Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Complete Double Standards

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the contentious issue of Triple Talaq of Muslim women, a practice that every Islamic country has banned, but which remains on the books in India through the convoluted system of religious personal laws. Going by some of the observations of the court that reporters are pointing out, it seems that the Court is determined to know whether the disgusting practice is really a core component of Islam or whether it can be struck down. This smacks of double standards.

That the Indian Republic has a distinctly anti-Hindu bias is no surprise - a simple reading of the RTI Act, sections of the Constitution that provide extra protection to religious minorities, the ownership of religious places of worship, and much more, all point out to the fact that, while declaring India a secular country, the founding fathers certainly seemed to believe in the Two-Nation Theory. The farce of a hearing in the Court simply reinforces that, for when it comes to Hindu cultural and religious practices, the Court seems to have no trouble in ending thousands of years of tradition. The chaos that reigned in Tamil Nadu after Jallikattu was banned by the Court is just a case in point, and it eventually led to the legislature having to step in to reverse the damage, for which the Court never seemed even mildly apologetic.

In the Triple Talaq case, the fact that the system leaves women to the arbitrary whims of their husbands, the fact that the future of children can be wrecked at the drop of a hat, or the simple fact that it is dehumanizing and causes particular angst to Muslim women, all seems to have been missed by the Court, which only wants to know whether the practice is sanctioned by Islam. So what if it is (it isn't, by the way)? Beheadings, lashings, cutting off hands and much more are also sanctioned by Islam (and practiced is the most Islamic country of all, Saudi Arabia). Does that mean they're OK? Where does the Court draw the line? And if religious traditions are really so important, what stops the Court from allowing the Ram Temple to be constructed at Ayodhya? If Triple Talaq is to crucial for Islam, then the birthplace of Ram is equally crucial to Hinduism, whereas Ayodhya does not even appear in Islamic scripture.

Let me call a spade a spade - the Court is as anti-Hindu as the rest of the Nehruvian government system. And because of the colelgium system, it is not going to be fixed by merely an election. When it comes to Hindu traditions, the Court is willing to run roughshod over all voices to impose its social view. But when it comes to minorities, specifically Muslims, it needs to be extra generous. If this is not Two-Nation Theory, what is? Separate electorates ("only Muslims can represent Muslims"), separate laws, separate courts - what was the need for Pakistan when India could've just continued to be a Mughal Empire?

I think that the Court is going to do nothing about Triple Talaq. The way it simply brushed off the related issues of polygamy and Nikah Halala points to that. In the case on Sec. 377 too, the court simply shrugged off its constitutional role in protecting fundamental rights, choosing to throw the ball at the legislature instead (but on Hindu traditions, it would never dream of waiting for elected representatives unless it is to clear the mess that the Court itself created). The court will simply say some wise words and leave it to the legislature. Welcome to the anti-Hindu Republic of India. 

A 21st Century Colony

Pakistani newspaper Dawn revealed details of a supposed long-term plan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a part of China's Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) that the Pakistani leadership has been selling to the world as the panacea to all ills of the country. As many commentators have rightly pointed out, far from some sort of benevolent Marshall Plan, the long-term CPEC plan is a textbook outline for the Chinese colonization of Pakistan, possibly making it the first colony of the 21st Century.

Consider this: the primary aim of CPEC is agriculture, to create raw materials that will then be shipped to manufacturing units in Xinjiang, which will then presumably shipped back to Pakistan and beyond. Sounds exactly like the East India Company. But that's not all - Chinese nationals are to have visa-free travel (obviously, it won't be reciprocal), a vast surveillance grid is to be established in all cities so that the Chinese can have a say in law and order, and Pakistani state television will have to broadcast Chinese 'culture'. And to add insult to injury, Pakistan is already raising exclusive military units to protect CPEC assets! Furthermore, none of this will be through aid, it will largely be through soft loans that Pakistan will have to pay back, or else. The less said about environmental clearances the better.

