Tuesday, December 31, 2013

OTFS in 2013

The year 2013 marked a significant improvement in many respects for Opinions 24x7. After last year's all-time low count of 212 posts, this year ends with 376 posts, making it the second-highest, after only that seminal year of 2008. In 2014, by June, we should be marking Post #2500 and crossing the 200,000 mark on the hit counter (with a little luck) by the end of the year.

In 2013, we finished up the greatest series under the Story label thus far: Empire in Exile, an epic journey from doom to empire. We presented two documentaries, both of which will compete at IOTY'13. We covered, with glee, the two sets of Assembly Elections this year and analyzed the political situation carefully, although we did make a mistake when it came to AAP in Delhi. OTFS in 2013 was mainly a mixture of fiction and political commentary, although we did review a record number of books and movies this year as well.

The tragic demise of two dear friends were covered in the form of fitting obituaries to both of them, while my dreams and aspirations were discussed wide and open. We tried our hand at writing Hindi fiction, a process that will continue into the new year.

We begin next year with IOTY'13 and hope to bring more documentaries out. In addition, some travel information about Champaign is on the menu as well, possibly even a guide for new students. OTFS has been praised for presenting useful information that you just cannot find elsewhere on the Internet - that should continue into our 8th year. Expect the political scene to heat up with the 2014 General Elections and a suit of crucial Assembly Elections.

Overall, 2013 was a good year for blogging and 2014 should be better.

Happy New Year, readers! 

2014: A Year in America

Facebook is already full of messages welcoming the new year, but being in the US, that moment is still about 9 hours away from me. So, that gives me plenty of time to think about the new year (although I still have two papers to read by the end of the day, not to mention clean a pile of dishes at home and get some Chinese takeout for a lonely New Year's night).

2013 was destined to be a momentous year, but 2014 is destined to be the other way round. It will be my first near complete year outside of India, a year with possibly little achievements in comparison to what I have gone through. I have many hopes from this year - of course, to continue to be funded through the year including in Fall; to publish a paper, even two; to master the research problem I have been struggling with; oh, and to earn my Masters degree. It sounds very geeky, I know, but what else do you expect from someone who wants a PhD in Civil Engineering? If all goes well, I could be giving my qualifying (oral) exam by the end of the year and that will certainly be a seminal moment - what the Department calls Stage 2 of the PhD program.

Perhaps, after the qualifying exam, I will be able to think a little about travel for, in 2014, I can't think of any time to go anywhere except maybe a weekend in Chicago, which is becoming like what Delhi was for Roorkee! Someone told me that I am worrying too much - and they're probably right. But that's who I am - I don't know how to 'go slow' with things. Maybe 2014 can teach me how to? Or, even more importantly, 2014 can be the year when I rediscover my decisive self and finally make that decision that I have wanted to for the last three months. Some hard decisions will have to be made in the next few months and there is no way to get over them, for they have already been prolonged enough.

Resolutions? Why? Nobody ever keeps them! I really have never gone back to see my old resolutions and don't see why I should. And maybe that's a good reason why I should make them now - who's checking anyway? So, let me then make two resolutions, both of which I have no idea whether I will be able to keep. The first is to lose (more) weight. I know I have been saying this for a long time, but now that I have learned to hit the gym in all earnest and have fitted it into my schedule nicely, I think 2014 presents me with the most realistic chance I have ever had. It will call for efficient usage of time and learning to live in greater isolation, but those are prices I am willing to pay. Staying regular at the gym - 3-4 times a week, 1-1.5 hours per session, cardio and weights - coupled with a better diet will be the mantra. I know that it's quite hard to change my diet at this stage, but I intend to learn to eat smaller portions. I've realized that most of my food is not unhealthy (except the free pizza) but I eat too much of it. That will have to change this year.

The second is to meet more people from other countries. Apart from Indians, I do speak to a lot of Chinese and Koreans, but Indians still make up the bulk. In her welcome address, the Chancellor told us that many people go through their whole time never meeting people from other countries, and I can see how that's possible. Now that I have a somewhat stable foot here, I should learn to speak more with people. Not just because of the need to network, but also because there is so much to learn from people of other countries. Given how I want to see the world, this is only a natural choice.

However, I don't expect some things to change. Like blogging or reading novels, which will continue to be my hobbies. Or that fact that I don't have any real 'close' friends any more - I suspected in my final year at Roorkee that I was essentially not a person who could get along with too many people and in Champaign, that suspicion has solidified. I don't even know why I try! In any case, I don't see it as relevant to my life's goals.

So, as the sun begins to set for the day (and I still have those papers pending) and the year, I hope to see many more wonderful times in the next... it's just round the corner! 

Looking back at an Extraordinary Year

By all yardsticks, 2013 was the most life-changing year I have ever had, surpassing the Munich internship of 2012, although tricks learned from that did come in quite handy. In some ways, it was a year destined to be great, but in many others, it was a year that I somewhere, deep inside, wish had never happened. I wish I were stuck in 2012 forever.

2013 possibly marked the year that would lead to longer and longer International sojourns for me. My two weeks in Japan in February and the four-and-a-half months in the US mark my longest periods of absence from India, more than the two and a half months in 2012. And yet, even this is nothing because 2014 is sure to break all records by a large margin.

It was a year of joys and a year of heartbreaks. Academically, it was my most successful yet, finishing top of the tables in B.Tech (Civil) at IIT Roorkee, bagging the Institute Silver Medal and a host of other awards in the process. The BTP, which was the most challenging part of the degree, ended on a high for my entire group but most of all for me, while I also had my first paper selected for a conference (although I could not attend it). The second half of the year saw me joining UIUC on a Fellowship which, I am told, means that I must be quite intelligent (as the Immigration Officer told me at O'Hare!). That entailed foregoing my first real job at ITC, but there will be more of those in the future. It was a semester full of crises as I was exposed to a very different philosophy of education (the system was identical to that at IITR) and, on some days, worked more than I ever had in undergrad. It too ended on a high-note, with a perfect GPA of 4 on 4 and a fair amount of progress on the research front.

However, on the personal front, it was a very depressing year. Changing cities/schools was a permanent part of my life and remains to be, but somehow, IIT Roorkee was so different from the rest. Perhaps I had forgotten the golden lessons from Kochi - that you must never emotionally associate yourself with an institution - but I did put emotions into IITR. The farewells were many, including a treasured trip to Amritsar, but the last walk outside those gates was painful. Of course, this being the digital age, nobody is really that far from anybody else, but I don't think I'll be meeting my close friends of those years for decades to come. Champaign has not exactly been the love of my life - I can't really say I have made as good friends here as I had in Roorkee. I have friends, but they are just on that superficial level. Perhaps that's how life is - you just don't make good friends as you grow older. In any case, the last four months have taught me the importance of learning to live alone and content with yourself, caring for your own achievements instead of others. This could be the only good take-away for the year, and it is cherished.

All-in-all, 2013 was a watershed year. I wish my time at Roorkee did not have to end, that 2012 would have never given way to 2013, when it was all destined to end. That said, I was relieved to be done with the maddening Indian education system and exposed to a system where learning was measured in intelligent ways. My life has been in cycles, each cycle representing a city or a period that I have lived in. The year marked the beginning of a new cycle in my life, full of potential. It marked the end of my happiest cycle of all. For, every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Good Start

My final grades for Fall 13 were released by the Office of the Registrar today. Here's how I shaped up:

(Course Code - Course Title - Credits - Grade - Grade Point)
CEE406 Pavement Design - I - 4 - A+ - 4
CEE416 Traffic Capacity Analysis - 4 - A - 4
CEE512 Logistics Systems Analysis - 4 - A - 4

GPA: 4.0/4.0

Pretty good for the first semester, although I am told that a 4.0 is expected from IITians at Illinois! I was a little worried when I saw all my friends in other universities striking a perfect 4, but now I can breather easy. There are some important things to analyze here. For a start, CEE406 was an easy subject and I was quite confident of striking an A in it. I don't know how I did in the final exam, but a sensitivity analysis (yes, I did that) showed that the grade would actually depend on the Term Paper. And that's why I was overjoyed upon seeing that I got a 98% in that - my first term paper did so well! At that point, it was just a small matter of whether I would be able to cross the barrier for an A+, which I did. Apart from the fact that the course itself was very interesting, the fact that it was my adviser's course made the grade all the more meaningful.

