Saturday, November 29, 2014

Coming Soon: Indian of the Year 2014

Opinions 24x7 returns with its flagship series, Indian of the Year in its 8th edition as we celebrated the year gone by in India. Certainly, a historic one. The logo for this year celebrates the most spectacular event of the year, the largest democratic elections in human history and the victory of the Bharatiya Janta Party, which this blog fully supports.

But the lotus in the logo does not represent the BJP - it represents India's history and culture, on the basis of which this civilization must prosper. It was this belief that our civilization deserves to be prosperous, not wallowed down in the hopeless bogs of socialism, that led to the events of 2014. The logo celebrates that - the Indian chakra, a symbol of progress, resting on a lotus as it stands firm on the waters of the world.

Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2014
Coming in 2015

Friday, November 28, 2014

Too Graphic


Produced By: Columbia Pictures and others
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christopher Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel Jackson and others
Pros: Good story
Cons: Too graphic, mindless, too long
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

This is not a movie but a video game with a rather elaborate plot. You don't have to feel for all the people killed - with just one bullet shot from any angle, in fact - nor do you have to think too much about the characters who stay alive. In fact, you can sit back and let your eyes pop out at this intolerably graphic creation that has received critical acclaim, confirming just why democracy leads to the election of very pathetic leaders.

Pause. Breather. OK, I didn't like this movie. To be fair, it has a good, inspiring story and will make you feel all good in the right regions. But for once, we have a good story backed up by very poor screenplay and cinematography. There's no doubt that Quentin Tarantino is good at what he does - the problem is what he does. His uncanny ability to make a story seem surreal, disconnected and even unnatural is the ultimate undoing of this movie. Not only is it too graphic to watch for the most part, it becomes a mindless series of murders. And when you keep that up for almost three hours, you have a disaster in the making.

I wouldn't watch it again and don't recommend you to try even once. (OTFS)

What Talks are Worth

This week marked six years since the ghastly 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, India's financial capital, that left over 160 innocent civilians dead. That day, the Indian equivalent of America's 9/11, remains one of the most traumatic days in India's modern history. For Mumbai is not just a city - every family in India, poor or rich, has a connection to it. It is the city of the rich industrialists, it is the city of poor inmates at Dharavi, it is the city of Sachin Tendulkar, it is the city of millions who dream to make it big in Bollywood. It is for no small reason that on the other side of the country, in Shillong, there is a cafe named 'Bombay Bites'!

We cannot and will not forget the horrors of 26/11. Years of talks after and despite of the Kargil War, 26/11 is what we got. Clearly, a week-kneed policy of talking from a position of weakness doesn't help - and we need not adopt it either. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

End of K&S

The Kevin and Sarah Show (K&S), my favorite on the local Mix 94.5 FM station, wrapped up today with co-host Kevin calling it a day after about 10 years on the job. Since I came to Champaign, K&S has been my staple morning entertainment that would get me charged up for the day. From great music to Hollywood gossip (they're big +Star Wars fans just like me!) to the local news, I've depended on the show to stay in touch with the local community. Indeed, it's been common for me to realize that it's snowing outside based on their weather report - I just forget to look out the window!

It's been a wonderful time and I'm sure whatever else the station comes up with will be just as good. 

Dramatic and entertaining

By Vikas Swarup

Yes, I know there's a movie about this already. Yes, I know the book has been renamed after its movie. But cast all that aside because is book is decent enough to read as well! Years after I first tried to read this book as a teenager, I finally got down to finishing what I had started with this slick, fast-paced novel that takes you through a macabre world of survival in India's poor under-belly.

Yes, there are the prostitutes and the callous police. There is the overdone worship of the White Man. There's even the melodramatic reunion of lovers. Everything, just about everything, that could be put into a cheesy novel is in here. And yet, it's not a bad story at all - primarily because it's fast enough to charge through the clutter. Unlike a lot of novels that devote endless pages to nothing in particular that advances the story, every word of Q&A works to advance the story ahead. Now that's a smart author. 

