Friday, July 31, 2015

Highly Convoluted

Winston's War: A Novel of Conspiracy
By Michael Dobbs

Ah, Winston Churchill, the man who went from having a horrible reputation to being one of the most celebrated Prime Ministers in Britain. So many novels have been written about him, and so many more books have been written by him, that there is actually very little to say that has not been said. And yet, Michael Dobbs must have his say! This novel of conspiracy, a work of complete fiction, actually has its say about Churchill but is more about his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, and how his politicking almost cost Britain World War II.

Dobbs masterfully weaves historic characters with his fictional ones and gives each of them depth. This is not a clear-cut, black-and-white book, but a complex one where everyone had their own compulsions. It is however, written in typically verbose British style, making it quite a challenge for readers to take in. Nonetheless, it is worth a read, especially for history buffs. I've come to like Dobbs despite his circumlocutory style of writing, and I'm glad to have managed to get hold of another of his books to read after this one.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Partial Justice

The last one week has been one of high drama (and it's just Wednesday!), from the Gurdaspur terror attack to the death of former President Abdul Kalam to the events around the hanging of Yakub Memon less than an hour ago. Much has happened, and yet there is one common link to them all - the Adarsh Liberals who have clearly shown that their hatred for Prime Minister Narendra Modi far exceeds whatever little love they have for India.

On the Gurdaspur attack, which is being seen as the first ISI-backed operation in Punjab in decades, the Adarsh Liberals were thirsting to know the religion of the terrorist, hoping that it would be Sikh or Hindu so that they could target the entire religion. Unfortunately for them, initial reports seem to point out that they were Muslims, Pakistanis to be precise (at least going by their GPS records), at which point it went back to 'terrorism has no religion'.

On the tragic death of Dr. Kalam that saw Indians of all shades grieving at the death of one of the most popular Presidents India has ever had, the Adarsh Liberals were quick to bring up his religion and - strangely - debunk it. It is no secret that the Missile Man of India was in complete agreement with the right wing idea (fact?) that India has been the target of repeated invasions for thousands of years and that would finally come to an end once we acquired nuclear weapons. For Adarsh Liberals, who feel India was created in 1947 as a European outpost, such talk is blasphemy and they were quick to pain him as some Hindutva icon. No doubt this was backed by the Gandhi dynasty, who greatly disliked him and had him succeeded by their lackey, Pratibha Patil, who shamed the office.

And finally, the hanging of Yakub Memon saw an unprecedented outpouring of support for the terrorist who was part of the plot (with brother Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim) to murder hundreds of innocent people in 1993 in Bombay. Among more civilized people, such a man would've been lynched, but among the Adarsh Liberals who are comfortably ensconced in JNU, the death of a few natives doesn't matter in their larger project of staying in power. And thus the shameless minority appeasement continued, virtually overturning their own principle that terrorism has no religion (which is anyway used very selectively), claiming that Muslims would feel alienated if a mass murderer who also happened to be Muslim was executed. And remember, Memon was not lynched, he was given an unprecedented number of opportunities to use the law to defend himself, including a first-ever hearing at 2:00 AM on the day he died. And thus, to save him, the Adarsh Liberals dragged out everything they had, from Partition to the 2002 riots to Kashmir; it was a bloody war they waged and lost wholly.

In the end however, partial justice was served and the fact that these Adarsh Liberals are far removed from reality exposed like never before. While the investigation of the Gurdaspur attack is still on, the death of Kalam has been mourned by all irrespective of religion, for he was a unifying figure that the left liberals could never create. Yakub Memon is dead, hanged by law after an exhaustive due process, and while his death only partially brings justice to the victims of 1993, it is a beginning. Indians have lost and gained much this week. The only ones to lose everything were the shameless Adarsh Liberals. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Great Loss for India

Dr. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Adbul Kalam, Bharat Ratna
11th President of the Republic of India (2002-2007)
Born in British India in 1931 in the fishing hamlet of Rameshwaram in the then Madras Presidency (and what eventually became the state of Tamil Nadu of the Indian Union), India's 11th President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam's life has been the stuff of dreams for the hundreds of millions of young people in India who look for a mentor, an idol to follow. He was called the People's President, one who traveled to schools and universities around the country. He gave the young people the target of 2020 to make India a developed nation. And while that goal seems improbable, the energy from it is what really made a difference.

