Thursday, March 31, 2016

IOTY15: A Year of Battle and Hope

 The year 2015 was a difficult year for India. Forces that had thought to have been vanquished in 2014 came back with a vengeance, through all manner of deceit and instigation. On one side, Christian extremists sought to take advantage of petty vandalism in churches to divide the country; caste politics returned; the defeated ideology of crony socialism became hip again; and communist elements on campuses re-surfaced. It was a difficult year.

In response to them, and in the total absence of any space in the mainstream media, the people's voices shown through in the social media and also through individual agents of change. The victories of 2014 gave way to the defeats of 2015... but the battle is far, far from over. This is a new India. And it is at war with the old forces that seek to hold it back.

Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2015

Saturday, March 26, 2016

An Aside

Code to Zero
By Ken Follett

I've read plenty of Ken Follett and by now, I've come to expect a certain style. Slow, yet always progressing ahead on the story, with plenty of asides to keep the reader guessing. All that obviously adds to the sheer volume of reading - all his books that I've read so far have been 1000+ pages. Which is why I was surprised when I picked up Code to Zero from CPL: at under 400 pages, I was afraid that it was an incomplete novel that he had managed to publish nonetheless!

Oh. but I was wrong. This novel is absolutely a departure from his usual style of writing, but it is surprisingly engaging nonetheless. I can't remember devouring a novel of his so fast since Winter of the World! The novel is fast and full of surprise till the very end. And, being set in DC, I could actually remember some of the locations from my previous trips there. Now this novel makes me think that perhaps a writer of historical fiction could try a more, let's say mainstream, genre. 

A Breathtaking Sweep

World Without End
By Ken Follett

It is a little unusual, I think, for a grand book to have a sequel. I've heard of trilogies of course, but an actual sequel seemed odd. Nonetheless, having read and enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth, I just had to see what befell Kingsbridge and its cathedral a century later. In World Without End, Ken Follett goes far beyond what he did previously - with a bit of medieval feminism thrown in to boot!

This novel was clearly meant to convey many things. If the first edition of the story was about the power or religion in shaping man's fortunes, the second one clearly questioned that power, as the historic enlightenment can ever closer. That is perhaps the greatest achievement of the book - it puts itself in an appropriate historical context, and doesn't just borrow historical characters. Written in Follett's typical narrative, it made for a great read.  

Friday, March 25, 2016

The New Fringe

There have been some editorial pieces recently that have, as always, decried what they call the Hindutva brigade for all the problems of the world, from ISIS to a lack of ripe bananas in a store somewhere. It is becoming a most regular affair, with the same set of individuals writing in different outlets, both online and offline, about the so-called 'Idea of India' being under threat, Emergency-like situation, fascism, and all that jazz. It is almost becoming comical now, with the same trash being paraded as if it is new. Recently, another such piece of trash caught my attention - a lament that the so-called fringe (read, the right wing) has now become mainstream, and their ideas have become acceptable. Now, here's a bit of spin if I've ever seen it.

But it's not spin simply because the so-called fringe has not become mainstream. In fact, they have. Right wing ideas of capitalism, entrepreneurship, and equality of individuals has become mainstream. What these articles are hiding is the fact that the old ideas of socialism, naked pandering to minority communalism, deliberate use of caste to divide Hindus, and other such tools that have till recently been the norm, are increasingly becoming fringe. The commentators who are crying that the right wing is no longer the fringe have actually become the fringe themselves - loud, shrill voices, bereft of logic, that holler out loud, hoping to catch some attention, but fail to do so every time.

And they have none but themselves to blame. As long as the media was under their control, these leftists could be as hypocritical as they wanted to be. So the murder of a Muslim man by a Hindu mob is a lynching, but the reverse is mere road rage. Calling Durga a prostitute is freedom of expression, but calling Mohammed gay is blasphemy. Dividing Hindus and Muslims is wrong, but dividing Brahmins and Dalits is fair game. A secular country doling out a Hajj subsidy is perfectly rational, Sharia is secular and a uniform civil code is communal. It is these and many more gems of hypocrisy that people have finally come to see, understand, and resent.The game, at least for the so-called intellectuals, is up.

