Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Moment's Thought

Interpreter of Maladies
By Jhumpa Lahiri

All the discussion of Indian-American writer and Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri's go at the Man Booker Prize for The Lowlands got me down to reading the parts of her works that I had left out. With the latest novel being checked out for a few months in the library, and with The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth in the bag, I decided to give her first work, Interpreter of Maladies, a chance. And I was not disappointed.

The best part about Lahiri's writing is that her stories often end abruptly. This might seem counter-intuitive, but only because we have gotten used to listening to tales with morals or some sort of conclusion. But her works leave a lot of room for the reader to think. There are stories, such as the cover story itself, that pick up a small thought in an ordinary person's mind and take them to a new level. That is where the beauty of the genre lies.

Interpreter of Maladies is not set in any particular period or even place, although Lahiri's old favourite of Cambridge, MA keeps recurring. In a way, many of the stories are perpetually topical, although some aspects, such as the exchange of long letters, may not be. But what matters is the emotion and it hits you without shocking you. For anyone who writes short stories, this is known to be a difficult feat. I would strongly recommend reading this book, although my favourite still remains Unaccustomed Earth

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Masterstroke

Gujarat Chief Minister and the BJP's candidate for PM, Narendra Modi, has raked a hornet's nest with his ambitious plan to build the world's tallest statue at a cost of $340 million in honour of the first Iron Man of India, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who patiently worked to unite the 500-odd provinces that were outside of the new dominion of India, whether by negotiations (in most cases) or by force (such as in Hyderabad), in time for the adoption of the Constitution.

On the face of it, it seems to be absolutely wasteful expenditure for a state with such poor social indicators. And it is a bad idea to divert funds meant for social welfare for something such as this. But firstly, we should remember that Gujarat, one of the richest states in India, already spends a lot on social welfare. The implementation could be better, but money is certainly not in shortage.

What then, is the value of the statue? Symbolism, of course. The anti-Gandhi (not the Mahatma). I have long-held that the Gandhi family, with its vice-like grip on the Congress, has essentially done what the Nazis did to Germany: they name institutions after themselves, they name places after themselves, they create an aura of power, even royalty, and use a complex web of veneers to indemnify themselves against any accountability. Manmohan Singh might be the most prominent of those veneers but when you consider how Congress 'leaders' jumped to defend Rahul Gandhi after the debacles in Bihar and UP, you begin to get a hint of how deep and dark those veneers are.

Of course, none of this is surprising. As a BJP spokesperson rightly pointed out in reply to a Congressman's caricaturing of Modi as Hitler, history says that India has only ever had one dictator who trampled on the Constitution and set about wrecking every single institution that our Republic was based on: Indira Gandhi. And we all know the difference between the Congress before and after her: the proper name of the current party is Indian National Congress (Indira). No Congressman dares to question the Family, as Margaret Alva quickly learned. If this is not nazification, then what is?

The Statue of Unity, as it is being called, is a call to Indians to break free from the Family, to stop considering the invocation of its name as pardon for the destruction of our Republic that it has orchestrated. Modi's idea is akin to the denazification process that Germany took up after World War II. Hopefully, if the BJP comes to power, it will take this further by creating a more equitable redistribution of names to important schemes and universities. The psychological brainwashing that the country has been subject to must come to an end and who better than the first man who brought Indians together after centuries of living in separate empires: Sardar Vallabhai Patel? 

A Lovely Time

Yesterday, a consortium of departments and organizations across UIUC held a viewing of the yet-to-be-released film, Miss Lovely, which explores the world of C-grade pornographic films in the 80s in Mumbai. Because the movie is currently under distribution only for previews, I will not put up a formal review. However, I will give some of my reactions.

Before the movie, we were warned that it was graphic and contained far more adult content that what is normal for Bollywood (though tepid against Hollywood). And that was a pretty useful warning. The movie is, in many ways, extremely disturbing. Its premise is a moral question - if you were to gain from an industry that you define as immoral, would you push someone or something that you value into it in order for you to gain even more value from it? In effect, it juxtaposes values and then looks for an answer.

At times, the movie can be very slow. I did manage to catch a few winks, which was coming in any case because I had just rushed backed from the gym. However, those parts do end in rater dramatic fashion, often related to death. The director uses dark scenes to good effect, adding the necessary lighting wherever necessary. However, I thought that the subject matter is not treated with enough depth, it felt rather mechanical and leaves you feeling rather hollow and disgusted (although the second one is probably the aim).

