Saturday, February 28, 2015

Betting on a better future

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented the 9-month old Narendra Modi Government's first full Union Budget today that, after a very long time, was a political statement with a vision and a plan for the country. Make no mistake about it = Modi has a long-term plan going and he does not plan to be voted out in 2019. And Budget 2015 is a step in exactly that direction. Of course, for anyone who has followed Modi in Gujarat, this is not a surprise.

The Union Budget therefore, was not the 'big bang,' desperate sort of budget we have seen in 1991. It is a steady move, but a firm one as well and directly moves towards creating jobs and infrastructure in the country while also fighting poverty in a targeted, measurable form. The budget takes advantage of the Modi Government's single-most important achievement - the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana - to make a concrete step towards a cashless society and eventually a society where money can be tracked and taxed fairly, which is the final step in stopping black money. Through the use of Digital India, the budget is pushing more tax-related affairs online and insisting on speed.

The Budget takes important steps towards building a social security net for the country, which is absolutely necessary if labor laws are to be amended in a politically feasible manner. By way of a 42% transfer of tax revenues to states, the Central Government has firmly put the responsibility of primary and secondary education upon the states themselves, thus ending the raj of the Delhi bureaucracy. At the same time, new announcements for higher educational institutions, including the long-held demand for upgrading ISM Dhanbad into IIT Dhanbad, have the potential to scale up employability in the country. To that extent, it also aims to make use of NITI to foster innovation and eliminate red tape. As of now the budget still uses the concept of plan and non-plan expenditure, but this will die an eventual death once the current and last Plan expires, as there is no Planning Commission left to create any more plans.

The Union Finance Minister has also indicated that he will tread on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's path and has given up the unrealistic fiscal roadmap of P Chidambaram's UPA2 Budget, which was achieved only through cut in capital spending, which is of course incompatible with the new philosophy of the NDA Government. Despite this, ratings agencies have not taken a negative view for what many have called the last shining star in the emerging world. In addition, he has taken the good features of the UPA's DTC and junked the rest, and announced April 1, 2016 as the date when the GST would be enacted and India would be transformed forever.

Quite unlike previous budgets, this one was not a mere statement of accounts. It marks a fundamental shift away from Delhi raj, with states choosing their own paths. It works towards creating jobs for the hundreds of millions of young people who will enter the work force in the new few years. In short, it sets the stage for the acche din that all of us voted for. And the credit goes entirely to FM Arun Jaitley and the Prime Minister of the strongest Government of India in 30 years - Narendra Modi. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

A Milestone in J&K

The meeting between PDP chief Mufti Mohammed Sayed and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi to approve the common minimum program and seal the deal for a new alliance, once unthinkable in India's only Muslim-majority state, will go down in history has a milestone in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It seems likely that Sayed will take oath as the next Chief Minister of the state this Sunday, while BJP leader Nirmal Singh will take oath as the Dy. CM, a historic moment for the people of Jammu who have virtually gotten used to being treated as second-class citizens in the state.

The PDP has 28 MLAs, the BJP 25 and 3 independents support the BJP, giving them a comfortable majority in the house and leaving the Congress as the LoP, with he NC being reduced to a small number of seats. This will make J&K the 13th State Government under the NDA fold, and the PDP could in turn join the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi. The new allies have already contested RS and LC elections together, giving the BJP its first local representatives from Kashmir.

This is yet another moment that shows just how far the BJP has gone, from being caste off as doomed after the 2009 loss in the general elections and subsequent assembly elections, to becoming the largest party in the country and overshadowing the Congress in every way. J&K becomes another state in the Union where the previously-ruling Congress has been relegated to the opposition.

But of course, J&K is quite different from other states. The rise of the BJP in the state is a huge blow to separatists in the valley who thought their anti-India rhetoric could keep the BJP out. It is an ever greater blow to Islamists there, who created and continue to create a sense of religious hatred between Jammu and Kashmir and who shamelessly took a pro-Islamist and anti-Hindu line in the election campaign. It is also a compromise for both the BJP and the PDP, who have had to sink their differences because of the nature of the mandate - the BJP has apparently put Article 370 on the backburner while the PDP has decided to take a 'humanitarian' view of West Pakistani refugees in Jammu, who are Hindu, and have been granted Indian citizenship but not state subject status.