It is not the case that all foreign investment is colonization. Countries can work with each other to build infrastructure and assets - almost every emerging market does it. But the key is reciprocity and fairness - for all the concessions that Pakistan is making, it seems the Chinese have virtually nothing to lose except the risk of having to directly administer their new colony should it become unstable. And that risk is quite worth it given that CPEC gives China a direct land route to the Indian Ocean, thus bypassing the American armada in the Pacific. Pakistan, of course, hopes that CPEC will create infrastructure and hence, economic growth, but economic growth is not possible if the country is to be reduced to a supplier of raw materials - which is what CPEC seems to be primarily geared toward.

The worst, of course, has to be the fact that the Chinese have demanded a role in Pakistan's internal law and order mechanism through surveillance, and a dissemination of Chinese culture to a land that is completely alien to it, whatever the elite might think. These smack of British colonialism. Of course, for a country that seems to values Partition more than independence from the British Empire, making old mistakes should not be a surprise. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Humans of Manchester-By-The-Sea

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

Produced By: Amazon Studios, K Period Media, and others
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, CJ Wilson, Lucas Hedges, and others
Pros: Strong story, excellent acting, good music
Cons: Too long
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

The Academy Awards just don't gel with me - I've never heard of most of the nominations and I usually end up hating whatever movie wins anything at all, especially the big Best Motion Picture award. So when I heard Manchester By The Sea had won two of them, I had to think hard and deep about watching it, despite liking the trailers. I'm glad I did watch it in the end, though, because is is a well-made indie movie that you can't expect from mainstream movies.

The movie is very strong on two fundamentals - there is a strong story, and the director tries very hard to stick to the story without going off on a tangent (which he does a few times, unfortunately); and the acting is very good, with Casey Affleck delivering the performance of a lifetime and truly earning his Oscar, and Lucas Hedges also doing a pretty good job. This is no mean feat, for most movies made today lack on either or both of these (cough... Zoolander 2...), and just that much is really enough for me to like a movie. It is a very depressing film though, so don't go in hoping for an underdog story. Added to that are some very soulful renditions that dot the movie, which really helped me stay engaged.

And staying engaged was really a challenge, because at over 2 hours, it is a long movie, and a lot of the parts were unnecessary and tangential. I can think of at least two distinct sub-plots that could've been disposed of. It's very easy to stop concentrating on the film and come back after a few minutes, and it really doesn't make that much of a difference either. Still, on the whole, each of the sub-plots, even those I found unnecessary, added up to a beautiful movie. Watch it, certainly, and take your young adults with you too.  (OTFS)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Why I didn't #MarchForScience

Last month, on Earth Day (of course), cities across the US (and, for some reason, around the world) saw scientists and others marching on a weekend, 'for Science,' whatever that means. It was billed as an apolitical show of force from the scientific community in favor of scientific thinking, facts, and of course, funding for scientific research, all of which are commendable. A lot of my friends and relatives participated in it, or at the very least cheered it on at home. I didn't, and won't. Why? Because #MarchForScience was anything but an apolitical show, it was not about facts or scientific thinking: it was yet another attempt by the Left to hijack the academic community, this time the one committee where they have the least influence: STEM.

#MarchForScience was a very political march against Donald Trump and the Republican Party in general. It blended the new demigod of the Left - climate change - with other pet issues such as gender, refugees, feminism, etc. There was no scientific discussion in it, no papers, no experiments, no facts: just a lot of empty sloganeering. It did have real scientists in it, but they were not there as scientists, rather as citizens making a political point. And they are entitled to their protests and politics, but the hypocrisy of it all was that it was billed as an apolitical event, which is most definitely was not.

Why didn't I participate? Because I don't think scientists should get involved with politics of any party. This is not because of the fear that taking a stand against the establishment hurts chances for funding (although it does) - facts and data have their own sanctity and should not become subject to political favoritism. The reason is because the effects of giving the Left any leadership in academia are there for all to see: in the humanities, the Left has total and unchallenged dominance, and it is there that the most regressive ideas originate: safe spaces, the hijab as a source of freedom, nationalism as a dirty word, and the invention of an entire dictionary of terms that, much like George Orwell's 1984, makes language itself a pawn in a larger political game.