CEE416 was not that straightforward though. Although I had studied most of it in my undergrad (CE 462), the approach was entirely different. It was an open book exam, which changed the dynamics of the exam, and included a project and a term paper, meaning that the exams themselves were not the most critical component. I still have no idea how I fared in my second Term Paper or the project (which was extraordinarily confusing given the sort of stunts the other groups tried to pull off and our own questionable assumptions) and I will have to go back for some feedback at least on the Term Paper, since my chosen career will involve writing many of them.

CEE512 was a pleasant surprise to say the least - one of the most challenging courses I had taken to date (although 'challenging' is qualitatively different from the mother of all nightmares, EC 102), one that pushed me to new limits in programming and modeling. Being a graduate-level course, there was no final exam, but there was a challenging project. In any project, there is always the pressure to do something new and novel, but that is much easier said than done here. We did face many challenges and disagreements, right from choosing a course to writing the program. I still remember the long meetings at Grainger over Thanksgiving to finish the project. In the end, it was a great success when it came down to the presentation. It also gave me a chance to sharpen my report-writing skills, which is certainly invaluable to any engineer. This course was described by everyone as the hardest course in Transportation Engineering and that makes the A grade even more special. I think I can now handle any 500-level course!

So, with my first semester done and me having met all the requirements for my Fellowship to continue into the next, I'm roaring for the next three weeks to end so that I can get back to business - both coursework and research.

Note: The grading principle at Illinois is quite similar to that in IITR with one exception: A and A+ both carry the same grade point. This is surprising, but that's how it works. The idea is that an A+ is a grade meant exclusively for those who put up an exceptional performance, on par with that expected from a good, professional engineer, while an A is meant for those who did quite well but were not exactly 'there yet.' 

Here comes the storm

The Midwest is currently experiencing the warmest temperatures this season, with Champaign today expected to hit high of 49 F (10 C). The reason is a high pressure area that has developed and remained stable over the last week over the region. But, to use an old phrase, it is the silence before the storm. A very cold storm. WCIA reports that the High Pressure region is attracting a cold blast from more Northern states and Canada.

How cold? Well, that's hard to say, but Sunday is expected to see a minimum of -16 C (3 F). Coupled with strong winds, that could easily translate into an effective temperature of -30 C (-22 F), making it the coldest day this winter so far. Even worse, the cold blast is expected to bring in several inches of snow starting tomorrow afternoon, which will sustain over the entire week. That means that not only will Sunday be a cold day, it will get much worse over the week. And given how weather prediction works, there is no telling what will happen the week after that.

I am told that the current cold spell that we witnessed was not nearly the worst of it. Well, it seems I'm going to see what is. 

Fast-Paced Drama

Night of January 16th: A Play
By Ayn Rand

Well, for the sake of full disclosure, I'm a known follower of Ayn Rand (see @sen_sushobhan) and virtually anything she writes, I lap up. And that's not really an exceptional thing to do: as Night of January 16th shows, she is not just a philosopher but also a literary genius, putting her Objectivism into a rich, fast-paced courtroom drama that has been a hit in cities across the world.

I was fortunate to see the play being enacted at IIT Roorkee, but I wanted to read the script to see whether the producers had made any changes. And I was spot on - the story has been altered to the point where it no longer makes any sense! Fortunately, this definitive copy was the playwright's original work, with some grammatical modifications.

The most unique aspect of the play is the way in which the audience is invited to play the role of jurors, with alternative endings for either outcome. A riveting drama full of dramatic twists and turns and that much-needed drizzle of comic relief, this is a must-perform for all theater groups that believe in serious courtroom drama. 

IOTY13: Movie of the Year


We begin the IOTY13 series with the most popular award: the Movie of the Year. 2013 saw a number of films breaking box office records by soaring into the 100 crore and even 200 crore club, but when it comes to content, it was quite a challenge to find some good films. With a number of movies that should have never been made, such as R...Rajkumar and Fukrey, these four nominees stand out as exceptions in the year gone by:

  1. Lootera: Vikramaditya Motwane's second directorial venture, loosely based on O Henry's The Last Leaf, was intriguing as much for its warm story as for its heart-touching music. Combine that with some career-best acting from the lead stars, and this movie stands a good chance of being adjudged the best of the year gone by. 
  2. The Lunchbox: Released later in the year, this movie was certainly off the usual tend in terms of content. With yet another spectacular performance by Irrfan Khan, many critics predict this one to bag all the movie awards next year. 
  3. Aashiqui 2: Certainly the best music of the year (well, almost), the movie was a simple tale of love in the midst of a tumultuous and unequal relationship, where society itself seems to be determined to tear the lovers apart, with only music keeping them together. 
  4. Bombay Talkies: In the year celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema, this unique collaborative venture stole the show, with four short stories from four celebrated directors exploring Indian cinema from the taboo to the melodramatic. Sans the usual frills of films, this one shown like a bright star on a clear night. 
While it was hard to find any other films that merited being nominated, there were a few that were good but not good enough. Prominent among them was Kai Po Che, which was the feel-good film of the year but required an excessive suspension of logic, and Shahid, which had an extremely engaging story but seemed somehow hollow in the end. 

Indian of the Year 2013
Coming Soon

Friday, December 27, 2013

An Exciting Beginning

Attila
By William Napier
Book 1 of the Trilogy 

Finally, some contemporary historical fiction that does not leave you wincing with distaste. After the atrocious Shiva Trilogy, I was quite weary of trying any historical fiction unless it was penned by Rushdie. Fortunately, my fears proved to be ill-conceived as Attila won me over with its excellent narrative and well-researched story.

Napier begins this trilogy by taking us through the early life of Attila the Hun, always holding out a leaf for us to keep reading, promising a great adventure at every turn. It is not for no reason that he keeps referring to prophecies and great battles to come! His treatment of characters is quite complete - he takes the time to help us understand characters, through somewhat unrelated episodes that dot this tale of conspiracy, betrayal and unconditional loyalty.

My only grouse is that some of the more uncivilized words could have been chosen more carefully so as to reflect the year - c. AD 400 - so as not to make it sound like American pulp fiction. This is a problem it holds in common with the Shiva Trilogy and it is quite sad to see writers being unable to conjure up appropriate swear words - where is the world coming to really?

However, despite that flaw, I am looking forward to read the next book in the series. Highly recommended for readers with a taste for historical fiction. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

End the Witch Hunt

An Ahmedabad Magistrate today upheld a Supreme Court-appointed SIT report, exonerating Gujarat CM Narendra Modi in the Gulbarga Society case in response to a petition filed by Zakia Jafri. The judgment comes after years of investigation, under the careful watch of the highest court of the country, during which time Modi has gone through several other cases without any court anywhere having implicated him.

Surprisingly, the prosecution has pooh-poohed the judgment and has given NaMo 20 days to rejoice before they appeal to a higher court. This is a grand insult to the court, because appealing to a court is an option to be used in case there is something that was not already presented before the court, not as a sort of vindictive move against a court that gives an inconvenient judgment. The Supreme Court itself asks superior courts to be mindful when overturning judgments of lower courts. What Zakia Jafri's side hopes to achieve by appealing the verdict is beyond imagination.

The more disturbing trend actually came in yesterday, when the Union Cabinet decided to create a special commission to look into more allegations against Modi's close aide Amit Shah. For one, law and order being a State subject, this commission is unconstitutional. And it also reinforces the fact that, unable to take him on politically, the Congress is looking to create a legal witch hunt against Narendra Modi because they are absolutely scared of a massive defeat in 2014. The way the Congress misuses the federal investigation mechanism and creates a web of NGOs loyal to the party via the NAC is shocking and is a grave threat to our constitutional principles.

It must be understood clearly that any further cases against NaMo constitute a witch hunt and have no real basis. The aim is clearly to slow his chariot as it rides into the general elections. 

Strange Love

THE LUNCHBOX (2013)

Produced By: NFDC, Dar Motion Pictures, Sikhya Entertainment
Director: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bharati Achrekar and others
Pros: Excellent acting, realistic plot, sights and sounds of Mumbai
Cons: Goes in circles
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

Although the rating might not reflect it, The Lunchbox is certainly one of the best movies to come out of Indian cinema this year. Build around an interesting narrative style that is seldom used, with a simple yet appealing storyline, the movie forms a special bond with viewers, particularly those from the vast Indian middle class who would be able to relate well to it.