The new alliance presents an exciting opportunity to turn the state around. With Modi's mantra of cooperative federalism, which he demonstrated by accepting the 14th Finance Commission's recommendations to transfer 42% of direct tax revenues to states, and Mufti's desire to end the cycle of violence and poverty for the state, only the sky is the limit.

And finally, just to see the geographic spread of the NDA in the country, aside from the Union Government, where the BJP enjoys an outright majority of its own, it is now possible to drive from the Himalayan mountains of Ladakh, take a detour to the forests of Jharkhand and then go to the beaches of Goa, without ever leaving NDA-controlled states. The Bay of Bengal (Andhra Pradesh) and the northeastern Himalayas (Nagaland) are the icing on the cake. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

How about smart cars?

At the 101st Illinois Traffic and Highway Engineering (THE) Conference, the buzz was all about automated vehicles, connected vehicles, smart cars, V2I and other such buzzwords that send the whole world of Traffic Engineering as well as Computer Engineering into a tizzy. Are they that close - 2020 is a year a lot of people are talking about. From car manufacturers to Google, it seems to have become a big craze.

But I'm a skeptic. For one, as a professor rightly pointed out, such buzzwords have been in existence for decades and it always seems that the so-called revolution is around the corner - except that the said corner never comes. Now, you can call that a dismissive and pessimistic opinion, but it's not wrong to go by precedent over speculation. But the real cause of concern for me is the human aspect (or lack of it, rather). I just don't think people are going to want to put a computer in-charge of their lives - literally. An automatic vehicle without any manual control whatsoever can be quite a risk to life and I don't think people are going to want to take that.

Moreover, I'm also skeptical about things when computer scientists are so excited about it: it often oversimplifies things and does not consider crucial, human aspects that other engineers do. There are a variety of concerns that are only being given lip service while all the focus has been on creating a smart car that can work in a very limited set of conditions. And yet, without an 80% penetration rate at the minimum, the technology really does not work.

Which is why I love these conferences - people can talk about what they think or hope will be the future while living very much in the present! 

A Tale of Unsung Heroes

Winter of the World
By Ken Follet

Continuing with the Century Trilogy, the second book picks off from where the last one, Fall of Giants, left us: the amazing story of families across continents, united by a common link and hoping that the world never again sees such a great war. This is quite a wonderful way to look at a work of historical fiction as it allows the writer to move between the staid talk of war to the everyday trials and tribulations of that age (many of which continue even today).

Like all works of historical fiction though, indeed all of historical literature, it comes with an opinion. So, the wrongs of the Nazis are meted out to our protagonists, but what prompted the Nazis and their supporters to go down that path takes a mere footnote in the narrative. One does not, of course, expect objectivity from fiction, but then this is a defect nonetheless.

Unlike the first book though, this one is quite slow and some characters like Ethel Leckwith were left simply where they were in the beginning, with a figurative halo around their heads. This makes their very presence rather redundant, a mere necessity to ensure continuity. But in fact, these stories need not have been contiguous at all! That does take away from the delight of the whole trilogy, but it is a good book on its own. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Great Beginning

Indian cricket fans, which is to say almost all of India, has been greatly enthused with the way the ICC 2015 Cricket World Cup has progressed so far, with the Indian team rallying behind the war cry of #WontGiveItBack as they aim to defend their world championship which they won in 2011 in Mumbai. The first match against Pakistan promised to be a grand spectacle as fans of both countries watched eagerly. India started with an unbroken 5-0 winning streak against its western neighbor and former possession, including a 5-0 unbroken stream of winning the toss. And it delivered by maintaining both at 6-0. However, the Pakistani team was quite disappointing and except for Captain Misbah ul Haq, didn't really put up much of a fight. For all its billing, the match was rather disappointing in that respect. The sight of TV screens being smashed in Karachi did provide comic relief though!

