Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Abdullahs of Kashmir

The older Abdullah, Farooq, says that Kashmir would not like to remain in a 'communal India' i.e., an India with a BJP government. Modi retorts and the younger Abdullah defends his father. Another day in the life of a Kashmiri. If you don't know much about Kashmir, that is. For, despite the fact that the older Abdullah is the MP from Srinagar, the truth is that he is elected by a minuscule proportion of the population there. Of course, that is perfectly valid in a first-past-the-post system.

Except when you consider the record low turnout in Kashmir. People are not just voting in a fractured manner, they are not voting at all. The sitting MP not only enjoys meager support, he is a deeply hated figure. As a friend from Kashmir told me, if Sheikh Abdullah's grave did not have security, the Kashmiris would've exhumed his remains and stoned it to death, again.

As Modi rightly said, the Abdullahs and their godparents, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, have done more harm to secularism in the valley than anyone else. For this father-son duo then to be issuing threats in the name of the Kashmiri people is a cruel joke on them. If it wasn't for the protection of the Indian state, those two would've been publicly executed on the streets of Srinagar by now. Sheikh Abdullah's historic lie to Kashmir and to India, which has caused the death of thousands of Indian soldiers and have scarred generations of Kashmiris, is the primary act (together with that of his co-conspirator, Nehru) that has led to the tragedy that is Kashmir.

I am not a separatist. I firmly believe that India's map cannot be changed again, whether it be Kashmir or Nagaland. But a brutal military occupation is no way to win an insurgency or to win the hearts of Kashmiris. This blog has been consistently opposed to AFSPA for anything beyond a short imposition - Kashmir has been under AFSPA for over two decades now and Manipur for almost as long as it has been in the Union. We are not winning there, we are gaining the land and losing the people. In the case of Kashmir, we have probably already lost the people.

It is these issues that the Abdullahs should be talking about, not their imagined ideas of Kashmir's future in India. Kashmir will always remain a part of India and the Abdullahs certainly will not be the ones to change that. But whether Kashmiris are a part of India or not is yet to be seen. In the mean time, this father-son duo, who are deeply hated in the Valley, should not be speaking as their representatives. 

Diggi's Personal Politics

Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh is in the news for the most unexpected of reasons, his affair with a presenter for Rajya Sabha TV, a married woman who is going to file for divorce. The relationship came out after her account was supposedly hacked and pictures of them began circulating in the media, following which he they were forced to come out in public.

Ordinarily, I would not be going into the personal lives of politicians. Two people have a right to love each (irrespective of gender, I will add) and I have never been one to buy that adultery is criminal. Morally wrong perhaps, but not criminal. However, Mr. Singh's behavior in the last few weeks forces me to speak up about his double standards. For, it was the same former CM of Madhya Pradesh who made such a huge deal out of Narendra Modi's personal life.

But I'm not going to stoop to Singh's level. He is a vile politician who spews venom whenever he opens his mouth. His political career is now entirely dependent on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's goodwill because he has no base in his home state left; as was clear in the last Assembly Election there, the ruling BJP just has to whip out his photograph to scare people into voting for them. Such a person is expected to practice double standards, asking for his personal life to be kept away from scrutiny while openly talking about Modi's personal life in front of the world. What else can you expect?

What is sickening is the reaction of the media, particularly CNN-IBN's star couple. Rajdeep Sardesia and Sagarika Ghosh spoke up about Modi's wife, going as far as running a whole 'debate' on it (if you call that nonsense a debate). They justified it through their logic, right or wrong, that someone running for public office should be scrutinized. Well, in that case, here we have Digvijaya Singh, former CM and sitting MP in the Rajya Sabha. Does the same logic not apply to him?

This star couple's disgusting embrace of hypocrisy to justify their leftist agenda is the real stunt played here. Double standards has just sunk to a new low. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra?

The last week of election campaigning, heading into Phase 7 of the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, has seen the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's other scion, Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, taking the lead. Many believe that the reason for this is because her brother and the Congress' PM-in-waiting has proven to be a joke to put it lightly. Voters do not take his campaigning seriously and his gaffes ('27000 crore jobs...'), including his disastrous interview to Arnab Goswami, have made his party lose votes. Therefore, to lift the party's fortunes, Priyanka, with her Indira-esque looks, is being propped up at least by some sections of the party.

While there may be some truth behind these assertions, the real truth seems to be at a much smaller level - Amethi. It is no secret that the Gandhi dynasty has more or less ignored their constituencies. Unlike Baramati or Saifai, Amethi and Rae Bareli are as poor and backward as they were when Rajiv Gandhi ascended the party throne. But it was in the last UP Assembly elections that the family got first jolt of shifting realities: a majority of the assembly segments went to the SP, which went on to form the government. This was the first sign of danger that the family's vice-like grip is loosening.

And now, with the Modi wave that is strong in UP and Bihar, the BJP has made a smart move by fielding Smriti Irani against Rahul Gandhi. By smartly using the issue of Robert Vadra's land dealings in Haryana and Rajasthan, Ms Irani has managed to attract a lot of farmers (the young are as such with her), which gives her a good share of the votes and possibly a real chance of defeating Rahul. This is in well beyond all expectations, including our own.

And it is this very matter that has forced Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra to step up to bat for Rahul. With his busy schedule of gaffes, Rahul has little time to concentrate on his own constituency and this is an acknowledged fact. So far, the family had assumed that their seats are always safe and that no other party would challenge them in it (indeed, only the BJP is putting up a fight in Amethi while Sonia gets a walkover). This is no longer the truth and that is the main reason why Priyanka has had to step up her attacks on the BJP.

The spat between Priyanka and Modi is not the real story. The spat between Priyanka and Irani is.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Star Wars Binge

It took six drafts, but I did finally manage to get my first conference paper (OK, second, but I would not like to count the first) submitted (more on that in some other post). As a reward to myself, I went on a Star Wars binge - an (almost) non-stop marathon of watching the Star Wars original trilogy and then the prequel trilogy.

Oh, Star Wars. The story of how a great republic fell and was revived by nothing less than the will of the Force. The story of how love mixed with hate to destroy the galaxy, only to be saved by another act of love. And fundamentally, the story of Anakin Skywalker and his son, Luke Skywalker.

