, and the franchise truly moves into a new realm. Mark Hamill and the entire cast put on a grand performance befitting of a story that covers such a wide arc. Oscar Isaac secures his place as the Han Solo of this century. And Adam Driver and Daisy Ridler set the stage for the next great battles of those who sense the Force.

A good story is always crucial for a movie, but for Star Wars, presenting it through the right effects is equally important (it is science fiction, after all). The movie moves away from the scenes we have grown used to, showing what else a Stormtrooper can do, what else a galatic cruiser can do, and what other social spheres exist in the galaxy. All this needed the effects artists to be creative, and they pulled off a great job. The only shortcoming of the movie is that, at 2.5 hours, it is extremely long, and not all of it was necessary. The story has so many subplots that it eventually feels like a haphazard mix, at least until it all comes together in the end.

The franchise will miss Carrie Fischer, who seemed to be the only one of the old cast that had not fully demonstrated her role in this new era. Nonetheless, the franchise has also clearly moved on from the old cast, and Episode XI is sure to finish the job. A grand portrait of an iconic movie that you need to watch ASAP. (OTFS)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Are there good Republican candidates out there?

Last night, the Democratic Party secured a historic win in the special election to fill AG Jeff Sessions' vacated Senate seat in Alabama, marking the first time in 20 years that the party won that seat. These elections were clearly very high stakes for President Trump, since he invested a great deal of time in campaigning, first for primary challenger Luther Strange, and then for the Republican nominee Roy Moore. This defeat in one of the more solidly Republican states in the country should send alarm bells ringing.

Let's be clear: Moore was an exceptionally bad candidate. Even before allegations of sexual misconduct with minors came up, his utter contempt for the law, his self-admitted love for the days of slavery, and his extreme right-wing Christian posture made him a hugely polarizing candidate. There was something in him for everyone to hate, or at least dislike enough to either refrain from voting or writing in some other Republican candidate (as the junior senator from that state did). His past record on the Alabama Supreme Court and flouting of federal laws made it dangerous to imagine him actually making those laws in the first place. And his alleged indecencies with underage girls was simply too much.

There is a precedent, of course. Hillary Clinton, a candidate so bad that she was defeated by someone with no political experience, no base, very little money, and who was disliked by a majority of people. The Democratic Party believed that people would be so disgusted by Trump that Clinton would win, almost by default. Last night, a large section of the Republican Party (particularly those that Steve Bannon is trying to lead), believed that the voters of Alabama would dislike Democrats so badly that anyone they nominated would win, almost by default. In both cases, they were wrong.

Good candidates matter. Not all voters are ideological, who would vote for party first. And not all voters can put party before country. This is a lesson for both parties, but more so for the Republican Party, because they are currently led by a President who himself has a horrific record on his behavior with women. Of course, the Democrats have Joe Biden and had Al Franken. But they already lost. 

How much can personal integrity cover up?

He's at it again. Dr. Manmohan Singh, whose decade-long tenure as Prime Minister saw the biggest scams in the history of the Republic and a total subordination of the office of the Prime Minister to that of the Party President (a la a Communist dictatorship), has been enlisted into the Guajrat election campaign. Of course, he's not there to address crowds - he would most likely drive crowds away. Instead, he is there is provide more sanctimonious sermons and virtue signaling, because for some reason, the Congress party still believes that Dr. Singh is beyond reproach. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In the current case, Dr. Singh is angry at the current Prime Minister. First, he was angry that the PM insinuated that he had attended a dinner with Pakistani diplomats. He and his party had asserted that it was a total lie. Then the truth emerged that such a meeting had indeed taken place, in the house of the foul-mouthed Mani Shankar Aiyar no less, at which point the outrage changed to the fact that only Indo-Pak relations were discussed, and not the Gujarat elections. Throughout this elaborate deception, Dr. Singh's unsaid assertion was that his personal integrity assures us that he would never do anything against the national interest.

Only, that assertion collapses spectacularly on the slightest scrutiny. As Prime Minister, Dr. Singh signed the infamous Sharm-el-Sheikh agreement that drew massive criticism from all sides at home; the various scams and cover-ups of his government are already well-known; he allowed a diplomatic spat to send Indo-US relations to their lowest ebb in years; further on, he endorsed Indira Gandhi's disastrous economic policies that we continue to pay for today. If all that is not enough, Dr. Singh allowed Sonia Gandhi and her son, the current Congress president, to dictate terms to the government, going as far as letting files from the PMO go to 10 Janpath for approval. The heat of government had been reduced to that of a regent, all under the eyes of the man who has mastered the art of bathing in a raincoat.