But does it leave me with a thought? No, actually. It is not a preachy movie, it is meant to simply leave a heavy burden on your mind for sometime. I'm not sure if I like such movies, but I certainly don't regret having seen this one. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Needed: Mature Foreign Policy

This week, the MEA went into yet another crisis, this time one of purely its own making. The big debate going on in Indian foreign policy is whether the Prime Minister should or should not attend the annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), being held in Colombo this year. And as always, the idea is to boycott Sri Lanka for its atrocious human rights violations during and after the last Eelam War.

First, let us be clear that Sri Lanka is guilty here. The pseudo-dictatorship of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family presided over an act of aggressive warfare in eliminating the LTTE. While it can be argued that the government was at war to defend the nation's sovereignty, International legal principle since the Numerberg Trials has been that war cannot justify atrocities against innocent civilian populations i.e., aggressive warfare. Therefore, calls to prosecute the Sri Lankan leadership are not unfounded but based in solid legal principle.

However, India should still refrain from making symbolic actions such as boycotting something entirely unrelated - CHOGM, in this case. For one, the meeting is an important stage for diplomacy where India's role as the largest nation within the Commonwealth gives it significant leverage. To miss an opportunity to further India's interests, be it International trade or cross-border terrorism, would be shooting ourselves in the foot. To be sure, Sri Lanka is not on the agenda since the host sets the agenda.

Also, India enjoys a special position in this.. It is one thing for Britain or Canada to boycott the meet (they are not) but India cannot and should not because, as the superpower of South Asia, it is expected to take play an active, not passive, role in bringing the regime to book. No country apart from India can intervene decisively and this is apparent by the fact that the US itself has depended on India to push its agenda there. Therefore, the need is to engage vociferously with Sri Lanka at every stage and bring justice to the Tamils of the North and East, not bury our heads in the sand.

Skipping CHOGM would be a big mistake and regional parties with no foreign policy vision must realize this. Justice will not come to Sri Lankan Tamils through tokenism but through engagement. And you cannot engage by refusing to meet. 

Could AAP trump Delhi?

The Delhi Assembly elections are just a few weeks away and the scene is Delhi is certainly heating up. Last week, the BJP signaled a change in leadership by anointing former minister Harsh Vardhan as its candidate for CM, setting the tried and failed VK Malhotra aside.

But as the season continues, it seems Aravind Kejriwal's AAP could be the party that turns kingmaker in the end. Polls after polls show a stunning rise of the nascent party and both the Congress and the BJP have started taking it on. And rightly so for, the AAP has released a manifesto for each constituency, each of which seems more unlikely than the last.

AAP's agenda is clearly populist: they have promised the moon but have no way of producing enough money in the treasury to finance their dreams for Delhi. It is not hard to envision a collapse of the government machinery and the need for an emergency bailout by the Central Government should Kejriwal come to power. However, voters in Delhi have shown a historic penchant for populism and the state is more or less doomed to suffer that fate in any case.

In the next few weeks, as the campaign trail hots up, what will have to be seen is whether AAP's votes are its own or whether they are eating at either the Congress or the BJP's voteshare. The intricacies of the FPTP system mean that the AAP could very well come out as a kingmaker but not king. And in that difference lies the whole story. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

नई कहानी : खंडित

दो दिशाओं के बीच अनेक मार्ग
नीयति से बनी हमारी राह ।
एक थे हम पर दूर रहे
एक ही धरती भाग्य अनेक ।
अब रहा न धरती न मार्ग समेट
अब हम ही है यहाँ बचे ।
जो था असंभव हुआ साध
मिले ही हम, पराये न थे ।

एक देश, दो परिवार - थे एक ही लोग पर सदा वियुक्त।
एक देश, दो इनसान - और एक बरसो पुरानी नाता।

खंडित 
अगले महीने 

Hitting the Gym

So with my first series of exams completed, I kept my word to myself and hit the gym. So far, I've been jogging at the park, which is always fun, but the recent spate of cold weather including early snowfall in Champaign has made that a difficult option.