The second match was far more telling though: India defeated World Cup-favorites South Africa in a spectacular rout that left the Proteas with a 131 run loss, despite a target that they themselves made previously against other teams, and despite an Indian team that has looked quite out of form right up to the practice games for the event. Suddenly, India is back in the reckoning to win the World Cup!

In other news, Ireland shocked everyone including themselves by defeating the West Indies. Surely, if there is a country that is to join the test-playing world, it is Ireland. Afghanistan also gave Sri Lanka a hard time in their match, losing by just 4 runs. It seems the minnows of the game are turning giant-killers, while the original cricket giant (England) is playing so badly that its very test-playing status should be put into question.

India's next match against the UAE is expected to be a breeze. However, this tournament has proven to be full of surprises, so don't get out the firecrackers just yet. 

Cold, Cold Illinois

February has lived up to its reputation of being the coldest month of any winter season and this one seems all set to match last year's record-breaking winter. Practically the entire month with the exception of a few hours here and there has been below freezing and with the recent 6 in. of snow we got this weekend, everything is now also covered in snow. Most days have also been cloudy and windy, making things worse for everyone.

The cold weather has made news in the world too, because it's the most unusually cold weather system in the entire world (except Siberia, and that's the same system). On a contour map, it almost looks as if the North Pole just broke open and all that cold air fell into the Eastern and Midwestern US! Of course, Illinois has been luckier than Boston, which got several feet of record-breaking snowfall. In that respect, this winter has not been that bad, as we never got as much snow as last year.

Models indicate that this weather will persist through March, after which we'll move into early spring. That means there are many cold days ahead! 

Is Reliance at War with the BJP Govt?

Two sets of events over the last few days, when read with developments over the past few years, indicate that all is not well between the Ambani-owned Reliance Industries, India's largest corporate conglomerate, and the BJP Government at the Center. The first event is what has been called the Corporate Espionage case, in which several people have now been arrested for leaking classified documents from the PNG Ministry, allegedly to sell them to global and Indian oil companies. In particular, Reliance itself has declared that one of those arrested was its executive.

Corporate spying, a darker version of lobbying, is nothing new and was manifested clearly in the 2G Scam and the Coalgate Scam. What is new is that the BJP Government has actually made the affair public and actually arrested and registered FIRs against those caught, while also evaluating SOPs and installing CCTVs to stop it. Therefore, the surprising fact is not the existence of espionage but the government's attempt to put a stop to it! And although several companies could be a part of it, Reliance seems to be the best-known one, at least in this case.

The second event is the clear negativity in the Network 18 empire, owned by Reliance, towards this government. This is surprising because the media group, with the exception of Sagarika Ghose on CNN-IBN, was seen as being rather favorable to the BJP and Narendra Modi in particular ever since he won his last Gujarat Assembly Election (and went on to win the General Election and become Prime Minister with a full majority). Firstpost, an opinions site owned by Network 18, has been spewing venom against Modi and his government for quite sometime now and its TV channels seem to be following suit, especially in the Delhi Assembly elections (arguably though, the entire media converged against Modi in that one).

Both these events lead to the obvious question as to whether Reliance is at war with the Union Government. The infamous Nira Radia tapes clearly made out the fact that the Congress is in Reliance's hand ('Congress toh humari dukaan hai'), despite the fact that the BJP is accused of being a corporate sell-out. The strictly-business approach of this government seems to be irking Reliance more than anyone else. The larger picture could come out soon. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

New Documentary: Walking through the Chola Empire


The Chola dynasty, at its height, unified not just all of southern India below the Tungabhadra river, but was the largest maritime empire in Indian history, establishing influence and control over lands as far away as Borneo and Malaysia, itself one of the largest such empires in history. To this day, the influence of the Chola empire and in particular, the great emperor Rajaraja Chola I, can be felt across the region.

In its first documentary of 2015, Opinions 24x7 chronicles the history of the Chola Empire through the varied lands that it conquered and unified and its lasting influence on them to this day.

