Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Of Realistic Stereotypes

2 STATES (2014)

Produced By: UTV Motion Pictures
Director: Abhishek Varman based on the best-selling novel by Chetan Bhagat
Starring: Arjun Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amrita Singh, Ronit Roy, Revathy and others
Pros: Simple story, good lesson
Cons: Mostly boring songs, cliched storyline
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

India - one country, many nations. Even if you are not a sociologist, you don't have to think too much to understand what that means. And just as building a country out of disparate nations is a hard task, building a successful relationship between two families from two of India's least similar nations - Tamil Nadu and Punjab - is a daunting task especially when left to two young lovers. 2 States, based on Chetan Bhagat's novel of the same name, picks up from that theme in a funny yet meaningful story that in many ways defines modern India and the huge generation gap in between.

The movie comes with a simple story that will not tax viewers excessively - just sit back and watch. But then again, it is not one of those mindless comedies either. You don't have to be Punjabi or Tamil to understand it - virtually any Indian will be able to make sense of the movie. And it is this inherent simplicity that makes it a good movie. And of course, its lesson on nation-building leaves an important lesson: a nation is not built in the hallowed portals of officialdom but in every home across the country.

Sadly, although the story is good, its presentation is horribly cliched. Many of the jokes, particularly those on the complexion of Tamils, is downright racist and in very poor taste, coming right from the pathetic pages of Chetan Bhagat. Even for Bollywood, this is a low. While some cliches cannot be avoided, the director could have been more creative in highlighting the cultural difference between the mothers-in-law. But he lazily stuck to the book. The music does not help much and it is a pain in the first half. Only in the second half does the music come to some good (Chandaniya in particular).

On acting, Amrita Singh puts up a grand performance despite a very limited character. Arjun Kapoor manages to do a decent job but Alia Bhatt comes out very poorly, with her acting completely falling apart the moment her character steps out of college. Overall, a film that is worth watching if you have nothing better to do. (OTFS)

Oxbridge miracles? No thanks

Some people just never learn. First, it was Mani Shankar Aiyar's chaiwallah comment that virtually catapulted Narendra Modi's election campaign to the skies and made the Congress pay dearly for it. As if that was not enough to highlight just how elitist and out of touch the Congress party had become, the controversy yesterday was over the appointment of Smriti Irani as Union HRD Minister, a move by PM Modi that this blog has greatly approved of. Irani, a BJP Vice-President and now a Union Minister, has had a stellar performance in the Rajya Sabha, having made well-researched speeches and asked pertinent questions. In fact, for her performance, she has been described by some as the Sushma Swaraj of the Modi-era in the BJP.

And yet, that did not stop the Congress' Ajay Maken from making this comment:
For those who don't know, Irani's life came from humble origins. After Class 12, she discontinued her studies (a vast majority of girls in India don't even make it to that level) to find work in the TV industry in Mumbai. Her parents could not support her, so she worked in McDonald's - clean, honest work of the kind that deserves respect, just like Modi's humble origins. Since then, her journey has been one that inspires Indians in general and girls in particular to aim big in the face of adversity. Her appointment as Union HRD Minister just shows that our democracy is still strong enough for such stories to come through.

And then we have Rahul Gandhi and his band of Oxbridge-educated chamchas. Mr. Gandhi, royal heir to the throne of India, did not consider the country's Parliament to be good enough for him to ask one single question in his ten years as an MP. Even when he does open his mouth, he makes a fool of himself. He supposedly has an M.Phil from Oxbridge - even that is disputed - but it seems royalty like him do not need to prove their ability to lead for they are ordained by God almighty to lead. As for his chamchas in the Congress, the less said the better. Time Magazine rightly called Manmohan Singh an underachiever - a PhD-holding economist who sunk India's economy; Mr. P. Chidambaram, a Harvard Graduate who was qualified enough to bring economic growth from 9% to 4%; and there are many more such stellar performers in the Congress whose degree does not seem to be worth the paper they are printed on when put to test. If this is what the Oxbridge elite can do in government, then it's good that we don't have them: let them go back and govern England if they so choose. They have failed here.
Of course, this probably isn't even Mr. Maken's fault - he has become so accustomed to saying things that he does not mean (such as #WeLoveRahul) that he just shoots from his hip. The entire Congress party is like that: they have internalized their refusal to see that Indians, and young Indians in particular, as disgusted by their elitism, their utter disconnect with the masses and their forced march behind the nincompoop Rahul Gandhi. Even their worst defeat in elections since the days of the Muslim League has not taught them anything.

Politics aside, Smriti Irani is not a bad choice at all. Omar Abdullah put it well:
 There are two problems here - one is the obsession with degrees. I am an IITian now pursuing a PhD in America but if there's anything my IIT days has taught me, it's that a degree is nothing more than proof that you passed a bunch of exams (usually by studying for them the night before). It is not proof of scholarship or leadership. That said, having an advanced degree is not a bad thing - Murli Manohar Joshi had a PhD - but simply having one does not make you qualified to run the HRD Ministry. And not having one also does not disqualify you: remember that she has passed Class 12 and can read, write and think for herself, and she has already shown that she is quite articulate in her speech.

The second problem is that people have no idea how governments are run, in fact they have no clue how anything around them works. Picking up from Omar Abdullah's line, it is not necessary for an HRD Minister to be highly educated. In fact, no Minister needs to be highly educated (they need to be educated enough to read, write and speak of course); as the millions of MBA graduates coming out of elite and not-so-elite institutions learn quickly, leadership cannot be taught in class. And being a Minister is all about leadership. Manmohan Singh was a scholar in his own right but he was a complete failure as PM because he lacked leadership, both in his party and in his Cabinet. The reason India has a permanent bureaucracy is that experts must advise the Minister, who must have the leadership to listen to all sides, take decisions and defend them in Parliament. If the Minister is expected to be an expert, then IAS officers might as well be forced to retire.