Going to the gym can actually be fun. For one, in the US, you have a TV attached to most machines and you can watch Comedy Central while exercising. For anyone who's been to a gym and is not a fitness freak, his is a huge bonus. And the variety of machines is also stunning. While jogging, I always had the trouble of having to stretch regularly to avoid pain, particularly in the shins. But on an elliptic trainer, the impact is reduced drastically and I can do more repetitions that I could have ever done without it.

One drawback is that I feel excruciatingly tired after I finish. This is not the case with the park, which refreshes me and helps me concentrate later. However, I suppose this is something I will have to deal with. To be fair, I have put a target of 350 calories at each session, which is one reason why I feel so tired. If I lowered the target it might help but then, it might also defeat the purpose.

I'm not sure how long this can last (which is also true of everything else). Eventually my work will catch up with me and the phenomenal amount of time I am spending on this will become unjustifiable. But let me cross that bridge when I come to it. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Frost Alert

Local radio stations are reporting that the National Weather Service has predicted freezing temperatures from 1:00 AM tonight, with the minimum expected to go to -2C. Accordingly, a frost alert has been sounded. I've never really known when there is and isn't a frost alert, although I've been to cold places with snow. So, am I excited?

You bet! What's the point of coming to a cold country if you don't enjoy the cold? I have always loved the cold (not just cool) breeze in my face and the feeling of wearing a warm jacket over a few layers of insulation. True, it can be daunting to make your way from home to work but then, the feeling of entering a warm building from the cold wind is wonderful.

An additional reason I prefer the cold weather is the fact that I don't sweat much because of it - this might seem like a small thing but for someone who genetically sweats a lot, it is a major bonus. One drawback is that the park is bound to become unusable - a frozen creek would be a nice picture of course - so I'll have to use the cramped-up gym. In fact, figuring out how to get to the gym will be an issue in itself!

So, tomorrow morning at 7:30 AM, when I make my way to White & Second for my exam, I might just see some ice crystals hanging around. My camera's ready! 

The Holy Quadrilateral

The Char Dhams of India were conceived as a means to the spiritual renaissance of Hinduism. They were not meant to propagate the religion but to remind believers of its inherent unity. The location of the four dhams, one in each cardinal direction of India, reinforces the inherent unity of the religion.

In our journey through the four dhams, we have seen the spiritual significance of each of the sites. It is worth noting that, traditionally, offerings made to one site are from another site. So, it is common to offer a coconut at Badrinath, although coconuts are not local to the region but come from the shores of Rameswaram. This reinforces the fact that each dham, on its own, is less significant that the four combined.

(Series Concluded)

The Northern Crown

Our Char Dham Yatra finally brings us to the fourth and final dham, situated in the Himalayas - Badrinath in today's state of Uttarakhand. The name refers to a berry, Badri, that grows in the region, while Nath is a reference to Vishnu. The temple here, devoted to Vishnu, also forms a part of the chhota Char Dham, a smaller yatra that goes through the four holy sites of Uttarakhand.

Mythology
It is said that the river that flows through Badrinath, the Alaknanda, is one of the twelve parts that the Ganga was broken into. When the river was called upon the earth, its force was so powerful that it would have shattered it. Concerned, Shiva placed the Ganga on his matted hair, which broke it up into twelve parts. These twelve were interspersed along the Himalayas and finally met on the earth as the Ganga. The Alaknanda is one of them.

When Adi Shankaracharya came to Badrinath, it is said that he found a black stone image of Badrinarayan and enshrined it in a cave. Subsequent dynasties that ruled the Garhwal Himalayas moved the stone till it reached its current position, a 15m tall temple with a golden roof. The temple is also called Bhu-Vaikunth, which is the earthly abode of Vishnu.

The temple is located in an area between the two mountains of Nara and Narayanan, which symbolized the dual forms of Vishnu. No wonder than that of the four dhams, Badrinath is considered the holiest. Although primarily a Vaishnavite shrine, it is respected by all sects of Hinduism with thousands of pilgrims coming each year. 

Light Entertainment

DESPICABLE ME 2 (2013)
Seen at Gibson City Drive-in

Produced By: Universal
Director: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring (voice): Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt and others
Pros: Good animation, simple story
Cons: Just for family
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

It's not everyday that you get to go for a real drive-in movie in America. Most Americans don't do it anymore! So when I had the opportunity, I would've gone no matter what the movie was. Fortunately, it was well worth the time. I always have a soft spot for animated pictures and this one hit me just right.