Walking through the Chola Empire
Documentary
Coming Soon

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Time to wrap up the CBFC

The Chief of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), better knows as the Censor Board, has come in for criticism on social media from civil society as well as his own board members over a list her circulated, listing out 'objectionable' words that would invite an automatic ban on films, including the word 'Bombay,' the colonial name for India's financial capital, Mumbai. By one Board member's own admission, these rules are an extreme infringement of the creative freedom that filmmakers need.

However, the issue is not whether this list is right or wrong, for that is a subjective matter that has no answer. The real question is why a democracy like India has laws that enable such things to be banned in the first place - in other words, why should a government-appointed CBFC even exist? Why should we be willing to barter something as basic as communication (via films, in this case) for so-called peace and stability?

Consider what the government does: it monopolizes violence, so that only the police can legally use force against civilians. Therefore, it does not allow people to have any role in maintaining law and order, which means it and it alone is responsible for it. It cannot then put the onus of preventing violence on people. To illustrate, if they could, filmmakers who make so-called provocative films should also arrange for a private army to protect their screenings. But since they are barred by law from doing so by the state, the state itself is responsible for providing that protection. By having a Censor Board, the state tries to have it both ways - to control speech and also violence.

And that is why the CBFC is simply against the very idea of free speech and a democratic society. It is one thing to rate a movie for various audiences and quite another to ban it outright. We cannot have it both ways. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Stop these silly threats

This Valentine's Day, the Hindu Mahasabha and similar groups are once again in the news for trying their very best to terrorize young couples violating so-called Indian values, which appear to have nothing to with young Indians themselves. This year too, they have vowed to marry off such couples, notwithstanding their blunder a few years ago in marrying off some siblings who were going to market.

Year after year, this charade by these groups goes on and year after year, there are counter-demonstrations against it. What has it led to? Nothing at all - it's all a farce. What the Mahasabha and such groups do not understand is that India has changed so much since 1991 that they have no clout left among the youth - nobody wants to take orders from anybody and Indian culture is defined by the Indian people, not by any organization claiming to defend it. Most importantly, personal freedoms are very important to people and groups that attempt to trample on it will not succeed.

It is time the Mahasabha embraces modernity and stops looking at every last thing as a threat to Indian culture, similar to how the Taliban looks at everything as a threat to Islamic culture. If they are to remain relevant, they must see the new world that they live in and find peace with it. This regular assault on hapless people, irrespective of which party rules where, has given it nothing but anger and disgust from one and all. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Kejriwal Tsunami

The 2015 Delhi Assembly elections will go down in history as the first one since the Modi wave of 2014 in which the BJP was crushed. Arvind Kejriwal will go down in history as the comeback man who scripted a historic win and returned after a year to the Delhi Assembly as CM. And the mainstream media will bounce back with determination to re-establish itself. All this can be summed up in three words - the Kejriwal Tsunami.

The Aam Aadmi Party won a historic and decisive mandate in Delhi, capturing 53% of the votes and  95% of seats, with the BJP holding on to its core vote of 34% with just 3 seats and the Congress losing a bulk of its votes to AAP with just 9% and being wiped out of the Assembly altogether. The real test for AAP begins now, as people were open to giving Kejriwal a second chance but not to another extended period of dharnas, press conferences and vigilantism. If Kejriwal sticks to the script of his last government, he and his party will be wiped out once and for all. After all, Delhi 2015 showed to the BJP that arrogance and hubris can wipe out even India's strongest party - then why not AAP too?

For the BJP, it is time to introspect. Kiran Bedi was a clear mistake, not just because she had turned into a joke with her statements but also because it angered the cadre of Delhi to see an outsider being parachuted like this. It might have worked in a Lok Sabha election, but dynamics change in local elections. The party needs to build a base for itself and settle squabbles - a cadre-based party, unlike the Congress, cannot simply push those under the carpet forever. The Modi government needs to understand that voters are becoming impatient for acche din and his reforms agenda must be accelerated - Arun Jaitley's formula of consensus and incremental change will guarantee defeat in 2019. Delhi is a warning to Modi for just that.