One last issue is what I was asked on Twitter - shouldn't the HRD Minister have been to college so that they can understand the problems in colleges across India?
That is a fair point and is a matter of priorities. Let me ask it in another way - if the HRD Minister only knows the problems of school dropouts, will they be able to bring more children into higher education? Unfortunately, since Nehru's days, India has focused all its energy on higher education. Therefore, we feel proud when our graduates excel in Silicon Valley (the fact that they run away from India is for another debate) but when India's primary school students are as good as uneducated, we blame the test! A vast majority of Indian children never make it beyond school and if I had to choose priorities, I would choose primary education over higher education. That's not to say that the problems of higher education are not important - they are, and the new Minister will also have to look into them with the help of experts - but if the logic is that you have to go to college to know what's wrong with it, then I would rather she focused on the ills of primary education. A country where a small elite is highly educated  while the vast majority learns nothing in school is not a prosperous, strong and proud country. Such a Bharat is not a Shreshtha Bharat.

The only good thing in this row has been Irani's own reaction - true to her style, she ignored the jibes and went on with her work. Unfortunately, people seem to have discovered here yesterday, as though she magically went from the Virani Parivaar to the HRD Ministry! Her leadership, which played a crucial role in bringing Manohar Parrikar to power and in seriously threatening Rahul Gandhi in Amethi (an unimaginable feat less than a year ago), is why Narendra Modi chose to include her in his Cabinet. After all, it takes a chaiwallah to understand where leadership is molded - in the corridors of Cambridge or the alleys of Mumbai.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Bucking the Trend

Although the Congress has been wiped out in the rest of India in national elections, the Arunachal Pradesh State Assembly returned the Nabam Tuki-led Congress Government in Itanagar, with the Grand Old Party winning 42 of sixty seats and securing a majority of over three-fourths of the seats, 11 of them uncontested. However, the BJP nearly doubled its seats, winning 11.

Politics in the Himalayan state, although seemingly revolving around the national parties, is highly personality-driven. People do not vote for parties but for individuals and it can be impossible to find a worthy contender to some individuals, which is why 11 seats were won uncontested here, something that has become unheard of in the rest of the country and even in most of the Northeast.

However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a lot to the state (his party won one of two seats and that MP, Kiren Rijiju, is a Union Minister now) in terms of promoting tourism and improving infrastructure. The Modi sarkaar is also expected to put an emphasis on defense, having warned China against any expansionist ambitions in the state. Clearly, the Assembly will have to work with the Central Government. It would be wise for Tiku then to reach out to Modi - despite the danger posed by the Gandhi dynasty in doing so. 

Sliding Fortunes

The story in Sikkim seems largely in line with that in Odisha. The Sikkim Democratic Front of Pawan Kumar Chamling, which has ruled the state for the last four terms, is set to start a record fifth term in office. However, his grip on the state is strongly under challenge with his former lieutenant Prem Tamang's one-year old party, the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), picking up 10 seats in the 32 seat Assembly in this small Himalayan state.

In the last Assembly, the SDF controlled all seats, with the Congress losing its seats and the BJP being unable to consolidate its votes in Southern Sikkim. In fact, in 2014, this state saw an unusual BJP-Congress-CPI(M) alliance to unseat the SDF, which failed spectacularly. However, with the split in the SDF and the strong performance of the SKM, Chamling will have to watch his back.

Sikkim politics is still very local and largely untouched by national politics. However, that does not make it any less interesting!  

Naveen Babu Still Strong

Naveen Pattanaik's Biju Janta Dal (BJD) continued its tight grip on Odisha's politics, winning a record fourth term as CM of the backward eastern state. The result, widely expected, reinforces the trust that people of the State have placed on him. And yet, in the numbers of the BJP and the Congress lies an emerging tale.

In tune with other states except those in the Northeast and Kerala, the Congress' tally in the Assembly fell, showing general disaffection with the Grand Old Party. Surprisingly, the BJP made a comeback in the Assembly, gaining four seats. Although Modi did campaign in the state, the BJD largely held on to its base. The CPI found some support in the Assembly, winning one seat even as it was wiped out nationally.

Therefore, the larger story here is that while the BJD is still powerful, the BJP is rising from underneath. Naveen Pattanaik will have to work doubly to retain his support. 

Time to Part Ways

 The State of Andhra Pradesh held its last election as a united state along with the Lok Sabha elections, although the Election Commission was midnful enough to split the election and hold it on separate days for Telangana and the residual Andhra Pradesh. And the results are a mixed bag.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress has been totally wiped out, winning no seat - a huge fall from grace for a party that ruled the united state for a decade. The TDP-BJP alliance paid rich dividends to Chandrababu Naidu, who is back to running Hyderabad (albeit for a different state) after ten years in the Opposition. The alliance successfully consolidated its votes, pushing the YSRCP way behind. Jagan Mohan Reddy's party will be the Opposition party. The first important task after division of the state on June 2 will be finding a new capital - I would suggest Vijaywada as quite suitable.

In the new state of Telangana, the TRS' gamble of dumping the Congress paid off with the party winning a thin majority in the new Assembly in Hyderabad - and this time, the Hyderabad of Telangana state. The Congress did not win big as it had expected, winning just about as much as the NDA (TDP - 15, BJP - 5) here. The obvious reason is the misrule of the last five years and the lack of a local face - Rahul Gandhi loses votes wherever he goes and since YSR died, the Congress has cut all local leaders to size and is paying for it.

The new state of Telangana starts off well with a budget surplus and a strong IT and educational base, mostly around Hyderabad. However, it will be a land-locked state and a power-deficient state, which will be big challenges. To be honest, I do not have high expectations from KCR and I do not see any improvement in the state - I actually think it will be the next Jharkhand. I don't think I ever want to live in Hyderabad again.