Tired and bruised, Gru tries to settle down at last with his kids and minions (don't you just wish you had them?). But alas, adventure follows him and well, he actually seems to enjoy it! The movie comes with fairly good animation, not too simplistic yet not unnecessarily complex. Certainly a good one for a drive-in setting. The story is not too hard to follow so you can even concentrate on your food and miss some parts without being bored through the rest of it.

The only problem I have is that it's a children's movie essentially. That's not a bad thing per se but it does limit its audience somewhat. Apart from that, it's just a sweet little movie that you could go and watch for some light-hearted fun. (OTFS)

Another One for the VFX

GRAVITY (2013)
Seen on IMAX 3D at Savoy 16

Produced By: Warner Bros
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Plahdut Sharma and others
Pros: Good effects, a few gripping moments
Cons: Highly unlikely chain of events, not for a physicist
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Ah, my first movie in a theater in America - and it had to be this! With some exceptionally good reviews and high ratings, the anticipation was high. And boy, did it disappoint.

Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut, strangely named Ryan, who goes to space to repair what appears to be the Hubble Space Telescope. A series of events later, she and her lone surviving mission partner are drifting in space, running (metaphorically) for their lives. The entire part is dotted with some pretty pictures of earth and some darker ones (obviously?) of space. When seen in 3D, the effects make for some exciting moments. Obviously, the director has taken care to make the 3D feel worth the ticket price, using the most stereotypical effects. I mean, I haven't seen a lot of 3D movies, but why is it that almost all of them involve some random objects flying in your face? Is that all 3D is worth?

So, while the visual effects were good compared to 2D movies, they were actually OK for a 3D movie. Just OK. They did contribute to some of the more gripping moments in the movie, which singlehandedly saved me from yawning my way through it. But, as always, you can't make a movie out of a random collection of scenes, you need a story. And that's where Gravity falls hard.

To put it simply - there was so much coincidence here that it was not even worth laughing at. So many things just happened that it changes your entire definition of a bad day. Just what is the probability that a massive wave of bullets hits everyone around you but you - twice? What is the probability that your radio in deep space just happens to lock onto China? And what in the world is the probability that you happen to crash land onto a deserted island without so much as a little crab coming out to see what that giant ball of fire was? It's an insult to common sense and certainly to Physics. Since when do you hurl violently around in space instead of moving in a straight line? Since when does a reaction force act perpendicular to the action?

Oh, I could go on and on with the string of unexplained events in the movie, but you get the idea. Don't watch it for George Clooney either - just don't. Unless you have a particular liking for 3D movies, this one is not worth the time, especially when there's much better to watch. In 2D. (OTFS)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Right Way to Spend City Funds

A few weeks back, I wanted to buy a Kindle so that I could keep up my habit of reading novels, a habit that has served me well over all the years. However, I realized that I was in America and, despite the stereotype, you get a lot of things here for free. As part of my rent, I pay a city tax that goes into running, among other things, the Champaign Public Library.

A quick Google search later and I knew that all I needed to get a free membership was an official piece of mail with my name and address on it, as well as some photo-ID. Being a resident of Champaign, I could also fill the online form to expedite the process - it took me just a few minutes to get my membership card.

Of course, being a member does not mean I've had the time to use that membership! For, right after I got my card, I found myself inundated with work - research, homework and projects. So, I have been unable to use my membership despite the fact that a major literary achievement has happened in the intervening period (the Nobel Prize in Literature).

However, I've decided to make a conscious effort this week so that I don't slip with this habit. I won't be able to achieve a high rate of 3-4 books per week that I did in summer, but once every two-four weeks should be good enough. 

Testing Times

One of the hardest course in the Department is CEE 512 Logistic System Analysis. It is hard because it includes just about everything that a graduate course would - a project, homework, coding, algorithms. And mind you, this is not a computer science course but a Civil Engineering course. Despite that, I've done more programming in this one that I have since EC101A way back in my freshman year.

This weekend, I spent almost the entire night debugging a program to implement the Cheapest Insertion Heuristic. It's not that the algorithm is difficult to understand - it is extremely simple and easy to find the pseudo-code - but the hard part is implementing it. You can say 'find a k such that (i,k)+(k,j)-(i,j) is minimized for all (i,j)' but this is not so easy to program unless you have a fair bit of experience with such things.