As for the Congress, from being the ruling party for 15 years, it is now wiped out of Delhi, with not a single MP or MLA in the city-state, and just a few corporators who may not last for long. Rahul Gandhi has proved yet again that the Congress loses votes wherever he goes and by refusing to do anything about it, the party is headed for a swift death. Indeed, from being a national party, it is largely a sub-regional party (or as they say in Hyderabad, gali (by-lanes) ka party) today, except in some states, notably Karnataka.

The real winner of Delhi 2015 is the mainstream media, who were completely sidelined by the new powers in Delhi and who will not look to extract their pound of flesh from AAP as well as the BJP - in the form of free (taxpayer-paid) foreign trips, conferences and selective leaks, among other perks. The biggest battle of Amit Shah's career will be with this group, a powerful establishment that has kept the Gandhi dynasty in place for decades and which now looks for a new host. That might just be Arvind Kejriwal. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Exciting Times Ahead

Just a week to go for the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup in Australia-New Zealand, with defending champions India, fielding a younger team this time, looking to retain the cup even as the South African team seems the strongest side by far. Of course, with a bulk of cricket lovers being from the Indian subcontinent, all eyes are on the big clash of Valentine's Day - India v Pakistan (9.30 PM CET). Well, it's actually on Feb. 15, but for viewers in the US it is on the 14th!

I still remember that amazing 2011 World Cup final in Mumbai, when India won the Cup for only the second time in history, defeating Sri Lanka. It was in the hostel at RKB and everyone was there to watch - it was an electric atmosphere. It was a different time then of course - I was an undergraduate student with no cares in life, no deadlines to meet and nothing to worry about. 2015 is very different as a graduate student, with much to think about. It doesn't help that the timezone difference is almost as high as it could be in the cricketing world!

There are many expectations this time, chief among them being a victory for India. But realistically speaking, we don't have the team for it and the last overseas visit definitely showed us our place. The times are just not with us and the BCCI is definitely too busy with its own problems to worry about Indian cricket. Anyway, it's about the sport in the end and all the Indian team has to do is to play as best as it can and the people of the country will be with it - and yes, it has to win that Indo-Pak match, no choice about that! 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Where did our Freedom of Speech go?

A few days ago, satire group All India Bakchod (AIB), who are quite popular in the metro circles of urban India, had to remove a viral video from their +YouTube channel from their 'roast' event, an International (i.e., American) format of strictly adult comedy that is high on insult and expletives. This was, predictably, because some people (of no particular faith) had taken offence to it, meaning it was offensive and therefore the state had the power to stop it. Although in this case, no real action has been taken on AIB (and probably won't be taken either).

I'm not going to go into all the hogwash about the BJP (which rules in a coalition in Maharashtra, where the event happened) and its allied groups being against freedom of speech. The fact is that the Congress, by virtue of its long (and almost finished) history as India's default party, has attacked freedom of speech far more than any other party of organization in the country, with the state machinery in its power to do so. I'm not even going to go into the general, leftist idea of freedom, which is quite hypocritically implemented (remember Mani Shankar Aiyar's tirade against Charlie Hebdo?).

The problem here is not that some people are just hyper-sensitive to everything. Nor is it that our laws are badly-written and quite routinely abused, then justified in a court of law, which in turn not only accepts the justification but adds some more points itself. The problem is the very notion of what the state is supposed to do and what is its role. The problem is, from the perspective of the Indian Constitution (not just Article 19), the state created India. India is the Government of India and everything else, including its people, are a part of it, but not critical to it. Therefore, it is the state which gives us our freedom of speech (and every other freedom), it is not a natural freedom of us, as beings of an ancient, continuing civilization.

The problem is, the founding fathers of the Constitution were more interested in creating a state based on a very European conception of the state, than on continuing a great civilization that was only interrupted momentarily by foreign occupation. Therefore, India was the state, not the people, and the state could control speech (which is to say, free speech was fine only if the state said so). This might sound like a terrible thing to do, but that is exactly the path that a socialist republic goes down to. It is that sort of thinking that went into the First Amendment, and now we live with the laws that derive directly from it. 