I Hate this Love Story

Special thanks to the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois for a free Pre-Screening

Produced By: Working Title Films
Director: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior, Harry Llyod, Michael Marcus and others
Pros: Good acting
Cons: Terrible story, boring screenplay, dumbed down
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

Don't we all love the underdog? Even if we have no idea just why Stephen Hawking's works have revolutionized physics, we can always enjoy the wonderful facets of his personal life. Paparazzi on the big screen? That's more or less what this hagiographic movie is about. If you expected to see a tribute to his revolutionary work, you can forget about it. This is a love story, through and through.

OK, perhaps I'm being harsh. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Sure, as a melodramatic film this one had every element of the 'formula' and hence, it is going to be very successful. The lead actors, especially Redmayne, did come up with some spectacular performances. But that's just not enough for me - there is just about no real story. It's a love triangle-turned-quadrilateral-turned-pentagon-turned-back-to-a-line. At one point, the sheer predictability is almost laughable.

But what really kills the film is that it is so boring - it just goes on and on. One hour through this 123 minute creation and I was yawning, hoping something interesting would happen. But it never does. There's always some scientific jargon added in to remind us who the movie is about, but when his revolutionary PhD thesis is summarized in about 30 seconds, keeping such hopes alive is but an exercise in vain. Now, I can understand that people don't want a movie like Interstellar, where you literally have to read an encyclopedia to make sense of the story. But even then, to dumb the life of such a celebrated scientist to a series of love affairs is just silly, insulting even.

I wouldn't recommend this movie. Take your kids to a planetarium if they want to learn science. Or watch some good ol' soap operas on TV if you want melodrama. Attempting to put both together made this movie an utter disaster. (OTFS)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Has the BJP won J&K?

The first phase of the prolonged assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir ended today with a record 70% turnout, largely in areas on Kashmir and Ladakh. Much can be said about the large turnout in defiance of the usual separatist call for boycott - it was the voice of people speaking up against violence and separatism, it was the desperate hope of people for a better life in the war-torn state... or, it was the huge fear of a BJP-led government in India's only Muslim-majority state.

Either way, all Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to ensure is that the polls in the state through this all subsequent phases is free, fair and as free from violence as possible. If his party manages to govern the state, it would be a huge turnaround for the state, a victory as spectacular as the one in the May Lok Sabha elections, where the BJP won its first Parliamentary majority and the first such majority in 30 years. It is a difficult proposition of course (although so was Mission 272+), and much depends on Amit Shah's hope for a successful poll boycott in Kashmir, a phenomenon that saw the party emerge as the largest in the state in May.

But if today's phase is anything to go by, that is not going to happen. While the BJP seems set to sweep Jammu & Ladakh, Kashmir will probably go almost entirely to the PDP and what happens from there, a coalition government, a minority government or President's rule and fresh elections, is anybody's guess. But the large turnout will certainly be a compelling card for India's Kashmir diplomacy as Pakistan once again tried to take the issue International (with little success). The conduct of a free and fair election in the state, after Rajiv Gandhi's shamefully rigged elections there, will go a long way to assuage some anti-India sentiments and at least blunt criticism of a high-handed Indian state that aims to suppress voices.

It seems then that, as long as the poll is free and fair, the BJP has already won the elections. Either directly, as the largest party in government, or indirectly, as the Central Government that safeguarded the democratic process in the state. And either way, it is a body blow to the already-hurt separatists. 

Wanted: A DMV

IL Secretary of State Jesse White's decision, coming soon after he was reelected to the position, to shut down the Champaign DMV facility, which serves Champaign, Urbana and Savoy (supposedly the third-fastest growing Metropolitan region in Illinois), is a very ill-thought out, even knee-jerk reaction to what has been a festering problem getting worse over years of neglect. It's no secret that the Champaign DMV facility was bursting at the seams - some people have even found that it takes less time to drive to Monticello, get your work done, and drive back than to do it in town.