But this is not it - a homework to implement dynamic programming took no less than 40 hours and even then I was unable to get it for higher values. On the other end, we've had a few analytic problems that were much easier. On top of that, we have a project that includes some fancy VRP models. As for homework, with 6 out of 9 completed, some of the load is definitely off. The next one is probably Buckingham's Pi-Theorem and possibly an implementation of it. Given that I have already studied this, it should be interesting to implement! 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On the Field

A few weeks back, I went on my first real traffic survey. Well, 'real' in the sense that something came out of it. Back in my last semester at IIT Roorkee, I did do a Parking Survey with Ashish, although that involved creating imaginary parking lots and no real vehicle counting. In this case however, I was with my group at Green & Goodwin for a good two hours doing a traffic count.

In a way, it was very dull and monotonous work. We decided to skip the $1.50 rent and just used the good old tally marks, but it really made no difference. We were lucky that Goodwin is a minor road, because the speed at which large platoons came on Green could have led to a few nervous breakdowns. In twi hours, we managed to count a little over 2000 vehicles and 1000 pedestrians. It did help that we were near one of the laboratories and peak hour happened to coincide with their class being dismissed!

The affair was not without trouble. Apart from the pesky undergrads trying to figure out what you're doing by staring at your tally sheet, there was an ugly incident of someone attempting to steal a bag. And then the traffic lights - actuated, no less - required a whole extra day of work. Overall, a very humbling experience, showing just how wide the chasm is between theory and practice.

Oh, and also another chance to use AutoCAD! 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Reading in Research

It's been two months now since I came to the US and began my research. In my SOP, I had talked about smart cities and making urban habitation better. This is natural, since I have always lived in cities and love the sight of tall buildings and gorgeous roads. However, at the end of my undergrad, I thought roads are roads are roads and there is no way to make a road smart enough for a modern city. So, I wanted to get into public transportation, which I thought was the only real way to make a city smart.

How wrong I was. I have now discovered a whole new field of sustainable pavements, some of which is fairly new research. And from that I realize that the undergrad hubris of knowing everything is simply untrue - you learn just the basics in undergrad and it's only in Grad school do you discover that there is so much more to learn. And that is where the role of reading comes in. To any researcher, reading is an essential skill.

Let me first explain what research is about. When you research something, you essentially want to find something new. For something to be new, it must not be old. And to know what is not old, you must know what is old. And that's where the concept of a paper comes in - the scientific community is wedded to papers, it is our bread and butter. A paper is a scholarly note of work done in a manner that is clear and easy to understand by anybody who reads it (with a little technical background, of course). By reading papers, you can know about what work has been done in the field. Thus, you know the old.

But that's not all a paper does. A good paper mentions what gaps the researcher left out (for whatever reasons). Unfortunately, a lot of researchers have started leaving this aspect out to prevent anyone from capitalizing on their work. All the same, by reading a paper, one can understand what assumptions were made and identify possible routes to explore by changing those assumptions. This is one of many ways to find a new area of research - popularly called gap identification.

Thus, reading is a critical habit that needs to be fostered early on. When I started out, I could barely read and remembers 2-3 papers a week. Now, I can easily do 10 a week and even that is far behind those more experience, who can do that much in a day. To those who laugh at the idea of reading just ten a day, let me tell you that a paper is no short story - you need to read and re-read parts to get a sense of what is going on. Remembering this is an even bigger challenge. That's where citation managers and notes come in - but that's for another post. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Barking up the wrong tree

TDP Chief Chandrababu Naidu's now-foiled hunger strike in New Delhi was a perfect demonstration of political opportunism and hypocrisy. Coming in the wake of the Union cabinet proceeding with the formalities for the creation of the State of Telangana from the current Andhra Pradesh, the fast presumably had no end except soothing the sore nerves in the Andhra faction of the party.

In his interview to Karan Thapar, Mr. Naidu did not give a single reason behind his hunger strike except that he did not want the Congress to derive any political gain from the issue. This is rich, coming from a politician who has looked for his own political gain from the day he entered politics. And what exactly did he hope to gain from this? In 2008, as Mr. Thapar pointed out, the TDP Politburo send a resolution to Pranab Mukherjee supporting Telangana. Naidu still claims that he favours a separate state, but will not so say so in the Seemandhra region for obvious reasons.