Dr. Kalam was a scientist, a poet and, much later in his life, a politician. And he was all that simultaneously. For his contribution to India's nuclear deterrent, he was awarded the Bharat Ratna; years later, he played an important part in persuading the Samajwadi Party to support the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which broke India loose from the shackles of International sanctions and virtually created an exception in the NPT in favor of India. But his love was always for the youth, who he continued to inspire even after he stepped down from the Presidency, to which he was elected during the Vajpayee government in 2002. Few Presidents have been accorded the kind of respect by the general public as him.

It is perhaps fitting that this inspiring academic breathed his last delivering a lecture at IIM Shillong, in front of the academic world that he was always a part of. While death is inevitable, he certainly died the happiest he could have. From life to death, the pursuit of happiness. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A case for booting out Greece

The tiny state of Greece has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, having become the first developed country to default on its IMF repayment, with unemployment soaring to 25% and the economy shrinking. And despite all assertions by Thomas Piketty, it is very much the government of Greece and the people who elected them that are to blame. There are many levels to this.

The Greek government cooked its books to get into the EU and the Eurozone - this is an undisputed fact. It did not meet the requirements for entry into the EU, and by that very reason it should be booted out now. It is not the same as saying that the eurozone is not permanent (is anything?) - it is saying that deceit cannot get you in. Indeed, the rules for admission to the EU are the only common fiscal policy that the EU has. Thus, even as EU countries in the eurozone give up their monetary policy to the ECB, in the absence of any coordinated fiscal policy, there is bound to be chaos. By booting Greece out of the EU, the bloc would be able to assert itself as a political union that is committed to the idea of honesty and a rules-based system that respects national sovereignty. Without even this veneer of a common fiscal policy, the entire eurozone is doomed, almost by definition.

As if all this wasn't enough, the Syriza government in Greece has just shown how fond it is of smoke and witchcraft. The Prime Minister ordered a referendum on the EU bailout proposal, a referendum that failed to meet standards. Quite contrary to popular perception, a referendum must be preceded by honest, nationwide debate that talks about both sides of the coin, a debate that must be supported by the state even if the position of the ruling party is sharply on one side. The Greek referendum was nowhere near that, it was basically a Syriza referendum, and the outcome was predictable.

And that funniest thing of all is that it was all unnecessary, because the PM then chose to virtually accept all the terms set by the EU when he realized that Germany (although not France) was quite willing to throw it out of the EU and set off what could possibly be a century of (further) decline. The terms were humiliating and humorous in equal measure, with one clause calling for more competition among bakers in Greek cities! And yet, the PM took the terms to Parliament and used all his political muscle to get it through, making enemies of his own supporters and his own party. If the PM was finally going to do what the Germans had prescribed, why all the loud noise and the pointless referendum?

In the end however, it is a fact that Greece cannot pay back its debts on time. It is approaching 200% of GDP and the IMF has called it unsustainable. Either the loans are restructured and spaced out over the next century, or Germany forgives most of it. If it's the second case, then it makes perfect sense to boot Greece out of the eurozone and the EU, because Germany would have to foot the bill in any case. High-sounding rhetoric aside, a #Grexit is really the best option, even now. The only other option is a century of humiliation for the Greeks. As you sow, so you shall reap. 

How to fool a lot of people

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party government is showing the entire country just how a large number of (dumb) people can be fooled very effectively. In their so-called Swaraj budget, they touted their ability to hand out freebies without raising any taxes; and just a few days later, in a brazen act, they introduced separate legislation to increase taxes across the board. By decoupling tax increases from the Finance Bill, Kejriwal basically tried to have his pudding and eat it too. Not only is this improper, it actual goes against their own manifesto that promised not to raise VAT, a manifesto that was made with much fanfare.

But that's not all. Even as Kejriwal raises taxes to fund his populism, the size of his administration is growing rapidly and alarmingly as he gives perks and positions to his cronies in the Party, both elected and otherwise. It is unseemly for a tiny city-state like Delhi to even have a Deputy CM whereas the number of departments with the CMO is so small that one person can handle it themselves. India has run quite well through both UPA administrations and the current BJP government without a deputy PM. Moreover, the number of Parliamentary Secretaries and commissions created and resuscitated by this government is shocking, with even a huge state like Uttar Pradesh struggling to compete with the municipality of Delhi!