The Champaign DMV needed an overhaul and a drastic expansion, nobody can argue against that. Things got so bad in the end that the building was getting overcrowded and the line stretched so far out that a tent had to be put up to protect people from the elements (or try to, anyway). The facility even had to end the system of appointments because of the huge rush and move to first-come-first-serve instead, which made it ridiculously hard to take a driving test. But all this didn't happen in one day, it has been building up over a long time. Enrollment at the U of I, which is at the heart of Urbana-Champaign, has been rising steadily while the Research Park near Savoy has been attracting more employment to the area over the last few years. It was obvious from simple census data that the Champaign DMV was far too small for such a fast-growing community. But inaction it seems is the way things work in Springfield.

While a new facility certainly needs to be found, the area cannot do without a DMV. It is not reasonable to give people no choice but to drive to Rantoul or all the way to Bloomington for a service that they pay taxes for in their own city. If it was just a matter of a few weeks, perhaps it could have been acceptable but the SOS Office claims it can take half a year - a completely unreasonable timeframe. The best way would have been to maintain a temporary facility, particularly for the large body of International students and the poor who do not own a car but would like to have a drivers license or State ID. This could have strictly enforced an appointments system or discouraged dependence to make sure that only those with no choice come to it. The mobile SOS unit, run once a month from the Illini Union, could also have been scaled up to possibly a week a month to handle some of the load. But to completely shut down such an important facility in the area is beyond reason.

Incidentally, some reports suggest that the surge in applications in the neighboring SOS Facilities because of this closure is straining the system even there. One hopes that Governor-elect Bruce Rauner makes it a priority to fix this surreal situation in Illinois, where the state is grossly unequipped and even uninterested in managing an issuing that has been building up for a long time. And Champaign-Urbana's current and newly-elected representatives need to do more than pay mere lip service. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Wise Move

The New York Times reported this week that President Obama has authorized US forces, significantly diminished, to continue combat operations in Afghanistan in 2015, undoing his hasty and ill-adviser retreat from America's longest war. Of course, the announcement has been kept under wraps and is not a complete climb down, as the 'remnants of Al-Qaeda' and not the Taliban per se are the targets. However, given that it is so difficult to distinguish between the two, this distinction is pure decoration to suit Obama's political compulsions.

Iraq is the classic example of why this move was necessary - the departure of American forces from there because Bush and Obama were both unable to conclude a Status of Forces agreement led eventually to the rise of ISIS, which has engulfed the region in flames and brought American forces back. Clearly, any sudden departure from Afghanistan will have a similar, devastating impact that will only bring America back. It is then in the best interests of the US to stay on in whatever diminished capacity and engage in active combat until Afghanistan finally stabilizes. This may take decades more of course. But it's much easier to enter a war then it is to leave one and this is quite unfortunately the price of liberty. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Sanskrit Issue

A fresh storm is rising in the corridors of Delhi and caught in it is the predictable Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani, who was increasingly become an embarrassment for the otherwise smooth six months of the Narendra Modi government. The problem is not that she is wrong in any way - in fact she is quite within the letter and spirit of the law that most people prefer not to talk about - the problem is that she has come out looking like a Hindutva despot in all of this.

The central issue here pertains to schools in the KVS umbrella (and that educates a minuscule proportion of students) offering German as a third language, which runs afoul of the Three-Language Formula in the National Education Policy. The formula clearly states that Indian students in government schools will learn three languages - English, Hindi and one modern Indian language, with necessary tweaks for local conditions (a southern language in the North and the mother tongue elsewhere). Therefore, there is no doubt that offering German fell afoul of the policy, which dates back to before the BJP even existed.