Nonetheless, these Assembly elections mark a new beginning after a difficult split coming after half a century of agitation. Telangana dreams of prospering under its own leaders and Andhra Pradesh dreams of creating another glorious Hyderabad under the man who created the original one. Clearly, the fate of these two Telugu-speaking states will continue to be intertwined. 

A Journey Begins

With the Oath of Office and Secrecy having been administered by the President of the Union, Narendra Damodardas Modi completed his epic journey from the bylanes of Vadnagar in Gujarat to the corridors of power in the former Imperial Capital of Delhi - a historic, inspirational journey of the son of a poor tea-seller who went on to hold India's highest office and not because of family lineage but because of his own work. Indeed, outside the Nehru-Gandhi dyansty, there was probably never someone elected on the plank of being the Prime Minister.

However, as the glow of the pitched election campaign of 2014 ends, the time has come to do real work. The Government has just been formed and expectations are very high. However, if the Union Ministers sworn in with Modi are anything to go by, this government seems to be determined to meet those expectations. Before the campaign, everyone felt that Mission 272+ was wishful thinking - how wrong we all were. Now, most of us believe that he will not be able to meet the expectations that, in many ways, he helped create. Will we be wrong again?

Although the official list is not out yet, in true democratic tradition, the media seems to have the list anyway. From there, it seems that Arun Jaitley is a clear #2 in the Cabinet, holding both Finance and Defense and hence holding two votes in the all powerful CCS. Rajnath Singh with Home (and for a week or so, still holding on as BJP President) and Sushma Swaraj as EAM complete the top ring of the Cabinet. Swaraj is an interesting appointment because although it is important, it also pushes the Minister out of domestic administration and politics - possibly suitable for someone who is still seen as an Opposition leader.

But the real story is in the new faces. Smriti Irani, who was endorsed by this blog and really gave Rahul Gandhi a run for his money, is expected to be HRD Minister and the youngest minister in the Union Cabinet, a long way from her days as a TV starlet. Piyush Goel and Nirmala Sitharaman, well-known in TV studios, are expected to be MoS (I/C) while Gen. (Retd.) VK Singh is expected to be MoS in a security-related ministry, either Home or Defense. Outside the political appointments, Ajit Doval, a hero of Indian intelligence, could be the first NSA without an MEA background and this, if it happens, would be an excellent appointment. Modi has already appointed Nripendra Misra as Principal Secretary, moving out controversial Pulok Chatterjee, and he is expected to continue his no-nonsense style of administering the PMO.

The new Union Cabinet is expected to make some bold consolidation, with Piyush Goel expected to get a combined Power portfolio, subsuming everything from Coal to Renewable Energy. Nitin Gadkari, who is better known for his controversial businesses but actually has a lot of achievements under his belt as Maharashtra PWD Minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP Government, could get a combined Roads-Shipping portfolio. However, contrary to initial reports, Railways and Civil Aviation are expected to stay separate. In fact, for the first time in history, the Railways Ministry could be held by someone from Karnataka, Sadananda Gowda. Certainly a long way from the Bihar-Bengal rule in Rail Bhawan!

Allies have been given some representation, although unlike the last 25 years, none of them could push demands out. The only surprising absentee is Neiphu Rio from Nagaland, although it is expected that his real objective is to conclude a final Naga Accord and not run a Ministry. All-in-all, this Union Cabinet seems to be a merit-based exercise, with everyone above 75 being kept out. If reports are to be believed, Sumitra Mahajan from MP could be the next Speaker of the Lok Sabha, concluding the exercise. An excellent beginning - now lets see the journey. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Thanks for the Dramatis Personae

Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome
By Robert Harris

Every now and again, a writer gets ahead of himself. Tiro, scribe of ancient Roman consul Cicero, created a record of the history of Rome in its most tumultuous time - records that were subsequently lost. In his Roman trilogy (this is Book 2; Book 1 is Imperium and Book 3 is under wraps so far), Robert Harris attempts to rewrite those records in Tiro's words. A noble venture if ever; if Conspirata is anything to go by, it's overdone.

The problem with this novel is that it tries to do too much, so much so that in rewriting Tiro's records he has made a highly academic work. I had to keep looking back at the dramatis personae to make sense of who was doing what, such was the clumsiness with which the book was written. This was a major let-down for me because I had expected much more from Harris.

Nonetheless, aside from the way it was written, the book is pretty good and gives a good account into the workings of the Roman Republic in its twilight years, even as Caesar prepared to grab power and end the Republic. I'll be taking a break from Harris now but will try to get hold of Imperium

IOTY13: Hope and Disappointment

The Opinions 24x7 Indian of the Year 2013 is Arvind Kejriwal

In 2013, things has pretty much come to a boil with corruption and poor governance. Anna Hazare's popular movement also fizzled out as the UPA Government and several state governments refused to accept his demands. Born of this mass struggle was Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which was a veritable revolution in Indian politics. Suddenly, there appeared a party that spoke about the big issues - corruption and poor governance - and not the old cliches of secularism.

AAP's impact was strong even before the Delhi elections, but it was only after the defeat of Sheila Dixit at the hands of Kejriwal that he gained his stature. Suddenly, not only was there an idea of a better future being espoused, but it was even politically viable; in fact, it could destroy hitherto invincible forces. The impact of that one election and in particular that one constituency, the prestigious New Delhi constituency, will be felt for long in India. An entire generation has been inspired to believe that politics can be clean, open and centered around real issues: this generation will fundamentally change the country in the future.

Now, all this might seem like huge hyperbole after the subsequent events - his subsidy-based economics, his dharna politics, his shock resignation, the embrace of the same old politics of secularism and his party's massive defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, where over 400 of their candidates forfeited their deposits. No, Kejriwal's story is not one of just hope - it is one of disappointment. His greatest mistake was resigning as CM, because he ran away not just from his responsibilities but also the hope he had generated. Whatever you do, you do not show hope to people and take it away from them.