I'm not big on pop culture - I honestly have no idea what it refers to and everybody seems to have a different answer. Therefore, I will not say that I like Star Wars because of my pop culture-induced emotions. I like Star Wars because it is a story set in an alien land that fundamentally is exactly like our own, where love and hate constantly fight it out in our minds; where politics can make the greatest of enemies the closest of allies.

The most powerful line from the movie comes from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith:

"So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause" - Padme Amidala

The deep implications of this are hard to miss and have been relevant for millenniums in some form or the other, more so today. My Star Wars binge was quite an experience and certainly refreshed me for the next wave of work that is currently drowning me. Till next year, when Disney is set to release Episode VII

Academic with a hint of suspense

The Fear Index
By Robert Harris

Continuing with my semester-long tryst with Robert Harris, I stumbled upon The Fear Index, one of his lesser-known works. Merging the realms of the financial markets with science fiction, the book is centered around brilliant mathematician Alexander Hoffman and the one day of his life leading up to the great global stock market crash. Harris, of course, is a master at filling a whole book with events from a short span of time - no more than a few days - but in The Fear Index, he seems to have stretched it a little too much.

For one, this book is too academic. Now, I'm an engineer and I know my ABCs of financial markets - I knew what the VIX was before I read this book, for example - but this was just too much jargon for me. A good number of pages is spent to describing algorithms and indices that make no sense in a novel. However unavoidable it may have been, it did not have a favorable effect.

However, the suspense, which is something Harris excels at creating, was not as strong as in his other works. In some parts, it was downright boring and quite a chore to read. The ending might have been good, but that does not excuse the poor intermediate parts.

Not a book that left me pleased, but that will not stop me from finishing what I started with Harris' books. I still have Archangel, Imperium and Conspirata to go!

Stunningly libelous

The Ghost
By Robert Harris

The Iraq War has generated much heat and commentary on both sides of the Atlantic, with President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair being called everything from liars to war criminals. Perhaps nowhere more has Blair become unpopular than among the left-learning intellectuals of London.One of the reasons for that is nobody believes the official reason for the War and the wild speculation around it is horribly frustrating.

Presenting his version of the cause of the War, Robert Harris presents Adam Lang, former British PM now making a living off writing his memoirs through a ghostwriter while selling himself to the rich, famous and powerful of America. Lang is characterized as a tactful but arrogant person who deeply needs to feel important and is simply fed up of not being PM anymore. Harris makes it perfectly clear that Lang is someone anybody would come to dislike.

But nothing prepares the reader for what is Harris' version of events leading up to the Iraq War. In a massive conspiracy theory that leaves readers in total shock, the novel ends in a manner that would easily be described as libelous to say the least - something that takes not just courage but a deep dislike for Blair. The ending left me on the edge, as everything came together in the most shocking of ways. Certainly a great read! 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Battle of Varanasi

The BJP's Prime Minister Candidate Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers from his second constituency, Varanasi, with possibly the largest show of strength in the history of the temple town. The entire city was covered in saffron-clad supporters of Modi, who traveled with the crowd to the District Collector's office to file his nomination.

Varanasi is becoming the main battleground of Elections 2014 as a record number of candidates, including dummy candidates named Narendra to fool voters (a similar strategy was adopted by the MIM in Hyderabad in 2009 to defeat the TDP candidate), are set to contest. However, it can all be summed as a fight between Narendra Modi and everyone else, who are looking at every possible trick to stop his juggernaut which seems set to form the next government in New Delhi.

The Congress has virtually capitulated in this by not fielding a prominent face. Of course, it would have been foolish to have pitted a Gandhi against Modi (because it is obvious that there is no competition, or a huge risk of a very embarrassing defeat in any case). In any case, Rahul Gandhi seems to be having a hard enough time as it is in Amethi, with Smriti Irani surprisingly putting up a good fight. But by not sending one of its big leaders, the Congress has left the arena.

The AAP though has put its money where its mouth is and has pitted Arvind Kejriwal himself against Modi. With Kejriwal's single-biggest political achievement being his stunning victory over Sheila Dixit in the New Delhi constituency, he is a force to reckon with. Subsequent events in Delhi have blunted his edge somewhat but nonetheless, Kejriwal connects well with people. In the end however, Varanasi is not Delhi and the lack of a local base in the city will certainly hamper him.

Other parties are resorting to the one and only trick that they have - spooking minorities (read: Muslims) in the hope that they vote en bloc. However, if reports from the ground are be believed, even an absolute Muslim consolidation against Modi will not stop him because he enjoys such huge popularity. His roadshow was formidable and far ahead of what Rahul Gandhi managed to muster in Amethi. If pundits are to be believed, Kejriwal will not be going to Parliament this time and Modi will win from Varanasi. Whether he chooses to keep this or Vadodara is another matter. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

High Stakes in Amritsar

As the sixth phase of polling comes to an end, all eyes are on the three big battleground states going to polls in the seventh phase on April 30: Telangana, Gujarat and Punjab. While Telangana has already been discussed and Gujarat almost a foregone conclusion, with their own Chief Minister Narendra Modi looking to be the next Prime Minister of India, it's time to turn to Punjab and what looks to be the most closely-contested election of 2014: Amritsar.

The border town, which I had the privilege to visit about a year back, has to choose between BJP stalwart and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, who is widely respected around the country for his erudite speeches and vast knowledge, and the Punjab Congress Chief and former CM Capt. (Retd.) Amrinder Singh. Political commentators are unable to come to any conclusion about the fate of this constituency, which so far elected three-time sitting MP Navjot Singh Siddhu, who was not given a ticket this time round.

The choice here is quite difficult for the people of the Temple city. In all probability, it will be an NDA government on May 16 that will stake claim before President Pranab Mukherjee. And although they can be hugely misleading, Delhi's rumor mills have it that Jaitley could be the next Finance Minister and thus, as a member of the Big Four (Home, Defense, Finance and External Affairs), would be able to greatly influence the government to the advantage of Amritsar. However, this is Jaitley's first election to the Lok Sabha and he is seen as a paratrooper candidate in a city that inherently prefers to elect one of its own. Religion is also a factor here, with the SAD having to work overtime to convince the hard right that Hindu Jaitley is indeed Sikh at heart!