And yet, despite this sordid history, we are still to believe that Dr. Singh is a good man, a technocrat above politics, and is thus beyond questioning. Wrong. Dr. Singh is a puppet the likes of which India has rarely seen - he will do whatever he is ordered to do without once thinking about the consequences of his actions; he will lie and name-call when called out; and he will masterfully ignore facts when they don't suit him. As someone put very well, he is an over-rated economist and a (hugely) underrated politician. That such a pathetic person was Prime Minister for 10 years paints a very sorry picture of our democracy.

However, clearly, despite his shameful past, Dr. Singh does not believe in retiring. He is staying on, the loyal stooge of the Dynasty. I would not be surprised in Rahul Gandhi asked him to become Prime Minister again in the future (if he can ever defeat Narendra Modi, that is). It would be an ideal situation - the emperor and his courtiers could make merry out of the nation's fortunes, with his loyal regent's personal integrity proving the fig leaf. Now, where have I heard that strategy before?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Rediscovering Horror


It has been some years since I exhausted all the Star Trek episodes ever made (although I am yet to see Discovery that released only a few months back). After the withdrawal symptoms, I moved to watching varied stuff - some documentaries, some comedy. Nothing that I really wanted to binge on. And then, earlier this year, I discovered American Horror Story (AHS), a uniquely American anthology series that was both drama and horror. And I was hooked. 

I've only seen the first three seasons and am currently on the fourth, but this is seriously good stuff: it is so different, so unique, that you want to keep watching it. Of the first three, Asylum is my clear favorite, although Coven also had some memorable characters (voodoo queen, wink, wink). The biggest surprise was probably Evan Peters, who played a pretty sad role in X-Men but has outdone himself here. 

I've never been one for horror - it just gave me a hard time to sleep. But most horror has been crass with an excessive amount of religion involved. AHS, it turns out, it quite different - real horror, and real people. I can't wait to see the rest. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Floating High

IT (2017)

Produced By: NewLine cinema, and others
Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jack Grazer, Sophia Lillis, and others
Pros: Excellent story, excellent cinematography, excellent acting
Cons: Predictable
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

I don't know when I started to like horror as a genre. Bollywood does an absolutely disastrous job of it, while Hollywood does a good job in general, but it tends to be too focused on religion as a means to it (always god versus demon, and the like). Since I saw the first and especially the second season of American Horror Story though, I think I've come to like it (plus, as I get older, I'm not as scared of noises!).

Which is why I even decided to watch It in the first place. Initially, I thought of it as a kids movie, given that all the main characters, save the clown of course, is played by a child actor. And then, it's a clown. But boy, was I wrong - this is far from a kids movie and is pretty entertaining even for adults. As with any good movie, the story is at the heart and what makes it so good - it is well thought out and masterfully executed by the director. The scenes, even the darker ones, as well-shot. And the kids actually do an excellent job with their acting, while Skarsgård as Pennywise excels at his role.

The one shortcoming of this film is the fact that it is rather predictable, especially in its ending. There aren't really any surprises, and it is a very linear story. Hopefully, in the promised sequel, the director will be more creative. Nonetheless, I'd say this is the best movie of this year, although I am of course waiting for Star War Episode 8 to release next week. (OTFS)

A peek into the world of spies

The Associate
By John Grisham

Whenever I'm tired of a genre or simply unable to find a good book to read, I tend to fall back on John Grisham. No matter what, I can be sure that Grisham's work is simple and satisfying. His style is not overly dramatic, and the story is the real focus, as opposed to simply the ending. His books do not end on a cliffhanger - they end rather satisfyingly, while all the focus is on reaching that very end. The Associate fits that mold perfectly - and it adds some trivia from the world of spies.

When you read the book, it's obvious that the story is inspired from the early days of the F-35 program, which started with huge promises. It then moves on to detailing how you can spy on an individual (provided you have infinite money, of course). The story does not have a lot of subplots and is mostly linear, which makes it a light read. Definitely satisfied, as usual. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A New Decade


As 2017 comes to an end, so too wraps up the tenth anniversary of this blog. Next year will be our 12th, putting us firmly into the new decade, and behind the last. In many ways though, this year has been indicative of what's to come - fewer posts and a smaller scope. This is not exactly intentional - it's just an affirmation of the fact that I am far busier than I was as a teenager or an undergraduate student. And yet, writing has meant a great deal to me and is still my preferred method of catharsis.

Going in to the next decade, OTFS will continue, but will be leaner and more focused. I am strongly considering talking more about my thoughts on academia and research. However, I've decided to continue the IOTY series, as it is a useful way to look back at the year gone by.

This year's logo is inspired by the design of a race car, to signify India's progress forward. For decades considered a basket case of failed economics and a nearly-failed state, India has emerged as a global power in recent years, having been able to create new and meld old institutions in its favor, with varying degrees of success. At the same time, China's christening as the Asian superpower brings with its own challenges. As the country zooms forward to meet its manifest destiny, we will look back at the year 2017 to capture the key moments.

Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2017
Coming in 2018...

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The right amount of suspense

THE WHOLE TRUTH (2016)

Produced By: PalmStar Media, Atlas Entertainment, and others
Director: Courtney Hunt
Starring: Keanu Reaves, Gabriel Basso, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Renee Zellweger, and others
Pros: Good story, good pace, good use of suspense
Cons: Poor acting, poor ending
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

There are different types of courtroom dramas: ones, like 12 Angry Men, which are restricted entirely to the courtroom, and ones like Erin Brokovich, which have a much larger component outside. And of course, there are ones that lie in the middle of that spectrum. The Whole Truth lies closer to the former, although it does make a lot of effort to build a solid background to the case.

As I've often said, the story is the most important part of a movie, and this movie does not disappoint. It's not particularly complicated, but it is good. More importantly, the director deserves high praise for executing it well at a good pace, not boring the audience through legalese but not slowing the movie down with endless background. The courtroom was the center, and the story moved out as required. Suspense was also used very well and made the movie a cliffhanger - top points to the director, again.

There are some pitfalls though. The acting, with the exception of Reaves, is quite poor. Mbatha-Raw played a crucial character with very poor acting, and the other actors did a pretty pathetic job. Moreover, despite the strong suspense built up, the ending was quite disappointing and a let down. It most certainly could've been done better. Still, on the whole, this was a very good movie that I recommend. (OTFS)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Did this election happen?

The election campaign in Himachal Pradesh was a whirlwind - it came and went so fast that one wonders if it actually happened. The entire national leadership of the Congress gave the state a pass save for a one-off rally by prince Rahul Gandhi. Incumbent Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh put up a brave face in front of a crushing campaign that was waged by the BJP, which is rearing to win back the state and complete its control over the mountains of the western Himalayan states.

Himachal Pradesh is a two-party state and has been alternating between parties in ever election for decades. Yet, the BJP put in significant resources, with Prime Minister Modi addressing several rallies and party president Amit Shah dramatically announcing former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal as the party's CM candidate - it really seemed like a picture perfect finish. Yet, it won't be that easy as Virbhadra Singh is set to fight his very last election and has put in a lot of effort to reverse the usual trend in the state. However, corruption accusations against him and his family loom large, and it is clear that he is trying to cultivate his son to create a dynasty in the state. Both of these have worked against him.

Funnily enough, the Congress still had a decent chance of beating anti-incumbency in the state, just as Jayalalitha managed to do in TN or Prakash Singh Badal in Punjab. Instead of working on that, the national party completely ditched its state unit and focused instead on Gujarat, where the party has a near-impossible chance of winning. When the results come though, Himachal could still spring a surprise. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

A new campiagn

As the Gujarat election campaign heats up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to campaign in each district, it can be noted by observers that something strange is happening in this campaign, so strange that it would not be wrong to call this a new campaign style altogether. And that difference is that, after decades, the Congress party is not fighting on secularism, nor is it so much as trying to polarize the Muslim minority.

Consider the last two elections in the state, in 2007 and 2012. The running theme of the party was the 2002 Godhra riots, culminating in the infamous 'maut ka saudagar' comment from Sonia Gandhi. Visiting imams was commonplace. This time however, far from either of those, Rahul Gandhi is visiting temples all over the state, and 2002 hasn't been mentioned even once. What a U-turn!

Why is this happening? Obviously, the Congress leadership has finally read the Anthony report, that pointed out that the Congress was not just considered pro-minority, but actively anti-majority i.e, anti-Hindu. The massive minority pandering that the party indulged in in UP led to a string polarization of Hindus against the party, ending in a three fourths majority for the BJP. So it is clear that the Congress has learned that it needs to ditch its anti-Hindu tag, and it possibly hopes to placate minorities below the radar, or even take them for granted.

That doesn't mean the Congress is not working on its divisive agenda. It has entirely embraced Hardik Patel and his agenda, which is based singularly around caste. The Congress' old strategy running for decades was to divide the Hindu vote on caste and consolidate the Muslim vote through stoking fears; now, it seems that it has realized that one negatively affects the other. Thus, while it has dropped the Muslim appeasement (at least overtly), it is doubling down on caste divisions. The net result is still the same - a divided society.

Amit Shah called the Gujarat election a fight between caste and development. For the first time in perhaps decades, communalism is nowhere on the radar. A New India indeed. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

All the little jokes

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

Produced By: Columbia, Marvel, and others
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Jacob Batalon, and others
Pros: Lots of jokes around, good special effects
Cons: Too long, boring story
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

In the world of superheroes, I'm mostly apathetic - perhaps the closest I come to being a fan is with Optimus Prime, assuming that even counts. In that world lies Spider-Man, the (mutant?) superhero that I've seen from Toby Maguire to Andrew Garfield (still the best) and now, Tom Holland. Yes, the franchise is that old, and it would've probably died a natural death if the Avengers hadn't bailed it out.

