Monday, February 24, 2014

A Philosophical Sojourn

SHIP OF THESEUS (2012)

Produced By: Recyclewala Films
Director: Anand Gandhi
Starring: Aida Elkashef, Sohum Shah, Neeraj Kabi, Vinay Shukla and others
Pros: Deep thought put into every story, smart use of comic relief
Cons: Gets slow at times
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

The Theseus paradox goes such: if the planks of a ship are changed one by one until none of the planks are the same as the original, then does the ship remain the same ship? This Greek philosophical question makes for an interesting thought when seen beyond the literal and with Ship of Theseus, Anand Gandhi explores that through narrative.

The movie explores the paradox through three lives, all with the common theme of changing one part of the protagonist's body and their reaction to it. A lot of thought has gone into every story and a variety of viewers can relate to it: from the working class to the rich. The stories are simple and yet complex: they tell the tales of simple people with difficult stories. This is not a fast-paced, masala film that requires you to leave your brain at home - it requires you to think and to connect. And perhaps, this is where the movie really meets its downfall: it expects too much of its audience.

Now, the director seems to be aware that too many long moments of silence or grief can leave the audience numb and hence, he puts in comic relief every now and then, which does wake up the audience. And that shows that it was meant to be a movie and not a monologue. And yet, the director seems to have forgotten this lesson once in a while, when the movie really slows down and leaves you wishing that it would just end.

The acting was splendid with emotion being conveyed quite well, which is critical for a movie that requires the audience to connect with the characters. Overall, an excellent movie, not exactly for light-hearted moments, but certainly good if you don't mind watching with your brain on. (OTFS)

What's Happening in N Korea?

The United Nations recently released horrific accounts of escapees' experience in North Korean torture camps, parallels to which can be seen from Nazi Germany's concentration camps. Ruled by the Communist dictatorship of the Kim-family, a unique hereditary communist regime, North Korea has been known for its opaque and corrupt justice system, but the new revelations are so stark that they cannot be simply brushed aside as business-as-usual.

The world has seen this before, when Nazi Germany incarcerated Jews and minorities in hundreds of concentration camps in what can only be called the greatest crime against humanity committed in history: murder on an industrial scale. The sort of systematic, concerted torture that took place shook the world, shook humanity at its very core. It was because of this that the world created a set of rules for war and humanity itself.

Today, North Korea stands in violation of those rules. It stands against everything that humanity has stood for since the end of World War II. And yet, the great powers of the world, the victors of the great War, are silent on the issue. The strongest blame lies on China, North Korea's one and only ally in the world. It is China's support for the regime that allows it to continue to exist and perpetuate its crimes against humanity. It is imperative for China to consider whether its support to such a brutal regime invites any confidence from its neighbours. After all, if China supports such brutality, does it not imply that if China becomes a hegemon in the region, it too would encourage and even perpetrate such crimes. If China wants people to take its 'peaceful rise' seriously, it will have to show its support for humanity and come out strongly against North Korea. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Kill the PM, Go Free

The Tamil Nadu Government, no doubt emboldened by the Supreme Court's decision to commute the death sentence of the seven men who plotted to assassinate former PM Rajiv Gandhi, has decided to free the men who have already served long sentences in prison. This movie smacks of political opportunism, a lack of patriotism and sets a dangerous precedent for the country as a whole. As Rahul Gandhi correctly pointed out: if a PM cannot get justice, how can a poor men even hope to?

The blame for this destruction of justice lies with the Congress and the political parties of Tamil Nadu, which continue to create strains between Tamilians and other people of the great Indian nation for petty political gains. The Congress deserves the greatest of blame for sitting on the mercy petitions for 11 years, although it can be said that a part of those years were under the NDA Government. The Congress, since the days of Indira Gandhi, has made it a habit to further erode every institution that our founding fathers established for the sake of votes. Case after case was held up at the President's desk for decades, all because the Cabinet kept dithering for political causes. When the system of Presidential pardon was established, the idea behind it was that mercy is something beyond the Supreme Court and above justice, brought about by circumstances that cannot be addressed by the usual rule of law. It was not established to allow the Cabinet to subsume justice for political gains. If anybody is to be blamed, it is the Congress party and its sacrifice of Constitutional institutions and values at the altar of votes against all principles.