For Capt. Amrinder Singh, who took charge after the last Assembly elections led to disaster for the Congress, possibly a harbinger of times to come, the election is crucial because Sonia Gandhi has placed a great deal of faith on him. A defeat for Jaitley would certainly shore up the party's morale in a state that has been overrun by the SAD-BJP alliance. No wonder then that he has used two important trump cards - his lineage to Amritsar and his Army background, in a state that sends large numbers to the Indian Army. Compared to Jaitley's drawing-room economist persona, this certainly is a plus point in a very patriarchal society. Local people also place a degree of trust in Singh, although whether he will be able to do anything at all with an NDA government in Chandigarh as well as in Delhi is anybody's guess.

In all this, the AAP, which has a decent following in Punjab, seems to be the dark horse that could upset calculations. There is almost no chance of the AAP candidate winning, but the question remains as to whose votes he will be able to poach. In the end, that might just decide the outcome of this electric election battle. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Problem with #IBNOpenMike

Since the election season began, CNN-IBN (+IBNLive)  has sent their editor Sagarika Ghosh on a long assignment across India with her Open Mike series to get her out of her rather boring Face The People and actually face the people in various corners of India - Noida, Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi, Jind, Varanasi and others. And while the series has been fairly good and has caught a range of diverse voices, there are two problems I have with it.

First, the show is regularly hijacked by people who clearly represent some political interest of the other. The best example of this was in a rather violent episode from Meerut, where a person who was clearly an SP worker went on chanting about an 'Akhilesh Yadav wave,' which even the most naive of political watchers will say is a figment of a very poor imagination. In Ahmedabad, a person who was clearly a Congress worker went along on loud sermons against Modi, disagreeing with everybody else on the panel (although he did have some questionable facts with him). In Chennai, a man (boy?) who even admitted that he was a BJP worker was in the discussion. Possibly the only episode without such problems was the one in Varanasi for no other reason than it was the most tightly-controlled episode of all. These elements tend to hijack the debate, speaking with the loudest voice and the least logic and that ruins the entire discussion.

My second problem is with the questions that Sagarika asks. It is a well-known fact that she, who coined the term 'Internet Hindus,' dislikes Narendra Modi. But that bias shows so evidently in the questions she asks - asking about a Modi wave in a crowd of Muslims, getting a negative answer and showing profound satisfaction at it is not called fair journalism. She mostly ignores saner voices - such as the lady who was trying to make a point about education for Muslims in Gujarat - especially when they are about to say anything in favor of Modi or the BJP. And even worse, she ignores the most brutally honest people of all - those who say that votes are given on the basis of caste, religion and freebies. These are the only people who are willing to say what everybody knows to be true and she lends her maximum contempt to them. Perhaps it was only in her Muzaffarnagar episode that she was forced to acknowledge that that is how India votes.

Overall, IBN Open Mike, like other similar shows on NDTV or Headline Today, is a good idea and much better than FTP, which was just a sorry excuse for leftist armchair discussions. But it is being executed by the wrong person, someone who just cannot get out of the FTP-style of discussion. Given the other journalists that CNN-IBN has, those who have been doing such excellent work in their Election Yatra series, there could have been many able replacements for Sagarika Ghosh. Pity that the channel is run like a nepotistic business. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Long Race on the Island City

Elections are coming to the City of Dreams! India's financial capital, Mumbai, heads to the polls in the next phase and this election is set to be one of the most exciting yet. South Mumbai in particular sees a four-cornered, high-pitch campaign. The constituency, which hugely disappointed in 2009 after 26/11 by registering a puny 40% turnout, now has a battle royal at its hands.

Two-time sitting MP Milind Deora enjoys a lot of support on the ground for the good work he has done. Indeed, he is probably the only young leader in the Congress today who does not need to hold on to Rahul Gandhi's hem to gain support from his party - and his image is also that of someone not in the Gandhi inner circle. And yet, he faces significant competition.

For some reason, the BJP gave this constituency to the Shiv Sena, so the MNS sent one of its strongest candidates to fight and certainly split votes again, as it did in 2009. This battle between the Senas, both of whom strangely profess to want to make Modi the next PM, is going to be critical. The Shiv Sena claims that people have understood that the MNS is essentially helping the Congress, but the MNS seems to be as strong as ever among its core voters (who were all once Shiv Sena voters).

The fourth face in all this is Meera Sanyal, the AAP candidate who also contested as an Independent in 2009 (and lost quite badly). But 2014 is fundamentally different from 2009 in that Sanyal has now quit her corporate job and is fully immersed in politics; and she is now with AAP, who has a very visible face in Arvind Kejriwal. Although Sanyal herself is hardly known in the constituency - which is expected given that AAP has no local organization - it is in Kejriwal's name that she has been asking for votes.

The other interesting contest is in Mumbai North Central, where Medha Patkar is fighting it out against the BJP's Poonam Mahajan. This is an interesting poll because Mahajan is a rather poor orator and is mainly banking on her late father's appeal (Pramod Mahajan who, at one time, was the BJP's most powerful face from Maharashtra), while Patkar is known for her strong views and activism, but faces serious questions from young voters on whether her idea of Mumbai can create any jobs at all.

Maximum City, a city where I spent five wonderful years and the only city in India that I would ever call home, seems to be at a crossroads. While the Lok Sabha elections will certainly have a bearing on its future, the real battle is in October - the Maharashtra Assembly Elections. 

Ann Coulter is Right

Over the last few months, I've had a view of American politics. I admit, my sources do not exceed The New York Times, Fox News, MSNBC and occasionally CNN, although the last one's endless speculation over MH370 has ticked me off. In this pursuit, I've come across a curious character named Ann Coulter, a conservative celebrity and political commentator (isn't everybody?) who has some very strong views - strong enough to give even Bill O'Reilly a run for his money.