Those who participated in the marches, for whatever reason, possibly do not realize the danger of selling their science to the goons of the Left, for they are not interested in facts, but in using those facts to push an agenda. For, the first piece of data that opposes that agenda (and we all know that data can oppose a hypothesis at any point of time) will see the same scientists being placed before a firing squad. Do we forget that science had to favor the proletariat for it to be real science in the Soviet Union?

I refuse to participate in any movement that uses science to further a political agenda, and I encourage my fellow scientists to do the same. That said, every citizen in a democratic society has the right, and arguably even the duty, to express their opinions, however unpopular those might be. But don't use science to do it - if your convictions are true, and they are important enough for you, then you do not need to hide them behind science. As for the Leftists who talk about climate change without knowing how a spectroscope works - keep your lunacy in the humanities, you have already destroyed that beyond repair. #NotInMyDepartment. 

100 Days of Very Little

Last week marked the 100th day of the tenure of President Donald Trump - a man who defeated every single friend and foe, who took on the big media, the Washington establishment, and compromised data scientists, to come out on top and become the 45th President of the US. 100 days ago, Opinions 24x7 described Mr. Trump as the new leader of a new world. Naturally, expectations were very high. 100 days later, they still are - but hope is beginning to fade.

A very honest assessment of Trump's first 100 days (a benchmark that he himself used tirelessly) is that it has been very disappointing. Far from being the deal-maker, he has doubled-down on using EOs to push through things quickly - much like his much-maligned predecessor. Indeed, a lot of his EOs were more like homework assignments to his underlings - directing them to figure stuff out! On top of that is the fact that Trump has barely made any headway in appointing all the necessary federal employees, which is partly due to the fact that Senate Democrats have been exceptionally loathe to approve any of his appointments, but also because his own team has been very slow at finding suitable candidates.

In the last 100 days, Trump's only real victory has been the appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, which was achieved by the extraordinary lifting of the filibuster for judicial appointments. Aside from that, it has been string after string of disasters - the thwarted travel 'ban', the failed AHCA, Sean Spicer's completely unnecessary holocaust gaffe, and of course, the wholly unnecessary U-turns on Syria. Right now, it seems as though Trump, having served his most important duty of defeating Hillary Clinton, is directionless.

However, I am still hopeful. He has made several promises about a new healthcare act (hopefully bypassing Paul Ryan), an infrastructure bill, and steps to defeat ISIS. Much more can be done, and there's plenty of time beyond the artificial deadline of 100 days. Let's wait and watch. 

Something is very wrong

Last month, India faced a diplomatic storm with African missions in New Delhi charging the government over inaction over racist crimes in Noida and other parts of the country (mainly around Delhi). During that fiasco, the Indian government as well as many elected representatives tried their best to show that Indians simply cannot be racist - for example, because 'they' live with 'black' South Indians! If this actual gaffe from an MP wasn't enough, let me, a full-fledged India who's had a chance to be on the other side (in America), say it.

India has a racism problem - a very deep problem. Dark skin is seen as a bad thing, mongoloid features are seen as a bad thing. I don't just mean 'bad' in the superficial sense of beauty - a dark-skinned person is (wrongly) seen as being less intelligent, less hardworking, and quite simply, a loser. This is so deeply ingrained that nobody actually realizes it - it's just a 'fact' that we grow up with.

The latest trend are these body-shaming posts on Facebook, such as the one pictured here. And this is not one-off: the picture is always of (a) a woman (b) a black woman and (c) a very fat or very skinny black woman. And these posts get thousands of likes and comments! It's distressing and shameful to see the kind of people who react with anything other than disgust at such pots - and these are not some psychos, but normal people who you could meet everyday. This racism is just so normal that there isn't even a discussion on it - just a stunned denial when it is pointed out.

India needs to talk about this - and a new generation is. But it is happening very slowly, and not at all among older people.

A coup on the judiciary

Pakistan is no stranger to military coups - since Partition from India in 1947, the country has been under martial rule for over half of its existence, with the all-powerful Army exercising not just direct executive control, but also being pervasive in all aspects of life, so much so that even the official censor, which is a purely civilian institution, has representation from it! In most, if not all, cases, the Army's takeover was welcomed by a majority, because of their aura of being above petty politics. And yet, the country has continued to be in an unending state of turmoil, routinely being labeled a failed state.