The real story behind this so-called hunger strike is the fact that the TDP, out of power for ten years and looking at being sidelined by the Congress, the YSRC, the TRS and even the BJP, is bitterly divided over the issue and as Mr. Naidu dithers, his sway on the party is beginning to weaken. This move was to stem the flow of dissent. Moreover, his continued ambivalence allows him to keep blaming the Congress and deflect his own role in the series of events that saw this mess come to fruition.

However, it seems that the Congress has made up its mind and these political tactics will not work anymore. Mr. Naidu should have thought about this before cynically supporting Telangana in order to remain relevant in the region. Now that the first shot has been fired, there is no going back. The TDP would do better to divide itself as two separate parties. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Be on the Lookout

He did it again. The veritable king of bad metaphors has once again pulled a gem from the bowels of his hat. After rather crude statements about his family being responsible for Partition and Independence and more 'sophisticated' ones about beehives, Congress Vice-President and PM-wannabe Rahul Gandhi has reached the very peak of informed political discourse - the escape velocity of Jupiter. Yes, a concept that was hitherto known to the few privileged Indians who attend schools with real teachers in them, and some of whom also go on to study in colleges with real professors in them, has been pushed to the political center-stage.

OK, enough jokes. To paraphrase an article from Tehelka, who writes this shit?! And more importantly, how can anybody be dumb enough to say it aloud in full public view? Choice of words is everything in politics and Rahul Gandhi simply fails. One wonders whether he employs a scriptwriter or writes all this himself - if the former, then that individual certainly needs to come out of the dark. And if the latter then well, lets not even go there.

Leadership, above all else, requires clear vision, not muddled metaphors. Rahul Gandhi, in his capacity as a hereditary ruler, fails to display any leadership whatsoever. Compared to his gaffes, Manmohan Singh's silence seems commendable. And this is the man who Sonia Gandhi insists will be the next PM?  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Correction, NYT

I was reading an article from last week's The New York Times, a paper for which I have the highest of regards, and was surprised to find the misinformed nature of its reporting on Kashmir. I don't mean the fact that it does not toe the Indian Government's line that Kashmir is an integral part of India - it rightly calls it Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, staying away from the rubric of Jammu and Kashmir and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

But what surprised me was the historical inaccuracy in its reporting. In an article describing a failed infiltration bid in Kashmir, the NYT, as it usually does, dwelt a little on the history of the issue at hand. Pakistan, since it was envisioned, saw Kashmir as its own part because of its Muslim majority. That much the NYT got right. But it then said that the British colonial government decided to 'hand over' Kashmir to the new Indian dominion, which is the cause of the whole imbroglio.

This is simply untrue. The Partition Plan divided the Imperial possession in the subcontinent - a little over half the geographical area - between India and Pakistan based on religion, but was entirely silent on the princely states. And Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state. The British did not and could not determine which direction it would go in. Historically, it was Pakistan that sent in Pashtun tribal militia to conquer Kashmir, forcing the king Maharaja Hari Singh to sign the instrument of accession to the Indian Union. Kashmir was not forcefully tossed into India - its sovereign legally transferred the state.

These sort of inaccuracies do not speak well for a newspaper that is described as the gold standard of journalism. Hopefully, it was just a blip.  

Gandhi Peace Lecture: Imagining Democracy

Mahatma Gandhi wrote widely about his vision for democracy. Without a doubt, much like the founding fathers of America, he considered the right of people to rule themselves as a basic, fundamental right that does not need any source of justification. Gandhiji's vision for India after colonialism holds great value today, when a vast proportion of the populace is disenchanted by Nehruvian democracy.

What then, was the Gandhian vision of democracy? Lets have a look at his vision from 1947, as it works today.

Gram Swaraj
The pillar of Gandhian democracy was not a multi-party system of elections and a powerful, representative Parliament. Far from it - his vision was entirely antithetical to the idea of a top-down power structure. For many today, his idea of Gram Swaraj - each village producing its own resources and fending for itself - might run against the grind of globalization. But if you consider the time during which it was proposed, when the free market had fueled colonialism for centuries, it does begin to make some sense.

But now, nearly seventy years after India awoke to Independence, it is worthwhile to have a relook at what Gram Swaraj really means today. Does it mean a fearful, almost xenophobic outlook, keeping away from integration and globalization in favour of local issues and local values? In fact, no. The idea of Gram Swaraj today is the same as the idea of local self-rule, which forms the basis of the world's oldest democracy, America.