She's said a lot of things and I'm not yet in a position to comment on all of them. However, on the issue of immigration, I find that my views align strongly with her's. Her case is mainly on two points: firstly, illegal aliens should be deported. I am shocked that anybody can actually argue against this position. America indeed is a land of opportunities and a country that has welcomed immigrants to enrich their nation, but that does not mean that America is a lawless country.

It is not that she is against immigration - that would be silly. She is against illegal immigration because of what it is - illegal. And not only should illegal immigrants be stopped from coming through stronger border enforcement, the ones already inside should be deported. Otherwise, there will always remain  a strong incentive to illegally come in. I know some people think I'm being hypocritical, being on a visa myself - to them I would say that I came her legally and will leave legally. Legal immigration is not the question - the illegal one is.

The second issue is on who immigrates legally. On this, the issue is less legal and more moral. She is against those who profess to a hatred of America (Muslims, mainly) to become Americans - which seems perfectly fair in principle, but hard to implement. The reason being, it's very hard to judge how a person is going to think in the future and, having come to America, if they do choose to denounce America, they will be protected under the First Amendment. Therefore, although her sentiment is appreciated, it is impractical. However, she also adds that immigrants should not be living on welfare entitlements from the word 'go.' On this, I not only agree with her but would like to add to it: America should only be offering residence to the very best in the world. Certainly not those who live on welfare, but not even those who are just the average Joe - the smartest and most talented people from the world alone should have a path to American citizenship.

Clearly, in liberal Illinois, it's not a smart move to praise Ann Coulter. However, leftists have always made it unpopular to say things that don't suit their ideas. That doesn't mean that we are bound to comply. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

TDP's wrong moves in AP

With elections coming soon in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the BJP-TDP alliance, which was seen as a momentous alliance that could push both Chandrababu Naidu as well as Narendra Modi to majorities in the residual Assembly and the Lok Sabha respectively, seems to be coming undone. After a near-collapse in Seemandhra was aborted by the timely intervention of the BJP's Prakash Javedkar, now there are reports that the TDP is fielding candidates in seats that were allotted to the BJP, flouting the alliance.

All this is grim news not just for the BJP but also for the TDP. In Telangana, the TDP is certain to sit in the opposition with a TRS wave pushing KCR to power in Hyderabad, marking the third consecutive defeat for Naidu since he was first defeated by YSR Reddy in 2004. Moreover, this defeat would be at the hands of another opposition party, pushing the TDP out of relevance in Telangana and thus demonstrating the total failure of Naidu's 'two eyes' posture to the issue of bifurcation. It will be decades before the TDP can salvage itself.

In the residual Andhra Pradesh, the TDP is facing a tough fight from the YSR Congress, led by YSR's son Jagan Reddy. Although recent opinion polls put the TDP ahead of the YSRC, the difference is well within the margin of error and an outright majority seems difficult. Therefore, there is a very real chance for the TDP to remain in Opposition in both the Telugu-speaking states for the third term in a row, destroying the very idea on which the party was founded by NT Rama Rao.

This nightmare situation can be avoided however, if the TDP retains its alliance with the BJP. In Telangana, the BJP continues to retain support in and around Hyderabad and that support is set to grow as a result of the party's consistent stand on bifurcation as well as the Modi wave; in AP, the votes that the BJP would hold in urban areas particularly in Vizag (where former Union Minister D Purandeshwari is from) would push the TDP-BJP alliance beyond the margin of error and bring it to power in the residual state. With that, the TDP would remain relevant in Telangana and possibly form a government in AP, while Narendra Modi would become Prime Minister of India. With the TDP being a part of the ruling alliance at the Center, the residual state would be able to make a good start, with Telangana already being in a surplus thanks to Hyderabad.

With all these at stake, it seems impossible to believe that the alliance could fall and yet that is exactly what is happening. If sources are to be believed, the reason is rather petty, with personal prejudices taking precedence. Chandrababu Naidu must realize that for him in particular, this election is a do-or-die situation; for Narendra Modi, this election is crucial because if LK Advani is any precedent to go by, he will not have another shot at the top post in the country. For the country as a whole, the alliance is important to give India a stable government and not one propped up by the Congress till Rahul Gandhi decides it's time to call a mid-term election.

Therefore, the BJP and the TDP must bury their differences and keep this alliance alive else both stand to suffer, but the TDP much more. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Back to the 80s

The elections this year in Tamil Nadu will be reminiscent of the 80s, the last time when an election was fought by all parties in their own capacity. The DMK, AIADMK, Congress and Left are all going it alone this time, having either failed or wantonly stayed away from forging any alliances. In the case of the DMK, rumor has it that it was party chief-designate MK Stalin was behind the push to stay away from the Congress which, nationally, is seen as a liability to any ally. As for the AIADMK, it is clearly looking to maximize its own seats in the state, riding on the popularity of Jayalalitha's third government. That explains why she broke her alliance with the Left so abruptly after having offered them a pittance in terms of seats.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of this election is the only alliance in the fray - the BJP-led NDA, which has brought together the likes of the PMK, the DMDK and the MDMK in what is being seen as a game-changing turn of events orchestrated by BJP President Rajnath Singh, obviously at the behest of Narendra Modi. It has been estimated that this alliance has the ability to shore up a strong quarter of the vote share and possibly convert that to a few seats, thus opening the BJP's account in the state and allowing it to gain a foot in what has otherwise been a state that has rejected the saffron party.

For the Congress, which was once virtually a Chennai-based party controlled by powerful leader K Kamraj, until he was overthrown by Indira Gandhi, a massive defeat seems to be staring it in the face. Its key faces from the state - P Chidambaram and Mani Shankar Aiyar - are not in the fray, with the former fielding his son instead, who is considered to be a political novice. With three-cornered and even four-cornered races in virtually every seat that the Congress is contesting, combined with the massive anti-incumbency that it is battling, some polls have predicted a tally of zero seats for the Grand Old Party from Tamil Nadu, a first since elections were introduced in the colonial Madras Presidency.