The problem with most of the critics is that they are badly out of touch with India itself. India is not a European nation - language has deep political meaning. Language was the central issue on which Bombay State was partitioned and on which the south threatened to secede from the Union. To remain an integrated nation, it is necessary for us to understand each other and communicate with accessory languages (and language implies culture, not just communication). At the same time, every Indian language needs to have its due share of respect. The original conception was to thus have Hindi and a local language, but this led to serious repercussions in Tamil Nadu, ending only with keeping English. And indeed, English has its benefits in giving Indians (the tiny minority in this case) an edge over Asian peers globally.

German distorts the formula. For one, it is not even a global language and is used in only a small number of countries in Europe, which themselves teach English to remain globalized. If the question is learning a foreign language to stay connected with the world, then English fits the bill much better than German and indeed, English is taught as a first language in many schools. The primary goal of Indian education should be to educate Indians about themselves - and that includes learning an Indian language other than your mother tongue. This can be any language, not just Sanskrit. Indeed, India would've been a much better place if Delhiwallas could speak some Tamil along with their bad Hindi and even worse English. Or maybe if they learned some Manipuri they would stop the racial targeting of citizens from the Northeast.

The Three-Language Formula has failed to bring about national integration - as former DMK MP Kanimozhi pointed out, the people who translate Tamil to Hindi are the same people who translate Hindi to Tamil. Haryana chose Telugu as its third language while Andhra Pradesh chose Hindi. How many Haryanavis speak Telugu and how many Telugus speak Hindi? The difference will tell you just how much national integration has failed. This is not about the Americanized youth in glittering malls - they will never need any language except English anyway. It is about people in semi-urban and rural areas, whose need for social mobility can be met by learning an additional Indian language and thus opening up more avenues. For them, German is useless.

Unfortunately, this has fallen down to Sanskrit vs German (as IBN put it), which is a tragedy given the common roots the two share. Smriti Irani needs to better communicate just why her decision was right and not allow extremist groups to hijack the issue. There are many who want everyone to learn Sanskrit, but there is no reason to give them any more value than those who want the same of say, Kannada. One foreign language in the curriculum is enough - learn about your own country first.

Disclaimer: I speak five languages, including two foreign ones, and understand about five more. 

Pressing need to repeal AFSPA

Two events in the past month have summarized the pressing need to repeal AFSPA and finally do away with a British-era law, written to clamp down on the Quit India Movement and Mahatma Gandhi in particular, and refurbished by the Nehru administration to clamp down on insurgency in the Naga areas. The Act has given blanket legal protection to security forces in so-called disturbed areas but has also become an excuse for failing to arrive at a political solution to festering problems created since the formation of the Republic.

The killing of two Kashmiri youth for failing to stop at a checkpoint highlights just how wrong AFSPA has gone. In any counter-insurgency operation, lethal force is to be used only as a final resort. However, because of AFSPA, it can and has been used as the first resort. There were many things that could have been done in this situation, including shooting the tires of the vehicle. It is understandable that there is a fear of a suicide bomb explosion, but by the very nature of counter-insurgency, using the 'enemy's' tactics on the 'enemy' is not going to work. The ultimate aim is to protect the Kashmiri people and look for a political solution, not to shoot them into submission.

The second incident is even more henious and shows that AFSPA has not just been misused but has been entirely abused. The leaked report of Th. Manorama's torture, rape and murder at the hands of men from the Assam Rifles, later buried by the unit as an encounter, is devastating to the conscience of our Republic and an insult to everything that the freedom struggle and the Constitution stand for. In a civil court, the soldiers involved would've been sentenced to death, for their brutal act was so shocking. Instead, the Army gave them the equivalent of a light rap on the wrist. It is no surprise then that the insurgency in Manipur remains. As this blog has asked repeatedly, if this is the value of human life that we Indians place, why would the Manipuris want to remain in India?

Much rhetoric has been made and too many lives have been lost. AFSPA must be repealed immediately and a political solution has to be found on a war footing. The country is not worth keeping if a part of its people have to live in fear of their own Army. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

One of the Best


Produced By: Paramount, Legendary and others
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn and others
Pros: Excellent VFX, well-planned story, great cinematography, good acting, well-researched
Cons: Almost nothing
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

Go out and watch this movie. Don't even waste the time it takes to read the rest of this review - just go and watch!