Which brings us to this not-quite-an-origins movie, the little kid Spider-Man who wants to join the big league, and isn't killed in the process. That's just about it - oh, there is a story, and it goes on two full hours, but it's more a background story. Bottom line - it's boring, the story goes on-off as we see little Spidey trying his best to remain relevant. Pathetic.

OK, it's not all that bad. Holland is actually OK as Spider-Man, not the same league as Garfield, but good. You can't but help feeling sorry for the poor kid. The director has peppered jokes all over the place, making the long duration bearable, though just so. The special effects are also good, not overdone a la Captain America, but good. However, as I always say, it's hard to keep a movie going without a good story, and that's the fate of this one too. (OTFS)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The key is ownership

The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach
By Bruce Shore

This season, I'm trying to read some books that will help me professionally in the (near) future. I'm not really a big stickler for DIY or self-help books, and certainly not for motivational writing, none of which I have ever found to be of much use, and most of which are downright boring to read. Nonetheless, as part of my Mavis Fellowship commitments, I was given this book to read and promised it would help. And it possibly might.

Pulling from his decades of experience in the Humanities, Prof. Shore takes a deep dive into what makes a good mentor and what landmines are out there to avoid. His point about making students take ownership of their research is something that has particularly resonated with me - it is quite crucial that a student grows from merely following instructions to becoming an independent scholar; and for that, taking ownership of their project and thinking about it critically is crucial. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

War & Peace Lecture: Is the nation worth defending?

The history of the world can perhaps best be understood as the history of battles and conquests, of victory and defeat, and of technology and tactics. Every upheaval in any corner of the world has been a result of powerful forces coming together, most often taking up arms, and fighting for... something. But what? What do armies and militia fight for? Once upon a time, and to a lesser extent today, they fought for the sovereign, the King. The King's primary, sometimes only, responsibility was to protect and expand the kingdom, and an army was created for just that.

But today, we live in a different age from those times. Standing armies, as opposed to ones created for specific battles, are the norm. While there are still monarchies and dictatorships, a very large proportion of the world lives in a democratic setup, in which sovereignty lies with the people, a people who are expected, even entitled, to bicker and fight among each other and periodically compete for the election of a national government. There is no kingdom to preserve, in fact the administration is supposed to be changed often. And yet, the same administration is expected to maintain a standing army. Why?

What's in a nation?
In a democratic sense, change is the norm, and the nation should also be open to it. A foreign power invading and changing everything is also change. And yet, while we in the democratic world are quite alright with changing our government and laws quite regularly, we are loathe to let anyone else do it. Is this mere xenophobia, a fear of the other, a fear of someone who doesn't share our values? But are there really any shared values at all?

The answer is more subtle, and lies at the very heart of nationhood. In the Westphalian setup, a nation is a people who share some common beliefs and identity. But the two of the three largest nations in the world - America and India - are very diverse country that have varied internal identities, sometimes closer to that of their neighbors than to other members of the country. And yet, both these countries maintain large armies and are determined to protect themselves. Why? Why is defending a democratic nation so important, when it can very well be overturned internally?

Preserving a system
The answer lies in two parts. One, is the desire to defend a democratic system, even if that system eats itself up from within, because a democracy is the one system that offers a fair chance to everyone (at least in theory). Sure, there are many people in democratic societies that dream of a benevolent dictatorship like the one in Singapore. But more often, when they say benevolent, they really mean one that can serve their interests at the cost of all others, as in Pakistan. Killing democracy internally is fairly simple, and preserving it is in itself an achievement for any nation. A democratic society therefore guards itself internally through protest and vigorous debate. But externally, it guards itself by being armed to the teeth and ensuring that no external power can overturn a system that their people alone have the power to overturn.

The second part is related but more subtle. It is an acknowledgement that democracy exists in a nation as a result of a series of compromises, and maintaining those compromises is only possible when no external factor can overturn it. Thus, while the Right and Left in India accuse each other (often without proof) of wanting to destroy the nation, all but the most radical of them agree that an external invasion will definitely destroy the nation and the compromise on which it stands. It is the need to provide a safe environment for this compromise to stay that leads to the need to defend a nation while simultaneously being open to and even encouraging changing governments every now and again.

In 1947, a large section of India's polity took the hard-won freedom for granted, and believed that there was no need to maintain a standing army. Fortunately, saner voices who saw the tenuous column on which the country's democracy stood, kept the military strong and alive. And to this day, we are safe inside the country because the borders are protected by those who love the nation.