By all accounts, this election is going to be swept by the AIADMK, except in the few constituencies where the NDA enjoys local clout. But the question remains - where will Jayalalitha go from there? She has made it quite clear that she holds ambitions to be PM, but also knows that she enjoys no clout nationally - in fact, during the entire election season, she has virtually stayed put in the state (in sharp contrast to 2009 when, as a part of the failed Third Front, she campaigned in other states). Therefore, depending on what the results are, she will have two options. One, if the current NDA, including the latest entrant the TDP, emerges with over 240 seats, she will have no choice but to join it because she cannot risk Tamil Nadu being entirely unrepresented in the Central Government (and, philosophically, this should not happen either, given how important the state is to the Union). Two, if the NDA as a whole fails to cross 210 (with the BJP failing to reach 180, which seems unlikely as of now), she can try to cobble up a so-called Federal Front with Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Pattanaik, although the former has her own PM ambitions.

As of now though, it seems clear to Jayalalitha that her bargaining power will depend on the quantum of seats which she brings to any alliance and hence, a fierce contest is on in the state. A contest where, it seems, the DMK will suffer serious burns and the Congress will be turned to dust. 

India's Future is in Peril

In response to this

Questioning the validity of the Congress-led UPA regime's economic and social policies in the last ten years, it is crucial to remember where it all started in 2004, when a country that had been scarred by poor economic growth and a powerful and expansionist neighbor to the north, burdened by a history of oppressive colonial rule followed by oppressive socialism, seemed all set to trace a new trajectory. Irrespective of religion or caste, there seemed a new hope for the country, a country that could finally stand on its own two feet and raise its head high in the world. A country that could finally fight economic stagnation and poverty that has led to millions of deaths over decades. Farmers in particular were subject to brutal economic repression in the absence of scientific inputs and infrastructure and the vast Indian countryside was turned into a client of the state, dependent on handouts in exchange for their silence. 

Although some members of the UPA administration and their Leftist backers believe that India has progressed greatly in the last decade, most Indians stubbornly refuse to stop seeing their own unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and blatant territorial violation by China and Pakistan. More importantly, they stubbornly refuse to stop putting responsibility on the Congress party and its president, Sonia Gandhi. Such failure of governance is incompatible with the high ideals of the Indian Constitution, that seeks to establish a prosperous state with opportunities for all, and the ideal of collective responsibility of the cabinet that has defined the country's governance till the dictatorship of Sonia Gandhi began. 

The governance of the last decade, which declared that India's minorities had the first rights to her resources and which called for justice to lean in favor of minorities instead of being impartial, is incompatible with India's constitution, which calls for equality of all, in advance of many constitutions across the world.  Were the Congress party's Rahul Gandhi to be elected prime minister, it would spell doom for the Indian dream that has given hope to a people long accustomed to living in hopelessness; it would bode ill for India's future as a nation that strives to stand tall in the comity of nations. And crucially, it would bode ill for the poor children studying in the remotest of villages, who have never seen electricity, clean water or a toilet, for whom the dream of a job and a prosperous future is all that stands between life and death.

Comments: As already written in Opinions 24x7, it is fashionable for leftists to invoke fear among minorities to perpetuate their grip over the poor and the vulnerable. To them, growth, development and jobs are meaningless. In their world view, contrived in the cozy comforts of foreign shores and government-sponsored fellowships, the minority is always under siege and the only way to end this class conflict is not by invoking equality for all but by forcing the majority to bend - and then, when that majority refuses to do so, generating even more fear of majoritarianism and thus perpetuating a vicious cycle. It is important for thinkers on the right, who can see through this con act, to contest their world view and tell people that equality in poverty is no equality at all - no space must be left uncontested to these leftists and self-declared intellectuals, for in their hands lies hypocrisy and destruction. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Second Dictatorship

The PM's former media adviser Sanjaya Baru released his book, discussing his five years at the PMO and what can be called the rise and fall of Dr. Manmohan Singh. In 1991, when Singh was described as the architect of economic reforms that transformed India (it was actually PVN Rao who pushed the reforms through), he was feted by the middle class. In 2004, his ascension to the PMO was celebrated and for that, in 2009, the Congress was returned with an enhanced seat tally. And in 2014, when Manmohan Singh has announced his retirement, he is an object or ridicule, a textbook case of poor leadership and, in some cases, a figure of hatred against the UPA regime. What went wrong - how did a man, who this blog declared Indian of the Year, become a man who this same blog declared a troublemaker just a few years after?

The answer lies in Baru's book and it is one person - Sonia Gandhi. In 2004, Sonia Gandhi was clearly looking to be PM but she could not. Not did not, but could not. She had no choice but to make Singh the PM. The first five years were fairly good, with Singh being able to work with Gandhi. The first crisis possibly came over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, when Gandhi seemed ready to ditch the deal to save the government. It was then that Singh put his foot down - "As long as I am Prime Minister, I will not let these communists dictate foreign policy." It was this resolve that firmly put the PM on the middle class' radar. Data shows that in 2009, one of the major reasons for the Congress' huge victory was a massive shift of middle class votes towards it - a clear and decisive failure for LK Advani, whose 'Advani for PM' campaign failed to even retain the BJP's traditional voters.

But the rot began from there - the victory was incorrectly attributed to the family and Sonia Gandhi worked to bringing the PMO under her control. Pulok Chatterjee was her principal ally in this by taking files to her for clearance before they were 'forwarded' to the PM. The last five years of UPA-II can thus be called India's second dictatorship, the first being the Emergency under Indira Gandhi. The difference is that in the first dictatorship, it was overt: press censorship, misuse of the law and order system and debasing the Constitution and its institutions for political gains.

By contrast, the second has been more covert, with the vestiges of democracy being kept in place but being systematically destroyed from within. Journalists are no longer jailed - they are recruited through Rajya Sabha seats, Padma awards and plain old money; Constitutional institutions are being degraded by packing them with loyalists and people with clear conflicts of interest. Parliament has become a rubber stamp, with party leaders making all decisions behind closed doors and the government not even caring to listen to the opposition. Unlike the last dictatorship, whose effects were cleansed by a historic election, this one has created a rot that runs so deep that we might perhaps never know just how badly the country has been affected by it.