The best part of the movie is the superb acting from the lead actors, giving a very believable rendition of what are essentially normal lives, made special courtesy that wonder of supply chains: the Bombay Dabbawalas. As Irrfan Khan tries to make meaning of his lonely existence, Nimrat Kaur takes us through the journey of a Indian mother/wife, trying to make herself believe that she is happy. Somewhere along these lines, these two meet. And to add comic relief, Nawazuddin Siddiqui outs in a lively albeit somewhat irritating performance.

The plot and scenes are what truly make this film loveable - the unusual narrative style and the sights of the everyday struggles of average Mumbaikars, together with a hint of nostalgia for old TV shows on DD. Of course, this might not really appeal to viewers looking for some fast-paced love story, but that is a price director Batra is willing to pay.

However, in one respect, he has gone too far. It is not unusual for films to come without a moral or a firm ending, but it is still a bad idea to take the viewers around in circles, which is what happens here. It is a lethal mistake that does take all the fun out of what is otherwise an exceptional film and directors who look at experimenting with this genre in the future should keep this in mind. This is the only reason that I am giving this movie a lower rating but otherwise, it is a fabulous film to watch - highly recommended. (OTFS)

A First

B.A. PASS (2013)

Produced By: Tonga Talkies and Filmy Box
Director: Ajay Bahl
Starring: Shadab Kamal, Shilpa Shukla, Dibyendu Bhattacharya and others
Pros: Fresh and bold theme, good acting
Cons: Winding story
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Erotica is not a genre that Bollywood is too familiar with, leave alone comfortable. Surprisingly, it is a theme seen in many Indian novels and short stories. Based on the short story The Railway Aunty, B.A. Pass bridges that gap to present a unique Indian movie sans virtually all the cliches - a remarkable feat in itself.

The movie passed the Censor Board with an A-certificate, so it's obvious that it deals with an adult subject. A very adult subject. Delhi's underbelly of prostitution, and in particular male prostitution, is a dark world that seems to consume those inside - once in, there is no coming out. An endless cycle of exploitation, reinforced by hollow family values, makes it complete. The movie presents all that and much more, strictly for a mature audience. The acting is mixed, with Shadab Kamal putting up a slightly below-average performance as the innocent, unfortunate protagonist who just does not belong where he is. In contract, Shilpa Shukla puts up a stupendous performance, one of those rare instances where body and mind appear to be in perfect control. She is able to say so much with one look, express volumes with one clever smile.

However, it eventually comes down to the story and that's where the movie takes a downward turn and never recovers. The surreal storyline is appealing at first, but as it begins to digress into more and more uncharted territory, it becomes just too much. They say good movies invoke a suspension of belief, but there is a limit to how far that can go and this movie breaks that limit.

Meant for a strictly mature audience with a taste for alternative stories, I would not recommend it on a good day. (OTFS)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On Christmas


I might have traveled around, but 2013 marks my first Christmas abroad. Of course, there will be many more, but the first one is always worth talking about. Well, maybe not this one, but let me talk about it nonetheless. In the sleepy and slow university town of Champaign, Christmas is essentially a holiday spent indoors, unless you go to Church (which is only a small minority of Americans). That means everything is closed, including the crucial MTD.

During Christmas, most of the Indian students either go home (to India or some other city such as Chicago, depending on their citizenship status) or to a sunnier state, like TX or CA. While the former makes a lot of sense, I still cannot understand why anyone would want to get away from the wonderful winter and sweat it out - and pay good money for that!  Why not just spend the whole break in the recreation center?

So, I had a nice Hangout with some old friends and saw The Nutcracker, for no apparent reason but to feel all Christmas-y inside. Sadly, there is no holiday for weary grad students and I must continue to study Visual Basic for Applications while also reading a new set of papers. I already have a set of things waiting to be completed by Jan. 20 and it's not going to be easy. I've already wasted several days and the time is right to get back to work.

But then, they say Christmas is about giving and receiving gifts. I don't have anyone to give to neither anyone to receive from, and I admit I am very jealous of the D.'s from The Gift of the Magi. But I can still wish - and I wish to move on. Yes, to move on. From the past, even from the present. Much water has flowed in the last four months, but there is much more to go and to be overburdened by the past is not an appealing thought. I hope for closure and for a future that I can look forward to. If only I could, as the song goes, pretend that an airplane was like a shooting star.

Merry Christmas, everyone! 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Silly Talk

There has been word going around in America recently that people have stopped greeting each other with 'Merry Christmas' and have instead used the more secular, 'Happy Holidays.' Fox News, in fact, had an entire debate over this, calling it an attack on Christianity by those who are working to push political correctness way too far in America. I for one think this entire discussion is very silly.

Lets face it - most of this holiday is for celebrating Christmas. True, we also get a few days off for New Year, which is why it's perfectly fine to say 'Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.' I can't imagine why people think it's somehow better, in the name of secularism, to simply reduce that to 'Happy Holidays.' For one, it diminishes the value of the holidays as a time to give to the needy, which is what Christmas essentially is, and passes them off as just any other holiday, when you have to go out and shop till you drop. In addition, it really does take political correctness beyond reasonable limits: why exactly is it wrong to just say 'Merry Christmas' and why should non-Christian minorities feel threatened by it?

To add to the confusion was the news that the Governor of Rhode Island decided to call the Christmas Tree in the Statehouse as a 'Holiday Tree,' which is completely meaningless. This controversy in the US' smallest incorporated state has been going on for years for no clear reason. True, RI wants to respect religious pluralism, but how is avoiding the term 'Christmas' helping in that? Why do you have to punish the majority to please the minority?

It is extremely disturbing to see such discussion because it goes against the very concept of secularism itself. India has been going through this since before Independence - I hope America is not next. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Gripping, but Draining

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG 3D (2013)
On IMAX 3D

Produced By: MGM and New Line
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Ken Stott, John Callen and others
Pros: Absorbing story, good VFX
Cons: Makes your mind go numb
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

The LOTR series has been one of the most popular children's series ever (though sadly dwarfed by Harry Potter). After the original trilogy came the Hobbit trilogy and this, the second one, picks up from the first. Now, it is the time to cross Mirkwood Forest - quite a plateful for any director.

The best part about the movie is its engaging tale - although it is a little long at about 200 minutes, Director Peter Jackson takes care to keep the story moving at a decent pace, rapidly accelerating toward the end. Moreover, taking full advantage of the 3D, liberties were taken on the VFX to create a larger than life canvas. In particular, the crises that the dwarfs face in the forest make for some excellent effects that were executed finely.

However, like most things by JRR Tolkein, the movie is extremely demanding, extracting a great deal of mental effort just to keep pace. While this is certainly not the Director's fault per se, it is important to modify the story just a little bit so that it remains entertaining and does not place an unreasonable burden on viewers. In this, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug fails quite dramatically.

For the final verdict, I would recommend you to see this movie, but make sure to get some good sleep before you watch it. (OTFS)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Overdone

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
By Mohammed Hanif

Irony is indeed the most powerful of literary tools and also the most difficult to achieve - it can turn a thoroughly ordinary tale into a classic; a poorly-written one into one with potential. Sadly, it cannot do anything about a book that uses it too much in a long, unwieldy novel that seems to be going nowhere after about the first hundred pages. That would be the briefest possible summary of A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Set in arguably Pakistan's darkest era, the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, the book is part of a niche genre of historic fiction - dark humor. This genre, I believe, is particularly hard to execute because there is a blurry line between humor and simple bad taste. And for the country that has the second-largest English-speaking population in the world, 'partition took care of all the Singhs' is just bad taste. It is simply not funny.

But if I were to see it more objectively, I would say that the book could have been shortened by a hundred pages or so, because the last hundred were just so difficult for me to read: I had to literally rush through them just to get over with it. There are too many sub-plots, too many characters that appear at later stages of the book and too many characters that appear early on for it to make much sense. And the worst part is the extremely drab ending. I have read Pakistani authors before, but Hanif (who lives in London, presumably) is a definite disappointment. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Moment of a Generation

With just a few months to go for the biggest election this generation has ever seen, Opinions 24x7 unveils its election series - Elections 2014. However, unlike our previous practice of creating separate series for the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, this time, we've changed it to integrate the two. So, while the main discussion will be around the 2014 General Elections to elect a new Lower House of Parliament, there will also be ample discussion on the Assembly Elections.