However, things did appear to change under President Zardari, with the passage of the 19th Amendment. However, for anybody who knows the history of Pakistan, something had to give. Cue to the deadly killings of schoolchildren at APS Peshawar, and the country created the institution of military courts to try civilians accused of terrorism. In a unique experiment, for a short period of time, the army would be welcomed in to replace the judiciary, with the army chief himself signing death warrants. Since then, Pakistan has dramatically increased the number of executions thanks to the much-reduced standard of evidence. For all of the Indian judiciary's problems, at least the entire nation has not passed a no-confidence vote against it!

But what was supposed to be a temporary measure to meet an extreme situation has not become the new normal. This month, the National Assembly saw demands for a group of university students who lynched a fellow student to stand trial in a military court. What is purely a civilian affair, without any connection to terrorism whatsoever, is seeing demands for the military to step in. It seems, after decades of executive dictatorship, a new brand of military control of the judiciary is evolving in Pakistan. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dangerous U-Turn

Over the last month, President Donald Trump has made some stunning reversals on his foreign policy agenda. A man who vowed to end the thoroughly unhelpful and endless US interventions in the Arab World, best highlighted by former President Obama's disastrous interventions in Libya and Syria, now seems to have completely overturned his own position and is ready to go beyond his predecessor in terms of regime change and, who knows, boots on the ground?

It all began with the horrific chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria, which the Trump administration has blamed on the brutal Syrian dictator Assad. If the allegation is true, it would not surprise anyone, for that is how Assad and his father before him ruled Syria with an iron hand. The US attack on a Syrian airbase from where the chemical attack was allegedly carried out was a just and fitting response to Assad - no dictator in this world should be allowed to use such Nazi methods without consequences. The attack oddly silenced the massive army of Trump critics in the US, with CNN going as far as calling him 'Presidential,' not that he needs the praise. As TAC rightly noted, nothing seems to please the Beltway like war. But this was not war - it was a warning shot to Assad, and the message was clear.

Except that the very next day, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Healey, decided to declare war anyway, explicitly stating that regime change is the goal of the Trump administration as far as Syria is concerned. This goes beyond what the Obama administration did (declaring war and looking for regime change without committing direct military intervention or even publicly committing anything) and is dangerous, because it will leave a void for al Qaeda and IS to fill, which they readily will. Like it or not, Assad represents the most credible bulwark in Syria against terrorism, just as Saddam Hussein did before he was bumped off in the invasion of Iraq. For some reason, all this feels like an old, dusted story - does Trump really want to have an Iraq of his own to deal with?

Trump's U-turn is dangerous, for reasons that he himself has pointed out many times before with respect to Iraq. Assad is a brutal dictator, and it is best to keep him in a constant state of worry about International humanitarian intervention - but not regime change. For, without Assad, Syria will fall to IS and AQ, completing the vicious circle started by Bush Jr. (Iraq) and Obama (Libya and Syria). And it will be the US that will bleed the most, while Saudi Arabia's skeleton 'Islamic coalition' (which is not even on paper yet!) watches. This is a policy that the US can do without. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Dramatic War

Hannibal: Fields of Blood
By Ben Kane

My latest favorite writer of historical fiction, in my staple era of the Roman Republic/Empire, Ben Kane, continues to warm my heart with some action-packed wartime drama (what else from Rome?). Continuing from Enemy of Rome, Fields of Blood is the second part of the tale of the Second Punic War, and the fighting gets more fierce than ever.

However, as is necessary for historical fiction, the principal characters from the previous book continue to develop. Kane does end up creating a whole new ensemble of characters to justify some of the storyline, and that quickly became confusing. That did not, however, affect the general flow of the story, which was written masterfully. Most importantly, I did have to keep looking back at the map of Italy, which goes to show how well-researched the work is.