Blame also goes to the politicians of Tamil Nadu, who have failed to provide good governance to the people and instead use cheap sub-nationalism to win votes. They must choose where their loyalties lies: to the Indian Union or to their own, rather divided, ethnic group. It is not acceptable to the nation to see the murders of our Prime Minister walking free. Those fringe groups in Tamil Nadu who believe that the assassination is justified must choose between the Indian nation and their sub-nationalism. This might seem unfair, but this is no ordinary issue. If an attack on Parliament was a direct attack on Indian democracy and the nation itself, then so was the assassination of our Prime Minister.

One can only hope that henceforth, every President will make it a priority to clear mercy petitions swiftly. Otherwise, the very idea of mercy becomes polluted. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Quick Reactions to the Interim Budget


Finance Minister P Chidamabarm just concluded his Vote on Account budget speech in the Lok Sabha, the last one for the UPA-2 Government. While there are many specific points, these are my initial reactions via Twitter.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why India must stay in Afghanistan

Last week, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid was in Kandahar, a city that is far from unfamiliar to India. At the height of the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban, Indian Airlines flight IC-814 was hijacked and taken to Kandahar, an event that led to a series of decisions that trouble India to this day. And in the same Kandahar, India now runs a large consulate and just opened an Agriculture University for the war-torn nation. Indeed, how quickly the tide changes: a country where India once had no footprint at all and indeed faced a grave threat from, is now the largest recipient of Indian development aid, with a vast diplomatic footprint and a lot of goodwill from the people.

2014 will be a game-changing year in Afghanistan, with the NATO-led ISAF withdrawing all combat troops and, with the way things are going, all military personnel entirely. The Indian Army is already expecting a dangerous spurt of terrorism in Kashmir if Afghanistan falls into another Civil War and particularly if the Taliban rises to the top. Therefore, for India, the most obvious thing to do would be to prevent that situation from ever taking shape. Of course, India's stated policy of never sending troops abroad outside of the UN Peacekeeping Missions (with the only exceptions in post-Independence history being East Pakistan and the Maldives) does not allow any direct role, but there are other options.

With India having signed the SPA with Afghanistan, it is necessary that our leaders virtually adopt the ANSF and bring it up to a level where it can at least maintain status quo with the Taliban. As a friend and the superpower of South Asia, it is what is expected. And from the perspective of Kashmir's security, which implies all of India's security, it is imperative. Indeed, Afghanistan could be India's first major arms market for our fledgling arms industry. But not just arms, military training and joint exercises would serve the ANSF well and further India's interests.

However, it is also important to remember that war have to be won of both the ground and in minds. India already enjoys a significant soft footprint in Afghanistan, with Bollywood movies and Hindi TV shows being all the rage there. Many Afghans are happy to meet a 'Hindi' person. Historically too, Afghanistan has played a role in India - from the Mahabharata days in Gandhara to the Mughals. While Pakistan might choose to appropriate the history of the Mughals as its exclusive, the Mughals rules from Delhi and are a part of Indian history and culture. Indeed, Afghans and Indians, at a historical level, are the same people. Therefore, continuing to spread this soft footprint is not only a historical duty but also makes sense strategically,

In the end, Afghans will have to decide their own future. Foreign powers, particularly Western powers, cannot. India's role in assisting and facilitating those choices will be crucial for both countries. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Calculated Drama

The nightmare has finally ended - Arvind Kejriwal's 49-day old AAP Government ended with the CM and the Cabinet tendering its resignation and recommending dissolution of the Assembly to the President. And the premise is as silly as everything that the party has become infamous for - a clear violation of rules of procedure established under the Constitution. Of course, in keeping with its style, it was a well-calculated move to extract as much media coverage as possible.

