Monday, January 27, 2014

Missing the Point, Repeatedly

Congress Vice-President and heir to the Nehru-Gandhi throne, Rahul Gandhi, gave his first full-length interview in history today to Arnab Goswami, a reporter who is otherwise known to impose his views on guests without listening to them. This time however, the tables were turned as it was Rahul Gandhi who seemed clueless as to what he was being asked. Not only did he fail to give any substantial answers, he created more controversy.

For one, the entire interview seemed to have been rehearsed. True, he is entitled to prepare for the interview - but that means he should be prepared to answer a multitude of questions, not give the same answer to every question. Where it suited him, he chose to subvert the judicial system; and where it didn't, he chose to stand by the judicial process. That's why the 2002 riots were an act of the Gujarat government despite the Supreme Court having found otherwise, while 1984 was a more private affair, although the courts are still deliberating that issue. What's worse is that the answers actually seemed sincere - which means he has fooled himself into believing his party's own propaganda!

And that self-indoctrination was clear from the irony of Rahul Gandhi accusing the BJP of being a party that concentrates power in one hand. He seems to be oblivious to the fact that his dynasty has held power over the Congress party, and hence the national government, for most of Independent India's history! He says concentration of power is a bad thing without realizing that the Congress party does exactly that, and does it best at that! He appropriates the RTI legacy to his party, forgetting the key facts that it was the Left that forced Manmohan Singh to enact RTI as well as NREGA; and that the Manmohan Singh government has made every effort so far to dilute the act, inviting civil society outrage every time. Indeed, Rahul Gandhi speaks as though he has entered a political vacuum, as though he carries no legacy and no baggage, but is always quick to point out the personal tragedies that his family has gone through and somehow use them (rather shamelessly) as symbols of his own credentials. And yet, despite his enthusiastic inheritance of his family's credentials, he does not think the Sikhs of 1984 deserve an apology from the son of the man who said '...when a big tree falls, the earth shakes.'

Rahul Gandhi, in answering questions on RTI, showed utter illiteracy in basic Civics. He argued, thoroughly unconvincingly, that RTI was a grand achievement that should not be applied to political parties because 'the rest of the system does not have it and it will cause an imbalance.' What imbalance this will cause seems impossible to understand. Thankfully, he gave up on the point of bringing the press under RTI when Goswami pointed out that the press does not run the country, but he insisted that the judiciary should be brought under the RTI, which runs counter to the principle of judicial independence and is in any case a very funny thing to say, since all judicial verdicts are matters of public record that law students and lawyers study all the time, and the money that the judiciary gets is approved by Parliament and not ordered by the judiciary itself. It would be a real surprise, even to his most ardent critics, if he did not know these facts and is still somehow, according to the Prime Minister, perfectly suited to become the leader of the nation.

The one phrase that stood the test of Mr. Goswami was 'women empowerment,' which he used to answer virtually every question no matter how irrelevant it was. At one point, it seemed he was not even going to listen to the question and the interviewer had to repeat it several times, only to get a vague answer. I actually pitied Mr. Goswami, who otherwise knows no limits when it comes to his temper, when he had to drop topics when he found that all he was going to get is rhetoric. Agreed, India is not going to be a manufacturing superpower (his phrase) without women being empowered, but how is that related to 2002, 1984, RTI and what-not?

In his defense, Rahul Gandhi did talk about some important issues - or at least, he tried to talk about them. The closed political system, political dynasties (with his own sitting right at the top), manufacturing... these are all important issues that, as he rightly said, the media does not discuss but prefers to talk about superficial matters. The questions were all tough but none of them really touched upon his economic and political vision for India, which should not be too surprising given the choice of the news channel. However, it seems even Mr. Goswami was aware of this, no doubt because of the endless rhetoric, but pointed out that in an interview, you do not get to blow your own trumpet but have to answer direct questions, none of which may be of your liking. Rahul Gandhi has plenty of opportunities to make speeches and discuss issues on his own terms, but in an interview, he has to answer questions. This is something that Narendra Modi also needs to learn.

To conclude, what I understood from this tragic interview was that Mr. Gandhi has been brought up rather insulated from political India, somewhat enamored by the West. He is surrounded by cronies who do not let him be exposed to what people really think about him - that he is a pampered prince who has the freedom to behave as though he is a revolutionary, selectively choosing to use history when it suits him and woefully unaware of how governance works. He has taken his position for granted, believes that what he is doing is charity for India that the country should be grateful for. So indoctrinated is he that he does not see the irony in his own words, that he does not see that speaking in the third person is not going to absolve him of the collective sins of the party that he effectively leads. He gives us the impression of a man who would be dangerous in an official public position of power, not because he has the wrong intentions (he has the right ones) but because he is hopelessly easy to fool and manipulate. We've had that with Manmohan Singh (and even Akhilesh Yadav). No more. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Republic Day Lecture: A Constitution for a Generation

I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence. - Thomas Jefferson, 1789 

The Constitution of India, in many ways, is a remarkable document in that it constitutes one of the broadest social contracts in human history, connecting millions, now a billion, people from thousands of backgrounds, cultures and languages together in one overarching comity, turning a subcontinent, albeit a truncated one, into a nation for the first time in its history. Such a variety of people coming together under a common set of ideals, and sticking to them after over 60 years, is an achievement that every Indian is rightly proud of.

Obviously, the 'glue' that holds together the nation is its Constitution, which sets out rules of fairness for every Indian - a government of the people, by the people and for the people. While these ideals are not in doubt, there have also been many institutions that have failed the Constitution. Or perhaps, the Constitution has proven inadequate to the changing times. A social contract, after all, is a contract between men and women representing the nation at a point in history. How long do those men and women remain representative?

The Living Constitution 
While these ideas may seem maverick, they are actually as old as the Constitution itself. Our founding fathers understood that, for a rapidly evolving nation, it was impossible to set out a set of principles that were set in stone and would last for eternity. It was precisely for this reason that an elected Parliament was given the power to amend the Constitution freely, and even amend those amendments, and even go so far as to reject the Constitution itself, to make the document an organic, evolving one that can meet the needs of every generation.

And indeed, the Constitution has been amended over a hundred times since it was enacted, the first amendment actually coming less than a year after enactment. When Indian negotiators deal with insurgent groups, they talk about 'the four corners of the Indian Constitution'. This is actually a misnomer because the document has no bounds, at least none built into it. The only bounds of the Constitution were created by the Supreme Court under the Basic Structure Doctrine and they leave a lot of room for change.

Need for Change?
And yet, in many ways, the Constitution seems inadequate. The top-down structure, in which the Central Government holds tight control over the most important aspects of people's lives, with State Governments being left to handle the rest, is quickly breaking down even without any amendment to the document.  States demand greater autonomy and a say in decisions that affect them - all within the Indian Union. Sub-national aspirations have grown, with smaller communities pushing for greater control over their own resources. While some may grow alarmed at this trend, it is actually quite a good thing for people to grasp the true meaning of democracy and make the Republic flow not top-down but bottom-up.

In that respect however, the Constitution does come up short because it was written in a very different set of circumstances. In 1949, there was no India in the sense of a nation, we were bound by the memory of colonial rule, the glorious freedom struggle, and the horrors of Partition, but the four corners of India hardly knew each other beyond that. In 2014, the Indian nation is a reality, although what that nation should be like is strongly contested. People have mixed, barriers have fallen and now it is impossible to imagine a different India. The Constitution does not adequately recognize this change and still shows a sort of scorn towards enabling local communities to govern themselves. Thus, society has changed but the social contract has not.