The Lone Warrior

Fact: the Congress is finished in Delhi and will be lucky to even halve their performance from the 2013 Assembly Elections. Everybody knows this and the party itself seems to know this. As an analysis in +Swarajya rightly pointed out, the party has gone from being a national party to a sub-regional one, winning very stretched out votes among a very small category of voters. Therefore, it makes sense for it to concentrate on one or two contests where it has a slight chance of winning.

And that's what Ajay Maken has done, although he has tried to make it look like a pan-Delhi campaign. The lone warrior of the Congress this election season, he has been virtually the only person encouraging Congress workers to keep campaigning. He has been the butt of all jokes in the social media of course, for claiming that the Congress will form a government in Delhi without anybody's support, but the fact is that he has been the only Congress leader to encourage the workers with such (implausible) statements. That is, after all, how elections are won - through enthusiastic party workers.

For all his hopes though, he doesn't seem to be very safe in his own constituency, quite unlike his opponents, BJP's Kiran Bedi and AAP's Arvind Kejriwal. It would be difficult for him to win his own seat, leave alone lead a campaign for others to win. But he has clearly set himself up as a good leader (he did a commendable job in the Union Sports Ministry under the UPA) and he is definitely looking at a bright future for himself, though not necessarily with the Congress. 

Breathtaking, if Long

Fall of Giants
By Ken Follett

Historical fiction is always a difficult genre. Not only does it need extensive research, it requires the writer to put themselves in the position of their characters, decades, centuries or even millenniums ago, and write a coherent story. Most choose to keep it short because of that. Ken Follett though, chose to write a trilogy, with Book #1 going to about 1,000 pages!

The scope of this book is simply breathtaking - it spans countries, continents, oceans and several families. It mixes real and fictitious characters seamlessly. It is a little exaggerated in that it tries to change who was the first female British MP, but that is excusable in fiction.

Overall, this is an excellent beginning for what promises to be an exciting journey through time. The question is - will he be able to maintain the momentum? 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Who's running Bihar?

The theater of the absurd has been playing out in Bihar recently, with incumbent CM Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was appointed as a puppet by former CM Nitish Kumar after the BJP's spectacular victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to deflect the intense pressure on him, has begun to build his own base, much to the chagrin of his master. If the Indian Express is to be believed, Nitish Kumar has tried twice so far to remove his former protege and failed both times.

Next week, once the Delhi elections are out of the way, the final power play is all set. JD(U) president Sharad Yadav, on the insistence of Nitish Kumar and with the permission of his new master, Lalu Yadav, has called for a meeting of the Legislature Party, whose single purpose is to elect Nitish as their new leader and thus, the new CM. In response, Manjhi has already voiced protest publicly, as only the CM can call such a meeting and not the party president. In addition, a case has been filed against Sharad Yadav for alleged casteist comments against Manjhi.

All this means just one thing: even before the so-called Janata Parivar can fight the BJP in November, it will have to fight itself. Nitish Kumar might just have made another spectacular blunder because an entire vote bank, the Mahadalits, that he built up, will be stripped of him if Manjhi revolts openly against him. And yet, Kumar has no greater dream than to defeat Narendra Modi and return to power in Patna and if Manjhi stops him, that would be quite an anti-climax. Obviously, it is not going to happen without a fight - and that fight might just be to the BJP's benefit, if they can play their cards right.

Even more mysterious is what Lalu Yadav is going to do, for he has the biggest ambitions of all, having seen much more power than Nitish and having been out of power longer. In the end, Lalu Yadav may just make a comeback as CM of Bihar, with everything that it brings. 

Conference Chronicles: Age of Penance

At the TRB Conference in Washington, DC, in discussion with my research colleagues, we discussed about life after college, when there's an idea that one knows everything and deserves the very best. Of course, this bubble is burst even before leaving college, when networking exposes you to the grim realities of life with a real job. But there's quite a lot that one quickly learns in their early 20s, fresh out of college.

Then, as my colleague out it, the 20s is the age of penance for anybody. Fresh out of two decades of being protected, first in school and then in college, it is an entirely new world out there! One thinks one knows everything, only to realize that one knows nothing at all - for that is the yawning gap between theory and practice today.