Andhra Pradesh will be the biggest Assembly Election of all, if it even happens, that is. For, in case the new State of Telangana is formed, there will be two elections and both will determine the fate of the Congress in the entire southern region for several years to come. It could also signal the rise of the BJP is yet another Southern state, even as it looks to cobble up and alliance with the AIADMK. The real question will be how Jagan Mohan Reddy's YSR Congress fares in Andhra, where a decisive victory could change the dynamics in South India entirely.

In Haryana, forces have been coalescing against CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda for quite some time, even as the sordid affairs of Robert Vadra have made farmers think twice about trusting the Congress. Thinks tend to change very fast in the Jat heartland, and any moves on the contentious reservation issue can see all calculations turning obsolete. The BJP badly needs to get its act together here, since its alliance with the INLD flies in the faces of its supposed fight against corruption across the country.

In Maharashtra, where the Congress-NCP won another term last time purely because the opposition votes were so badly divided, the same old story seems to be afoot: if Raj Thackeray's MNS decides to fight outside of an alliance with the BJP-Shiv Sena, then the right wing could once again defeat itself. There is one crucial difference though - Bal Thackeray is no longer heading the Shiv Sena, Uddhav is. And it will be all up to him to find an amiable solution with his cousin, lest the Congress-NCP returns to power yet again. In one of India's most prosperous states, which also has the highest number of farmer suicides, it is a tragedy that politics and not issues will be the deciding factor.

Odisha is one of the few states that does not have either a Congress-led or a BJP-led government, having preferred long-time CM Naveen Pattanaik. Yet, all is not well in the Biju Janta Dal, with Pattanaik having gone in for some very populist measures to stem the tide of resent that has risen against him within the party. How long this can be last is still to be seen.

The 2014 elections will also see two Northeastern states battle it out. After the death of Dorjee Khandu, Arunachal Pradesh had a brief spell of political uncertainty as a vast majority of MLAs rejected his replacement, Jarbom Gamlin. It finally ended with Nabam Tiku taking charge, but the damage has been done. While the State Congress will have to battle it out with the BJP in a state that gave the first Saffron government in the Northeast, it will nonetheless be helped by the highways that the Central Government has been constructing in the state. However, the issue of dams, whether in Arunachal itself or in China, will be a very contentious issue that both parties would probably like to avoid discussing.

Finally, India's most peaceful state, Sikkim, which saw the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front mop up every single Assembly seat in 2009, could see some political heat, with the agitations in Darjeeling and the subsequent blocking of roads to the Himalayan state having taken their toll on the electorate. Although there does not seem to be any chance for Pawan Kumar Chamling to be forced out of office, the Congress will try to use every opportunity to at least for a credible opposition.

So, next year has a riveting line-up of Assembly Elections - but all eyes will be on New Delhi. The world's largest democracy is about to reaffirm its status. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

End of the (new) First Semester

And with one final check on the calculator, my first semester at Illinois comes to an end. As a first reaction, I can say that my coursework was very satisfying here - the breadth of subject matter and depth were quite satisfactory. When I first saw my schedule, it seemed laughable: after having near-full weeks, I have just three courses, with just one lecture three days of the week and two on the other two. Oh, how wrong I was. As a general rule, every credit that you sign up for includes two additional hours of work per week above and beyond sitting in class. In case of a term paper, that can mean twenty to thirty hours spread over a semester.

CEE 406 was the only subject I was required to take by my adviser. I was a little hesitant because I had already covered most of the course in my undergrad years, but that can be quite normal in 400-level courses. It proved to be quite useful in the end though, particularly because I managed to get some hands-on experience with ELA and AASHTO Pavement ME. In hindsight, I can safely say that this course taught me much more than I had expected, including my first ever term paper on the Cohesive Zone Model. CEE 416 does not get that much praise though, because most of the course dealt with statistical methods from HCM 2010, which is quite boring to study. The project was good but asked for way too much time - the course deserved more than four credits if you include the term paper, which was quite a challenge to write because of the pseudo-regulations placed on it. What was really insightful was the data collection - actually going to the field and obtaining data and then using it in analysis is a very interesting field, different from the theoretical understanding of traffic flow. Using HCS was nice, but it was nothing novel since it just applied formulas from HCM without any sophisticated simulation, like Synchro does.

CEE 512 was easily the hardest course of the semester and took up a lion's share of my time, primarily because it was fundamentally different from anything I had ever taken, except CE 406 back in IITR. It involved quite a bit of challenging code-writing and deeply conceptual questions about how things vary in time and space. The project in particular (ours was related to the MSW collection disposal system in Urbana-Champaign) involved some challenging code, with us having to master MATLAB's cells and then struggle to make code written by two different people work in sync. But in the end, it was all worth it, because this is one course that compacted (pun intended) a lot of work into tiny bits. However, that said, I don't think this field of transportation is really for me and so, I will now be taking the other course, CEE 498PT.

I won't quite judge my grade yet, because it is hard to put a number/letter to it when it's the first time. There is an urban legend that nobody awards grades below a B and A- constitutes the mode, but I'd rather leave the test of the pudding to the eating. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

I've figured it out

DIGITAL FORTRESS
By Dan Brown

Another Dan Brown, another nail-biting hunt for a prize and another let-down in the end. The plot has become most predictable, only this time, there was an insult to our intelligence added to the end. Digital Fortress might be one of Brown's earliest works, and it is a departure from what later became his usual sampling of religious symbolism, but his style is clearly imprinted in every word.

The NSA, the agency that does not exist, that later shook the capitals of the world through Edward Snowden's explosive leaks. But years before that, Brown gave us a sneak peek into this dark world of cyber warfare, where deals are made and broken at the drop of a hat. For a technical geek, the book is a good read to get some idea into cryptography, a subject that I was never really able to understand but don't mind trying to again.

However, like all of his works (possibly with the exception of The Da Vinci Code), Digital Fortress ends with a boring, pointless race and an assassin who is more skilled at killing than a Navy SEAL. What's worse is that the last fifty pages or so deals with a rather foolish chase for something that does not even require a high school diploma to figure out - I was reading away fully aware of the final answer and I am not a 'nuclear f*ing physicist'!

Overall, the book was alright, but there are much better ones out there to read. 

Goodbye, Madiba

NELSON MANDELA
1918-2013
Survived by his wife, children, grandchildren and a nation of his dreams

When Mahatma Gandhi died, Albert Einstein said that generations hence would scarcely believe that such a man once walked upon the earth. He was wrong - generations hence, my generation, did believe, because we saw another Mahatma. Nelson Mandela, President of the "Rainbow Nation" who embodied the one spirit that has evaded the greatest of world leaders - forgiveness. For, just about anybody could have been set free from prison; but is there anybody who can also set the jailer free?

Born into one of the most racist and oppressive regimes in history, Apartheid South Africa, Madiba, as he is fondly called, was the moral beacon the fight for equality. But what made him unique was that he defined equality from both sides - he said that racism was racism, whether it came from the black man or the white man. It was this simple fact that transformed the nation when he became its first black President. And it was this spirit that served as a beacon across the world, a world where that original country to create racism, America, finally saw a black President.

And yet, there are many lessons still to be learned. Mandela's party, the African National Congress, has ruled South Africa uninterrupted since that historic inauguration, but the country is changing very quickly and the party is struggling to keep up. Although it is now a part of the emerging BRICS economies, South Africa still has great difficulties to overcome, not just economic but social as well. Without Mandela's guiding light, the ANC will have to work twice as hard to keep his fire aglow.

As for the rest of the world, we have lost one of those great leaders that you read about in history textbooks but can't see or hear in real life - except that in his case, we could. Every generation needs a hero - Mandela is gone, and the world needs another. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Cold Sets In

The chill has set in a full two weeks before the 'official' winter comes around. While the weather service had predicted that Champaign would miss this round of snow, they seemed to have been off the mark as I awoke Sunday morning to see the whole city covered in snow. It wasn't my first experience with snow but it was the first time I had to face it like a common person and not a tourist. That means I had to bear the snow and get to my office, classes, the library and the market.