Gandhiji's idea of democracy was for each individual to have a stake in it. The Constitution was not supposed to be a rigid document, to be used to control people in every way possible. If anything, Gandhiji was in favour of a very minimalist Constitution that would simply set out the basic ideals of the nation. Gram Swaraj implied democracy at the lowest level possible - the very tip of the grassroots, so to say. He envisioned a democracy where a government would just be a facilitator with the people making all the choices that determined their future.

Responsibility 
One of the banes of our democracy today is the fact that we have a large and powerful government that people are taught to either oppose or to fear, depending on where you live. Gandhian democracy believed, in both theory and practice, that people must have nothing to fear but their own conscience. To that extent, they must learn to be truly self-reliant, not depending on the Government to solve their problems. This called for a greater confidence and ability of people to interpret their Constitution as they see fit.

Of course, local democracy does not mean irresponsible democracy. Throughout his later life, Gandhiji remained a social activist, working tirelessly to end the cruel fate handed out to untouchables and women. His views flew against the powerful, entrenched elites in a highly segregated Hindu society and yet, he pushed ahead. Would this have been possible in a democracy that was not built around a top-down approach?

The answer is - yes. Gandhian democracy does give us a way to fight social evils. And that way is the oldest way in the world - freedom. The freedom to make changes at any level. For, in the bottom-up approach that it is, people are empowered to fight for changes that they believe in, with the Government's role limited to guaranteeing safety and protection. Of course, it is not easy to bring about such social change, but empowerment is worthless to the weak - only the brave can change the world.

Parties
Perhaps the most astounding feature of a Gandhian democracy is the lack of political parties. In virtually every democracy in the world, political parties are the bread and butter of the system. In some countries, people do not vote for candidates but for parties, which then distribute seats proportionately to their members. Gandhiji believed that a political party was another example of a top-down approach, wherein everyone had to fit themselves into a mold. He could not see any empowerment in the system.

Today, this vision seems truer than ever before. Political parties often try to hush up debate and look for convenient compromises. Individuals are pushed to a corner and are hounded for 'party indiscipline.' This has gone from punishing genuine misadventures to discouraging genuine debate. This is what Gandhain democracy seeks to oppose - a system that holds down individualism and makes individuals subservient to a system.

Conclusion
Democracy, as flawed as it may be, is the only natural way for free people to govern themselves. Yet, despite the omnibus usage of the term, democracy itself presents us with a variety of options. As we try to consider them, we realize more and more that Mahatma Gandhi's vision of democracy was well ahead of its time but eternally relevant. This Gandhi Jayanti, the International Day of Non-Violence, we would do well to remember that democracy is not a spectator sport, nor is it a means to enslave people. It is, to paraphrase, the means to the ultimate goal of human existence - the pursuit of happiness. 

Mr. PM, Time to Quit

Rahul Gandhi's outburst last weekend against the ordinance cleared by the cabinet to negate a Supreme Court decision on convicted representatives has forced the Cabinet to reconsider the bill - notwithstanding the fact that the President has withheld consent for further consultation. This is of course, a major embarrassment to the UPA Government, because an ordinance being returned by the President is always a difficult affair to manage, as Abdul Kalam found out with the Office of Profit Bill.

But Rahul's move, very typical of his hit-and-run style of politics, is another indicator that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is going to be tossed away by his party come the 2014 General Elections, with the Gandhi family once again using him as a punching bag to deflect criticism. The move has put the entire party in a bad light, particularly with Ajay Maken's U-turn, but has further eroded the Prime Minister's authority.

The truth is that MMS is now a lame-duck Prime Minister and has been so for several years now. His initiative on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal has reached a cul-de-sac, while his Pakistan-push keeps failing before a country that is just not willing. He has presided over India's most corrupt cabinet since Independence and has gone from being a celebrated, International leader to a discredited and shamed lame-duck PM. And the most disappointing part of this is that he has hardly tried to use his authority to change all of this - the Gandhi family, ruling like royalty, has used him, to the nation's detriment.

The time has come for MMS to quit. If there is anything that can redeem his pride and keep at least a limited word of praise for him in history, it is to declare that enough is enough and simply walk away from the mess that the Gandhi family has thrown him into. Otherwise, he will go down in history as a curse for the Indian nation.