Now, coming to the review. In one sentence - this is one of the best movies I have ever seen. The five-star rating is a huge understatement: for science geeks and laymen alike, this movie just offers so much: scientific fact, philosophy and some good old fiction, all rolled into an extraordinary tale at the heart of which is human endeavor and the very Hindu idea of cycles of creation. And, a rejection of god to boot!

The visual effects in the movie are not just great, they're a scientific masterpiece. Everything from the wormhole to the blackhole are scientifically accurate in the way they're been rendered - scientific papers have been published by the VFX team! The story itself, as is typical of Nolan's skill, is well-planned with just the right hints at every turn but with the real tale revealing itself only in the very end. The director takes care to use cinematography to enhance viewer experience, but not to compromise the actual story (like Gravity ended up doing). Indeed, the director makes no attempt to treat the visual effects as the focus of the movie - there is always a strong story running through everything, which has become a rarity in cinema today.

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathway steal the show with exceptional performances as they quite literally touch the far ends of human emotion. The script combines scientific jargon (simplified, of course) with myth, scientific needs with human emotion and nail-biting suspense with (limited) comedy. Indeed, it seems to have been written over a couple of times, because the story just makes so much sense. Yes, this is the perfect movie.

Well, almost. The problem is, unlike this reviewer, most people are not acquainted with relativity and it can get very confusing, even downright boring at some points. And to appreciate the artistic rendering of hr world inside a black hole takes a level of dexterity that should not be expected from the average moviegoer. That is the real reason some critics have voted this movie down. Nonetheless, this is still an exceptional movie and I highly recommend it.

If you haven't seen Interstellar, you haven't seen good science fiction. (OTFS)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Arnab v Swami Classic

Here's an amazing parody of the recent standoff between Arnab Goswami and BJP leader Subramaniam Swamy. Definitely worth listening to over and over!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

New Realities of Delhi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed the much-awaited cabinet reshuffle-cum-expansion today, increasing his Council's strength by a third including some very prominent faces in the Union Cabinet. Some, such as Manohar Parrikar's appointment as Union Minister of Defense (relieving Arun Jaitley of the charge), were expected in the gossip circles of Lutyen's Delhi. But others went down to the wire.

Suresh Prabhu in particular, is an interesting case. His appointment as Railways Minister - when was the last time an MP from Maharashtra held that portfolio? - is nothing short of poetic justice and could signal the beginning of the end of the Shiv Sena as a major force in politics anywhere in the country. It was in 2002 that Bal Thackeray had ordered Prabhu to resign, essentially for doing a good job without indulging in corruption, despite Prime Minister Vajpayee's protests. It was coalition compulsions then that allowed the Sena to dictate terms to the PM. Today, in this BJP-majority government, Modi has brought back Prabhu (he has been doing some background work with Modi for the G-20 summit) by engineering his defection from the Sena while ignoring the Sena's nominee and forming a minority government in Mumbai. The Sena is totally left in the mud and under Uddhav Thackeray's ineffective leadership, it is in a pitiful state before Amit Shah's BJP. Meanwhile, with a proven track record, Prabhu's appointment shows Modi's commitment to cleaning up the railways and ushering an era of high-speed trains. This is the most important appointment of all.

The Cabinet expansion certainly shows that this is the most Presidential form of government this generation has ever seen: despite his 282 MPs in the Lok Sabha and those in the Rajya Sabha, as well as the tally of the NDA partners, Modi has brought in Parrikar, who will be a Rajya Sabha MP from UP. In his quest for truly deliver on his promises (and thus ensure a second term), Modi is not afraid to tread any path, even if it is on the toes of allies (Rajiv Gandhi was the last PM to have that luxury). His choice of a Dalit face from Punjab is the clearest indication yet, after the Haryana elections, that the BJP is looking to finish the Akalis and become the biggest force in Punjab. Appointments from UP, Bihar and even West Bengal point to similar plans.