Nonetheless, the Indian of the Year is for events in 2013 and certainly, 2013 was Kejriwal's year. It is not the first time that a recipient of this award has fallen from grace - Manmohan Singh was a major example - but it is a very sharp and quick fall. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Indian of the Year 2013

Indian of the Year 2013

Arvind Kejriwal
For his historic victory over Sheila Dixit in the New Delhi Assembly Constituency, proving that it is still possible to win an election through the force of sheer goodwill and honesty. 

Political Awards
Troublemaker of the Year
Rahul Gandhi
For revealing how his party uses intelligence agencies without even seeing the irony in what he says

Politician of the Year
Shashi Tharoor
For his unexpectedly good tenure as MP, his continuous engagement with his constituents and the way he allows people to approach him, online or off

Memorable Visit of the Year
Hamid Karzai's visit to India
For engaging with the regional superpower and working towards a stable post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan through a strategic partnership agreement

Community Awards
State of the Year
For successful and efficient handling of Cyclone Phailin and thus minimizing deaths and losses from it

City of the Year
New Delhi
For being the epicenter of a revolution in Indian politics and uprooting Sheila Dixit and her government

Media Awards
Best Newspaper
The Times of India 
For its coverage of the Delhi Gang Rape

Best Documentary 
Endgame Afghanistan 
For its insight into the journey of Afghanistan through the American invasion and what the pullout means for its neighbors and the world at large, to Documentary 24x7, NDTV 24x7

Best Movie 
Bombay Talkies 
For a celebration of 100 Years of Indian Cinema through myriad stories about real people

Best Ad 
A Lowe Lintas and Partners ad for Tanishq, for breaking social norms, taking a huge risk and ultimately winning recognition from its target audience

Special Commemorative Award 
Arijit Singh
For a career of extraordinary music

Sports Awards
Sportsperson of the Year 
Vishwanathan Anand
For his excellent track record as Chess World Champion and his spirited defense, albeit in vain, at the 2013 World Championship in Chennai

Team of the Year 
The Indian Kabaddi team 
For winning the 2013 World Championship

Memorable Event 
The Indian Badminton League
For introducing a domestic, corporate league system into Indian badminton and setting the stage for increased participation

Business Awards
Company of the Year 
Micromax India
For creating a silent revolution in the Indian smartphone industry through their cheap smartphones that are giving global brands a run for their money

OTFS Awards
Series of the Year 
Empire in Exile
Our first long story, for the breadth of its imagination and the purity of its message

Documentary of the Year 
The Char Dhams of India
For giving a unique glimpse into one of the most ancient religious traditions in the world

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Healthier Semester

The last semester was my first full semester with serious physical exercise in the gym, mostly at the CRCE facility although also at the ARC facility during Spring break.  This stems from my New Years resolution to take physical fitness seriously this year. With about five months of the year over, I am happy to say that, since I came to Champaign, I have lost about 20-25 kg, a huge figure.

And yet, there is so much more to go. Working out has some funny results: I feel more energetic (at least for a few hours after the workout) and less hungry (strangely) and overall, my body feels much better. This is important for a graduate student who lives a rather sedentary life and eats quite a lot of unhealthy (free) food. Working out has also added a disciplined regularity to my schedule since I have to catch the right bus at the right time and everything else is geared around that goal. I spent this semester waking up at 7:30 AM and sleeping at 12:00 midnight just about everyday, an unimaginable feat just a year ago in Roorkee.

The harder part of living a healthy lifestyle though is controlling your diet. I do not intend to go on some zero-carb diet or anything that drastic but a general reduction of portion sizes is certainly underway. It is a challenge to resist things like pizzas and nachos and I can't claim complete success in this field. But having gotten over a nachos-addiction, the process is on.

It was about five years ago when I recognized that physical health was the only pillar of strength that I was lacking in. Since then, very little was done and this is a failure. However, 2014 has already proven to be the one year when I can make a significant stride towards that goal. The process lasted through this semester and will continue by the sheer force of will power - and the lure of watching The Daily Show while working out! 

Another Open Letter to Modi

In response to this

Dear PM-elect Modiji,

Many congratulations to you for your historic victory in the 2014 General Elections. Many million young Indians like myself were distressed at how India was marching backwards in the last five years and at the way so-called secular parties were dividing people through hate and fear in the name of secularism. We were distressed by the fact that every PM of India to date was born before Independence and was largely stuck in the time-warp of Partition, unable to look at the future of Hindus, Muslims and other communities as one great nation. With your election, which by all measure was a vote directly for you, we have rejected that old thought.

Modiji, the country faces many challenges. The rhetoric of the election campaign aside, these challenges are serious and solving them is going to take sustained, decisive action on your part. Poverty, unemployment and economic collapse are not going to be solved by using Photoshop. The Indian people have given you a powerful mandate, which you will certainly need. Do not wait for the elusive consensus that puts a stop to all works - try for a consensus certainly, but do not hesitate to use your majority to push decisions through if you believe they are right. That is the precise reason you have that majority in the first place.

There are many who will continue to pick old cliches out to discredit you in the name of secularism. These are the so-called intellectuals who cannot understand that India has moved beyond the empty rhetoric of caste and secularism and is now looking for development for individuals and not communities. The young want their government to recognize them as individuals and not as nameless members of a community. No community has a first right to India's resources - every individual has a right to those resources in proportion to their ability. Religion, caste and creed are personal matters that should have no place in your administration although you yourself are perfectly free to practice your faith in your personal capacity, as is every citizen of the Republic.

Modiji, there are some who say you strike fear in their hearts and would prefer it that you allow the Opposition to govern by accepting all their demands. This would in effect be a return to the remote-controlled PM that we have had. In my humble opinion, following their advice would not just be a continuing disaster but an abdication of your mandate. If the leftist intellectuals' paymaster, the Congress party, is divined to rule India whether in Government or in Opposition, then keeping up the charade of democracy is pointless. The Congress party has left no stone unturned in packing institutions with their loyalists and making them subservient to the Dynasty. From the CBI to the Sahitya Akademi, all appointments have been based on loyalty over capability. It is your duty, as Prime Minister, to purge them and rebuild those institutions as places of merit.