A New Contract
The social climate has changed considerably since 1949 and it only makes sense to review the social contract again - not to weaken the Republic, but to strengthen it, by strengthening what is its strongest part - its people. Thomas Jefferson believed that every generation should write its own Constitution, effectively write its own social contract. While that may seem like a radical idea in India, it is not too far from what the great men and women who drafted our Constitution believed. If anything, they believed that the same generation should be able to change that social contract within their generation itself.

On this, the 65th Republic Day of the Republic of India, Indians across the globe stand proud of their Constitution and its ideals - through which We, The People, gave birth to our Republic.

Happy Republic Day
Jai Hind! 

Master of the Tale

The Love of a Good Woman
By Alice Munro, Nobel Laureate

The short story is a rather misunderstood form of literature: some would believe that it is the product of limited imagination, others would say it is born of sheer laziness, while still others would call it a poor cousin of the novel. In reality, the short story is, after poetry, the hardest form of literature, in which the writer is compelled to integrate a myriad of stories and characters into a linear tale without losing the readers' interest. The short story does not enjoy the faculties of the novel, which can idle away in a serpentine manner through plots and subplots. No wonder then that so few good writers have evolved from this difficult genre - O Henry and Guy de Maupassant on the back of my head.

And enter Alice Munro, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, which is given for a lifetime of work and not just one piece. The Love of a Good Woman is a good indicator of the sort of splendid work that she has done. Although it is a collection of eight short stories, all set in rural Canada, mostly British Columbia and Vancouver, each story is much like a novel itself. It is the first time I have seen the usage of sections to break up the story in this genre, each of them interwoven with the other so that one story works together with the other until it reaches a glorious zenith. They are not the moralistic tales for children - these are real tales of real people, people who have loved and sinned, who have killed and weeped. The stunning control that she has over the stories and characters shows a great deal of skill in her writing. A pleasure to have read this one. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

The New Golden Quadrilateral

The BJP's Prime Minister-candidate Narendra Modi made an exceptionally visionary speech at the party's National Executive in New Delhi last week, significantly raising the stakes in the elections for the future of India. Among other things, I was particularly pleased to hear a politician taking a scientific approach to development by calling for data to be put at the heart of policy analysis. The example he gave - of having realtime data on crop availability to plan commerce - seems so obvious to an engineer but the sad truth is that India's development is based more on political fancies than hard data, that despite the scientific temper being a part of the Constitution.

But the real highlight of his economic vision of India was what I like to call the New Golden Quadrilateral - a system of high speed trains connecting the four corners of the nation and revolutionizing commerce in India by drastically cutting travel time between economic centers. The name, of course, comes from the largest infrastructure project to have been undertaken successfully in India - the Golden Quadrilateral Project - under former PM Ataj Behari Vajpayee. Although the idea of introducing 'bullet trains' in India has been talked about before, the political vision under which NaMo placed it was inspiring to say the least - not as a dole, not as a favour to India, but as a shining example of a modern India as we head towards the 75th anniversary of our Independence from the British Empire.

Now, those criticizing the idea actually like the idea but call the promise as mute because India does not have the technology. Actually, Indian engineers are aware of what it takes to make the move from our current railways to High Speed Rail (HSR). Apart from the different propulsion system and very-long welded rails, both of which require industrial investment to build the necessary factories, the biggest issue is the fact that HSR systems require minimal curves on the rail because curves force the train to slow down and hence defeat the purpose. A few curves are unavoidable of course, but it has to be kept to a very minimum. And the problem with having mostly straight lines is that it involves purchasing a great deal of land without having the option to reroute - a political problem, as land acquisition is.

And that is where the problem lies - the lack of political will. The reason why we don't have HSR in India is not because we don't have the knowledge to do it - even if you current research is inadequate, we have strategic allies in Japan, Germany and France that can be requested to help us. The real problem is the lack of political will to convince people - urban or rural - of the benefits of HSR for the whole nation and to take care of their concerns over the loss of their land. It is not about token legislation but political will to see such projects through - the UPA has plenty of the former but very little of the latter.

By associating the New Golden Quadrilateral with a larger vision for India, NaMo has demonstrated that overarching vision that India badly needs. 

A New Semester

After the MLK Day holiday today, the time has come to start my second semester at the U of I with the end of the month-long Winter Break. It was nice not having classes and being able to concentrate on research, but the process of learning cannot be detached from coursework. And even if you don't believe in such high sounding things, classes give you a reason to get up in reasonable time!

I have not finalized my courses yet, though I have registered for a fair number. After the big fear of CEE 512 last semester, I've kept some CEE 599 credits on standby. I do hope to adequately work on my research and get that paper out and if my courses are hampering that, then these credits will act as a backup for my visa requirements. As for my courses, CEE 515 will remain on my portfolio as a natural corollary to CEE 416. The course, being a graduate-level one, will involve a project component and supposedly a good deal of computer applications, which I look forward to.

Among the courses that, either of which, could be dropped, CEE 417 has the reputation of an extremely simple course. I'm not one to buy into hubris and will remain on my guard. The course is actually UP 430 from the Urban Planning Department and will be a new experience for me. A last-minute decision was to take up CEE 598CPS, an interesting, research-based course from a postdoc of the CS Department. Before anything else, I'm not trying to slide in CS for a plump salary in California. The reason I took the course was because it was oriented towards research methods in Civil Engineering and how embedded systems enable those, something I see as potentially useful in the future.

Having two 500-level courses will be a huge challenge, although the surprising A in CEE 512 has given me some confidence. As if that were not enough, I have to sit-in ATMS 313 for my research. This will not involve doing any homework, but it will be another three hours of the week in class. Well, for the sake of one's research, one must make sacrifices.

So, after the successful 4.0/4.0 in the first semester, I look forward to another semester, my tenth consecutive one, full of opportunities! 

Fight On

This might come as a surprise to those who read OTFS regularly, but I do support Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal's siege of the national capital, demanding that the Delhi Police be placed under the State Government, as is the case with every other state in India. It's not some opportunistic move to the AAP camp just as it seems to be gaining strength (actually, it seems to be losing whatever little it had) - I firmly remain with the BJP and Narendra Modi.

However, the issue of police reforms is different from every other issue. It enjoys a special pedestal because every other issue is inevitably linked to it. No reform, no law can be implemented without police reforms. A compromised police force that does not behave responsibly and does not obey the law itself makes a complete mockery of democracy and makes governance itself a joke. The UPA Government approved FDI in retail, but no foreign firm has entered India because of the excessive corruption (and red tape). After the Nirbhaya tragedy, new laws were passed, but rapes continue unabated. The Passport portal has been made online but the root cause of corruption and delays is the police verification step.

India does not have a professional police force - nobody can deny this fact. And this is the Achilles Heel of any reform - nothing, absolutely nothing can be achieved without the state being able to honestly implement those reforms. The police is not merely a system to handle law and order, it is a crucial arm of the government, so crucial that it is the only civilian branch that has a legal monopoly on violence. It is a crucial instrument of governance itself - intent and laws mean nothing without it. And that is why, police reforms enjoy a hugely different position when it comes to issues - it stands right on top, before all else.