In the end however, electoral politics is only a means to a much larger objective of running a government. Manmohan Singh and his team have shown that merely having fancy degrees does not mean you can do that. Nonetheless, fancy degrees are the only reason we can hope for acche din: and this Cabinet has a fair share of them, including two doctorates, one doctor and two IITians (Parrikar and Jayant Sinha, who has a resume that is as impressive as that of RBI Gov. Rajan).

With the cabinet expansion completed, Modi will be out for sometime on foreign tours to Myanmar, Australia and (surprise!) Fiji. His new team will have to work overtime to prepare for the Winter Session of Parliament. With the Congress having diminished numbers and the NDA with a large majority, it should be smooth sailing in the Lok Sabha. And if the Rajya Sabha proves impossible to handle, Modi always has the option (constitutional) of holding a joint sitting and passing all bills but constitutional amendments. The task of maximum governance has started. 

Good but not worth the hype


Produced By: Marvel
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Patt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace and others
Pros: Excellent SFX, good narrative
Cons: Incoherent plot
Rating: *** (3 of 5)

Ah, comic books movies, they're all the rage! For the comic book aficionados, they're a confirmation of the pride and glory of their childhood (and sometimes adult) heroes. For the rest, they're a fast and much cheaper way to enter those hallowed portals. Whichever way, you simply cannot ignore comic book movies. Guardians of the Galaxy received rather rave reviews and a great deal of hype and while it is a decent movie, it isn't that great either, certainly not as much as some reviewers and social media have made it out to be.

As is becoming increasingly common, the biggest asset of this movie is the wonderful use of special effects to dazzle and delight the audience. However, the audience does have a fatigue limit and eventually, this isn't enough to keep the cash registers ringing. Marvel, which has a rich repository of comic book stories, should be a little more picky about the stories it chooses to put on celluloid, because the biggest problem with this movie is the lack of a coherent plot. This is pretty similar to what the Transformers franchise has turned into, what one reviewer called an "and then, and then" plot - things just keep happening through a series of absolutely random coincidences and the viewer is expected to believe it all (but then, with comic books, you have to suspend some intelligence for entertainment).

However, in the end, the movie did have a good narrative and was quite straightforward to follow. And it is entertaining, if you enjoy the general genre. Is it in the same league as X-Men or The Avengers? Certainly not. But it is worth watching - once. (OTFS)

With the #KissOfLove protesters

The #KissOfLove movement began in Kerala after VHP hooligans enforced moral policing at a cafe. It would have certainly remained a localized protest if the local Congress government in the state had not used the police against the rather radical protesters. With the police brutality that followed, the fire had to spread and it came calling right to the heart of it all - the RSS headquarters in New Delhi. There, the government (which was the Union Government) had the good sense to use the police only to maintain peace between protesters and counter-protesters and not to take any stand. Chandy, clearly, has much to learn.

The Kiss of Love Movement is not some Western-backed charade to attack Indian culture, as elements in the Sangh would have us believe. It is very much a product of a new India. What the RSS and its affiliates must understand is that the year 1991 changed India fundamentally. It was nothing short of a partition between generations - an entire generation has now grown up free of the all-powerful socialist state and exposed to the winds of liberty. These are the Children of 1991, who have a very different conception of the role of the state and who reject the idea that morality can be rejected. And the Children of 1991 are now the amorphous youth who even the RSS will acknowledge are the future of the country. Rather, the country's future is their's.

The RSS must reform itself and the first thing it needs to do is to induct more Children of 1991 into itself. A social organization cannot afford to lose touch with the realities of society, the fact that attitudes towards women have changed. It is telling that pictures of the protests and counter-protests in Delhi have one stark reality - the counter-protests had almost no women in comparison to the Kiss of Love protesters. These were women who, from another generation would've believed that a woman's place is at home, dutifully caring for her husband and children and quietly baring domestic physical and sexual abuse to save the honor of the family. That generation is gone and gone forever and if the RSS does not update itself to the new realities, it too will be gone and gone forever.