The best example of this is the fortune of the Communist parties. In most of India, their ideology has indeed become the fringe, now trying desperately to clutch at universities, as they always do. Sure, they win elections, but that's because they use caste, tribal affiliantion, and religion to the hilt (so much for communist utopia). The Congress has done much better because they have no ideology, they are simply power hungry. But even their sponsored ecosystem, what I call the Deep Congress, is under strain. They are also becoming the fringe.

Something strange is indeed happening in India. The hypocrisy of the old is giving way to new ideas. The fringe is becoming the mainstream, and the mainstream is becoming the fringe. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Why Suu Kyi is no Sonia Gandhi

Burmese leader Aun Sung Suu Kyi has completed a process that began decades ago, a process that would have been considered impossible just a few years ago. The newly-elected Parliament, in which about 77% of the 75% elected seats (25% are reserved for the military) are held by her party, elected the country's first civilian president in half a century... and it wasn't her, because a clause in the new Constitution that was basically meant to exclude her, disqualifies her. Negotiations with the military-backed representatives to ease that clause, or amend it, have met with stiff resistance. Therefore, unable to effect any change to the legal framework, she has simply decided to follow it in word but not in spirit. Reuters described this as similar to the arrangement between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi.

That metaphor is wrong. In both cases, the winner was supposed to take over power, and it was a fair (well, almost fair in Burma) context. There should be no second thoughts on that. But constitutional provisions - right or wrong - came in the way. However, the fact remains that in the semi-feudal setup of political parties in the region (and Burma has a long, shared history with India) does not allow anyone but the head to pull the strings. Therefore, in any case, if anyone but the head of the party holds executive office, they remain subservient to the head. This is not offered as an opinion of whether it is right or wrong, it is a simple fact. Sonia Gandhi tried to have it both ways - she made a huge drama of 'sacrificing' the PM's chair, while setting up a parallel super-cabinet in the form of the NAC. Eventually, her son Rahul Gandhi became No. 2 in the country, ahead of the PM himself. It was destruction of democracy by stealth, for in her capacity as the true head of the government, she was not accountable to anyone.

It is different with Suu Kyi. In her case, she is not looking to be hypocritical, or to enrich herself and her family. She is saying very frankly and openly that the new president is her puppet, and she will pull the strings. This made a BBC interviewer gawk, but the fact is that this is how it works in the region. People voted for the NLD because they wanted Suu Kyi to make decisions for the country. It would be wrong to have it any other way. Indeed, a direct subversion of a military-created constitution may be considered a solemn duty.

And that is the difference between Aung San Suu Kyi and Sonia Gandhi. The former is undermining a military-imposed Constitution. The latter undermined a democratically drafted one. 

IOTY15: Movie of the Year

The nominees for Movie of the Year 2015 are:

  • Bahubali: SS Rajamouli's magnum opus, bringing a larger-than-life narrative to an Indian story
  • Manjhi - The Mountain Man: For it's telling of the strength of human spirit against even the greatest of odds
  • Dum Laga Ke Haisha: For its simplicity and depiction of real life problems, handled by real life people
  • NH10: For its thrilling and riveting performance, picking up from multiple sources of inspiration

Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2015
Coming Soon...

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Making Exams: A Great Challenge

As part of first tenure as a TA for a large, undergraduate course, I was tasked with making exams, which the instructor would ratify based on their experience. Initially I thought it would be easy - just make questions covering all topics concerned. But then I quickly realized that making questions was not as easy as it seemed. Of course, there is always the thought of just repeating homework problems with different numbers. But not only is that lazy and sloppy, but it assumes that everyone perfectly understood the homework. Furthermore, it also assumes that having understood it, they would be able to solve it quickly. Neither of those assumptions is correct.

Making exams can be quite difficult for a graduate student. The 'design student,' if I may, is a slightly below average student, as gauged by the class assignments. Not only must the student be able to finish the exam, they must get an average grade (say, a B) on it. Therefore, time as well as difficulty are constraints, simultaneous and inter-linked. However, that is not to say that a short and easy exam is the only possible solution; indeed, that would be unfair to a lot of students. There must be questions that only a fairly intelligent student, familiar with the course material can answer.

An important technique that my adviser taught me is to make an exam progressively difficult. So the initial questions would be easy, confidence-builders. Then the difficulty levels would progress, such that only those who can solve the whole thing (in time) can get an A. It is quite hard for a grad student to judge this of course, because it has to be with respect to the design student, and more often than not, a grad student was the smartest kid in class!