The biggest lesson from Baru's book is that, while we mock and ridicule Manmohan Singh for failing to rise up and provide leadership despite having one of the longest tenures as PM, we must not forget who was really behind the mess. For, if we do, we will once again make the mistake of a dual-power center, one that takes all the blame and one that makes all the decisions - one that has no powers and one that has no responsibility. This model has been the greatest mistake that Indians have ever made, one whose effects cannot be entirely reversed by any future administration in just five years. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

With Zach Wahls

The University of Illinois' Inclusive Illinois campaign hosted a great speaker today - Zach Wahls, LGBTQ-activist, son of two lesbians and best-known for his famous speech to the Iowa Legislature against any move to constitutionally ban gay marriages. Oh, and I should add, he's also a Civil Engineer! In his seminar, which covered a broad range of topics related to his life, he reiterated his speech before a rapt audience. He spoke about his challenges as he grew up, how he realized that his family was 'different' and how he eventually got to the Iowa Legislature and life after that.

I think the most powerful part of the presentation was the last 20 minutes, when he first answered a few FAQs. Most of the questions were quite silly, such as the one asking him how he learned to shave (surely in the age of YouTube, this is not too hard? That's how I learned it anyway!). Some of them were pointed and meant to evoke a strong response. Of them, I was surprised by the nature of one particular question, which went something along these:

If you didn't have a dad at home, how did you learn about courage and self-discipline?

On so many different levels, this question makes unsubstantiated assumptions. I cringed at it, and the speaker caught me and agreed that the question was more silly than substantive.

In the Q&A with the audience, Zach took my question on the role of religion. As he has already pointed out, in 2010, the religious right mounted a powerful attack on the Iowa State Supreme Court, successfully removing two judges from it as punishment for striking down a law against gay marriage, which the legislature then tried to overturn via Constitutional amendment. I wondered whether such attacks made him angry at religion and he replied in the negative, arguing that he himself was very religious but was frustrated (not angry) at the religious right trying to hijack institutions of the state to further their agenda. I disagreed with him on this answer because I feel that religion has no role in the state and moreover by its very nature, religion will try to silence debate and force itself upon everyone else. After all, religion is an institution that demands suspension of belief and reasoning. I cannot reconcile my clear pro-LGBTQ position with a religious position, though Zach might be able to.

Other questions on the road ahead for LGBTQ movement, on support from straight people and parallels with the Civil Rights movement were wonderful to hear. LGBTQ-related issues are an important part of any society that claims to be free and fair. To punish people for something they are born with and which comes naturally to them is simply unjust and no country can call itself a democracy if that's how it is going to treat some of its citizens, no matter what minority those citizens are in. And that includes my own country. Democracy is rule by majority, not tyranny of the majority.

Opinions 24x7 has had a clear and consistent stand on the issue of Sec 370 IPC in India and this seminar further cemented my views. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On the BJP's Manifesto

After much delay, the BJP finally released its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, ironically on the first day of voting (in upper Assam and west Tripura). While the so-called mainstream media has latched onto the issue of temples and cows, the document is actually well-written and addresses a myriad of issues that India faces and its proposed solutions. Of course, manifestos have become somewhat of a joke in Indian elections because no party really tries to fulfill them - in fact, in Tamil Nadu for example, impossible promises are made. Still, since they're there, it is worthwhile to comment on them.

A large part of the BJP's manifesto is built around infrastructure and administrative reforms. This is not surprising given that Narendra Modi has made these two and particularly the first the centerpiece of his campaign - a welcome sign, of course. The party has put in place a proposal to built 100 cities to ease the congestion in India's metros and proposed to make them 'smart cities,' whatever that means. This idea looks like it's taken out of China's own experience, although truth be told, the US did the same thing when it was still a developing nation. In addition, the party proposes to link all the unlinked parts of India - Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and a majority of the Northeastern states - by rail and a highway network. Both strategically and as a matter of national development, this is an extremely important proposal. Certainly, the BJP will be able to perform better than the UPA in terms of highways: it is almost impossible for a government to do as badly as the UPA has done on that count. On railways, it might be too ambitious, but the NDA regime did built a lot of physical infrastructure in its time, so there might just be a reason to be optimistic (even though it was Nitish Kumar at the helm then).

The golden piece of the infrastructure proposals is what the party has called the Diamond Quadrilateral Project - metro connectivity via high speed rail (HSR). Much has been said about HSR in India and very little has happened, but the technology exists and it is possible to do it provided there is enough political will. And that is precisely why the BJP above all other parties stands even a half-decent chance of building one mile of HSR in India.

On administrative reforms, the party rightly stresses on extending the National e-Governance Program and using IT to curb corruption. Here, it might be taking a leaf out of Tamil Nadu's PDS system, which makes use of IT to mitigate corruption and does a pretty good job of it. A similar example is the Chhatisgarh system. The manifesto does seem to acknowledge that ending corruption is going to be a hard challenge and cannot be done overnight - as the AAP would have us believe. Since the Lokpal Bill was already passed, it was not included in the manifesto but obviously, if elected, the BJP would have to sort out the appointment of the first Lokpal, which was completely vitiated by the Congress.

The manifesto makes promises on encouraging entrepreneurship by simplifying procedures, eliminating old laws, initiating some reforms in labor and reforming the tax system, including working to bring in a GST. Implicitly, it promises that there will be no retrospective taxation, which has a disastrous move by the then FM Pranab Mukherjee. These are all a standard part of a right-wing manifesto, of course, as are the parts on Foreign Policy & Defense, where the party seems all set to invite FDI in defense manufacturing as well as take a much tougher line with China (possibly to the great joy of smaller states in Southeast Asia and Japan). The refusal to allow FDI in mutli-brand retail is a let-down, but it does promises FDI if virtually every other sector. That promise does sound hollow but then, it's just a promise.

Finally, the party promised to protect and 'empower' (a rather abused term now) women and youth from the Northeast, which is welcome but hard to believe. A promise of more IITs, IIMs and AIIMS was expected after Arjun Singh's disastrous policy found electoral favor and indeed, it is there. Overall, the manifesto disappoints in some areas but in most, it is strong on vision. Its stress on infrastructure, jobs and development (it promises to link NREGA to asset creation, a pressing need) while also passing a brief fig leaf to the Hindu right. It also speaks of educating minorities, which any intelligent Muslim voter should be happy about. A good document and hopefully they will be able to implement all of it. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Naga Vote

Nagaland went to the polls today in a rather unusual election, with the lone Lok Sabha seat being contested between the Congress and the ruling Naga People's Front. What makes it unusual is that the NPF's Chief Minister Neiphu Rio is contesting. The three-time Chief Minister, whose party has a virtually complete grip on the state and enjoys the backing of the Church as well, is now looking to become an MP.