Boneyard Creek, where I spent a good many days jogging in the summer, is now frozen. I wonder where the ducks went though - possibly they migrated south. The trouble with snow is that, while it is very nice to look at (until the sunlight creates glare due ti the higher albedo), it is a pain to walk on. Eventually, cold and wet shoes do make you irritated with it. Nonetheless, I had better get used to it given that a good 2"-4" of snow is expected this weekend, directed precisely at central Illinois (I wonder how accurate that is this time though).

I must confess, I do love the cold. Why wouldn't I? It feels so wonderful to wear a jacket, to not sweat while walking or even running and to have a nice, cold breeze blow through your hair. I know, people would think the last one is something that only girls like, but for someone who has grown up mostly on the coast, the feeling of a breeze is beyond words.

In winter, I find Indians struggling, wanting so dearly for everything to be warm. Most people do that, but for some reason I think Indians miss it more. Perhaps it's because most of them have not traveled out of the country much, so this would be a part of what they would call a culture shock. For me, someone who has gotten used to being in new climates and cultures every few years, there is no such thing as a culture shock and I can mostly adjust to any kind of climate, although I prefer the cold.

Well, as the temperatures fall, I still have no reason to stop working. Life goes on, come rain, hail or... snow! 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

PT: Record-Breaking Package


Ten Steps Back

The Supreme Court today ruled on Koushal vs Naz Foundation, overturning an earlier judgment of the Delhi High Court in Naz Foundation vs NCT of Delhi that read down Sec. 377 of the IPC to conclude that homosexual sex is not a crime. The Supreme Court declared that there is nothing unconstitutional with the provision, thus putting India into a niche league of 10 other nations that criminalize homosexual acts. Furthermore, it has put the onus on Parliament to overturn the law, imposing judicial restraint upon itself.

The judgment appears to be deeply flawed for several reasons. If one peruses the judgment, one finds that the court finds no evidence of misuse of the provision because in the last 150 years since it was introduced by an unrepresentative colonial administration, just 200 people have been prosecuted under it. This is a shocking line of reasoning, running against the judicial principle that it is better to set a hundred guilty persons free than to convict one innocent person. The very fact that people have been persecuted because of something that they are born to and have no control over, something that the World Health Organization says is not a choice but a natural order, means that the provision has been misused, and there is no threshold of 200 people needed to protect people from a perverse law.

What is even more surprising is that the court still differentiates between being homosexual and having sex with a person of the same sex. This is an untenable distinction, because sex is a basic requirement of human life, something that is protected by the Right to Life (as long as it is between two consenting adults and in private), a provision so important that, according to the court itself, cannot be amended even by Parliament, in Keshavanand Bharti. By saying that Sec. 377 applies equally to heterosexuals and homosexuals, the court once again ignores this fact. This is also the problem with those who argue that sex with animals and homosexual acts are the same and hence should be criminalized - the former is a choice, the latter is a human need. You can criminalize a choice, not a need.

And finally, the Supreme Court uses a majoritarian principle, that a very vast majority of people are heterosexual, to deem Sec. 377 constitutional. This is surprising from an institution whose mandate is to protect minorities from the majority. Henry David Thoreau, who greatly inspired Mahatma Gandhi, pointed out that majorities do not determine what is right or wrong and laws based on the opinion of a majority without any logic are no laws at all. What is the use of fundamental rights if it is to be applied only when a majority wants it? To say that it is the prerogative of Parliament is an argument that the Court itself does not accept after Bharti. If we are to accept that majorities decide what is right and wrong, then it is a fact that a majority of men beat their wives. Are we to accept this?

The question is not whether a majority or a minority support it, it is whether people can be criminalized for a basic human need that is beyond their control and which all scientific evidence shows to be something people are born with and cannot come out of. It is whether majorities can dictate how people should live and behave. By asking Parliament to act on this, the Court has relegated on its protection of minorities from the majority and has failed the mandate enshrined upon it by the Constitution, which is the only body of law that all Indians hold allegiance to. Already, people have denounced the judgment and are inviting contempt proceedings against themselves, something that would make people lose all faith in the higher judicial system.

What is truly disappointing is that this judgment came on International Human Rights Day, when we celebrate those rights that have defined the world, including our own Constitution, since World War II. This takes India back several years and exposes the outrageous nature of secularism in India, where religion and religious morals are not just a part of administration but where anyone holding a religion card can get their way. It makes us a society that endorses Hitler's persecution of homosexuals along with Jews and other minorities. Like other disappointing judgments of before, this too will go down as one of the most shocking and retrograde judgments in history, a blot on our judicial history. 

Clinching Moments

Cabbages & Kings
By O Henry 

I must admit, there are just a handful of American writers that I can truly appreciate - Jhumpa Lahiri (if she counts), Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand and O Henry are the top ones that come to my mind. Having grown up in the Commonwealth, rarely did I have a chance to explore American writing. But when I saw the collected works of O Henry at CPL, I thought it would be appropriate to start with this.

Of course, William Sydney Portert is famous as the master of the irony, a maddeningly difficult literary tool to achieve, but one that can make all the difference. But even before his period short stories, Cabbages & Kings, his first work, gave us the wonderful term, 'banana republic.' In a lazy, company-run country that can be taken for a ride at the drop of a hat, we discover the twists and turns from Porter's imagination.

The book is not typical of his later collected works of short stories, in that it is a long story (though not a novel) that catches the final irony right in the end. To that extent, it is a precursor to his successful works. But on it's own too, it stands out as a fine piece of literature.

PS: I might also recommend Gift of the Magi

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Why did I see this?

NASHA (2013)

Producer: Surendra Suneja and Aditya Bhatia
Director: Amit Saxena
Starring: Shivam Patil, Poonam Pandey, Raj Kesaria and others
Pros: N/A
Cons: Everything
Rating: Don't even think about it

There are bad movies, there are really bad movies and there are movies that should have never even been made. And then there's Nasha, the so-called erotic drama that was supposed to launch Poonam Pandey into Bollywood. Well, not exactly a successful launch - even a failure would have been a compliment. At every level possible, Nasha was a pathetic movie.

A not-so-young but extremely sexy teacher enters the world of sex-charged teenagers in India and becomes the object of desire of one of them. Never mind that he has a girlfriend, she keeps coming on and off (pun intended). An interesting premise and something that quite possibly does happen. But then, where's the fun in that? After a few lame attempts to introduce so-caled erotica into the film, in comes the evil boyfriend and suddenly, our teenager gyrates from superman to whopping boy.

That much should be enough to tell you what a great torture it was watching this. The story is full of holes - in fact, it has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese! One moment, Indian morals are invoked but the moment just preceding it allowed a slight exception to it. A play does not need to have dialogue anymore, seductive dancing is quite enough - the actors don't even have to practice a single line! And finally, how could we have any family values in a movie that seeks to eliminate all of that? The formula was all there - a make-believe, simplistic world that allowed the director of meeting his single-minded goal of using Ms. Pandey as an object to catch eyeballs. And boy, was that a failed attempt.

The acting was sub-standard, the songs boring, the costumes lackluster and, not to forget, the dialogue childish and corny. The entire treatment of the subject makes you wonder whether the entire crew actually ever grew up after puberty. This is possibly the worst movie of 2013, or maybe of the entire millennium so far. Do you still need me to give you a recommendation? (OTFS)

A Historic Election in Delhi

Yes, I am eating my own words and I was wrong. If 2014 promises to be the most important election for India in a generation, in Delhi, that mantle went to 2013. Defying all pundits, Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party pulled off a political miracle that not even the Occupy Wall Street protesters in the world's oldest democracy could. For a party that launched itself just a year ago and, over the last few weeks, has been subject to the sweltering grind of political India, AAP's victory is nothing short of historic and represents a very real, existential danger to both the BJP and the Congress in an increasingly urbanized nation.

Perhaps the most stunning result was in the very heart of Delhi and the capital of India - the New Delhi constituency - where Arvind Kejriwal kept his promise and unseated three-time Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, whose political career is now all but closed. And he did it with a cool margin of 22,000 votes. The rout of the Congress was complete and comprehensive, with several sitting ministers losing their seats to first-time AAP candidates and BJP candidates.