In the present case, AAP is technically protesting against the Home Minister's refusal to suspend the relevant policeman pending inquiry and to transfer the Delhi Police to the State Government. However, it is a larger signal that Kejriwal has rightly sent, that a police force like this is the antithesis of democracy. Political parties have remained tight-lipped about this, making and breaking promises freely. Now, the time has come to protest strongly. Some may call AAP's methods anarchist, but nothing short of anarchy will push reforms through - there is just no other way and it is far too important. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Very Disappointing

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

Produced By: Red Granite Pictures and others
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and others
Pros: Well-developed character
Cons: Bad script, bad story, too long, too loud
Rating: * of 5 (1 of 5)

I heard a lot of wonderful things about this movie and took off early on a rather busy day to watch it. And boy, do I wish I had stayed where I was. Before I come to specifics, let me say that my faith on the IMDb ratings is now broken for good. If it's a majority who gave it a high rating, then the majority is plain dumb.

Coming to specifics: there are no specifics. This movie has no story. Of the 180 minutes released in the US, going by the run-time in Dubai, at least 80 minutes are pure pornography. This is nothing more than a gimmick to keep the viewers coming, not a stroke of brilliance in terms of storyline. And no, the story does not justify it. The script is puerile - the repeated use of the 'F' word seems to be necessary to start off, but by including it in virtually every sentence, it feels more like the characters are teenagers who have just learned the word and want to use it again and again to look cool. That from a bunch of adults who lead hard lives. You'd think that at 180 minutes, there would be a long story. There isn't - the first 120 minutes are devoted to teach you how to use too much money and once the story does emerge, it is so silly that it could be summarized in a few lines - Fat guy goofs up. Smart guy plays tricks. His wife starts to hate him for that. The Law eventually catches up. But smart guy wins, because he's smart. That's it - that is the entire story. There are no subplots, no subtleties. The entire story follows exactly that order. I might have read books like that when I was in junior high!

As for acting, it was mostly pathetic. The most that characters have to do is shout at the top of their voices - and not shout much that makes sense either. It's all about the style - in fact, there is no substance. Even the little child called out for her mom seemed to be made up! Perhaps only DiCaprio managed to get in some good acting, not just because he is a good actor but because the script only allowed his character to be developed. And well-developed it certainly was, which is the only reason I gave this movie a 1.

For the final verdict, The Wolf of Wall Street is  a very-poorly made movie, which appeals to people's desires for sales rather than any real story. It might be based on a true story, but that does not justify all the defects of the movie. This is not the first biopic made and those movies, most of them at least, was not so bad as this one. Avoid it like the plague, no matter how many Oscars it wins. (OTFS)

Time will tell

In his first ever full-length interview to the media since assuming office as Chief Minister of the NCT of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal made some interest remarks but also scuttled and even made fun of pressing issues that he will have to confront eventually. The most important assertion that he repeatedly made was that his party was not a Congress agent and that it would soon initiate investigations against the previous regime of Sheila Dixit, particularly with respect to the CWG Scam. According to Kejriwal, he was simply waiting to get the 'right' officers in the vigilance wing.

While time is a fair argument, he seemed to be brimming with hubris when it came to the intent. When asked the very specific question of his intent to go after the previous Congress regime when his minority government depends on the party for support, he simply brushed it aside by asking the Congress to withdraw support if they so wished. He then went on to challenge the Congress, warning them that they would regret the day they allowed AAP to form a government. This sort of arrogance is a characteristic of the party, which seems to believe it is invincible now through the rhetoric of the common man.

In the interview, he essentially skirted important issues - whether it was the fiasco over his office-bungalow, the very serious issue of vigilantism against his Law Minister or his deep-rooted desire to stay in the media limelight, he either made a joke of these issues or shot the messenger by making personal remarks on Rajdeep Sardesia, the interviewer ('Rajdeep lives in Panchsheel Nagar, that's why he gets police service'). The fact that all his actions would create anarchy was shot down by his absurd statement that families are already living in anarchy.

On the issue of the electricity subsidy, he refused to see the point by pointing out that it would cost 'just' Rs. 200 cr out of Delhi's Rs. 40,000 cr budget. For one, he fails to see that even that Rs. 200 cr has to come from somewhere (taxation, possibly). And it also implies what everyone long suspected: he is simply taking advantage of the financial stability of Delhi that Sheila Dixit left it in. This is not new in history, Jyoti Basu did much the same and it was only when Mamata Banerjee became CM did the issue of the dire financial distress of Bengal come into view. Furthermore, he even put a time limit of four months to the subsidy, continuing his belief that an audit of power companies by the CAG would certainly halve electricity bills. While he has a right to say what he believes, Sheila Dixit always maintained that the prices are high simply because of the extreme shortage of coal in India, courtesy Manmohanomics. There is no reason to believe that the audit will not lead to any fall in electricity prices, or at least not to the tune of 50%, so that this subsidy would become a permanent feature. This is the essential point that CM Kejriwal refuses to see.

And finally, in the interview, he justified taking the Congress' support on two counts. One, he said that the Congress offered support without so much as ever asking if AAP ever wanted it, via a letter to the LG. This is untrue because the fact that Kejriwal chose to form a government itself constitutes an answer to the Congress' plea - if not on the telephone, the Congress did offer support through the LG and AAP accepted it, also through the LG. The medium might be different, but support was certainly not thrust upon the party by the Congress, as he claimed: AAP accepted the offer by agreeing to form a government. And two, he says that they asked the 'people' of Delhi, who said that they wanted AAP to form a government with the Congress' support. This is absurd because AAP only won 29% of the votes in the elections, so to start off with, only 29% wanted AAP to form any government in the first place. Of those, even if we assume 90% wanted an AAP-Congress Government, that still means just 28% of Delhi wanted such a government. By conveniently mixing up FPTP and proportional representation, AAP gave it self a smokescreen, which it continues to use.

However, at the end of the day, despite Salman Khurshid describing AAP as a party of 'anarchists, third-rate individuals,' the Congress will support it until it hurts too much. Whether that is before or after the general elections, only time will tell. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Crony Capitalism, Congress-Style

The AICC session yesterday declared that Rahul Gandhi would lead the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but did not name him as the candidate for PM. In the name of Congress tradition, the party has once again insulated their crown prince, this time from a direct fight with the BJP's Narendra Modi, who would have devoured him.

The session also made it very clear that the Congress would, for another generation, maintain it's crony capitalism: privatize victory, socialize defeat. If the party wins, which seems highly unlikely, Rahul Gandhi will be made the PM and the entire victory will be attributed to him. If it loses, which seems highly likely, then the blame will fall on each and every leader except the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. This formula has clearly not been working for the Congress, as is clear from the fact that for the last 25 years, no one from that dynasty has been PM.

However, unlike what the media speculates, Indians do not vote for people: they vote for the ideas that people represent. It might seem a paradox, but it is actual a very simple marketing tool. Nobody will vote for Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi, except the people in their own constituencies, possibly not even them. The vote will be for what they represent. That is the importance of the PM candidate for India: a single point, a single individual that people can relate to. 