I'll definitely be reading more from Kane in the coming months!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A lesson from Modi to Trump

Chaotic is perhaps a charitable way to describe President Donald Trump's first two months in office. His defeat at the hands of Democrats as well as his own Republicans on the AHCA in the House, as well as his double defeat in court over his EO on travel from certain countries, have severely dented his image as a 'deal maker'. At this point of time, all he seems to be decent at are signing EOs and talking trash to the media (which is a skill in itself). So where does he go from here?

Trump seems to have underestimated the amount of resistance built into the system that he will have to deal with. In that, he has parallels with Prime Minister Modi after his spectacular victory in 2014 and once-in-a-lifetime parliamentary majority. No sooner did the BJP win that majority did the Opposition decide to turn the Rajya Sabha into a veto against a democratically elected government; indeed, the Upper House is so powerful that the government has time and again resorted to the Money Bill route to bypass the reckless opposition there. In Trump's case, the Presidential system makes this even more complicated, for even though his party enjoys a majority in both houses, they are not beholden to the President. Indeed, in the AHCA case, it was the Republican Party itself that sunk the bill, helped in no small measure by Speaker Ryan's odd tactics (hiding the bill in the basement, for example). In Modi's case, the government had to eventually buy peace with the Opposition - or use very creative means to break its unity and thus corner naysayers. Trump will clearly have to do the same thing, but whether Speaker Ryan can do that or not is in question after the AHCA debacle.

But even before the legislative tussles, Prime Minister Modi faced a problem: leaks. In a government that has a permanent bureaucracy that has been leached by the Deep Congress for decades, preventing information from getting out before it was time was going to be very difficult. Indeed, one of Modi's earliest campaign's was to discipline the civil service and end the culture of leaks. And that has largely been successful: in the initial days, all sorts of speculation and information kept leaking out to the media in a case of Sore Loser Syndrome. But by the time of the last Cabinet reshuffle, not one journalist knew about Smriti Irani's surprise removal from HRD, which was the biggest headline of that event. Demonetization was another exercise that would've been impossible without a water-tight information system. This is not to say that the media should not have information - it is absolutely essential they should - but there is a difference between information and access. The media has a right to obtain information and pass it on to the public; journalists do not have a right to privileged and exclusive access to information that rightly does not belong in the public sphere (yet).

For President Trump, the task is somewhat more complicated. The US allows for many political appointees who can be removed by a new president, so Trump is not hobbled by a permanent bureaucracy (although there are career bureaucrats in the underbelly of the Beltway). However, the US Government is much larger than the Indian one, and Trump has been extremely slow in replacing political appointees for all sub-Cabinet level positions. His top priority should be replacing all of them - a witch hunt of leak-providers is a sheer waste of time when there is a much more effective solution. On controlling the bureaucracy, President Trump, who has a phone call with Prime Minister Modi on the BJP's victory in UP the other day, can certainly exchange a few notes. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The (very) Fast and Furious

Closing off this round of elections was the tiny coastal state of Goa. For a small state, politics in Goa is highly fragmented, with several small parties that have their local area of influence. In 2012, Manohar Parrikar was to Goa what Narendra Modi eventually became to India in 2014 - the tallest, most respected leader who had the total support of his party. But with Parrikar being moved to Delhi as Minister for Defense (and he did quite a splendid job there), and an ineffectual Laxmikant Parsekar superseding Dy. CM Francisco D'Souza to succeed him. Couple that with the defections in both the Congress (which lost some prominent members to the new formation, Goa Forward) and the BJP (over the medium of education issue), the turncoat MGP, as well as the dramatic entry of AAP in the state, and the water quickly became murky.

Before the elections, the Congress was virtually written off, having lost many members and being ridden with factions, led by a galaxy of leaders who were all short-lived CMs. However, its spectacular comeback under state president Faleiro Luizinho, defeating six sitting Ministers including Chief Minister Parsekar himself, made it the natural choice to lead a coalition. However, that's where the party was held back by its unending factionalism that was simply no match for the new Modi-Shah BJP. Within a few days, the party brought back Parrikar (who has hinted several times that he disliked working in Delhi), negotiated terms with the MGP and surprisingly Goa Forward, and cobbled together a majority. This is an even bigger achievement than in Manipur, where the party also sealed a coalition but with parties that it was already allied with outside the state. The fact that Parrikar was acceptable to Goa Forward speaks volumes of his dominance over the politics of Goa. And while all this was happening, the Congress was left fighting itself, with AICC-in-charge Digvijay Singh being unable to manage the situation. Thus, the Congress was left to lick its wounds and protest in Delhi, while Parrikar once again became Chief Minister in Panaji.