Ah, but there is a parallel to all this. That parallel lies to the east, in the former CPM citadel of West Bengal, where the Communist Party inserted itself into every walk of life, eliminated all opposition, and turned the government into the party. That state, along with Kerala (another former CPM bastion), is the only state, aside from the mountainous states in the north and northeast that face a geographical/strategic disadvantage, to have a revenue deficit. Even a poor state like Bihar, which lost its entire mineral base to Jharkhand, has a revenue surplus. In simple words, it means the state was spending more on sustaining itself than the taxes it was able to bring in from economic activity. The state became the only economic activity, it did not pay any taxes, and it borrowed heavily to sustain itself, leaving West Bengal with a burning hole in the pocket that Mamata Banerjee has been complaining about for her entire term.

In West Bengal, we can see the future of Delhi, except that Delhi is supported by the rest of the country as the national capital, so everyone else is obligated to pay its bills. It is ironic then that Kejriwal wants statehood for Delhi, because it would then lose that safety net and be forced to pay up like everybody else. But then, all this heavy economics is impossible to understand for communists who are determined not to let something as unimportant as reality get in the way of their dreams!

Full of Trash

Network 18's online opinions site Firstpost was never really known for any substantive information. You have there bankers pretending to be geostrategic experts, out-of-work JNU graduates acting like five-star activists, and much more. It is not unknown that Firstpost exists to propagate a view. Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, that view was that Modi must be PM at all costs - and its so-called opinions were made accordingly. Now, it is known that network 18's owner is not particularly pleased at Modi having ended the influence peddling that was rampant in the UPA regimes. Thus, Firstpost turned into an anti-Modi website, almost overnight really, with some editorial changes (placement season at JNU?).

This was OK initially. Everyone has a right to their views, and PM Modi is no stranger to unfair media persecution. The articles themselves were scathing but reasonable in their approach. But having an agenda is always a slippery slope and it takes good brains to keep from falling into the cesspool of third-rate 'journalism' that agenda-driven news always falls into. You see, news is supposed to be organic, evolving with human activity. Ideally, there is no need to manufacture news, because it is always happening and there is never a shortage of it. But when the agenda is to manufacture news and not report it, there is definitely a shortage, especially given that the agenda is against a PM who remains very popular despite every attempt by the Left-Liberal media to tarnish him for over a decade now.

Recently, Firstpost showed exactly why hiring amateurs to push their agenda can fire back at them. They published a caustic piece, comparing Salman Khan's recent masala movie Bajrangi Bhaijan to some Hindu male-RSS-BJP-Nazi-Fascist-Zionist-... (you get the picture) plot to wipe out people's brain cells. The fact that this is not nearly Salman Khan's first or even last masala movie, and that it sells much more than Firstpost can ever hope to make, didn't come in the way of the manufactured narrative of some Hindutva takeover of a country that is 80% Hindu. The article - diatribe, rather - was laughable in that the desperation of the writer to push their agenda was so clear and so badly executed. At least 'news' portals like the Indian Express make their lies sound like facts, Firstpost doesn't even try, ending up looking like Faking News on steroids (and a lot of them, at that).

The bottom line, as one writer put it so well, is that the Left-Liberal establishment that has sucked the Indian state dry of its money, history, confidence and entrepreneurial skills was never ready for a prolonged spell of Narendra Modi as PM. They fully expected him to fall from grace quickly and for fresh elections to anoint their messiah Rahul Gandhi as PM before he turned 44. It only goes to show how far removed from reality they are, with Modi firmly the PM for another four years with his rock-solid, one-party Lok Sabha majority, and an energy and determination that makes him extremely popular in the country. In failing to counter him with facts and resorting to histrionics, they are merely exposing their own desperation. 

A Successful Tour

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent tour of the five Central Asian 'stans' as well as the BRICS and SCO summits in Ufa, Russia was clearly a major success for Indian diplomacy. For long, India has cherished to join the SCO, which has developed mechanisms to combat terrorism from the Middle East that is seeping into Central, South and East Asia. With full membership now in place, India has the ability to make use of those facilities. More importantly, by putting Central Asia in the spotlight, the Prime Minister has clearly acted on his belief that foreign policy must come to the aid of economic growth, which is really the only way to bring prosperity to the country. The renewed agreement on uranium sales from Kazakhstan as well as oil and gas agreements with other states will be important for a growing country.