The fundamental mistake that these Sangh operatives that indulged in moral policing is to think that Narendra Modi's spectacular win was an endorsement for them. It was not - it was quite the opposite. Modi's win was an endorsement of everything that 1991 stood for: liberty, economic and social freedom, social mobility and individual freedom. It was on the themes of economic prosperity, social freedom and individual growth that the campaign was built on and won. Had Modi, who has always kept the RSS at an arm's length from the state, used the Sangh's themes, he would've been obliterated and UPA-III would have happened. The Sangh must not miss this important fact and must reform itself.

As for the Kerala Government, the Congress party is well-known to be one that wears a mask: liberal in words, devoid of any principle in action. Nothing else can be expected from it: while Ajay Maken will pooh-pooh the RSS in Delhi, Oomen Chandy will go two steps ahead of them in clamping down on freedom in Kerala. Anyone who truly accepts the right-wing state however, will stand with the Kiss of Love protesters: not because they agree with them, but because they believe that others can disagree with them. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The 2014 US Elections

The recent round of elections in the US concluded (except for some run-offs scheduled for December) yesterday, with the Republicans riding on an anti-Obama wave and emerging victorious in ways that even they would not have imagined. The GOP now holds the strongest majority in the US House of Representatives since the 1940s, enabling embittered House Majority Leader Joe Boehner to breathe a little sigh of relief even as the toxic breath of the Tea Party continues to encircle him.

But that's probably the smallest of reasons to cheer, for the Party has also taken back the Senate, although not with a sufficient majority to counter any filibusters.  This makes things extremely difficult for President Obama, who will need to rely more and more on executive orders than legislation. Republicans still do not have the power to override a Presidential veto, if it comes to that. But certainly, Obama's lackluster leadership has been punished by the voters.

In Illinois, it was also a Republican sweep, another body blow to Obama. Republican billionaire Bruce Rauner defeated incumbent Patt Quinn, who himself is under the scanner and could add to the illustrious list of Illinoisan Governors behind bars for corruption. This was not entirely unexpected, given just how much Quinn has wrecked Illinois in his term. But his defeat together with that of other prominent Democratic politicians marks a departure in a state that had come to be a stronghold for the party. Incidentally, the 13th District voted back Rodney Davis with an enhanced margin.

What this means for the future of politics in this country is continued gridlock and increasing apathy. After all, this election saw one of the lowest turnouts yet. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Conference Call: The Day 2 Effect

In a three-day conference, Day 2 has quite a lot of value. Day 1 is set aside to get into the mold of the conference, to get to know the participants (and learn the names, of course!). Day 3 is almost non-existent as people have to catch a flight and have just enough time to wave goodbye. Thus, the real action of making social contacts and friends is on Day 2. No wonder then that the Pavement LCA 2014 organizers let us go out on our own for dinner on Day 2, which I used to get to know some guys from UC Berkeley.

To be sure, Day 2 is not all about socializing, it's also about getting results to make the conference more meaningful. We had good breakout sessions on that day, where the student registrants were asked to act as participants-cum-scribes. It is unusual for a conference to ask participants to help them in what is fundamentally an organizational role, but then since they offered a deep discount to us, we were happy to oblige. Day 2 saw some important results from the conference, where minds in the LCA area thrashed out some contentious issues.

I also got some decent feedback for my poster on Day 2, although I had hoped for more. But then, the area of Pavement LCA itself is so diverse now that many had little idea of the dynamics of UHI and were happy to just read the poster without asking questions. I also learned a lot from the other posters. The luncheon also gave me a chance to discuss some further research. Finally, I had a chance to see the UCPRC site, thanks to a very cooperative Dr. Hui Li. It was quite impressive, although I would still place ATREL above it.