The first exam I made seemed fairly easy to me, although it was somewhat subjective. The second one seemed even easier, but some students struggled to finish it, and the average fell just slightly. Clearly, there's a lot more to learn!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Hinduphobia out in the open

The World Culture Festival held last week on the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi was a spectacular event, bringing together thousands of people from across the world in celebration of their culture. It brought together PM Modi, CM Kejriwal, and Pakistani Senator Sherry Rehman. It was a grand celebration of unity - unless you followed it through the mainstream Lutyen's media, in which case it was a capitalist scheme to burn up the river, a Hindu-Jewish assault on secular values, a patriarchal celebration of women being smashed, and whatever else you want it to be. The way the media covered the event, you'd think this was the worst thing to have ever happened in Delhi!

Let's not beat about the bush: the entire narrative was anti-Hindu in nature. All the negative news and the total disregard for the great stuff that was happening there, was yet another sign of just how deeply the English media is controlled by the Deep Congress, who have made a career out of demonizing Hindus, and whose energies are now focused on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and anybody who favors him, including AOL head Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. It is quite clear by now that the Deep Congress is willing to rip the country apart to make Rahul Gandhi the PM of whatever is left, and in pursuit of that, they must roll out continuous negative news.

The idea is to create a siege, an emergency-like situation, where none exists. The idea is to make Hindus so extremely demotivated so as to regret the way they united to take the BJP past 272 in May 2014. All the good work that the government has done, just like the good work that WCF did, must be disregarded. The final prize is to install a Gandhi on the throne of Delhi after a quarter of a century, and thus renew the Deep Congress for another generation.

Dream on. 

Trudeau's Trophies

Recently, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, better known as Prince Charming, joked on a visit to the US that he has more Sikhs in his cabinet than Indian PM Narendra Modi, obviously to highlight just how diverse his government is. It was an unknowing showing of Prince Charming's worldview, a view that I would like to call that of a liberal racist. For, it is very clear that he cares about such things: which races he has, the identity of people he endows. He keeps tabs: who has more Sikhs? Who has more women? What are their backgrounds? What is their religion? The color of their skin?

Prince Charming clearly cares about everything but the actual qualifications of his cabinet. Of course, they all have token credentials - a disabled minister, a military veteran - but that's quite secondary to why they were chosen, and probably not even an actual indicator of administrative acumen. Let's be clear - Prince Charming chose them because he believes they are separate peoples, separate nations. He doesn't hate them for that, he actually wants to celebrate their differences. But they are separate all the same. Separate but equal.

If there's any way not to run a country, it is by insisting that it is not really a country, but several nations put together. Trudeau's cabinet reflects just that - a constellation of nations who are clubbed together in a country, separate but equal. And separate they must remain, for if they were to be the same, then the charade would be up, and the embarrassment of choosing people for who they are, and not what they can do, would come out. Prince Charming may be proud of his cabinet, but it is plain old racism in a new, suave form. 

Chicago Totalitarianism

Events last week in Chicago, in which a crowd of violent protesters and anarchists forced Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump to cancel his rally in the city, were extremely disturbing and a sign of the kind of totalitarianism that this debate has degenerated into it. To an extent, Trump and some of his supporters are to blame for this mess. They have never ceased to rough up protesters at their rallies. Trump himself has encouraged such behavior, even promising to pay the legal fees in case his supporters are sued by those they assaulted. Journalists too have not been spared.

When such a force comes to Chicago, violence should be expected. This after all, is America's most polarized city, with a history of violence that has ruined generations. It should come as no surprise that many of them were there not so much as to protest against Trump, but to simply stop him from saying anything else. A very nice message for free speech, indeed. It should also come as no surprise that many of them support Bernie Sanders, whose ultra-Left message has certainly charged them up, but whose false narrative of democratic socialism is nothing more than a garb for communism through the ballot.