The question is - why? The rumors in Delhi and Kohima point to the fact that the NPF - which, officially, is a part of the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) with the BJP in Nagaland - is looking for a Cabinet position in Delhi and wants to find a final solution to the Naga question. For the BJP, whose real strength in the Northeast ex-Assam is in Nagaland and parts of Arunachal Pradesh, this is an ideal chance to bring in one more seat in its Mission 272+. In the last elections in Manipur, the NPF made a dent in the Naga-areas of the state, meaning that Rio can influence other election results as well.

Of course, for the next administration, the Naga talks will be an important issue. With Myanmar having undergone a complete change in its politics, the time is right for India to bring it on the table so that it can talk to both the NSCN(K) and the NSCN(IM) and find a final solution. Of course, that will require strong leadership in New Delhi and if rumors are anything to go by, the NPF knows this. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hollywood Kills

I've been listening to some cover collaborations by +Boyce Avenue recently and I took a particular liking to their version of Mylie Cyrus' We Can't Stop, a song which I otherwise would have been unable to listen to, given how ghastly it is. And yet, what is depressing is that it is a good song. After all, it has a sort of rebuke to Mylie's critics:

"Remember only God could judge us."

Again, it is a good song that is just impossible to watch or listen to thanks to what Mylie has done to herself. It is understandable that she wanted to transition from a child star to a serious adult musician, but 'adult' does not necessarily have to mean pornography - the difference between a child and an adult is much more than that, surely?

Mylie presents a typical case where the spin doctors in Hollywood have effectively turned a very talented singer into a laughing stock. This cheap gimmick of twerking left, right and center just to grab eyeballs - it's nothing more than disgusting - coupled with the extremely suggestive outfits she has taken to wearing (if she wears anything at all) paint an act of desperation on the part of a singer who is talented enough not to be desperate. Clearly, there is very little place for real talent in Hollywood. A pity. 

Well Played

I'm not a huge cricket fan but I do watch a good match every now and then, especially if it involves India. I don't think T20 cricket is real cricket, but it is a match and it's a good chance to relax during the weekend, when India played against Sri Lanka in the T20 finals.

Of course, finding a live cricket feed is an issue in the US, and particularly the inward-looking Midwest, but Cricinfo was nice enough to broadcast it online. But that's not the option I used - already committed to going to the Recreation Center on weekend mornings, I was delighted to find that ESPN 2 was carrying the feed live from Dhaka. As if that was not enough, the screen in the weights section, which is usually devoted entirely to football (the American version), carried the feed and I did see a lot of Americans watching it, possibly more out of curiosity than anything else.

The match was clearly in favor of Sri Lanka and aside from Virat Kohli, who is really becoming India's next star player, the Indians side played pretty badly - both batting and bowling. Yuvraj Singh of course was the biggest disappointment, and it is perhaps time for him to retire from this format, but the entire team did badly and it is a collective failure. In the rest of the series though, Team India did quite well and its only defeat was in the finals. Clearly, we have it in ourselves to win back the T20 cup - after all, India did win the very first cup. But something is missing and it is sadly up to the BCCI to find that something.

Finally, this was the first cricket match where I used technology to the fullest. Commenting live with friends in various parts of India, several cities and two countries on the opposite sides of the globe, reminded me of that wonderful ODI World Cup in RKB's hostel. Those were the days - I might not be able to get them back, but with Whatsapp, I can at least approximate it!

PS: I did twice my usual workout just to be able to watch the whole match. My feet are sore because of it and I'm dead tired. All worth it!



Not as expected, but not bad

Enigma
by Robert Harris 

Continuing with my Spring of historical fiction, I picked up another book by Harris, this one centered around a geek who finds himself in a most un-geeky situation. It's not often that a mathematician becomes the centerpiece of a riveting drama but then, it was not until World War II when mathematics became so crucial to the war effort. With Enigma, named after the famed Nazi Enigma code, Harris builds a tale around a fictitious student of Alan Turing.

Contrary to expectations, the book is not a mathematical thriller (is there any?) but a fast-paced drama, involving everything from love to espionage. It was quite slow in some parts, but that eventually picked up. What was surprising was the length of the chapters, easily exceeding 50 pages each. Typical to Harris' style, each one began with an engaging quotation, although that tool was used much more effectively in Pompeii.

Overall, Enigma was an engaging thriller but it was not of the kind that I had expected. I, geeky me, was looking for something highly academic, on the lines of a Dan Brown; but then, prejudices aside, it is a great book.

I'll be spending the Spring reading more of Harris - look ahead for those reviews! 

Meanwhile in Afghanistan

With all the excitement over the Lok Sabha elections in India, due to start on Monday and stretch on for five days, it is easy to forget that another substantial election in South Asia also took place last week. Afghanistan started its elections to elect a new President as Hamid Karzai's second and final term comes to an end just before NATO withdraws the last of its fighting force from the country. The Taliban has been making every effort to disrupt the vote but it is heartening to note that, on the ground, there is strong support for democracy.

Afghanistan's Presidential election will certainly be a major component of the future of all of South Asia. IT is not a question of who becomes President - all the candidates will face the same challenges and their response will also be quite similar in any case - but how much support the entire process sees, particularly in the southern provinces that are Taliban strongholds. With NATO withdrawing, it is quite obvious that there is no military solution to the Afghan problem - if there was, then the world's biggest war machine would've used it. The only solution is a political one and for that, it is important for the new president to enjoy the support of diverse tribal groups in Afghanistan including the Pashtuns.