Your party's historic win has been on the back of a huge vote share that you command. Some would point out that you did not win a majority of votes and thus try to show your government as illegitimate, conveniently forgetting that this is a consequence of the First Past The Post system and that no government for most of India's history has won a majority of votes. Yet, your party's votes are pan-Indian in nature, coming from all corners of the country, from Ladakh to Nicobar and from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh, and so should your government. For those who look upon you with fear, you must disprove by keeping the promise you made in Vadodara of being a PM for all. Fear will not be erased by tokenism but by fulfilling your promise of development for all with undue favor to none.

India is not an idea that is the copyright of intellectuals and the Congress party. India is a living being composed of its people - each individual is different. And yet, there is one thing in common - the desire to see a strong, prosperous India where every individual counts. It is this desire, this hope, that we have placed on your shoulders. Should you succeed, even by a partial measure, you will go down in history as the greatest child of India; should you waste your mandate and fall into the old traps, you and your party will be erased from existence. The campaign has ended - the challenge starts now.

Your fellow citizen.
Jai Hind! 

The Story Behind #YoSagarikaSoSecular

A few days back, a storm was kicked up on +Twitter over CNN-IBN editor Sagarika Ghose's tweet following Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi's Ganga aarti in Varanasi after his historic election victory that made his party the first non-Congress party to win a clear majority of its own. In typical leftist style, Sagarika 'demanded' that Modi visit a mosque as well, only to be rebutted by (ironically) a journalist from Pakistan. 
But the damage was done. Instantaneously, the hashtag #YoSagarikaSoSecular was born, some more sophisticated than the others, but all with the common theme that Sagarika's version of secularism is simply hate-mongering, deliberately showing Hindus and Muslims as two separate communities in opposition to each other. Instead of celebrating this massive mandate and hoping for growth and development for all, she continued to hanker for symbolism and cheap gimmicks, inviting rage.
It's not just Sagarika who indulges in this hate-mongering peddling around as secularism. But she is certainly one of the loudest, coming from the ilk of the Oxbridge-educated Indians-who-act-like-the-British, who hold the firm leftist belief that Hindus and Muslims will inevitably be at odds with each other and therefore should be looked upon separately. For them, secularism is defined by the Constitution and the constant shoveling of the term down the throats of Hindus. They do not even believe in India's long culture and the inherent secularism of Hinduism.

No wonder then that some of the tweets were outright hateful - hate begets hate?
In the end though, it seems this leftist has either understood that India has moved beyond these empty symbols of secularism... or she has decided to lie low till Rahul Baba learns how to speak. Till then, she called for truce.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

End of the Coalition Era

Call it what you may: a game-changer, historic or path-breaking, Elections 2014 broke every stereotype and every rule in Indian politics and delivered a mandate that nobody had ever imagined to be even possible any more. Perhaps the most important headline is this:

BJP becomes the first non-Congress party in the history of Independent India to win a majority of its own. 

The last majority government in India was the 1984 government of Rajiv Gandhi, which won an unprecedented 404 seats in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination. Since then, the country has grown accustomed to coalition politics, where small regional players in a position to hold the national government to hostage. The most pathetic moment of this was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh using coalition compulsions as an excuse for overlooking massive corruption in his Cabinet. Coalitions undermined the authority of the Prime Minister, they undermined Parliament and they undermined India's nationhood.

Who then would have thought that the coalition era, which seemed to have become the new normal, would end in 2014 and it would be the BJP and its PM-elect Narendra Modi to do it? So strong is this mandate that the Congress has effectively been reduced to a regional party from Kerala (the only major state where it had reason to celebrate) and will not be able to automatically stake claim to a Leader of Opposition. And the BJP's Narendra Modi has been completely freed from all coalition pressures and can make decisive decisions of the kind he had promised during the campaign.

The BJP's campaign itself was a marvel - hundreds of real-life rallies across India, thousands of hologram-enabled rallies made possible by a coalition of graduates from IITs and IIMs, called Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), a well-scripted social media campaign and effective use of the hitherto hostile mainstream media. Indeed, if the Congress' strategy, at least initially, was to shun the media as being unrepresentative of the masses, its subsequent engagement was a disaster, as amply demonstrated by Rahul Gandhi's joke of an interview to Arnab Goswami. The BJP's campaign would not have been possible without Modi's energy and Amit Shah's strategies in UP. Indeed, it will be a case study for students in the future to peruse.

In the end however, the Modi wave was really a message of a changed India, a young India aspiring to earn prosperity and not live off government doles. An India that absolutely abhors a divine right to govern by blood. Caste politics has also been trounced by an electorate that chose governance over feudal livelihoods. Modi's message of jobs, growth and good administration truly won it the election, aptly helped by the self-defeating messages from the Opposition.

We will continue to analyze this election in a new series: Lessons from Elections 2014. However, remember that Assembly elections in some key states are not too far off and this series will continue. Till then, one last time:


The Leftists Stand Defeated

The 2014 General Elections will be remembered on an ideological plane for the strength with which India took a sharp shift to the ideological right, defeating the hypocritical and self-defeating ideology of the Left, which, in the last ten years under Sonia Gandhi's dictatorship, had established a vice-like grip on the great nation and left it poorer and questioning itself. 

For too long has India been in the grip of the ideological left, with their collectivism of class warfare. Why does the Left talk of secularism while meddling in every religion's affairs? Because it is the ideology of the left that class conflict is inevitable and that the majority will always do harm to the minority, so the majority has to be put in its place. Why would such an ideology support democracy? As such, it would not and that is what breeds communism. But communism is not the only political means the left employs. In India, the left employs the politics of fear on minorities to sustain itself in the name of secularism. It is behind the cover of secularism then that it perpetuates its divisive agenda.