This incident, more than anything else, really shows how high the stakes are, and more importantly, how high both sides have placed them. Initially, people said that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were two sides of the same coin. It seems him supporters are the same too. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A fascinating surprise

OZLAND (2015)

Produced By: Shendopen Productions and others
Director: Michael Williams
Starring: Zack Ratkovich, Glenn Payne, Casey Heflin, and Dunlap Peeples IV
Pros: Intriguing story, excellent soundtrack, good direction, good acting
Cons: Slow, black-and-white characters
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

Halfway through this movie, as is the case with most Indie films, I was going to stop watching, because it appeared to be going nowhere, and didn't have a story. I am glad I chugged on, and was proven wrong. Ozland genuinely surprised me with how good it was, and how much thought was put into it. It wasn't just about presenting a story with an ending, but about presenting an emotion, one of bonding, survival, and undying hope. In the last one, this movie left the current crop on the doormat.

But a good story wasn't just the only positive thing about it. The acting by basically two-and-a-half actors and one voice-over was excellent: words and gestures were used to equal measure, as were tone and delivery. Again, a lot of thought clearly went into this, and the results showed through. Topping all that was the great soundtrack of the movie, which could've been placed better but was still good. Perhaps that was the only shortcoming of the director, who otherwise did a great job.

The only downsides were that the movie was slow (which is often the case with Indie films, and why they serve only a niche audience) and the characters were pretty monochromatic. Leif was almost a child in a man's body, excitable, hopeful, but very naive; while Emri was the ever-lonely and angry 'father' figure. The contrast between the two of course adds to the beauty of the film, but a little more work on giving them some shades of gray would've made it better. Nonetheless, this was a surprisingly good movie that simultaneously cheered me up and made me sad. Four stars well deserved. (OTFS)

When to stop Trump

The rise and rise of Donald Trump has clearly unnerved the Republican Party's leadership. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose stars have clearly set but who holds some sway nonetheless, took out a blistering attack on him, while the GOP's brightest star, Speaker Paul Ryan, has given enough indication that he considers Trump unfit for the nomination. Ads are now coming out against him, and Ted Cruz seems to be stealing his thunder (CBS has projected that he will win the Kansas caucus). Some would say that this was well overdue, and that people like Paul LePage and Chris Christie have made grave mistakes in endorsing him, while others would advocate more sober means.

Either way, one thing is clear: the Trump juggernaut is going to be very hard to stop, and the party leadership is going to have to dig deep, and dig fast. Because if there is one thing that will guarantee a Democratic victory in November, it is a so-called brokered convention, which is a nice way of saying that registered Republicans' views would be ignored and that the party would have its way. There is some talk of this already in GOP circles, and it is dangerous. Trump might be crazy (according to the liberal media), but he represents a strong discontent against the Washington cabal, and if that group manages to take over the convention and force their candidate through, the Republicans can kiss the White House and the Supreme Court goodbye for a long time. The stakes are very high.

Which is why the leadership must act now, and act fast. If Trump reaches the half-way mark, there is no turning back for the party - he will have to be the nominee. If he has a plurality as well, it will be difficult to engineer his loss at the convention. Therefore, the only way to stop him is to prop up one of the candidates and hope they can win all the contests left, especially the big ones (California, Illinois, New York, etc.). Ted Cruz, who already won Texas, seems to be the best bet, but we'll have to wait for Florida to confirm that. If the party cannot stop Trump now, it will be unable to in the future, and then it will have to rally around him and hope that he can win the White House. That is a pretty big thing to hope for. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The real Modi has stood up

PM Narendra Modi's speech in reply to the Motion of Thanks to the President's Address was one of his finest yet in the house, a hoary reminder of the master orator who took the country by storm in 2014. If Smriti Irani had led the way for the BJP in attacking the Opposition, Modi capped the effort successfully. What's more, he was at his combative best, taking on the Gandhi dynasty by invoking the very same dynasty. His attacks on Rahul Gandhi in particular were reminiscent of his Shahzada jibes during his election campaign.

With one important exception: he stuck to being parliamentary about it. It takes a seasoned orator to launch a frontal attack without resorting to cheap language - Vajpayee was one such, Modi is another. Rahul Gandhi is not even close. The Indian Express reported today that the NDA government has understood that the nationalist debate has energized its base and has taken control of the narrative that the Deep Congress has been trying its best to set.