Two interesting and related outcomes from the state. One, with the defeat of so many ministers, a majority of the BJP's MLAs are now Catholics, while the Hindu majority is better represented in the Congress! This is quite a contrast to the party's strength at the national level, where it is the natural voice of Hindus. And two, AAP has once again proved to be all hype - or as the chief of Goa Forward Vijai Sardesai called it, 'Delhi pollution'. The party contested all 40 seats and lost its deposit in 39 of them - with its CM candidate Elvis Gomes finishing third in his constituency (and also losing his deposit). There's nothing more to be said of a party that has a part-time CM and full-time Twitter troll at its helm. 

Dodging a Bullet

In the historic 2014 elections, where the Modi wave decimated the opposition is almost the entire country, Amritsar was the seat that the Deep Congress chose to highlight, for it was there that Arun Jaitley, fighting his first ever Lok Sabha election, was defeated by the Congress. But the Punjab had a bigger story - after making history by returning the SAD-BJP government in 2012, the state not only defeated Jaitley, who is #2 in the Cabinet today, but also gave the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) four MPs, even while its own star, Arvind Kejriwal, was roundly defeated by Modi in Varanasi.

Cut to three years later, with AAP having formed a government in Delhi (again) with a near complete sweep of 67/70 seats, and the party rightly saw Punjab as ripe for the picking, hoping to free itself up from the glorified municipality that is the half-state of Delhi and take control of a full-fledged state. There was reason to be confident, there was vision, and there was determination. The only thing lacking was execution - which ultimately turned its hugely hyped campaign into a fiasco. For, AAP chose to be the most dishonest party of all. Now, all parties resort to lying to sell themselves - they make false promises, they create fake controversies. But few have been as brazen as to fabricate a victory altogether!

For the year preceding the election, the entire country (!) was subject to questionable 'independent' surveys that gave AAP over 100 seats in Punjab, thus another Delhi-like sweep. And this was not by some random party worker - it was by Kejriwal himself. And while these did confuse the electorate, three factors turned the pendulum against AAP:

  1. The party (i.e., Kejriwal) questioning the surgical strikes by the Indian Army in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, going as far as casting aspersions on the Army, in which a sizeable chunk of both jawans and officers come from Punjab itself. 
  2. The party (i.e., Kejriwal) hobnobbing with Khalistani elements in Punjab as well as abroad, which led to sheer panic among the electorate fearing the return of the dark days of militancy. The party was funded largely by Khalistani NRIs, who also made up a sizable portion of its volunteer base there.
  3. The party (i.e., Kejriwal) has performed dismally in Delhi as a government, making tall promises but failing to do much. Kejriwal himself is an absentee Chief Minister, only registering his presence in special Assembly sessions that he calls to hurl abuses at Prime Minister Modi under the protection of Parliamentary immunity. The party has kept its reputation as being one in perpetual protest mode, with nothing beyond that to offer, while also supporting anti-national elements in universities (the party's youth wing, CYSS, has failed to make any inroads in the state's universities). And the state's huge publicity budget has hardly done any good.
That the SAD-BJP government was unpopular was quite well-known, and its 18 seats are probably more than it should've even hoped for. The ailing senior Badal served a good 10 years as Chief Minister, after over half a century in public life, but his time in active politics has come to an end. His son, who has been the de facto CM for the last five years, will have to work to rebuild the party after this huge loss, in which the SAD will not even be the largest opposition party. 

As for the Congress, the clear winner was Capt. Amrinder Singh, who is now is his second stint as CM. That the Gandhi dynasty left him to take care of Punjab, making the right call to sideline Rahul Gandhi's crony Pradeep Bajwa, helped the Congress register its only victory in this election cycle (and the first in two years). He held off against a vicious assault by AAP, and has probably saved the state from a very dark future. 