Economically too, the left has an agenda in line with its social philosophy of class conflict. Because the majority has to be put down, it is imperative to have a big government that controls every aspect of their existence. The aim is not to empower individuals for, if that were to happen, then the majority would be empowered to destroy the minority. Rather, the aim is to sustain the state itself. Therefore, all people must work to sustain the state irrespective of how much it hurts them. Handouts and entitlements, the hallmark of the UPA, are a part of that process to make people entirely dependent on the state.

But how can such a dangerous and divisive philosophy possibly find acceptance from the masses in a democratic framework. The answer lies in the most basic shortcoming of democracy itself: people do not vote on facts but on beliefs. Therefore, in order to sustain a leftist agenda, it is important to manufacture beliefs and this is done through an extensive network of journalists and so-called intellectuals who extol the virtues of a monstrous state while contributing next to nothing to society itself and living off hard-working people as only parasites do.

With the 2014 General Elections, India has broken free of this leftist trap. The ideology of the right has prevailed - there is no majority and no minority. Every individual is a majority of one. The only role of the state is to enable individuals to grow and not sustain itself. Inequality does not end by forcing equality down the throats of the majority (that actually perpetuates it) but by enabling every individual to grow on their own and treating everyone as an individual and not as a collective. Inequality does not end by cutting the pie into pieces for different collectives and allocating prosperity based on political exigencies; inequality ends when each individual can grow the pie according to their abilities. It is this fundamental difference in ideology that was tested in these elections and the results are out for everyone to see. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Miles Away at Home

The time has finally come - after several months of campaigning, the six-week long electoral exercise having ended and two days of saucy exit polls (including egg on Arnab Goswami's face!) later, the time has finally arrived for the results.

A bunch of friends from IGSA, who have unofficially been called 'bhakts,' are meeting up tonight to watch the results. We are all quite upset at having been stuck in this foreign land and not having been able to vote in this crucial election. Nonetheless, as was very apparent to anyone reading this blog, we are very pleased at the expectations of Ab Ki Baar Modi Sarkaar i.e., a clear majority to the NDA.

A little on the exit polls. I was a little surprised to see a majority of them giving a clear majority to the NDA - I was expecting something closer to 250. Sure, a few outliers here and there are possible but all except one gave a clear majority. The vote shares, which tend to be accurate, were quite similar for all, indicating less than 25% for the UPA and more than 35% for the NDA - a sharp difference of 10% which holds out for the BJP and Congress as well. The exit polls did have some humor with the ORG controversy, which showed that Times Now's mega exit poll, as they called it, might not be very accurate. No wonder then, that it was the outlier on the lower side, predicting 249 for the NDA. The other outlier was on the higher side, with Today's Chanakya giving the NDA 289. The only thing to take note of is that this relatively unknown agency has gotten fairly good forecasts before, most famously its forecast for AAP in the Delhi Assembly elections in 2012. So, it might not be fair to write them off.

It is quite clear now that the Congress will not be returning to power. What is unclear is if it will be a Modi sarkaar or some rag-tag Third Front with Congress support, which would be the worst possible situation for the country. Enough of the speculation, for millions of expats around the world, the time has come to know what our fellow Indians have said! 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Real 'Grad' Course

This semester was certainly the systems semester, with both my official courses being from there. While CEE 417 was more from a planning perspective, CEE 515: Traffic Flow Theory was perfectly an engineering course. And not just that - it was a grad-level course in every sense. That's not to say that CEE 512 was any less - it was as hard as it gets in CEE - but qualitatively, this course was different.

CEE 515 gave me my first (first two, in fact) take-home exam, both getting about 24 hours apiece. They were pretty challenging and required 10 hours each to solve, complete with looking for references online and writing programs on MATLAB. Incidentally, MATLAB has become my preferred choice of managing data and I'm set to change my research to migrate from Excel to MATLAB.

The term paper in this course was probably the most eye-opening of all for two reasons. One, the topic (Cellular Automata and Cell Transmission Models in Traffic Flow) was quite challenging and interesting and I managed to clearly see the power that modern computing has brought to this field. It is no secret that I mostly hold the modern lot of computer scientists in contempt and don't believe people locked up doing data analysis in some office in California or Bangalore are doing anything worthwhile. But the basic premise of CS has helped every other field on human understanding and that is truly miraculous. Two, the presentations helped me learn quite a lot in a very short period of time.

The biggest issue with the course was the excessive focus on Continuum Flow. I think the abbreviation LWR has been welded into my head now! This course could be renamed Continuum Flow Theory - a majority of questions in the final and a majority of teaching time was devoted to this one topic and I did not like that. Nonetheless, I did learn a lot and added VISSIM to my resume: a good innings overall. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Bengal Model

Much has been said in the just-concluded 2014 General Election about the Gujarat Model - the BJP has used it as a propaganda tool and its opponents have trashed it sometimes reasonably and sometimes through cleverly-manipulated data.

However, in the midst of electioneering, an interesting term has come up  -'The Bengal Model,' that is supposed to be wonderful and just what India needs (more than the Gujarat Model in any case). Just what is this Model and what does it imply?

West Bengal, which after Independence was second only to Bombay in prosperity (and both provinces lost territory in Partition - Bombay lost Sindh and hence Karachi and Bengal lost its eastern half and hence Dhaka), is today a hotbed of left-wing extremism, one of the most backward and poorest states in the Union. And the reason lies squarely on the three decades and more of Communist rule in the state. In the last sixty years, Bengal has literally gone backwards and in terms of prosperity, stands where it was well before the East Indian Company invaded.