The BRICS summit too was notable, with the Prime Minister suggesting ten steps (das kadam) towards building the order that holds potential in challenging the Western order that has dominated the world since World War II. In BRICS lies the convergence of independent political interests, some inimical to the West (like Russia and China) while other open to working with the West but on equal terms (India, Brazil and South Africa), all looking to create a new world order where the decline of Europe and Japan is almost set in stone while the decline of America as the world's hegemonic state is becoming increasingly apparent. The world is in great flux today not just because of American decline but because of the rise of terrorism in its most brutal form in modern history in the Middle East. Thus, by holding the SCO and BRICS summits together, Russian President Vladimir Putin set the tone for a new approach forward to the world. And this time, India is at the high table.

It is unfortunate that despite all these excellent developments, the Indian media only woke up to Ufa for the meeting and join statement between the leaders of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the SCO summit. It is not wrong to say that friendship between India and Pakistan is impossible in this century and that Pakistan has become nothing more than a nibbling problem for India on its periphery. The joint statement was quite factual in nature, with hardly anything new in it, and barely deserved any news space at all in an otherwise successful tour. Contrary to what both the Indian and Pakistani media portrayed it as, Kashmir was not left out, because the phrase 'all outstanding issues' is a byword for Kashmir. The fact is that India does not need Pakistan at all and aside from the terrorism that emanates from there, India should barely be bothered. Indeed, as a country dependent on the IMF for its solvency, it is Pakistan that needs India, a creditor country to the IMF. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Power of Science

The world today, through the brilliant scientists and engineers at NASA, got its first glimpse of Pluto, that far away member (?) of our Solar System that has long-remained a pixelated blob in our minds. No more. The earliest results from the New Horizons that NASA has shared show an icy surface that has a surprising set of mountains and ridges in it, unlike what is usually expected of bodies not protected by Jupiter's gravity from comets and asteroids. 

The pictures are of course an instant hit all over the world, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrating the event.

For humanity, collectively, this just goes to show the power of a few dedicated, very patient people and a lot of very good, sound scientific principles. Pluto brings with it more mysteries about our universe, mysteries that we can only begin to imagine now. Perhaps, a hundred or more years later, we will be able to travel to that distant world. Such is science - anything within the bounds of physical laws is possible!

On a side note, the moon Charon looks conspicuously like the Death Star. Sheer brilliance, even if coincidental!

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Semi-Final is Over

The recently-concluded Legislative Council elections in Bihar were dubbed by all parties as the big semi-final to the Assembly elections in November. Indeed, it did represent a complete cross-section of the total electorate, in particular the power sarpanches in a state where 85% of the population lives in rural areas. And if the LC results are anything to go by, the BJP is looking at forming a government in Patna by the end of the year.

The BJP, and its allies the LJP and RLSP, didn't just win but also set the tenor the the entire state. While the LJP managed to win just one seat and the RLSP (whose leader has been championing himself as the next CM) scored a duck, the BJP won a majority of the seats it contested. Together, the NDA trounced the combined powers of the RJD, the JD(U) and the Congress, while the Left parties were yet again wiped out from the map.

This is a serious setback to the RJD-JD(U)-Congress troika, essentially a collective of everyone opposed to the BJP. It is an even greater setback to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. If caste equations are anything to go by, upper and lower castes are dumping the alliance, with even Muslims not favoring it. However, to look at it in terms of caste is not entirely correct any more: as the 2014 Lok Sabha elections showed Bihar can rise above caste, as it did with its overwhelming support to the Modi wave that swept almost all of India back then. The irony is that, had Nitish Kumar stayed with the BJP instead of positioning himself as a Muslim champion, he would've enjoyed the fruits of that same wave. And while his political courage deserves praise, his history seems to be set as one of the most spectacular failures in history, perhaps only behind Rahul Gandhi.