In all of this, there is the curious case of Navjot Singh Siddhu, the former BJP MP who formed his own outfit but eventually joined the Congress after flirting with AAP for sometime. While he did take the right call to stay away from AAP, his effectiveness as a Minister in the new government is questionable. He is going to continue hosting his TV show, which is really the only thing he is known for now. Whether he won or lost is up in the air. 

New Dawn

Historically, with the exception of Nagaland and Sikkim, India's much neglected Northeast has been the pocket borough of the Congress, as the largest organized political force in the area. And while the planes of Assam have been contested in the past, the hill states there have been more or less forgotten by everyone else. Until Amit Shah became the President of the BJP, that is, when the region finally came up on the political radar. And while the BJP did have a token presence as a junior alliance partner with the NPF in Nagaland, and a small presence in Arunachal Pradesh, it was the defection of Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam that seems to have really turned the tide around for the party in the strategic region that was once abandoned by Pandit Nehru after the Chinese invasion.

Of these new territories for the BJP, Manipur perhaps represents the real opportunity that the party has in the region. In 2012, the party did not even exist there - it had zero legislators - and the CM Ibobi Singh had no opposition in the non-Naga districts (where the NPF's writ ran large). Then, almost out of nowhere, the BJP appeared on posters and rallies, with top party leaders campaigning in the state. BJP President Amit Shah himself came after the BJP office in Imphal was attacked to warn Ibobi Singh of consequences in the elections. Still, after all that, the Congress did come within striking distance of its fourth government there, at 28 seats, with 31 needed for a majority. But the genius of the new Modi-Shah BJP, quite unlike the previous Advani-Vajpayee BJP, is to never stop fighting.

With 21 seats and the largest vote share - a radical departure from being non-existent just one election back - the BJP's Ram Madhav (the architect of the BJP-PDP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir) and Sarma got the BJP's traditional partners - the NPF (with which it has an alliance in Nagaland), the NPP (whose late founder, Purno Sangma, was the NDA's Presidential candidate in 2012), and the LJP (which is part of the ruling NDA at the Center) - as well as a few independents, to cobble up a majority, thus making N Biren Singh the new CM and inaugurating the first BJP-led government in the state. Quite a riveting finish for a party that once refused to even try to form a government without a majority of its own (which it rarely won)! With this, the BJP is in government in four of seven states in the region, with Pawan Chamling's SDF in Sikkim supporting the NDA, thus leaving only Meghalaya and Mizoram.

Two important developments from this result. First, now that the NPF is in government in Manipur, the endless blockades there have to end. The Union Cabinet has recently approved the construction if a new highway to the state, but till the time that materializes, the BJP both in Imphal and Delhi will have to work to prevent more crippling blockades that are thoroughly inhuman and illegal. How the BJP is going to placate Meiti interests while simultaneously being in a coalition with the NPF will be Biren Singh's biggest headache, and the party is clearly not out of the woods yet.

And second, Irom Shamila, the Iron Lady of Manipur, who broke her fast to contest against Ibobi Singh, came a huge cropper with just 90 votes, less than the NOTA votes. While many in the right wing have panned her for being the darling of the Delhi establishment, the fact is that she was fighting for a just cause - AFSPA in Manipur has been in place for over half a century, and has not worked, and a political solution to the situation there has to be found sooner than later if we are to avoid losing another generation of Indians there. And yet, her defeat at the hustings despite being the icon of the civil society in the state shows just how badly she miscalculated her popularity. All is not lost - she can still spend the next five years doing community work, avoiding the shoot-and-run politics of Arvind Kejriwal. Politics is hard work and not for the faint-hearted. Unfortunately, she seems to have given up already. Still, we wish her luck in whatever she works towards next. Perhaps, she should retreat into her personal life now. She has been through enough for one lifetime. 

A new revolving door?