The government and party plan to double down on this while also introducing as many Money Bills as possible. Therefore, the move to introduce the Adhaar Bill as a money bill was a stroke of genius. The Congress finds itself on the back foot, having to be very careful about its stand, with its Rajya Sabha numbers being useless in the face of money bills. At the same time, the government has put the heat on the Congress to pass legislation, putting the responsibility on them. To top it all off, Rahul Gandhi's pathetic speech in the Lok Sabha (which has become a matter of ridicule on social media despite the Lutyen's media's best attempts to show it as a historic speech), and the Congress' handicap in needing to project their Prince as the final voice, has turned the tide for the BJP after long last. Jaitley's good budget helped too.

Now, the challenge is to take this momentum to the elections later this year. The BJP must win Assam and show substantial gains Kerala. Only then will it be able to walk into UP with confidence. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Where do the Republicans go from here?

As results from #SuperTuesday pour in, Republican hopeful Donald Trump seems to have continued his dominance, taking six states, all the major ones up for grabs tonight except Texas, which was Ted Cruz's home state. Without some major scandal, such as some dirt on his tax returns, Trump seems all set to sail into the Convention and stake claim to the party ticket, a true horror story scenario for the party's leadership in Washington, DC. CBS News now reports that the leadership is amassing big donors to launch a scathing campaign against Trump before the next round of polls (with 69 delegates up for grabs in Illinois on Mar 15).

This is a dangerous moment for the Party. Speaker Paul Ryan rightly called out Trump for not distancing himself from the KKK, because even the slightest inkling that the Party of Lincoln had anything to do with such a group would be a death knell for the party. Former hopeful Lindsay Graham also rightly pointed out that Trump would totally alienate Hispanic voters, the fastest growing voting group, one that should actually be with the Republicans. Although, Trump's performance in Nevada may belie those predictions.

The point is, we might be seeing the amazing transformation of a party through what was a grassroots movement. Trump has brought in extremely unlikely voters, voters who were disenchanted by politics as usual. Unfortunately, it seems that many of those voters will be sorely disappointed once they realize that problems cannot be solved by blaming other people for them. If Trump wins, his entire case is poised to fall flat, and that more than anything else could push the party over the cliff into oblivion.

The problem is not, as the liberal media would have us believe, that Trump is an outsider, or that he is bringing in some rather undesirable segments (read, racists), although those are probably true. The problem is that his campaign has been very high on rhetoric, anger, and assurances, and very low on real plans. If Trump fails to channelize this into something meaningful after winning the White House, it most certainly will send the Republican party into a death spiral for a generation. And that is a very dangerous scenario. 

Arrest P Chidambaram

Times Now has been doing a stellar job in the past few weeks, ever since convicted terrorist David Headley made his revelations on oath before a court about Ishrat Jahan's role in a plot to assassinate then Chief Minister of Gujarat and now Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi. In the face of the Left-Liberal mafia's attempts to discredit the testimony in order to save the crumbling edifice of pseudo-secularism that stood on Jahan's dead body, the channel has revealed some startling revelations about how the Congress-led UPA, with Sonia Gandhi as the de facto dictator, subverted the entire justice system in the country and tried to destroy the IB as well, in order to halt the man who they (rightly) saw as their greatest political challenger.

In the eye of the storm is then Home Minister P Chidambaram, under whose watch it has not been alleged that the Home Ministry was forced to change its affidavit in direct opposition to IB reports. Moreover, the CBI was forced to go after IB officers in a manner that would most certainly compromise national security. And today, a bureaucrat alleged that Chidambaram's cronies in the Ministry tortured him as he was weary of so nonchalantly tearing down the Constitution. In any other country, a man with such allegations would have been facing a lynch mob, but Chidamabaram actually doubled down by questioning the Supreme Court's verdict on Afzal Guru, who was hanged by his own government in a highly shadowy manner that most certainly did run counter to the law.

The case made out thus far is enough to arrest Chidambaram on charges of endangering national security and obstructing justice. Moreover, bureaucrats and CBI officers who acted as his henchmen need to be arrested as well. While the truth can only come out in court, the charges are of a very serious nature, and given the pernicious hold of the Deep Congress, there is every likelihood that he will already be working up the phone lines to save his sorry self.

What is clear, more than ever before, is that Sonia Gandhi's Congress is absolutely willing to partition India in order to make Rahul Gandhi the PM of whatever is left. A great nation, harassed and subverted by the greed of a family.