For India, having a warm relationship with the next administration will be imperative - India's security depends on it and even more than that, we owe it to the people of Afghanistan, as South Asia's regional superpower, to support them in their time of need. Afghanistan is the hope for a unified South Asia, with all countries joining hands. If Afghanistan falls, the entire idea behind SAARC falls. From a regional perspective, it is the most important piece on the table.

As India and Afghanistan both prepare to enter a new phase of their histories, their people look forward to s safe, stable and strong Afghanistan, free of all foreign influence. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Who's Communalizing #Elections2014?

This week, Congress President Sonia Gandhi shared the stage with the Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid to ask all Muslims to vote for the party 'to keep communal forces at bay.' As always, the leftist media swooped in to once again to highlight Narendra Modi's history with the 2002 riots and itself called for all Muslims and 'secular' people of India to vote on religious lines and save India from being divided on those very lines. Thankfully, there is some media today, paid or otherwise, that listened to Modi, who said the truth: staring at a massive defeat in the elections starting next week, the Congress is resorting to rabid and open communalism.

The Shahi Imam himself was an interesting choice - he is well-known to be someone who says that he is concerned with issues related to Muslims alone. Just today, he asked all Muslims to vote for the Congress. For him, India is certainly divided into two separate nations with their own issues, own history and own identity. Fortunately for India, his influence is limited to the bylanes in and around the Jama Masjid; but of course, for a desperate Congress, even that represents some votes.

Who is communalizing this election? The Congress is and this is very clear if you just listen to the speeches made by Rahul Gandhi and juxtapose them with those of Modi. Rahul Gandhi has consistently spoken of riots and sectarian violence: it is the only card he has. The aim is of course to scare Muslims in believing that there is an existential crisis just around the corner for them. Sadly, the Congress finds that while Muslims do certainly hate Modi, they are not afraid of him; India's secular culture is not the Congress' copyright and it will survive without the Congress. The issues for Indian Muslims are those of all Indians: economy, jobs, governance and corruption and those are exactly the things that Modi has been talking about. If the Congress wonders why Modi is so popular then they should listen to his speeches and the things he talks about. Sadly, they will also realize that their wasted 10 years give them absolutely no cover.

Communalism is dangerous for India for the same reason that all crime is a danger: citizens should not have to live under the threat of violence. The state's only duty is to guarantee the safety and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution; given that, the state must make way for enterprise to create jobs, livelihood and prosperity. These are not related to any caste or religion but matter to everyone. And this is exactly what Modi has been saying - of anything, this has been the BJP's most secular election campaign in its 30 year history. His economic vision is what the country needs and that is why he is so popular.

By contrast, Rahul Gandhi is four generations old and represents a dying, decayed idea of a big, patriarchal state that everyone must owe allegiance to in order to live in safety and prosperity. This idea may have been fashionable in an old India; it has been rejected by the young people of this nation. By resorting to such open communalism, the Congress is simply showing its lack of creativity - or perhaps the fact that it is this sort of politics that has kept it alive right from Partition. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The BJP's GenNext

The BJP announced that it would be fielding former TV star and now party leader Smriti Irani to fight Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and AAP's Kumar Vishwas in Amethi, which has always been a Nehru-Gandhi family bastion and where Rajiv Gandhi is still fondly remembered.

Many in the media have called Irani a sacrificial lamb who is fighting a battle that she has already lost. In 2004, she lost to the Congress' Kapil Sibal in Chandni Chowk (which itself has become an interesting contest in 2014). However, what people fail to see is that she is not an electoral politician but a grassroots worker. She has been working to build the BJP's base in Maharashtra and Goa and in the latter case, she was instrumental in working to script Manohar Parrikar's stunning victory in the last Assembly elections.

Politics, contrary to popular belief, is not just about elections. No party can survive if its work is restricted to a few months every few years. The continuous engagement with people and party workers at a local level that Irani has been doing for the BJP will be very important for the party ahead, irrespective of the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections. Moreover, it is heartening to see that at 38, and having begun her political life at 26 without any family credentials, she is one of the youngest leaders to have risen in the party, something that would be next to impossible to do in any other party except perhaps the Left parties. This fact is inspirational for young people across India who are otherwise greatly disillusioned by the political system. Indeed, it is to the credit of the BJP and particularly Narendra Modi that a young leader has been able to reach so far.

In Parliament, Irani puts most Congress leaders to shame. She has made several speeches and asked hundreds of questions in the Rajya Sabha, earning a reputation for being an articulate speaker who goes to great lengths to research for her speeches to ensure that they carry weight. She speaks on women's issues, on issues related to the youth and the state she represents. Clearly, her grassroots politics has prepared her well for this. As a parliamentarian, she has been rightly described as a Sushma Swaraj in the making.

Although the result in Amethi seems to be a no-brainer, Opinions 24x7 endorses Smriti Irani for the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency. Whether she wins or loses, we hope to see her continue to do good work for the party and the young people of this great nation.

A Unique Politician

The coming Assembly elections in the eastern state of Odisha seems to have a foregone result: the Biju Janta Dal is all set to win another majority in the state and form its third government and second government after it broke its alliance with the BJP.

The BJD's Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, presents a strange politician that breaks the usual molds. With a foreign degree and a particularly British accent, Mr. Patnaik does not speak Odiya very well. In any other state, that would have been an automatic rejection by the electorate. And yet, he seems set to form his third government. Of course, he has his political roots (his father was a former CM of the state) but that can only get you so far and certainly not this far.

In the mostly rural and backward state, Patnaik offers the old-Empire charm, an outsider, a King if you may, who is of a higher quality than the common man and who delivers, not because he is an aam aadmi, but because he is higher than that. Usual politicians make promises and leave them mostly unfulfilled, but the CM is different not just because of his actions but because of who he is. This somewhat feudal outlook is what seems to have made the impossible possible in the state.

However, in the Lok Sabha polls, the state seems to be in a two-way tussle between the BJD and its former ally the BJP, which seems to be the next ruling party. The BJP has been working in the state since 2008, which the BJD has unsuccessfully tried to block. With the RSS taking it upon itself to support Narendra Modi the rooster has come home to roost. To counter the Modi wave, the BJD has been working to stitch a so-called Federal Front with the TMC and JD(U) and this is a huge bet. An interesting battle is clearly on the cards.