Sadly, it seems certain that the city-state is looking at a spell of President's rule. As the single-largest party, the BJP must be invited by the LG to form a government first. Although it can easily win over an Independent, that still leaves it with just 33 - 3 short of a majority. There are two possibilities, both remote: the BJP managing to horse-trade some Congress and AAP MLAs to engineer a majority in a floor test and then lead a minority government; or, the Congress lending support or even joining an AAP government. The first case seems likelier, but unlikely nonetheless because of the atmosphere in the country in general and Delhi in particular against Karnataka-like shenanigans. The second case seems unlikely unless AAP bends on its principles - a Congress-supported government would never be able to implement any of Kejriwal's high promises especially an all-powerful Lokpal and without that, AAP would lose all its support and be given a quick burial.

So, it seems President's rule is certain and another round of elections will be due, possibly to be bundled up with the Lok Sabha elections and state elections in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, Odisha and Sikkim. In that case, the next few months will be crucial for all parties - AAP to keep the momentum going, the BJP to create a counter-wave and the Congress to resurrect itself, however unlikely that might seem. What is clear is that both the Congress and the BJP misread the electorate, which is young and very, very angry. For NaMo and RaGa alike, the time now is to introspect. India is changing, slowly but surely. 

Another Vajpayee?

Refusing to be dragged into the Modi vs Rest debate within the BJP, Shivraj Singh Chouhan has clearly pulled off a silent coup by winning Madhya Pradesh - 'the heart of India' - for the third time in a row and placing himself as one of the most successful BJP Chief Ministers in history. Once a bastion of the Congress' loudmouth general secretary Digvijay Singh, MP's transformation into a BJP state is now complete and total.

There are no surprises from the state - the results were exactly along expected lines. What is worth looking at is the way Chouhan has managed to quietly attract voters even as there is a more localized anti-incumbency against the BJP's legislators. Of course, this won't last forever and the next five years must be used to engineer a generation shift lest the electorate decide that it supplied enough goodwill to the CM. Still, comparisons with BJP statesman Ataj Behari Vajpayee might not be quite off the mark, as Chouhan has managed to hold the party together while the opposition continues to crumble.

Will Chouhan play a role in national politics? That depends on a lot of things and the first among them is Narendra Modi, a man not known to keep sidekicks and who now holds the Central leadership in his vice-like grip. Until Modi leaves the national scene, Chouhan does not have much of a chance to reach New Delhi. Moreover, and quite like Modi himself, he has no track-record in cobbling up complex coalitions. This is quite unlike Vajpayee, who successfully led a massive coalition to its full term, becoming the only non-Congress PM to have a full term. Although the BJP has left coalition-building till after the 2014 elections, it cannot be ignored because India is very clearly in the age of coalition governments for some time to come.

For now, Bhopal can be assured of another five stable years. 

Read the Fine Print

It was the rollercoaster of the day, with both sides looking to win a majority, depending on when you looked. In the end, Raman Singh made history by becoming one of those few Chief Ministers to win a third term in a row, a feat shared in the BJP by neighbour Shivraj Singh Chouhan and of course, Narendra Modi.

However, the final tally of 49-39 should be read carefully: the BJP is losing ground in Chhattisgarh. This was supposed to be an easy contest for 'Chawal Baba' Raman Singh, instead it turned into a close contest. Even with the loss of its senior leadership in the state to a deadly Naxal attack, the Congress still managed to get very close to the BJP's tally. It won't take long for it to overtake the BJP. Given the fact that the BJP will need to maximize its seats in 2014 in order to cobble a coalition together with Narendra Modi at the helm, this is a serious issue.

For the Congress, the lack of a unifying leader in the state, like in Rajasthan, is what led to its defeat. But let us be clear - this was not a rout. The problem with the Congress is that it has not been able to bring Ajit Jogi under its full control and in-fighting is leading to heavy losses for it. If it seeks to stop the Modi juggernaut, it will have to clean up its act, if not for anything else than the fact that Chhattisgarh represents a very real chance for the Congress to return to Central India. Clearly, this story is not over yet. 

A Rout if Ever

It was one of the greatest drubbings that any party has ever received - the ruling Congress party in Rajasthan was virtually wiped out in the Assembly as results came in yesterday. Vasundhara Raje-led BJP is all set to form a majority government with an overwhelming 80% majority. What's more, if 2008/09 was any indication, the Congress is sure to lose its Lok Sabha seats next year as well, with Raje making it a point to include Narendra Modi in many of her speeches particularly in the Mewar region that borders Gujarat.

The clearest and most unambiguous truth that has emerged from Rajasthan is that the Congress' post-YSR philosophy of keeping regional leaders weak and ensuring that they cannot arm-twist the high command is a failure. If anything, the absence of a strong leader in Rajasthan was what led to the Congress' undoing. True, the state has never re-elected a government in half a century, but in 2008, the BJP lost by only a small margin whereas this defeat is as comprehensive as it gets in such a large state.

Another interesting result is that Ashok Gehlot's populism wave failed to win him anything. This is a phenomenon that social scientists have been predicting. A younger India, more aware of the world around it, will not be bought over by cheap stunts. You either perform or perish, last-minute fixes will not help. And of course, it also did not help that the Congress Central leadership did not get along very well with Gehlot. In the end, perhaps this was what led to such a humiliating defeat. His outburst against the Central Government does not help either, although he did make a good point.

For the BJP, celebrations must not give way to complacency. This was a semifinal to the big game next year - the 2014 General Elections. Although the state election was fought on local issues, there is nothing like a popular state government to give a boost to a national campaign. The next few months will be critical. 

Tourist in your own country

I was deeply moved by an interesting proposition that I came across in The Kite Runner: are people, and by that I mean urban people, becoming tourists in their own country? It is an interesting proposition that points back to the middle class detachment from the problems of their own countries. I have seen this time and again in India and I don't claim to be free from it either.

When I think of the idea in an Indian context, the first thing that comes to my mind is the IT industry and employment in general. The vast majority of the Indian middle class is totally clueless about the unemployment rate in India. They know that there are poor people without jobs, but what they do not know is that if you add up the number of people without jobs and the number without jobs commensurate to their skills (underemployment), you would probably get a very large number. And if you considered only the youth, you would probably get a vast majority.

Behind the glittering offices in Gurgaon, Hyderabad and Bangalore lie millions of children who die of hunger everyday, millions of children in so-called schools that are gaining no education at all, millions of young people who come out of colleges thoroughly unemployable. There, behind the glitzy malls of Mumbai is Asia's largest slum, the largest number of people who defecate in the open in the world, a great banana republic where one family can turn every wheel to make anything happen. Here, under the cradle of the world's largest democracy, lies a colonial police force that creates victims out of those it is supposed to protect, manual scavenging going on in full swing with the government being the largest employer.

Looking at all this, I wonder how silicon and trojans are going to solve the problems of our country. And yet, the best minds are all looking at these as our future. Is this really the kind of future we want? I might sound cynical, but if the best minds of India believe that we can have a future without food, water and employment, then they really are just tourists living here. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

First Round of Exit Polls

With the last vote cast at 9:30 PM in Delhi, the 2013 round of assembly elections, various agencies came out with their exit polls. Before we discuss it however, we must recognize that while these polls could accurately capture vote share, if scientific principles are applied, but converting those to actual seats in a first past the post system is all about mathematical voodoo and can be quite off the mark.

That said, exit polls in the past have had a mixed record with some of them being fairly accurate, such as Prannoy Roy's dream exit poll. So lets not be excessively cynical about them. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, exit polls indicate a decisive victory for the BJP, winning nearly twice as many seats as the Congress. Shivraj Singh Chouhan seems set to become one of the few CMs in India to win a third consecutive term.

In Chhatisgarh, it's a close call but the BJP seems o be ready to win a majority for the third time in a row, although the votes in the Bastar area are crucial and seem to be swinging in favour of the Congress. Mizoram, sadly, was not covered by pollsters, although there too a keen contest played out between the Congress and the MNF-led alliance. It will be quite interesting to know if the MNF can win back Aizawl and where the future for Lalthanhawla lies.

And then, there's Delhi. The most keenly contested election this year, the exit polls are rather divided here. Everybody sees the Congress being defeated, with one agency concluding that Sheila Dixit herself faces a stinging defeat in her New Delhi constituency at the hands of AAP's Kejriwal. Except one, all agencies expect the BJP to emerge as the single-largest party in the Assembly of 70. But they do not see the party winning a majority (except the ORG poll, which gives it 41). Clearly, AAP has played spoiler. There are two options left now: assuming the Akalis and independents win enough seats, the BJP could rule through a coalition. If that is not possible, the Congress could try to stitch one up, although that is next to impossible. Unless AAP agrees to join a coalition, Delhi is certain to head towards another election, possibly in 2014 with the general elections, and that could complicate the matter for all parties.