The Jayanthi Tax

The BJP's PM candidate Narendra Modi, in his Vijay Sankalp rally in Goa, became one of the few politicians in India to have brought up the role of the Ministry of Environment & Forests, and particularly the former Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, in the economic mismanagement of India. Now, The Indian Expresses reports that the new Minister Veerappa Moily has ordered an audit of all files held up by his predecessor.

And the results clearly point to a Jayanthi Tax. 350 files have been found to have been held up, a large number of them already signed and cleared but still staying stuck for no reason whatsoever - at least not on the face of it. Amazingly, many of the files are in the former Minister's home! It is not uncommon for a busy Minister to take files home to review after a break, but it is a moral necessity for them to bring them back to the Ministry the next day. A Minister's home is no place to run a Ministry.

Why would the Minister have kept files on hold despite having signed and cleared them? Obviously, it cannot be any concerns about the Environment, because a clearance implies that those have already been looked into. Therefore, what concerns did the Minister have that were not related to her Ministry? Given the Congress-led UPA's ten-year track record, rampant corruption can be seen as the only reason. And it's not just speculation: businesses have been complaining ad nauseum about how the MoEF has become the nodal Ministry for holding up every file. Nearly one lakh crores of investment have been held up, half of that Posco's investment in Odisha. The Cabinet even took the extraordinary step of creating the CCI to try to overrule the Ministry, but as that would have been plain unconstitutional, the only way out was to toss Jayanthi Natarajan out.

Clearly, the last Minister had deep vested interests that compromised India's economy. It is a crime against the nation. The Jayanthi Tax was clearly a reality that bled India and will take years to recover from. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Letter to a Fresher

Welcome to the Department of Civil Engineering at IIT Roorkee, the nation's best institution for Civil Engineering! I know you have probably heard that line before, but be aware that it is true and the reputation that the alumni have created around the world is extremely good. Also be aware that for every student who graduated from there and went on to lead an extremely successful life, there are at least 20 who did nothing noteworthy and just disappeared into the vast masses. Take the next four years as a rare opportunity to reach your fullest potential, one that you can grasp or squander, and live the consequences of. 

In general, this is the timeline you would follow (from my experience):
First Year: Adjust to the IIT system and become comfortable with it
Second Year: Explore the Department of Civil Engineering, and everything that the field has to offer. Ask around, meet people, whatever. 
Third Year: Seriously think about your future: MBA, IAS, Higher studies, Job, Start-Up etc. Ask around as much as you can, do an internship, explore different fields but by the end of the year, finalize what you want to do after you graduate and have a plan ready for it, if necessary (such as coaching for an exam you have to write, like CAT)
Fourth Year: Execute your plans. This is not the time to plan, but to execute your plans. If you are still planning, you just wasted a year. How you execute your plans will determine your life for at least the next one year and maybe until you die. So take it very seriously. 

In this process, stay serious about your academics but also take the time to participate in extracurricular activities. You have an excellent opportunity to meet new people and explore your interests beyond the classroom and I fully recommend you to. There is no false choice between academics and extracurricular activities: you can do both as long as you learn to manage your time and priorities. CGPA is very important, the most important thing I would say, but your communication skills, interpersonal skills, health and general awareness are also important and worth your time. 

There is only one 'trick' to doing well in the Department, and that is doing your tuts on time and by yourself. Read the textbooks, slides etc. and ask as many doubts as you want, but make sure you DO NOT copy the answers from someone else. That alone will get you good marks in any subject. Although a minor sounds very appealing, do not believe that it is going to substitute your major degree. You will first be a Civil Engineer and then your minor, should you choose to do one. A Minor in CS or DOMS might sound very appealing to many people around you, but remember that you have more choices. So keep your mind broad, including doing an Honors in Civil Engineering instead of a minor. 

As for old papers, don't study with an eye on last year's paper - study the course first and use the old papers just to see if you are OK with it. Papers do change over the years, some more than others, but the subject doesn't (not very quickly anyway).

And well, what else can I say? Good luck! 

--
SUSHOBHAN SEN, B.Tech
Student of MS Transportation Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

New Story: Code Red

After And Outward Aye We Fled, we present our second work of science fiction: Code Red. An old couple looks to spend the last years of their life in peace, having bred no children and no dreams. But a strange virus enables them to finally have the children they had always wanted. Or does it?

Inspired by a dream.

Code Red
An Opinions 24x7 Original Presentation 
Coming Soon

Polio Success

As of yesterday, India joins most of the world as a country to have eliminated polio from its borders, with three consecutive years having gone by without any case having been detected, whether in humans or in sewage samples. This marks a significant milestone in human civilization. Consider the odds: in 2009, India accounted for half the reported polio cases in the world. In 2014, it has become polio-free. Rightly, this is being described as the biggest success in human health of the last decade.

The efforts behind this landmark are massive: millions of volunteers, billions of dollars in investment and a strong strategy to target every last child. According to one statistic, the Government of India alone spent $2.5 billion in this effort, with NGOs such as Rotary International and the Gates Foundation adding move to that. Although the Indian Government is not really known for its ability to deliver, this is one field in which it led the movement to fight polio.

However, many challenges remain. India's neighbourhood has two of the three countries that are still Polio-endemic: Afghanistan and Pakistan. The chances of importing the virus, as happened in Somalia, remain high. However, with continued focus, it can be avoided. More pressing is the danger of the vaccine itself causing polio. This calls for a paradigm shift beyond the OPV towards the IPV, which will finish off the virus once and for all.

2014 begins with a miraculous achievement for India, a reminder of what a united and focused nation can achieve. Hopefully, when it comes to other killer diseases such as TB, we can also find a way out. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Exciting Times for Mumbai

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport Mumbai (CSIA) inaugurated its spanking new Terminal 2 (T2) last week, a much-needed improvement to what was increasingly becoming an embarrassment for India's economic capital. Any student of economics or Civil Engineering knows how important airports are to the growth of a city - it is not merely a one-way street. Large cities do need airports, but airports can turn small cities into large cities.

CSIA T2 comes with a unique design concept, that of the vertical terminal. Given the perennial scarcity of land in Mumbai, this was an absolute necessity. The International Terminal and Domestic Terminal are located on different floors rather than different buildings. Obviously, escalators and elevators become crucial in order to process traffic, as opposed to traditional designs that use walkalators (those moving, horizontal strips that everybody walks on but aren't supposed to). If these are designed properly, CSIA could be the best airport in the world for travelers looking to transfer from one Terminal to another. In addition, it also saves on taxiways, because the vertical integration allows multiple gates to use a single taxiway. That would involve some interesting engineering with the aerobridge, but that's not too difficult to do. These give CSIA T2 the persons-to-area ration in India and possibly Asia - that at a minuscule cost of 70% of IGI T3. Now that's some impressive engineering from GVK!

Architecturally, the airport is not really 'green,' although it does make good use of natural lighting. The peacock feather theme is the basis of the entire design, with considerable money having gone in to reinforce that. The nearly 3-km long art walk, depicting various facets of India (including space for each state and UT), is a charm that is sure to be an instant hit with travelers. Managing the HVAC systems for the multi-floor building as well as ensuring connectivity with the 4-storey parking area make up the other architectural challenges that were successfully met. However, as to how the challenge of Mumbai monsoonal deluge will be met so as to avoid a swimming pool forming in the terminal a la IGI T3, remains a test that will be seen come the next monsoon.