But all this is history - the pertinent question is what Bengalis are doing about it. And it is there where the so-called Bengal Model, supposedly pioneered by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (who, to her credit, did defeat the Communists in what was a great achievement). But Banerjee was proven to be no different than her Communist opponents: her economic policies are just the same, her embrace of Leftist intellectuals mirror her predecessors'. If anything, her shameless levels of minority appeasement and the end of the bandh-culture in the state are the only things that are really unique to her.

Bengal today is a hole of hopelessness, where dreams are crushed. Young Bengalis simply have to move to other states to make a living - to the South for education or to the West (including Gujarat) for jobs. Bengal itself is a symbol of decayed infrastructure, massive poverty and illiteracy. It is a living symbol of why Leftist ideology is a ticket to doom - perhaps North Korea is a comparable example. Only two kinds of people can live in Bengal: the retired, who have their life savings (from other parts of India) to tide them through; and the intellectuals who live off government doles and official largess, which come from borrowed money from the RBI, which once again comes from the industrialized West and South of India.

What then is this Bengal Model? Is it a Model that India as a whole can replicate? No - because somebody has to pay the bills in the end. Is it a Model that the young can look up to? No - because the young need jobs and industries, unless of course they aspire to be intellectuals who live off others. When Mamatadi praises her so-called Bengal Model, for anybody who has been to Bengal, it is a cruel joke. Bengalis are running away from Bengal (and being replaced by Bangladeshi infiltrators). It is a Model of doom.  

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Too much hype

By Robert Harris

The West is still pretty gung-ho over its victory in the Cold War, so much so that it wastes no opportunity to rub it in. In the world of politics, that manifests as NATO's relentless expansion into Russian border-states. In the world of literature, it manifests as Archangel, Robert Harris' third novel that was mostly a disappointment, in contradiction to the fairly good reviews I have read about it.

A rather unbelievable journey of a British historian through the streets of post-Soviet Union Moscow that leads him high into Russia's Arctic tundra only to discover the greatest secret of that dictator, Josef V Stalin. One thing I can say about Harris is that, unlike Dan Brown, he does not promise the moon and then run away - his stories build up the suspense and do lead to something big, however unbelievable. That was most perfectly captured in The Ghost. However, with Archangel, that something felt more like a lot of hot air.

Unlike most of his other works, this one was insipid, lacking energy. I actually fell asleep reading it at one point (although I did just come from a workout). The story simply meandered on and when it finally reached the climax, it was comical despite the author's full attempt to make it seem important and serious. Definitely not the better of his works. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Who to hate?

German with English subtitles 

Produced By: Kurhaus Productions and SWR
Director: Stephan Lacant
Starring: Hanno Koffler, Max Riemelt, Katharina Schuettler, Oliver Broecker and others
Pros: Compelling narration, excellent acting, well-written script
Cons: Possibly too graphic although that's not strictly a bad thing
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

First you lie to yourself. Then you lie to people around you. Then you lie to the whole world. And once the lie is caught, your whole life goes into free fall as you lose control - or whatever sense of control you had. To put it very simplistically, that would be the summary of Freier Fall (Free Fall in English). But it would not be entirely accurate for it would hide something very basic - the very human trait of not being able to accept the truth even as it stares you in the face.

Marc (Hanno Koffler, whose acting extends well beyond the script) looks all set to make a great life for himself, with a job in a police unit, a beautiful girlfriend, loving parents and a baby coming along. And then his homosexual affair with Kay (Max Riemelt) changes everything. You start off with disliking Kay for his swagger and believe that he is trying to entice Marc; then you blame Marc for going to Kay himself and starting the affair proper, virtually abandoning his family. And this love-hate cycle between the characters and the audience goes on until you realize that nobody is right or wrong. Everybody is just human. And therein lies the beauty of this film - it is not a black-and-white referendum on homosexuals or on a homophobic society (although there is plenty of that too) but an honest look at several lives destroyed by the fear of the truth.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the movie is understanding whether Marc is homosexual or not. There is adequate evidence to bolster either case. And perhaps, the question itself is incorrect - is human sexuality really as simple as homo and hetero? It is this stirring narrative, full of implicit questions to the audience, that makes this movie so good. Add to that some excellent acting, a wonderful script and a fearless director who does not shy away from discussing every aspect of homosexuality openly (read: the gay sex scenes) and you just start to get an idea of the depth of human character that this movie covers.

One drawback of the movie is that most audiences would cringe at the explicit gay sex scenes. But is this really a bad thing? Is it worthwhile talking about homosexuality while pretending that this most basic of human activities does not happen? Perhaps the director was trying to be a hero here, but so what? If anything, this movie properly shows how a homophobic society treats homosexuals and how the need to fit in to society throws them into well, free fall. Highly recommended viewing for mature audiences. (OTFS)

The High and Low of Weather

This semester, I audited a course (my first audited course ever) for my research, ATMS 313: Synoptic Weather Forecasting. While the only relevant matters to my research came up in the last two weeks of classes, the class overall was extremely enlightening for me. So far, I thought weather forecasting involved some sort of fancy mathematical formulations and the Met always got it wrong because they weren't good at formulating the equations. Oh, how wrong I was!

The first thing I realized was that weather forecasting is difficult not because we don't know how the atmosphere works - we know it and we know it quite well. Rather, the complexity lies in how the underlying equations are solved. After all, as any engineer or scientist knows, a model is only as good as the accuracy to which it can solved. Another thing I realized was that Atmospheric Sciences is about much more than weather forecasting - from cloud physics to fluid dynamics and even to the levels of complexity of weather forecasting itself (global, synoptic, mesoscopic and micro) - the Science is highly developed with a variety of specialized areas of study.

ATMS 313 also included my participation in the class and national forecasting challenges. In the class challenge, where we had to predict high and low temperatures and precipitation for the period 6Z to 6Z the next day, due by 0Z on the current day. I didn't do very well initially in the class challenge and although I did pick up later, my overall rank remained below the class average. It was better with the national challenge, where I ended within striking distance of the national consensus and even beat it once by the smallest possible margin.