First, the premise. The National Capital Territory of Delhi is not a state - like Puducherry, it is a UT with an Assembly, with power being shared between it and the Central Government. In 2002, the then NDA Government created a rule that matters associated with the use of the Consolidated Fund of India must be cleared by the Central Government before it can be tabled in the Assembly - the Delhi Jan Lokpal Bill is such a case. The rule is indeed questionable, possibly unconstitutional, but since it has never been challenged in court, it stands. When the AAP minority government indicated that it would ignore this rule, the LG of Delhi, who represents the Central Government, warned that it would be in violation of rules. Yesterday, when Kejriwal tried to ignore the LG's letter to the Speaker (and hence create a constitutional crisis), the BJP and the Congress, with independents, came together to defeat the introduction of the bill. At this, Kejriwal decided to resign.

There are rules of procedure in India and these have to conform to the Constitution. The Constitution is not Mr. Kejriwal's diary, which he can change at will. It is the social contract that binds the nation together, it is what makes India a country. If something is unconstitutional, it must be challenged in the courts, not ignored at will. If the Constitution is to be ignored by those who swore to abide by it, then there is no logic in holding territories such as Nagaland or Kashmir, there is nothing to stop Seemandhra from seceding, or Tamil Nadu from declaring Independence. If India is to survive, the Constitution cannot be ignored. Now, AAP's managers have pointed out that the question here is of the NDA Government's rule, not the Constitution. The rule is in place because of the provisions for Delhi in the Constitution; ignoring the rules is tantamount to ignoring the Constitution. It is akin to declaring that murder is legal because murder is a crime under the IPC and not the Constitution!

Next, the preparation. It is no surprise that AAP registered a questionable FIR against Reliance industries. It is the hallmark of failed Communist parties to blame the rich for the (imagined) woes of everyone else; to blame the producers for everything. Today, AAP's line is that this FIR brought the Congress and the BJP together to defeat the (introduction of the) Bill. Clearly, the FIR was a political tool to fool everyone.

Finally, the next step. Obviously, Delhi's limited statehood has let down Kejriwal, who refuses to follow the rules and procedures that keep this country together. The party has done nothing more than establish ad hoc subsidies and some gimmicks like sting operations. They have no real development agenda. Kejriwal is clearly eyeing the PMO and, with opinion polls indicating that AAP's influence does not really extend beyond NCR, he needed to do something big to stay in the news. With the Lok Sabha polls coming near and Narendra Modi looking very strong, this was one last, desperate drama.

Will it work? I've burned my hands with Delhi before but let me take a guess. Essentially, Delhi is a city of fools, especially its middle class, a group that believes that it can get anything it wants while it gets a subsidy from the entire country. Delhi is the most subsidized city in the country, something that the late Bal Thackeray always pointed out. Delhiites want full statehood but would hate it for those subsidies to be taken away. The only justification for Delhi to continue to use the whole nation's money is that it is the National Capital under the control of the Central Government. One state getting such benefits is simply unfair. But to Delhiites, these are too difficult to understand. The 'common man,' after all, is supposed to be a fool who does not understand anything. Therefore, I do see AAP coming back in some form or the other. This is not the end, but only the beginning. And it will only end when the so-called common man of Delhi understands that this is a monster of their own creation.

I should also add that the continuous barbs against the LG is disgusting, to say the least. First a Congress-agent, now a Viceroy! It is not the case that Governors have been apolitical - go no further than HR Bhardwaj in Bangalore to see what a real Congress-agent is. LG Najeeb Jung has done an excellent job, writing to the Speaker to save the Constitution and upholding his oath. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

This is not Democracy

Feb. 13, 2014 will go down as one of the darkest days in the history of Indian Parliament, a clear sign if ever that Democracy, at least the top-down Nehruvian style in India, is dying. The use of pepper spray in the well of the Lok Sabha by MP L Rajgopal, a criminal act otherwise but protected under immunity given to MPs for actions inside the House, is a culmination of several factors that are threatening democracy in India.