Overall, CSIA T2 is a marvel that will be the pride of Mumbai for decades to come - the proud economic center of a proud emerging power, possibly Asia's second-largest economy. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Believer in Realpolitik

Ariel Sharon
1928-2014
Former Prime Minister of Israel
Survived by hopes of a peaceful and safe Jewish Homeland 

In the history of mankind, there have been a handful of people who shaped the future of nations. And in the Middle East, Ariel Sharon stands tall as one of the most important people to have transformed the region. Soldier, politician, leader - he has defined the history of the Jewish State through its ups and downs since the partition of Palestine. A divisive figure certainly, but a firm believer in realpolitik. Born in the British territory of Palestine, he grew up hearing of the horrors of the holocaust in Europe and was firmly convinced on the need of an exclusive homeland for the Jews, a people who have been persecuted for over a millennium. And when the time came to create such a homeland, he stood steadfast. 

Of course, his legacy carries a mixed burden. Reviled by the Palestinians for his brutal tactics to put down their uprisings, including the low-point of his career, the "48 hour" invasion of Lebanon, he is loved by Israelis as the hero who tripled the Jewish state's territory in one fell swoop and brought Palestinian guerrillas to their knees, never dithering from using the IDF to defend Israel's interests. But then again, he was not a warmonger - far from it. He was a realist. His shocking reversal of support for Israeli settlements and withdrawal of settlers from Palestinian territories can be attributed to his realization that the world had changed from the 1960s and a Palestinian state next to Israel is absolutely inevitable. In that, he sought to place Israel at the very forefront, believing that if that tide of history is unstoppable, you must not only ride it but lead it or else be crushed by it. It was this far-reaching understanding that possibly saved Israel much horrors after the death of Yasser Arafat. 

For India, Sharon was a true friend, being the first Israeli PM to visit India when Vajpayee's NDA Government was in power in 2003. In the Kargil War, when India badly needed military assistance to defend its territory in Kashmir, and when every other nation in the world refused to 'interfere,' it was Israel that came to our rescue, providing us with crucial equipment and satellite images, without which the Kashmir Valley would have been blocked off from Indian access forever. He consolidated the gains of that experience to raise ties to the strategic level of today. If it is true that a friend in need is a friend indeed, then Israel was one of India's greatest friends, an ally who saved our territory and announced to the world that Indo-Israel ties would not be held hostage to the whims and fancies of Arab dictatorships. Despite the leftist propaganda against Israel that has grabbed eyeballs during the UPA years, it is his memory that reminds us of what a strong and determined government can achieve - and what a weak one cannot. 

Had a man such as Sharon been born in India, the subcontinent would have perhaps been very different. If the Indian Middle Class would study history, it would come to respect him. But, in the eight years of his coma, the world has changed and now, after his death, it continues to change. 

Absolute Filth

Fifty Shades of Grey
By EL James

Let me just cut to the chase - this is the worst book I have ever read, and I have read plenty to judge. It's everything bad that you can imagine: cheap, disgusting, boring, badly-written, mentally deranged... the list is endless! Salman Rushdie once called Fifty Shades of Grey the worst book to have ever been published, even worse than the series that inspired it, Twilight. I have to agree.

Ironically, it takes a certain level to debasement to write such a novel. You have to put yourself in that position, no pun intended. And the very fact that a human being can do that is enough to shock the audience. You could say that I'm being judgmental, but this is a book review. On more concrete terms, the book was very badly written, with endless droning interspersed with so-called erotica, that was actually agonizingly repetitive. I even suspect that a good part of the book was a copy-paste job from the first few chapters! You could virtually skip whole chapters without the story having moved very much at all.

What is even more concerning is that this book was a #1 NYT Bestseller. I am aware that the list depends on the sales, but my faith in that list has been badly shaken. And I now wonder what sort of people actually bought this book to put it on that list in the first place! It is extremely disturbing to have to believe that such filth can get on top of such a highly respected list. And I certainly do not intend to debase myself firther by pursuing the other two books in the trilogy - I am actually shocked that this became a trilogy, given that there is virtually no story at all! 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Spectacular Finish

Attila: The Judgment
By William Napier

The last installment of the Attila trilogy is a worthy conclusion to what has been a riveting journey through the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire, at least its Western half.  Much slower than the last two, but with more suspense than any other, this novel belongs as much to the genre of historical fiction as it does to the psychological thriller.

The writing style of this novel is its crown jewel: slow, but not too slow; detailed, but not overly. The writer rushes through the parts that are insignificant, but devoted chapters to those that are. The brilliance with which military strategy is described, how the battlefield is laid out is simply brilliant. The tension of the long wait to the ultimate battle in Catalonia mirrors the mental tactics of Attila himself as he tries to bog down his opponents with fear.

Overall, the entire Attila trilogy was an ambitious project, well-executed and deserving a place in every library.  

Why a Kashmir Referendum is Not Possible

AAP leader Prashant Bhushan set off a firestorm this week by calling for a referendum on the presence of the Army in Kashmir. The very word 'referendum' created such a stir that he has not been silenced. As a disclaimer, Opinions 24x7 has been calling for the abrogation of AFSPA, particularly in Manipur but also in Kashmir, because it is a law that goes against the Constitution when applied for an extended period and leads to counterproductive results.

However, this is not about AFSPA but about a referendum on Independence for Jammu and Kashmir altogether. As a fact of history, such a referendum is impossible today. For one, the Indian Constitution does not have any provision for a referendum. Before the merger of Sikkim, a referendum was held there, but then Sikkim was outside the Indian Constitution (a protectorate) and the merger was in any case based on an Act of Parliament, not a referendum. Furthermore, it is true that there is a UNSC resolution calling for a plebiscite in the state. This is no longer possible for two reasons:

  1. Pakistan has not ended its occupation of the Northern areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, which are a part of Kashmir, and China continues to occupy Aksai Chin. As per the UNSC resolution, all sides leaving these areas is a precondition to a plebiscite;
  2. With the Pakistan-sponsored genocide of Kashmiri Pandits, the demographics of the state have changed substantially. This is not the same state as it was when the UNSC resolution was passed and the change is more than what would have been in the ordinary passage of time. 
Even more importantly, the state of Jammu & Kashmir has mixed greatly with India. Although Indians themselves cannot settle in the state, those from the state can and have settled across India, mixing with the local population. It is no longer unusual to have a friend from the state. Therefore, for all practical matters, the state has become an integral part of India, the future of its people has merged with that of the greater Indian nation. Therefore, the question of even considering a granting of Independence does not even arise: the Indian nation is one, divided as it may be after 1947, but whatever is left, it cannot be divided further.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Funny Thing about Fellows

In 2013-14 at the University of Illinois, I am a fellow - formally, a Kinra Fellow in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. A fellowship, already rare, is little-understood among prospective students from India. I was also quite confused over my role within the research group, but it has become a lot clearer now and I can share my insights.

As a Fellow, my job is to perform new research. This might seem redundant, because all research is new. But what I mean is that, because I am an independent researcher within the research group, I am responsible for looking into new areas of research within the group. This is different from a research assistant who joins an established project: such a researcher would have a fairly clear path laid out, at least for the first one or two years; you would get a certain list of papers to read, a list of programs to master and a list of courses to take. It is not easy, but definitive.