Overall, Day 2 turned out to be the real conference (and I got enough sleep to not have to depend on coffee to stay awake, for the most part). The funniest thing is how suits slowly made way for jeans and shirts on Day 2! 


Recently, I've watched a few games in the Hero Indian Super League, an experimental league to promote football (the International variety) in India. I'm not a big football fan and have only seen a few games before, but I know enough that the level of sport, while still poor by International standards, is fairly good for India and it will only get better. The well-marketed social media campaign and the large crowds are proof of its initial success. Let's see how it goes from here - the finals are all the way in December.

Election Season Again

For the third time this year, it's election season! This winter is set to see three hotly-contested states up for grabs - Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir and recently-announced Delhi.

It's been almost one year since AAP made a surprise debut in Delhi and it has been downhill for them since then. However, if gossip is to be believed, this will be a two-sided content, with the Congress going all-out to back AAP and determined to make Kejriwal the CM and its lackey to stop the Modi wave that decimated it in Haryana and Maharashtra recently. Moreover, this time, it doesn't seem to be a one-sided love affair with Ahmed Patel having dined with several AAP leaders at IIC, clearly setting the stage for a tacit alliance if not an overt one. The Congress, it seems, is out of all constructive ideas.

In Jharkhand, the JMM, a fickle-ally if ever, has broken ranks with the Congress and source say it is looking to dive in with the BJP. The BJP, in-turn, has tied up with the AJSU, so for better or worse, the JMM could be the kingmaker. Unless the Modi wave blunts them, as it did the INLD in Haryana with similar ambitions. If there was something like a 'failed state index' for Indian states, Jharkhand would come out on top, with its graph nosediving since the partition of Bihar out of political turmoil. This election could be the final chance for the state to redeem itself, lest it joins the ranks of the former BIMARU states.

The keenest election of all will be in J&K, where an entrenched dynasty could be facing defeat on two fronts, one from the BJP and the other from the fledgling dynasties in the PDP. It all comes down to how (if?) Kashmir votes, with the BJP looking at a sweep of Jammu and Ladakh.

A winter of change is coming! 

A New Dynamic?

 The Jammu & Kashmir Assembly elections will indeed be happening this year, despite the unprecedented floods that destroyed the Kashmir valley. This then, could be CM Omar Abdullah's greatest nightmare, as a strong anti-incumbency factor against his administration (or the lack thereof) as well as the continued decline of the Congress across the country promises to deal a major blow to the former ruling alliance.

This election could perhaps see the sharpest divide between Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh in history. In Jammu and Ladakh, nothing less than a BJP sweep is expected. Thus, the battle is on in Kashmir, where the NC and the Congress are staring at defeat at the hands of the PDP. Some are already calling out the PDP's Mufti Sayeed as the next CM of the state. But it is apparent that Kashmir is not so solidly behind the PDP that Jammu and Ladakh's voice will not be heard. And therein lies the real story of the changing political landscape of J&K.

There are two possibilities, and neither of them include the NC in it. The Abdullahs will just have to live with the fact that, without the Congress backing them from Delhi, they simply have no way to stay in power. If the PDP comes just short of a majority, the Congress could lend it support, as always to keep "communal forces at bay" (oh, the irony!). The Congress itself is on weak ground, but it will certainly garner some seats nonetheless. Unless the NC enjoys political suicide, it will not support the PDP.

But then, what is the PDP comes in significantly behind and the verdict is badly fractured between the NC, the Congress and the PDP in Kashmir? Then, all eyes will be on the BJP, which can safely be assumed to have a strong contingent from Jammu and Ladakh. And then, it could be possible that the BJP-PDP form a government, or the PDP forms a minority government with the BJP's support. It is no secret that the PDP, always more attuned to the people of the Valley than the NC, prefers the BJP's handling of the state over the Congress-NC's. This could provide adequate smokescreen for a highly unlikely alliance.

Clearly, a very interesting contest is on the cards.