The biggest factor is the crude, cynical manner in which the UPA is going ahead with the Andhra Pradesh Reorganization Bill. For the first time in post-Independence India, Parliament is going ahead with a Reorganization Bill after the State Assembly summarily rejected it. Instead of looking for ways to calm tempers on both sides - certainly not an easy proposition, but a necessary one - the Congress party, headed in Andhra Pradesh by the AICC representative Digvijay Singh, chose to effect a cold, political calculation to divide the state. And indeed, the Congress is in such dire straits that it is clear that it does not have the capacity to govern or lead anymore. In such a situation, to force the division of a state and reverse the very trend of federalism that has defined Indian polity in the last two decades without even trying to negotiate with both sides is a formula for doom. The Congress might be run as a dictatorship, but India cannot.

The second factor is general decline in the stature of Parliament itself. The Speaker has become a ceremonial post, mere symbolic. Bills are passed without a second's debate in the midst of din and protest. The sort of language used, the actions of MPs... these do not inspire anybody. If this is the idea of Parliament that young people are brought up with, then democracy is not going to last very long in India. Of course, another view, a valid one, is that a powerful, centralized Parliament does not enjoy credibility in an India that demands decentralized rule. It is simply not fair if leaders in Delhi can decide the fate of any part of the country irrespective of what the majority wants.

Finally, the fall in value of debate and discussion in India, more so in the middle class. In a middle class that considers Arnab Goswami-style 'debate' as the best, which wants a simplistic solution to everything and is quick to formulate opinions without knowing too much, how can democracy hope to flourish? In a country where the mere threat of violence can lay to waste the basic fundamental rights that our founding fathers fought for, how can we expect debate and discussion to create any meaningful change? What we see here is not democracy, it is the slow demise of democracy. 

My First #Piktochart

What does the Savvy Researcher have to do with Valentine's Day? Well, on the eve of the occasion, the U of I Main Library continued its Savvy Researcher series with a workshop on Piktochart, a fun application to create infographics. Of course, given the variety of backgrounds that participants and instructors came from, the topic had to be something easy. And well, what else could it be?

While infographics do have application in engineering as a means to disseminate information to a non-technical audience (which controls the money), I will also be trying to use it on this blog more often. Enjoy!  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Primaries: Good Idea, Bad Timing

Rahul Gandhi has currently set off a rare mini-revolt in his party with his primaries in a limited number of Lok Sabha constituencies. The idea, adopted from the US presumably without any study on feasibility, calls for local Congress workers, leaders and common people who become Congress members to vote for the Congress candidate in their Lok Sabha Constituency. Of course, this is opposed to the current setup in the Congress, in which the high command selects candidates behind closed doors.

OK, so Rahul Gandhi gets a lot of flak from the media. Just about everybody is laughing at him. But to be fair, this is a really good idea for Indian democracy. It has been said ad nauseum that our political parties, technically private bodies, do not have any inner-party democracy (except the Left and to an extent the BJP) and are tightly controlled by vested interests. The Congress is at the very pinnacle of that rot, with the First Family of India right at its helm. By pushing for such deep democracy in the party, Rahul is taking on a huge challenge and doing much good for India. It is one thing to hold elections for NSUI and other bodies which do not directly affect major elections and quite another to bring democracy at the very doorstep of elections.

However, as expected, the move is generating a great deal of heat. It seems to have been understood that sitting MPs would not be subjected to primaries, but that assumption was disproved when some Congress seats showed up in the much-edited list. On expected lines, a bunch of loyalists were assembled to 'volunteer' their seats to the primaries, the usual sycophancy. But the damage had been done by then. It is clear that the Congress is ready to pay lip service to Rahul Gandhi but will fight back when he steps on important toes.

What Mr. Gandhi fails to see is the tight grip that a small group of leaders have on the party. He might like to believe that thanks to his surname, he enjoys absolute power in the party, but the truth is that a small coterie of leaders actually calls the shots. Indeed, he seems unwilling to recognize this fact, as is made amply clear by the fact that Digvijaya Singh, whose popularity in MP is round about zero, is seen as his political guru. The Congress cannot be free of these vested interests as long as they hold such power on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, something that will ironically require the dissolution of the dynasty itself.