Some of my friends complain about all the work they have to do. I myself come home just to sleep - and that's been the case for the last year and a half. Such is the age we live in! And what keeps us going - our dreams. As Ayn Rand said (Atlas Shrugged):

The highest thing in a man is not his god. It's that in him which knows the reverence due a god. You are my highest reverence.

What's happening in Delhi?

With campaigning for the Delhi Assembly elections finally over, it is important to look back and analyze the campaign before it is clouded by the results. For now, it is important to focus on the campaign itself and for once, the BJP largely goofed it up. The biggest strategic mistake of the party was not inducting Kiran Bedi as the face of the campaign - if anything, she gave the party a foot in the door that Arvind Kejriwal had otherwise kept shut for himself.

The biggest problem with the Delhi BJP is the lack of attention to building a cadre and a strangely absent social media campaign, which reaped handsome dividends for the party just a year back when the BJP won its first Lok Sabha majority. Delhi, despite giving the party all seven Lok Sabha seats, has a very poor base for the party and its May victory was almost entirely on the back of the Modi wave that had swept the country then. But since then, it has been business as usual for the local unit and that is the opening that AAP needed.

But that's not the real story of Delhi - that can only be found in the corridors of media houses in Delhi, where the entire mainstream media has turned this election into a mission to hit back at the BJP for ending the state-funded largess that they have gotten accustomed to. Unlike every previous PM since the advent of private news media, Modi has refused to give space to the media and shares a historically hostile relationship with them. They are now using Delhi as a launchpad to recapture that lost space. This election is not really AAP vs BJP as much as it is the mainstream media versus Amit Shah. The prize is not the Delhi Assembly, which is a glorified municipality at best, but political control of ideas that shape and define the nation.

If AAP wins, it will be a victory for the media and they will use it to threaten the BJP in every election to follow until they get their pound of flesh - state-funded flights on foreign delegations, invitations to government events and of course, more Padma awards. If however, the BJP comes out on top, it will be the end of the Lutyen's media as we know it. Truly, this election represents a turning point for the BJP as it moves towards becoming India's primary political party.

Incidentally, the Congress is virtually assured of a rout, but if it somehow manages to save its face, it could give Rahul Gandhi the much needed breathing space that is shrinking for him after Jayanthi Natarajan's mutiny. But that seems highly unlikely, even impossible. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Putting country before dynasty

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took everyone by surprise when his cabinet asked Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh to step down before her contract expired (she had already superannuated) to appoint Indian Ambassador to the US Subrahmaniam Jaishankar as the next Foreign Secretary. After that, all hell broke loose as the media went into overdrive to take sides, as it always does.

One interesting story however, came out from Suhasini Haidar writing in The Hindu, wherein it was revealed that even the former PM Dr. Manmohan Singh wanted to appoint Mr. Jaishankar as FS but was overruled by party president Sonia Gandhi. Yes, the Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy was overruled on a secretarial appointment by an unaccountable party president. This is the sort of story you hear of in the communist regimes of China and North Korea, but this actually happened just a few years ago in India. It is not just shocking but deeply disturbing, how the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, having once failed to abolish the Constitution overtly, came so close to doing it covertly by subsuming the powers of the executive in secret.

And why was Sujatha Singh appointed instead? Because, it seems, her father, a former IB man, was close to the dyansty while Jaishankar's father, the legendary K Subrahmaniam, was a critic of Nehru's China policy (which nearly cost us our northeast). Therefore, appointments were made not on the basis of national interest or even merit, but on loyalty to the dynasty. There is only one work for that - a dictatorship. UPA I and II were therefore a decade of the dictatorship of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, as this incident clearly shows.

Fortunately, India's democracy is still alive and Modi is Prime Minister. His uncanny ability to find good talent and put them to work was what led him to govern Gujarat so effectively, and he has not brought that to the Union Government. He has put the country before his personal preferences by putting the US visa ban issue aside and actively engaging with America and its allies. In the field of foreign policy at least, he is all set to leave behind every predecessor of his. More than anything else, this is acche din