A Fellow, on the other hand, has none of those. Because the research area is new, you have to start from scratch, doing an extensive literature review and gap identification, which can take several months, sometimes even a year or more. Then, you have to find the necessary computer programs and learn to use them; you have to hunt for a course either in the university or a MOOC to supplement your learning. Throughout, you are unsure of what you are doing and your adviser is also learning as much from you (possibly less because of the secondary nature of that learning).

A major roadblock is the absence of funding for the actual research. Because it is not based on a grant, you have to work with the infrastructure available in the university. However, that also means that you have the chance to work on a new topic with your adviser and actually build the groundwork for a grant - a rare experience for most PhD students these days, who are left to discover all this for themselves after they graduate. Another good thing about being a Fellow is that you learnt the core process of research: review, gap identification, hypothesis development and testing and conclusion, aside from the intricacies of publishing. A pleasure it has been so far, despite the inherent difficulties of research, and a pleasure it will, hopefully, remain! 

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Real Problem with Winter

Most Indians who freshly come to America, in particular the Midwest and New England, absolutely detest the winter because of the biting cold. No wonder than that most of my friends have either gone to India or to California for the Winter Break. However, my problem was never the cold, I quite liked the cold. True, it made it a little hard to go to the gym in the evening, but that was a small price for the otherwise good weather.

And then came this 'Polar Vortex' as they are calling it. Again, the cold is not the issue, it's the snow. Sure, snow looks beautiful and its high albedo presents a wonderful, natural experiment for cool pavement strategies (I'm kidding!). But my problem with snow is when it piles up to mountainous proportions, necessitating a short trek whenever you go out. As if that were not enough, the blizzard that I woke up to on Sunday made visibility too poor to go out, and for two days now, I have been stuck at home, trying my best to work from here but failing to a large extent.

My problem with winter, as it is with the monsoon back in India, is that I can't go out. Even if I turned very courageous (foolhardy, rather) and did, everything is closed! The University was shut today, as was the Public Library. And, since they don't clear all the sidewalks, most places have become inaccessible with a foot of snow to trek through. In this terrible season, just getting along with life has become a headache - I've even had to stock up on food for a few days, similar to some natural disaster!

And thus, Fall remains my favorite season.


Mix-and-Match Movie

AKAASH VANI (2013)

Produced By: Wide Frame Pictures
Director: Luv Ranjan
Starring: Nushrat Bharucha, Sunny Singh Nijjar, Kartik Tiwari and others
Pros: One good song and one good lesson
Cons: Lame story, trashy script, bad acting
Rating: * of 5 (1 of 5)

After the roaring success of Pyaar ka Punchnama, director Luv Ranjan decided to show the good side of love and the old jazz about following your dreams. Sadly, the result was Akaash Vani, a two and a half hour assault on good senses, not to mention common sense.

Now, don't be fooled - despite the glitz and the relatively new stars, it is a very old movie, as old as Indian cinema itself. The story is all the same - family values against personal ambition, boyfriend against dad, aunty next door against mom. The madness just goes on and on with an extremely run of the mill story being ably complemented by a silly script that is essentially a compilation of the corniest so-called romantic lines from every movie ever made. The story is so straightforward that you could place a ruler along it, but the needless drama, or as we say in the Hindi heartland, नौटंकी , takes the very limited fun away. And if you add the terrible acting, almost emotionless, from all the lead actors, you begin to wonder how this one ever reached beyond the first draft!

There are two reasons why it managed to scrape a single star. One is the only good song in the movie, which had the right lines at the right time (the only such instance throughout the film): Bas Main Aur Tu, with lyrics by the Director himself and sung by Nikhil D'Souza, was the saving grace of the film. It did not make it bearable, but was an able distraction in an unbearably boring movie. And the second was one important lesson that every Indian man should have learned a decade ago (I can only put this in Hindi): बीवी कामवाली नहीं है।  कामवाली को पैसे देते है, बीवी को सम्मान।

For the final verdict, a terrible film that you don't have to watch. If you are even a mild fan of Indian cinema (aren't we all?), then you've already seen it before. (OTFS)

Steadfast, Bangladesh

The first round of general elections in the tiny country of Bangladesh presents some worrying conditions for democracy in South Asia. Even as the ruling Awami League picked up a majority of seats in the first round, the opposition BNP continued with its boycott of the elections, in protest against scrapping of the system of keeping a caretaker government to oversee elections. Whatever the result, a one-sided election like this cannot be seen as legitimate and the country will probably have to go through another election very soon.

From an Indian perspective, the idea of a caretaker government is quite bizarre, because of constitutional measures built-in to ensure free and fair elections irrespective of which government is in power. That, along with nearly 70 years of a democratic tradition of governments in the final leg not resorting to any measures that could become the responsibility of the next. But in smaller, younger democracies, this might not be the case and the idea of a caretaker government seems appealing. On that account, PM Hasina's move to scrap the system seems poorly thought out and the BNP does have legitimate concerns over the fairness of the election.

However, all said and done, even Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD contested the last by-elections despite the fact that the ruling quasi-military regime had not created a truly civilian regime by amending the Constitution. The idea is simple: participating in an election, however flawed they potentially are, does not provide legitimacy to an undemocratic setup. Elections are not ends of democracy, they are but one of many means. The BNP's irresponsible boycott and ensuing violence will not be any sort of moral victory to either side, it will be but a catalyst to push the country further and further into chaos.

For India, which saw a period of unprecedented growth in Indo-Bangladesh relations, but where India is still seen as the great, meddling hegemon, the violence and uncertainty augur badly, especially for our Northeastern states that badly require transit routes through Bangladesh for delivering key components for infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, given the electoral season in India, there will be little done on this front till a Lok Sabha is elected in May. Till then, one can only hope for Bangladesh to remain on the path of democracy. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why is a Subsidy Wrong?

Adapted from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged

There was once a factory, the old kind where people had to use their arms and feet to produce goods. These days, of course, they mostly have to use their minds, but the idea is just the same - human labor gives value to things. Now, this factory was much like any other factory, not particularly prosperous, but not doing all that bad either. And then one day, it was bought by new owners - a rather eccentric brother-sister duo. Now, they had some radical ideas... and I would be lying if I said people did not like them. They loved them, as will you.

The idea was very simple - henceforth, every man and woman working in that factory would be paid according to their need. But then, how is one to determine need? Now, this factory was in no Communist country - it was a democracy, and right proud of it. Every man and every woman was equal and had a voice that would count. Therefore, each month, a general assembly of all workers would be called and people would explain their need. Someone had a baby and needed money to purchase diapers; someone had a sick grandmother who needed medical attention; someone had broken a hand and would not be able to work for a month, but still needed to feed his family. Every need would go to vote and no penny would be given without the consent of the majority. This utopia was certainly what the great founders of democracy wanted and nobody could find any fault with it.

Except for one problem: not everybody was working equally. Of course, all work in the factory is important, for if someone forgets to screw in that last nut and bolt, would the entire machine not come crashing down? But not all people worked the same: there was the fellow, down by the pistons, who took a nap every now and then, leaving it to the man in quality check to fix what he had forgotten. Alas, the man in quality check was not the most dependable of people either, for he had recently fallen in love and kept losing himself in green valleys with his maiden. Which is all fine of course, for are we all not human? But, as man learned centuries ago, much to his chagrin at that, money does not grow on trees. And as machine after machine came about defective, the factory started to make losses. A few good workers decided that something must be done, so they started to check what everyone else was doing. The young lady by the man in pistons took time to check on his work, often doing it for him while he dozed off. Production fell, but at least everything that was being made was being sold. Profits were still low, but at least everyone was able to meet their most basic needs.