Primaries are a good idea, they will strengthen democracy in India by making parties more democratic. But the Congress, and most parties, are nowhere near ready. Mr. Gandhi, it seems, is thinking well ahead of his time, which is not what the party needs this election season. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Welcome to the New Age

Red Rain
By RL Stine

RL Stine? Ring a bell? The wonderful memories of Goosebumps and Fear Street, which was the theme on which I wrote my own first story, came alive when I discovered that he had ventured into adult fiction as well, with Red Rain. I was extremely excited to read it not just because he was one of my favorite childhood writers, right up there with Enid Blyton, but because I was curious to know whether he had actually managed to make the transition from a children's write to an adult writer.

And I was not disappointed. He keeps his characteristic style of storytelling but does not take us through the childish churning of ghouls and goblins; instead, he mixes horror with drama and suspense for an irresistible novel. It is a little slow at first, with the opening being sub-par, but as the story progresses and the various subplots begin to converge, it becomes difficult to stop reading to the very end.

As always, Stine uses clean, clear language that has always been an asset to a children's writer. But I think as an adult writer, the same strengths apply. Adult horror is not all that a popular genre, but if any one can make it popular, it is RL Stine. 

The Old Game

Yes, it's that time of the year again when the losers' club comes together and stake their claim to nothing. The Third Front is being formed by the biggest losers of all - the Left Front - and is mostly composed of parties which are looking at a downward fall in their respective states, with the exception of the BJD and the AIADMK. Of course, all of them believe that they will win a majority of seats in their states and thus form a majority in the next Lok Sabha, beating the Congress and BJP down to a combined tally of less than 272.

It's an old script now. All these parties pretend to form a grand pre-poll alliance when the reality is that this alliance is an eyewash because there is almost no overlap in their constituencies. All of these parties with the exception of the Left are restricted to one or two states and none of them have any states in common. So the SP can freely join up with the BJD and AIADMK because none of these parties was going to contest each other's seats in any case. Some alliance!

However, this is actually a win-win situation for them. For one, it enthuses the cadres to make them believe that their little party can actually be a big player nationally. In addition, it leaves the scene open-ended after the polls. Because these parties are not really sharing any seats, they are free to leave at will, which means that they are free to join the UPA or the NDA depending on what the voters decide. None of them except the Left Front has any other reason to join the Third Front.

On that note, the Left Front paints the most pathetic picture. A group that allowed one man - Prakash Karat - to burn it into oblivion, holding on to its only state government in Tripura, and now trying desperately to stay relevant in an India that by and large rejects its politics and vision for the nation. The Left Front is the classic case of a dying force desperate to stay alive in some way or the other and the Third Front is just a convenient means to that end.


The Bengal Battle

This week, Narendra Modi headed east, a state where the BJP is virtually non-existent now but was once a might force. While the BJP did have governments in Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha. The only place where the BJP has been unable to penetrate was Bengal.

In many ways, Bengal was the antithesis of the BJP: a Communist bastion for three decades, demolishing industry and infrastructure on the back of leftist secularism. The saffron party never really had a chance there. Until Mamata Banerjee, a former ally in the NDA government, demolished the Left. That does not mean that the BJP is any stronger in the state, with just one MP that too on the back of the Gorkhaland vote.

But Bengal today is an intriguing battle. The TMC has effectively held down the Left, using every political trick to tear down its organization, which has always been its backbone. Today, it seems highly unlikely that anything can slow down the TMC's juggernaut. The Congress is desperately trying to remain relevant, holding on to a few boroughs. The real battle is between the CPM, not even the Left Front, and the TMC and it is certain that at least two thirds of the seats will be taken by the TMC, with the BJP winning possibly nothing.

Where does that leave the next government? Certainly Ms Banerjee will have a key role to play in it - but the question remains where she will choose to ally with the Congress or the BJP or just stay out of it. Clearly, Bengal will have its say.  

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My Generation and Facebook

Today marks the first day of the eleventh year since Facebook came into being as a global organization, accelerating the world's move into the information age. Ten years seems a long time - and it is, especially in the world of technology - and the effects that the social media platform has had on society are profound. So profound, that I think my generation could well be named the Facebook generation.

Even in a poor country like India, Facebook is estimated to have about 100 million users - that's a little under 10% of its user base. That is an amazing statistic and shows the sheer reach of the platform. And yet, it hardly says anything about the impact that Facebook has had. As an example, I can pick up the page of the Hyderabad Traffic Police, which is actively maintained and where denizens and the Traffic Police actively engage with each other - it is the ultimate form of democracy, direct and convenient.