Results are out on Sunday and will be keenly watched in India and across the world. Already, the first round of exit polls have enthused the stock markets, hoping to see a Narendra Modi-wave next year. It is quite funny how news channels are debating whether such a wave exists through these elections, obviously forgetting that Indian voters know how to differentiate an Assembly election from a Lok Sabha election. CNN-IBN comes out with its exit poll on Friday and, given the track record, that will also be very important. One thing is clear though - the Congress is in big trouble and Rahul Gandhi is a failed politician. That will go down in the textbooks.

Edit: I've found out that CVoter actually did an exit poll in Mizoram on their own accord and it predicted a hung assembly, with the Congress losing half its seats in the Aizawl Assembly. Clearly, the opportunity is ripe for the MNF to look for a grand coalition to unseat the Congress, but the stability of such a coalition will be the bone of contention. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Delhi Elections: What I think

Voting has begun in the last round of Assembly Elections this year, widely seen as a precursor to next year's General Election. Nowhere else in India has the contest been as keenly observed as in the national capital. A traditional BJP-Congress fight, the rise of Arvind Kejriwal's AAP has proved to be a huge factor.

What do I think? Let me hazard a very wild guess - I think Kejriwal's bubble is going to burst. In the best possible situation, I give him no less than 10 points. I don't believe that the social-media induced wave means anything. I do believe that his most ardent supporters who come to his rallies actually just like to listen to him but don't care much beyond that. And those supporters who don't come to rallies are not going to vote, at least not in substantial numbers. Overall, AAP has just run a very negative campaign, saying it will do things differently (and never explaining how) and promising the moon (and never explaining how it intends to keep those promises). Add to that their hypocritical, self-righteous 'internal surveys' and you get the idea of a party that thinks much too much of itself.

What about the big CM race? It will certainly be the most hotly contested seat in India - the New Delhi constituency, the nation's proud capital. Here is where I do see Sheila Dixit facing her Waterloo and possibly to Kejriwal himself. While I think his party has no chance, that does not apply to the man himself. I do hazard a guess that Kejriwal is going to unseat Dixit from her constituency, but will not take the CM's chair.

Who will? Well, that's too risky to guess, but I do not see another Congress government. And neither an AAP government. You get my point. Of course, I could be wrong, and hugely at that. Only Dec. 8 will tell.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

No Second Thoughts on Art. 370

Narendra Modi's recent speech in Jammu seemed to be a shameless dilution of the party's usual, principled stand on Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, providing for special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir within the Indian Union. Although there are several provisions for special status to states, these are mostly related to protected endangered cultures or traditional tribal ways of life. Art. 370 is a unique provision giving political autonomy to the state to have its own constitution and flag within the Union, something that none of the other 27 states has.

Nearly half a century ago, it was Shyam Prasad Mookherji who gave his life to bring down the provision. At the time, Indian citizens not subjects of J&K required special documents to even enter the state. Today, although the provisions covered by Art. 370 have been thankfully diluted, there is still a yawning gap between what is needed and what is the situation on the ground. The Constitution places the Article under a section for transitory provisions that are supposed to be phased out over time - surely 60 years is long enough for that?

It must be made clear that any dilution of the BJP's stand by anyone in it is absolutely unacceptable to its base. J&K is an integral part of India, a part of which is illegally occupied by China and Pakistan. This includes all three regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. By allowing J&K to have such outrageous autonomy within the Union and denying the same to other states, the implication is that the state is still on the negotiating table, which it is not.

NaMo should clarify what his stand on the issue is - any ambiguity here is a danger to national unity. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Coming Soon: IOTY 13


Back in its seventh edition, Opinions 24x7 presents its flagship series - The Opinions 24x7 Indian of the Year 2013. This year's look is themed on the mood of the nation before the impending 2014 General Elections. The logo is meant to look like the wheels of a train, moving forward, while also integrating themes of old Bollywood, in this, the 100th year of Indian Cinema.

Change is coming - that seems to be the mood of the nation. The elections in 2014 could possibly be the most crucial in a generation, deciding which direction India goes in: the old (represented by the letter I-O-T-Y, lying on their backs) or the new (represented by the glowing, green '13'). But it's not all political - the colors are meant to represent the Indian tricolor and not party colors. For, at the end of the day, we are not a nation of parties but a nation of people and the three colors represent the very idea of India and not the idea of a political party. The rectangles below represent the varying views and opinions that have been churned in the run up to the elections and the line passing through all of them represents the inherent unity of the nation - though are different people with different ideas, we still stand as one single nation, united and strong.

This year, we will be further consolidating our categories and searching for new ones, as we have continued to do since the very first edition. We also look to introducing a narrative style to our nominations and possibly a more detailed citation.

Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2013
Coming Next Year

Friday, November 29, 2013

My New Kindle

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, the American shopping festival that always makes news across the world. I started by assuming that I didn't need anything and so would let it pass, considering purchases next year. But then, as fate has it, I started looking at some of the offers on Best Buy. And was I blown! Well, a confession: I knew what I was looking for. A Kindle. I just wondered what a bookworm like me would love to have. Well, obviously, courtesy CPL, I already had access to thousands of books (for free). But I'm not someone who lives in the last century (obviously) and I too, love digital.

I knew I was going to buy a Kindle sooner or later. And when you have so many deals around, why not sooner? I was confused between the three variations: regular, Paperwhite and Kindle Fire HD (8GB - the 16 GB one was out of my budget). And boy, was it a hard decision! Eventually, it came down to two facts:

  1. I basically needed it to read books on the go, when carrying paperbacks or even hardbacks was no longer an option. I am reminded of my final flight from Roorkee, when books were one reason I had excess baggage. And buying Kindle books is just so much cheaper, if I ever need to that is. (Wink, wink). So I checked and found out that the Fire HD did not have the famous E-Ink, which means that reading on it would strain my already-strained eyes. So, out it went.
  2. I needed a touchscreen. This was a no-brainer, by first ever phone was a touchscreen and the only keypad device I am used to using is my laptop (that could change this time next year). So, the regular Kindle was out. And so we had - the Kindle Paperwhite! 
As suggested by a friend, I inaugurated it with one of my favourite series from childhood - Animorphs! Very geeks, maybe even a little childish at this age, but I couldn't think of anything more appropriate. Sure, there was always EB, but those books were just inaugural ones. Animorphs was the first series that I was really addicted to. And now, although I still have a 1,500-page O. Henry collection from CPL to finish, I can check out my Kindle once in a while till I am ready to go fully digital. 

As a friend said, you don't wonder what use you'll have for such devices. You get it for any reason and you'll find more uses! 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Dangerous Moves in the East China Sea

Last weekend, China announced a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea covering the disputed Senkaku islands that are administered by Japan but claimed by China. The islands lie south of Okinawa and north of Taiwan. Japanese PM Abe responded with a strongly-worded statement in the Diet, rejecting the whole idea of the East China Sea ADIZ and vowing to protect Japan's airspace. Almost on queue, the US flew B-52 bombers over the area in what the Pentagon said was a routine drill.

What is clear is that China is doing to Japan is exactly what it did to India just a few months back in the Depsang sector of Ladakh - using force to create new facts on the ground (or in the sea, in this case). This has been a frequent trend in a rising China's dealing with its neightbours - the South China Sea too has seen Chinese coast guard patrol being deployed. This ratchets up territorial disputes in Asia to a whole new level - democratic nations do not assert territorial claims through the threat of force. Of course, it is well-known that apart from the US, no Indo-Pacific power can challenge the PLA. And that is precisely why China's moves are so perplexing.

It is a fact that the US, since the Monroe Doctrine was espoused, has worked on the principle of containing rival powers. It has been this principle that made the US a global military power - whether it be Germany, the USSR or Imperial Japan. By using force to compel Indo-Pacific nations into submission, China is inviting the US to come to Asia and repeat the same strategy. This, at a time when the Chinese leadership is increasingly talking about the need to use soft power in its dealings.