And then there came another general meeting to vote on needs. The young lady said that, since she was doing the work of two workers, she should be paid as much. To this, the young man from the pistons objected and said that he was a wee bit anemic, so he got tired easily and dozed off. And he was aware of the problem and had just recently started medical treatment for it, for which he would need a little more money. If the young lady were to get more money, and consequently he less, because there was only so much to go around, how could he possibly get better? The general council agreed with him and he was given a little more, and consequently she was given a little less, because there was only so much to go around. And then they were asked to return to their work.

But anemia is a funny thing - some believe it is contagious. Of course, science says otherwise, but it is people's beliefs that matter in a democracy, and so more and more workers began to be infected by the said affliction. Defects were on the rise, so the healthy workers had to work double shifts to keep the factory afloat. But alas, how much could so few men and women work? There was less money to go around every month and the poor anemic workers had to be paid extra, for the doctor had advised them to eat more and rest. That month, the general council decided that the healthy workers must forego one square meal a day and work one extra shift - a request that might seem harsh at first, but it was certainly necessary for the good of the entire factory and hence, endorsed by the majority, which is to say, it was a democratic decision.

But, unknown to everyone else, there was another general meeting that month: of the healthy workers. Had the others found out about it, they surely would have been censured at the regular general meeting. But since they were the only ones working in the factory to support their brothers and sisters now, there was no such danger. It was in this meeting then, that they aired their grievances to those ears that would hear them - their own, that is. There were many grievances indeed, but the chief among them was that they would quite possibly die of exhaustion or starvation, or a combination thereof, if they continued to work in a manner thus. And then, the young man, who was by now too poor to afford a roof over his head, and so slept in the factory itself, near the furnaces (for where else can one find privacy, uncomfortable as it may be?), asked a simple question: if we are to die of work, why must we work? Why, we must work to support our sick brethren, a healthy and dying man replied. And what would they do to support us, you ask? Why, they would come to our rescue once we are unable to work. And when would we be unable to work? When we are on our deathbed, of course!

All found this reasoning valid. All, but one: John Galt was his name, a funny character, not particularly liked by anyone. He said that he did not want to die, or even come anywhere near his deathbed. Not even to help his fellow workers, who were recovering from anemia. That night, John Galt left the factory for the wilderness beyond, curses flying around from the other healthy workers, chastising him for being selfish and not thinking about the well-being of everyone else. He was never seen again, the selfish idiot. May the Gods feed him to the wolves.

But that was still one hand too less - whatever workers were left were stretched to their limit. The young man, adjusting the screws, was trying to eat his sandwich and continue working at the same time - for if he stopped for lunch, there was nobody to take his place. Alas, he was not trained in the fine art of acrobatics, and a screw went flying through his shoulder, rendering him unable to work. The situation was grave - so a special general meeting was called. Together, they would find a way out, as any democratic country would. The majority concluded that the young man, like his anemic brothers, must rest and recover, while the healthy workers, now fewer than ever, and hence far from a majority, must find a way to keep production running. And, the democratic citizens they were, they accepted the verdict of the majority and found creative ways to work. Ah, the wonders of the mind! The young lady, so strong, she decided to stop eating altogether and concentrate on her work so as to help her anemic and wounded brethren. The middle-aged man, who gave the prime of his life to the factory, decided to stop sleeping, for there would be more time for that after retirement. Almost prophetically, he did find much more time, for he died a few days later, by his workstation, of course. But wherever he was, he was not alone for too long, for the middle-aged man who worked next to him followed suit. And eventually all the healthy workers had a general meeting again, although in a rather unearthly realm.

The next general meeting was thus, presented with a strange problem. Everyone still needed to recover from anemia, and one even from a wound to the shoulder, but there was nobody left to earn anything for them anymore. Nobody, except John Galt. And so they cursed John Galt, cursed him for refusing to die for their needs, which were the righteous needs of the majority; cursed him for being so base as to consider the fruits of his labor as his own; cursed him for not even presenting himself before the general council to hear their insults, as everyone in a democratic society must. And once they tired, they cursed God for spreading anemia; and cursed God for wickedly summoning the healthy and dead workers away; and cursed God for letting John Galt run away. And then they blamed the factory for not producing suitable products; they blamed the buyers for not accepting their machines, which were just as good as others except that they did not work; and finally, they blamed each other, for they had no one else left to blame. But of course, no man or woman blamed themselves, for what is the purpose of democracy if each man and each woman has to be responsible for themselves? And so, the great anemic majority ran the factory through general council, surely the most honest, open and democratic means to run a factory. And honestly, openly and democratically, they dug their own graves.

All, except John Galt, who was a selfish man.  

Friday, January 3, 2014

History will not be Kind

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh announced his retirement at a large press conference in New Delhi, only the third in his 10-year continuous tenure as PM, the longest continuous tenure for any one person after Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951. His 75-minute long press conference, including his opening statements, will be remembered more for his optimism that history would judge him kindly than any direction or message for the country as a whole. In a way, this was typical of this PM, who considered it unworthy for the leader of the world's largest democracy to interact with the media more than three times in ten years.

Indeed, the Press Conference is notable for two ridiculous points that he made. One was that Rahul Gandhi was extremely qualified to be the PM, that without any judgment. A man whose authority within his party stems from his DNA rather than his achievements, who has lost elections for his party, who has absolutely no administrative experience and who cannot even hold an audience at a rally - to call that 'highly qualified', that too by a person who has a PhD and has been PM for ten years, is laughable. Two, his assertion that UPA-II was scam-free because all the scams were in UPA-I and hence, he does not have to worry about it. This defies all logic - how do elections acquit politicians of crime? And would his government have ever returned to power had the public known what was coming in 2009? It is as good as saying that he successfully hoodwinked the people in 2009! 

Truly, the only good news from the Press Conference was the announcement of his retirement - this was a serious antidote that the nation badly needed, as crucial as sending Pranab Mukherjee to Rashtrapati Bhawan and hence, out of the Finance Ministry. The PM called the last ten years as a period of unprecedented economic growth. This is faulty on two counts. For one, it is now known that most of this growth was on the back of huge, unsustainable subsidies that have already begun to bite back, as well as massive corruption and cooking of the books. It was not on the back of any structural improvement in the economy; indeed, our infrastructure, particularly Highways, has crumbled under his administration. And two, Manmohan Singh inherited a strong economy from the NDA Government and returned a collapsing one - the difference is clear and shocking. 

But perhaps the greatest tragedy of the last ten years has been the fact that 'personal integrity' has become a bad word in Indian politics. In 2009, Singh was celebrated as 'one of our own,' a clean PM whose credentials were beyond question (he was an Opinions 24x7 Indian of the Year for that). Today, he is seen as a laughing stock within the Cabinet and his own party, a punching bag to shield the Gandhi dynasty, someone who stood quiet and honest as everyone around him made merry with taxpayers' money. Sharad Pawar, his own corruption aside, rightly observed that the country is tired of weak leaders and wants a strong and decisive leader who can walk the talk. Ultimately, it was Manmohan Singh's failures that made the nation realize this. 