Even India's lethargic government has taken up Facebook, with the MEA running an active and popular page. This could perhaps be on cue from political parties, particularly the BJP, which have made excellent use of Facebook to attract young voters to it. And even that is not a novel idea, with Barack Obama's first Presidential campaign having really established the democratic tool that the platform was.

For me personally, Facebook has been a medium through which I can stay in touch with friends long gone. Given how I keep changing cities every few years - it's becoming countries now - the platform has become my only means to keep track of the complex web that my life has become. There are the issues of privacy and hate posts, but it's all a part of public life and everyone has the option of leaving.

Overall, my generation is connected to each other like never before and Facebook has been instrumental in that. It is a part of our lives, just short of a revolution and I wish it many more fruitful years. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Constitutional Crisis

With the Andhra Pradesh Assembly, possibly in its last sitting in history, rejecting the draft Andhra Pradesh (Reorganization) Bill and returning it to the President, a serious constitutional question comes to the fore. Media channels report that the Union Cabinet has cleared the final bill to be introduced in the short Budget Session of Parliament this month, also the last session for this Lok Sabha.

The question is - can the nation's Parliament reorganize states when the State Assembly does not want it to? In other words, what is the relationship between the Union and its states. On the face of it, the Constitution is clearly biased in favor of the Union - Parliament alone has the power to reorganize states and the role of the Assembly is simply to give its views, which are in no way binding on Parliament. Of course, to what extent can Parliament can simply ignore the Assembly is something that the Supreme Court has never had to decide - at best, in cases challenging the reorganization of Bombay State, the Court held that amendments to the reorganization bill need not be referred to the Assembly.

But one thing that must be kept in mind is that a literal interpretation of the Constitution has never been the way such issues have been dealt with in India. The Supreme Court itself described it as a "living Constitution," whose interpretation depends on the social and political nature of the country at the time - something not unusual in major constitutional democracies, as we have seen with the US Supreme Court making and overturning decisions in its 200+ year history. Therefore, to believe that if and when the Bill is challenged in the courts, it will sail through by a literal interpretation would be wrong.

Has the country changed, in terms of Center-State relations? Quite certainly: when the Union was created, the most important goal was to unite the disparate states and prevent any further partition of the subcontinent. This phase is generally called Strong Center-Weak States. Indira Gandhi's politics, in which Chief Ministers were virtually faxed down from Delhi, was perhaps the strongest example of this. However, today, things have changed greatly. This era can be called Strong Center-Strong States. Although the Constitution has not been amended to strengthen the federal structure, the coalition era in politics can done that in any case. States today have a strong say in what the Central Government does, this is undeniable. Even in something such as foreign relations, which is the sole prerogative of the Center, states have begun to have a say.

Therefore, to believe that States have no say in their very existence would be an anachronism. The federal structure of the country is a part of the Constitution's basic structure. If the Center can change States by absolutely ignoring the States, is that an unacceptable weakening of that structure, something that even Parliament cannot do? That will be an interesting question that will be answered in the next few days.

On that note, it might be noted that passing a Reorganization Bill in a vote-on-account session is morally wrong - it is wrong to hoist the complex issues that are sure to arise from this on the next Government.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Fast-Paced Political Thriller

The Appeal
By John Grisham

The master of the legal thriller dabbles in politics! John Grisham takes us to his home state of Mississippi, the very heart of the Bible Belt, where everyone but the local dogcatcher is elected. At a time when political divisions are so sharp in the US Supreme Court, the book was a good read to understand how the situation is much worse in some states.

Written in his typical style, the story moves slowly at first, gyrating between Mississippi and New York, until it all comes together in well, a rather undramatic ending, but that is also his typical style Some authors believe in unbelievable, feel-good endings; Grisham is not one of them and he should be respected for that.

Particularly charming about the book was the way it depicts how normal people think: easy to manipulate, unable to see through plots. It is the typical story of politics, but played in the wrong place. A wonderful book, overall.