The NDA camp has much to think about as well, especially the allies who failed to make a real dent. Caste politics is taking the backseat in Bihar. Will parties follow? 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hail the Second Law

Recently, I have been studying basic Thermodynamics as a precursor to the next semester, when I will formally be starting my PhD with a subject that is eminently more relevant to my research than just about anything CEE has to offer (ironically). Back when I was in IITR, Saharanpur Campus to be exact, it was taught rather badly, by a certain professor (who is now dead) who was thoroughly uninterested in teaching us anything. It is to the credit of my own genius, and that of my peers, that I was able to figure out how to read a steam table in the first place!

Now, having had to unexpectedly revisit those concepts for my research in preparation of fully relaunching myself in the area of thermal analysis, I've really come to appreciate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a law that people don't seem to give enough credit to. The universe literally runs on the law - our sense of time, direction, even work and energy itself come from the law. The law is intuitive, except in its most explicit form, which  makes no sense because it includes the property of entropy, which is not very intuitive. Nonetheless, reviewing the second law and understanding its implications, one gets a better idea of just how the universe works. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The importance of writing

Students who enter the world of research are often unprepared for the amount of writing it entails. Most people see PhD students as living in dark labs, huddled around their experiments and with little concern for the rest of the world. Indeed, at some points of time, this is fairly accurate - but not always. For, the essence of good research is the peer review process, which inherently involves sharing and discussing research. Indeed, research (once you have some results) is actually a rather social process. And that process involves a lot of writing - scientific writing, in fact. For every paper that is written, submitted for the peer review process and (hopefully) published, knowledge is being shared and, in many cases, philosophical differences are being established.

But a fundamental requirement of this is that whatever is written, is written well. While advisers do have a responsibility in ensuring that papers are well-written, the ultimate thrust lies on the students themselves. Therefore, PhD students need to keep practicing the fine art of scientific writing - for only that can make them better at it. I've spent most of this summer writing - papers, my thesis and later this week, a presentation and a poster. I thought research would mean continuously finding out new things. Turns out, while it does include that, it also includes sharing it.  

From CAG to IPAC

A major force in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and recipient of a special award from OTFS, India CAG (Citizens for Accountable Governance) showed a new, tech-savvy way of running an election campaign, a way that was unprecedented in India and at a scale that was unprecedented in the whole world. Now, with the Modi sarkaar having completed a year in office, another great election is on the horizon - Bihar. And it seems to be all deja vu again, if not for the fact that the main players have changed. 
India CAG was rather unceremoniously ditched by the BJP after May 2014, with its members not given any role whatsoever in the government. Agreed, it is wrong to involve party members in the government outside of official structures (as AAP is doing right now), but CAG was not a part of the BJP, it was a group of active citizens who wanted to work for the country. And it is that same CAG, give or take a few, that is now the India Political Action Committee (IPAC) that is spearheading Nitish Kumar's campaign in Bihar. 

What does an ideological voter of the BJP think of what appears to be a desertion of the ranks? As I already said, CAG was never a part of the BJP and Amit Shah should not assume that they are. But this defection does not really appear to be non-ideological, it is just not the BJP's ideology. CAG and now IPAC is driven by the desire to use strong leaders to change India for the better - a goal that many, if not most Indians, share (though not necessarily which leader). To them, it is not about the ideology but the individual - an acknowledgement that India has always been running a Presidential system of government under the garb of Westminster democracy. It is the BJP's failure that they were unable to keep such a non-ideological base with them and indeed, don't seem to be able to retain anything except the RSS!
But this is more than just about parties. Parties win and lose in democratic cycles. But something more radical is happening - party structures themselves are breaking down. From winning elections through largely feudal methods that depend on cultivating unquestioning loyalty - as the Congress and the Communists still do (at the risk of becoming increasingly irrelevant) - parties are now having to depend on professional data analysis to determine strategy. The base of parties is breaking down from a top-heavy, family-centered system of patronage to something more democratic. This is happening very slowly, but surely. 

2015: In the Land of the Free

Today is the 239th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, observed in the US as Independence Day. This is the second time I am observing this holiday inside this wonderful country and like last time, I'm working in my office. For if Independence Day marked the right of every man to the pursuit of happiness, then what makes me happier than my work? In the sad American parlance of today, work is a necessary evil, and the extended weekend for Independence Day is a nice excuse to run away from it. But I disagree, at least for myself: my work is wonderful and inspiring. Not only would I observe July 4 and July 4 alone as Independence Day, I will do it by getting a lot of work done. For that, in my opinion, is the true American spirit.