Despite his assertions, Manmohan Singh will not be written about kindly by history. He will be harshly criticized as we continue to see the disaster that was his tenure. Perhaps the only time he will be praised, as he himself asserted, will be the Indo-US Nuclear Deal and the lifting the of sanctions on India. That was the first and last time the PM put principle ahead of power - that was what was lacking most of all in UPA-II. 



Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Refreshing Take

SAARE JAHAAN SE MEHNGA (2013)

Produced By: Revel Films
Director: Anshul Sharma
Starring: Sanjai Mishra, Zakir Hussain, Disha Pandey, Ranjan Chhabra and others
Pros: Fresh, satirical story, easy to connect with, witty and humorous
Cons: Acting could have been better
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

In a country that has experienced 10% inflation over the last three years, anger is mounting. And true to the democratic style, that anger is reflecting in cinema. Saare Jahaan Se Mehnga is a movie that most Page 3 critics would write off as an offbeat film, but for the common man, it is as mainstream as it gets. Capturing the harsh truth of back-breaking inflation on a middle class full of aspirations but short of resources, the movie connects with well over 300 million middle class people in India and indeed, virtually everyone except the Top 1%.

Set in small-town Sonipat in Haryana, far detached from the glitz and power of Delhi, the movie comes with fresh wit and humour that make you laugh and think simultaneously. If necessity is the mother of invention, then the middle-class household of Puttan Pal is needy indeed. Poking holes at everything from the pathetic jobs that people do to the disinterested system that everyone is stuck in, it connects easily with everyone who has to buy their own groceries - with a love story added in to reinforce the Indian flavor! The movie will make you laugh and fall into despair at the same time, you might even understand the irony of watching it on TV or in a theater.

Being a small-budget film, it did not get the top-notch actors that movies like Dhoom 3 consider their USP, but the acting was decent. Certainly, it could have been better, but that's all you get on this budget. The music and costumes were average, but the real strength of this movie comes from its story. It's been a long time since a movie got a 4-star rating based almost entirely on its story - reason enough to watch it. (OTFS)

The Year's First Snowfall

It's been snowing in Champaign since last night, a little over thirteen hours now, with IllinoisHomepage.net reporting about 4" of snowfall so far, although the peak of it has tapered off. This was expected, of course, with the weather forecast clearly indicating a strong system moving into the Midwest on account of a high pressure zone that developed here last week.

Now, I love snow. Really - I like the cold weather and the beautiful white blanket. However, snow and snowfall are two different matters: the latter is meant to see and walk on; the latter is much like rain, when it's just very hard to get out of the house and get on with your work. Fortunately for me, I'm in academia so I can afford to take a day off and work from home (which I am trying to do now).

Now, although the snowfall has begun to taper off, the wind has picked up. So, while we did avoid a blizzard, the cold is still very much there. My app tells me that the effective temperature outside is an amazing -23 C! I still have to go to CPL and the recreation center, but I have no idea how I'll be able to do that with this weather. First snowfall of the year - and the harsh realities of winter set in. 

A Necessary Truce

Former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yedyurappa (BSY) announced that by the end of the week, he will be merging his KJP with his parent body, the BJP, thus ending a year's separation of the Lingayat strongman that cost the BJP dearly in the 2012 Assembly elections.

The merger however, is not because conditions in the BJP have become favourable again - in fact, they have barely changed since the time he was forced to leave. With one exception: Narendra Modi now holds effective control over the Central leadership and is keen to get BSY back in order to win prevent votes from being split again in the BJP's southern bastion. With the saffron party expected to do well in neighbouring Telangana, this could present an added chance to consolidate the party as it tries to breach Tamil Nadu with the help of the firebrand MDMK.

This arrangement is out of sheer necessity, with the KJP having failed to dent the ruling Congress or the JD(S) but hurting the BJP very badly, a situation that the long-time RSS member BSY would not like to continue. He will however, be forced to build his way back up the ranks of the Karnataka BJP as he fights factions opposed to him. And that is where a little help from NaMo will do him good - an opportune time to return to the party fold. 

Truly, We Are Infinite

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)

Produced By: Summit Entertainment and Others
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Johnny Simmons, Ezra Miller and others
Pros: Fell-good story makes you smile, good narrative style
Cons: A few logical loopholes
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

We all love coming-of-age tales, don't we? And why not: we've all been through it, and everyone wants their story to be on the silver screen. So can there be any other genre that resonates so well? In some respects, this is an easy genre because the chances of audiences clicking with it are very high. But even with that in mind, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on a book of the same name, is an excellent movie, told at a gentle rhythm and a fresh story.

High school, being the transitory phase between school and college, is the preferred setting for such stories, as it is here, where our characters form an unlikely group of friends going through rather ordinary incidents - well, almost. The story is not overly dramatic, which is probably the Achilles Heel of the genre, although it does come with some forgivable logical loopholes and convenient coincidences - but then, which movie doesn't? A simple story about ordinary people in a town, trying to live with all the uncertainties that adolescence brings with it: certainly something all of is can associate ourselves with.

The movie also borrows its narrative style from the book, with the story mostly going through letters (as best as possible in the electronic medium). This motion between the first and third persons is quite fascinating and I think an excellent way to narrate a story, although it was not executed with great finesse here. Nonetheless, what truly made me give it a four was the excellent ending, which left me simply laughing and smiling for no fathomable reason. If the aim of the director was to make the audience feel good, then he hit the nail on the head with perfection! A must-watch for everyone who's been through adolescence. (OTFS)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Lows and Highs

Attila: The Gathering of the Storm
By William Napier

Continuing with the Attila Trilogy, which I have come to like very much, William Napier presents the second book in the series, a sort of bridge between the miseries of the boy Attila and the impending war on Rome. However, in terms of sheer scale, this book hugely overshadows the first, despite being a cool 100 pages shorter. From the cold, frosty plains of Scythia all the way to the very shadows of the Great Wall of China, our hero and his band travel and amass a vast army and indeed, a worthy story.

Yet, unlike the previous book, this one is more thoughtful, devoting several pages to philosophy and stories, and even a long speech remnant of Ayn Rand! It could be symbolic, to show the many layers of thinking that went on before the ultimate sacking of Rome; or, it could be to fill up pages and make sure the series can produce three books!

Whatever be the case, this one can be a little boring in the middle - you can actually go through much of it by just reading the lines in the quotation marks and ignoring the rest. Hopefully, the final book will be a worthy ending to this epic tale. 

IOTY13: OTFS Documentary of the Year


The year 2013 was relatively slow for the Documentary label as Story took up most of our time. Nonetheless, we did have two wonderful documentaries. State vs. Bill & Kuljeet was out first attempt at a crime-based documentary on the infamous Sanjay & Geeta Chopra Rape and Murder case that left a nation shocked. This one, announced early but completed late, was based on a careful reading of the actual case documents and presented new challenges while writing. Therefore, not only was in a good documentary, it was also a good learning experience.

The Four Dhams of India, in wake of the Uttarakhand floods, was a revisit to a religion-based theme, a first after many years on OTFS. A circum-ambulation of the country from the four holy sites of Hinduism was the primary theme, although the ultimate thought was to show the inherent unity behind Hinduism, a religion that otherwise seems to be divided into very many pieces!

Opinions 24x7 Indian of the Year 2013
Coming Soon