It is clear that Japan's days of pacifism are numbered. In danger of losing territory and becoming a client state of China, Japan will have no choice but to develop its military and create an offensive Navy, although it is already the largest maritime force in the area after the US. India is already going through an arms build-up despite increasing financial constraints with INS Vikramaditya set to shift the balance dramatically in the Indian Ocean. China's moves are already creating a dangerous arms race across Indo-Pacific and it can only get worse after this ADIZ. 

One Year Ago: Placements

How time does fly! Today marks the anniversary of the day I was placed at ITC, bringing an end to my placement season almost as soon as it began. The memories are still so vivid... the GD, which was a case study and one that I aced. It was easy really, they were just seeing how confidently all of us could speak. I did goof up at one point when I forgot something and the whole table pounced at me, but I managed to take care of that.

The Tech round was easily the most intensive interview I had ever given. They certainly knew a lot and I struggled to find answers. What complicated the matter was the fact that I had no idea it was going to be so technical... thanks to the hype around HR rounds, I thought it would be all about HR. But it turned out that the very short HR round was a mere formality - everyone was selected.

Well, what came of my employment at the firm and how I came to Champaign, IL is history now. But what made me happy was to know that my successor in the DebSoc was also placed in ITC under very similar circumstances. I'm not a great believer in destiny, but coincidences are always nice to look at. Or was it? Because, if I learned one thing from my experience, it is that you need to be a supremely good debater to ace the placements - speaking confidently, thinking on your feet, covering your steps... it all came naturally to us. All you needed was a degree that let you enter the process!

Unfortunately, I've found out that the controversial negative days of placements led to a very ugly incident at IITR, with the top-gun of tech companies, Microsoft, walking out and possibly blacklisting the institution. This is a very serious matter and I think it is time to come clean on the controversial policy. It might have worked for some time - I certainly took advantage of it - but it is fundamentally wrong. I know the culture of secrecy out there, but an honest and open discussion between all stakeholders is the need of the hour. The aim must always be to hold the institution's name high.

As I see my juniors placed one by one (well, a lot of that happened on the "real" first day), I wonder just how far I have gone from that stage. Department medal, Kinra fellow, OPJEMS scholar... life has been kind to me, I suppose. Yet, there is so much more to do. So much more. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Queen Returns?

December 1 is when India's desert state, Rajasthan, votes to elect a new assembly. Opinion polls have predicted a victory for the BJP, in line with the trend in the state to vote for the opposition in ever election. This time however, there are two things that make the BJP case even stronger.

One, of course, is the Modi factor. Rajasthan's Mewar region borders Gujarat but is a case study in contrast with one of India's most prosperous states. Not unlike the rest of India, Narendra Modi's astonishing rise has been felt here as well and people do yearn for electricity, roads, food and jobs. Certainly, the Modi factor will have a role here not just in 2013 but also in 2014.

The second is the return of former CM Vasundhara Raje Scindia of the former royal house. Pushed into oblivion by her rivals within the BJP as well as the RSS in the 2008 elections, she has now come back with a ferocity, traveling the length and breadth of the state as the unquestioned leader of the Rajasthan BJP. There is no doubt that she is a formidable fighter who towers over the Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. She has been pushed around within the ranks of her party and the State Assembly several times, only to bounce back to power. And this time, she appears to have the backing of the Sangh as well. Her appeal goes beyond the middle-class and she has consciously tried to build up a following among tribals in the state. That will be tested next month.

Add to this the fact that the Congress' core constituencies - the poor and Muslims - are weaning away, and you have a political conundrum for the ruling regime. Incidents of police highhandedness in communal clashes have distance Muslims from the Congress, eliminating an important vote bank. At the same time, widespread allegations of corruption and broken promises have made voters disenchanted. The best bet for the Congress really is for the BJP to strangle itself through in-fighting.

For the BJP, Rajasthan is a crucial cog in the march to Delhi in 2014. It is absolutely critical that it take back power in India's largest state by area so that the new state government can do enough good work to win big in the general elections next year. A loss is not an option here and, if the polls are anything to go by, it won't have to be either. 

Another Media Trial

The sensational Aarushi-Hemraj Murder Trial has been the talk of the town in India, with the parents, Nupur and Rajesh Talwar, being held guilty by a CBI Court and sentenced yesterday to life imprisonment. The so-called mainstream media was quick to pass judgment - in fact, so quick that they did not even wait for the detailed judgment - insisting that the CBI had botched up the investigation. Sagarika Ghosh, who is starting to remind me greatly of a particular journalist from Boston Legal, declared that the couple were absolutely innocent and any judgment otherwise was a 'rape of justice.' Judge, prosecution and juror, all rolled into one!

If anything, this whole case was vitiated by the parallel media trial from Day 1. The absolute frenzy around the trial is what prompted the then BSP-led Mayawati Government to transfer the case to the CBI, which eventually came to the same conclusion as the Noida Police. True, even this is based on circumstantial evidence but since when has circumstantial evidence been insufficient? True, death penalty through circumstantial evidence would have been dangerous (though not unprecedented, as we saw in the conviction and eventual execution of Afzal Guru), and the CBI's demand for the same was foolish, but life imprisonment is quite reasonable given the nature of the sordid crime.

The problem with the media is that they are so elitist, so fixated to an idea of family and values that is increasingly become irrelevant, that any attack on the middle class inertia is met with an onslaught on one-sided diatribes. Why is it that parents cannot kill their children? Oh, but they can, as long as they are from the illiterate masses of UP and Haryana. Middle class parents cannot do any such thing - although there was that one case where a father and stepmother grotesquely tortured their baby. Oh, but that was an aberration? Why is it then, that most cases of female infanticide today come from the urban middle class?

It is foolish, even a miscarriage of justice, to believe that the Talwars were de facto because they were the parents. Honour killing is everywhere, it is a part of our society, which is rotting at the center because of an old generation that simply refuses to see things from the perspective of the new and vows to have its way. The 26 reasons given by the judge are more or less valid, although the emotional factors such as the lack of tears in the parents eyes could be discounted. Circumstantial evidence is valid ground for conviction although it can also be grounds for mitigating punishment. It is not, however, a cause for automatic dismissal. Not all cases have eyewitnesses and CCTV footage and that is why proof must be beyond reasonable doubt and not all doubt.

The Talwar couple have vowed to take the fight to the Allahabad High Court - they have a right to that. However, the way the media is already going about decrying the CBI Court's judgment and parading the idea of the prosperous and perfect middle class family is dangerous and the fear is that it would lead to a miscarriage of justice. It is only hoped that the High Court does not fall to this maelstrom. 

What Peace?

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of one of the most dastardly terrorist strike on Indian soil. On 26/11 in 2008, armed terrorists from Pakistan raided the economic capital on India's West coast and held the city to ransom for two days, going on a mass killing orgy that left over 170 people dead, including some foreigners who were specifically targeted to damage India's tourism industry.

Five years on, the trial in India has reached its logical conclusion with one of the gunmen, Kasab, having been hanged to death after President Pranab Mukherjee rejected his final mercy petition. Like everything else, the security around the coasts remains poor and India is still vulnerable to such an attack. But perhaps the most disconcerting part is that the trial in Pakistan, where the real conspirators live, has hardly gotten off its feet. Consider what the situation has been in the Anti-Terrorism Court: five judges have come and gone, the prosecution lawyer has been changed several times and the accused, who is out on bail, has made several speeches across Pakistan calling for continued jihad against India.

In the midst of this, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's mindless attempts to shove all the pain under the carpet and continue to pursue a pointless and unequal partnership with Pakistan makes no sense. What peace? Has 26/11 been the last attack on India? Who continues to support terrorists as they try to infiltrate Kashmir? Who has been funding and training the Indian Mujahideen? The proxy was that the Pakistani Army and ISI continue to play on India leaves no one in doubt that the ghost of 26/11 is still very much among us.

But what is most disappointing is that, after witnessing first hand what a colonial police force goes through by being handicapped and under-funded, police reforms remain a distant dream for India. Instead of spending tax money on arming, training and improving the stock of our policemen, our democracy has let that issue pass by without a wink. That remains the true tragedy of 26/11.

For someone who spent crucial formative years in Bombay, as it was called then, seeing the siege so close to my own school was disconcerting. The event reminded me of my Mumbai roots and even as I now live half a world away, I can still feel that fresh, sea breeze at the Gateway of India. A breeze that blew that night too, five years ago.