The biggest impact of the subject has been my increased interest in the day's weather and to understand why it's like how it is. For example, there was rain today after two days of near record highs. Does this imply that a cold wave has entered and therefore, there is low pressure somewhere north or east of Illinois? It is these sort of questions that fuel the field of weather forecasting and I was glad to be able to explore it.

In addition, I learned two valuable lessons. One was academic - it is very easy to say that it is going to rain if there is a lot of rain in the forecast; however, if only light rain is being predicted, then it might not rain at all. Put together, it means that predicting the quantity of precipitation (rain or snow) is the hardest part of forecasting weather (together with predicting tornadoes). And second - you never know when old connections come back. I audited this class with another engineering student from Munich who also went to TUM (readers will recall that I interned there in the summer of 2012). Never did I think that my connection with TUM would lead to being able to talk to a student from TUM in America two years later! 

Who will teach the teachers?

In Madurai, where the old generation prides itself as being conservative and upholding Tamil traditions while the young generation nods in silent disagreement, the theater of the absurd is playing out. The Hindu reports that administration of a private school barred some students from writing their final exams and dismissed them from the school because they allegedly went to a mall after school hours in their school uniforms and thus, by some depth-defying leap of logic, brought 'disrepute' to the school.

Where do I even begin? On the one hand, we have the Leftist media attacking the Sri Ram Sene for moral policing (I am not defending them) and then we have this case of moral policing, entirely ignored by the so-called mainstream media except The Hindu, probably because Tamil Nadu has a 'secular' government and Madurai is not in Delhi. Constitutionally, there is no bar on students visiting a mall in any kind of clothing, especially not if it does not 'cause moral outrage' (a poorly-worded law, like so many in India). In this case, the students were not even skipping class, this was during their free time. The only justification given is that some principal or school administrator somewhere thinks that the right place for children is in school or at home, just as the right place for a woman is in the kitchen. It does not matter that, as equal citizens, students have a right to roam freely without causing public inconvenience, especially if they are doing it in their free time. All that matters is that some hallowed reputation of the school was somehow tarnished and that is reason enough to make students and their parents run from pillar to post and finally to the High Court bench.

Before I get to the school administration, I should comment on the HC itself, which has agreed to 'look into' the matter. India's over-burdened judiciary could use fewer cases; already it does not get through with the serious ones. The MP from Madurai allegedly spent a record amount of black money and expended massive muscle power to win his election. And yet, the Madurai bench of the HC considers the case of a school administrator's moral outrage at students visiting a mall in school uniform as deserving of its time. Much time it has indeed! And this even after students and their parents apologized (for doing nothing wrong, of course). Without any law to back the administration, what stopped the honorable HC from issuing a one-line order against them and shelving the matter?

Now, on the school administration and those who support it. Let me put it bluntly - they are equivalent to the Taliban. Both live in another age and cannot reconcile with the fact that this generation thinks and lives differently. Both believe that force and coercion are justified means of imposing their moral views on those who are powerless to oppose them. Both act against the law of their land - and with impunity. And both do not see any merit in due process: after all, the school administration did not call the students and their parents to discuss the issue, they just decided to hang them right away. The administration has a right to hold a private view that malls are immoral but they cannot impose it on their students.

Globalization has fundamentally changed the way young Indians perceive the world and they do not see prosperity as a cheap obsession of the burgeois but as something worth striving towards. A mall represents that - prosperity. There is nothing wrong in aiming to be prosperous. What the school administration and much of that generation cannot seem to digest is that their way of life, how they perceived the world, has been rejected by this generation. Every generation after all, chooses its own morals. But did the administrators try to sit back and think about how their students think so differently from them? Did they try to see how their assumptions, their morals, no longer hold water even in their own city? No, that would involve subjecting oneself to due process - does the Taliban or Boko Haram ever sit back to think that young girls would like to go to school?

And what to students get in return for all this moral harassment? They get a third-rate education that places India somewhere near the bottom of International standardized tests. They get an education through which students in Class 5 cannot read passages from an English textbook from Class 2. Of course, because these standardized tests involving dividing 4 by 2 are not in keeping with 'Indian sensibilities,' we don't have to worry about them. We can all just bury our heads behind the curtain of our high morality and punish those who peep through. No wonder then that the school believes that students going to a mall hurts their reputation far more than how their students perform in exams and in life after that.

With the withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan, there is a fear that the Taliban will rise and once again erode freedoms that Afghans have come to cherish. But in India, we need not fear any Taliban invasion in Kashmir or elsewhere. The Taliban is already here and they run a private school in Madurai.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

And that's the CUBE of it

I always wanted to know how cities were planned, at least from a transportation perspective. How do they know where to put a road, how big it needs to be and when it's time to build a flyover? I got those answers in my course this semester, CEE417/UP430: Urban Transportation Planning. If I had to summarize it in one line, I'd say: it's all voodoo!

The course was possibly one of the easiest I have ever taken and that includes my humanities and management courses. The first part of it, dealing with policy issues, were quite easy and extremely interesting as well, although the homework involving five essays was a chore (incidentally, I scored full points in all of them).

The lab was probably the most useful thing of all and certainly added to the employability of everyone in class. While previous years saw only Microsoft Excel being used for very rough calculations, this year the class expanded to using CUBE, the most widely-used program for transportation planning. Surprisingly, they even use it in India (and I thought Indian cities are not planned!). Now, although the program is powerful and makes life much easier, it is not as user-friendly as engineers are used to. A lot of work still has to be done manually.

One of the biggest drawbacks of CUBE is that it has a non-standard scripting language, forcing you to learn new syntax that is unique to the program. This seriously hampers engineers who are happy with C++ or even VBA. The ribbon interface is also unsuited for this program with the contextual tabs being just too large in number.

Overall, the course was decent and the project was very easy. I think I'll do well in it, particularly sine the grading is absolute.