The tiny hill state of Uttarakhand was created out of the hill districts of UP in 2000, which were seen as being neglected by the leadership from the planes in Lucknow. Since then, the state has seen quite a bit of political instability (although not of the kind that Jharkhand experienced till the BJP's resounding win in 2014), changing CMs every other year. And, far from the hill districts getting their due, the two plane districts of Haridwar and Uddham Singh Nagar have seen their populations swell, while the hill districts continue to depopulate.

It was in this sad state of affairs that the beautiful state entered the 2017 election cycle, with a tainted administration under Harish Rawat. What most people in the Delhi media circle don't realize is that, even though UK has been separate from UP for almost two decades now, the politics of the two are quite interrelated, not least because young men and women still go to UP for work. Therefore, if Narendra Modi was sweeping UP, especially Western UP, then it could only mean that UK was also primed for a BJP sweep. And that's exactly what happened, with the BJP picking up a three-fourths majority in the hills, that too without a CM face. Added to this victory is the fact that many turncoats from the Congress also won on a BJP ticket (including in Roorkee, my home of three years).

The surprising selection on Trivendra Singh Rawat as Chief Minister only adds to the fact that this was a vote for PM Modi. That said however, UK seems to be settling in to the revolving door cycle, alternating between BJP and Congress governments in states where only the two are in contention, although in recent years, the BJP seems to be winning most of those contests. While this can be bad news for the current CM, it presents an opportunity for the state to stabilize politically, and hopefully lift itself from the mess it's in. For now though, the CM needs to finish the agenda of 2000 and find a permanent capital - if hat has to be Dehradun, so be it. 

The Modi Wave Part 2

Globally, sub-national elections don't get much thought outside their area of interest. When President Trump won the US elections, few people outside the US also knew that his party had swept a majority of Governor's Houses in the country as well. In Germany, the International media celebrates the defeat of AfD in federal elections, but quickly forgets their increasing clout in the states. And in the last round of assembly elections in India, UP in particular, all the self-declared experts got it wrong. Those who considered Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity to inevitably decline - quietly hoping for a 2004-style upset in 2019 - also got it wrong.

Ending the BJP's two decade long vanvaas in India's largest state (and also the world's largest sub-national entity by population, at over 200 million people) by leading from the front, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled off what even his supporter's would've never believed to be possible - a triple century in UP. A victory of such magnitude was not build from a few bastions, but was spread evenly by geography - from the Western UP districts of Saharanpur and Meerut, all the way to the East in Gorakhpur, home of the new CM Yogi Adityanath, and Varanasi, which the BJP swept entirely for the first time in its history. The many myths created by the Deep Congress - a wave in favor of former CM Akhilesh Yadav, the silent majority behind Mayawati, Jat anger against the BJP, the age-old tradition of Muslim consolidation, and more - were in vain, as the revenge of the establishment that was in full wave in Bihar and Delhi in 2015 collapsed without a trace.

For the BJP, this victory sets the stage for another Lok Sabha majority in 2019, giving Modi a second term as Prime Minister. This will not be easy, but it is now realistic. The Prime Minister's hard work and clever politics have registered with the people of India's largest state, without which a Lok Sabha majority is all but impossible. If the new CM, who is a popular leader in his own right, can keep the BJP's flock together in a notoriously faction-ridden state party, and deliver at a minimum on the law and order front by 2019, then the next general elections will be for the BJP to win. Make no mistake, the clock is ticking and the electorate expects performance.

The Congress continued its decline in the state, coming 5th after the BJP's ally, the Apna Dal, possibly its worst performance in history in the state. What's more, the party put everything into it - Rahul Gandhi personally campaigned endlessly while his sister Priyanka Vadra led the backroom negotiations with the SP. Self-proclaimed Chanakya, Prashant Kishore, first roped in former Delhi CM Sheila Dixit, and then unceremoniously dumped her, as the party's CM nominee. In a matter of weeks, it went from #27SaalUpBehaal to #UPkoYehSaathPasandHai! And yet, it made no difference for the Congress. Their real problem is that they've become the Muslim League of this century - seen as being actively anti-Hindu, with no agenda other than 'protecting' Muslims, while keeping them in abject poverty. In the face of an aspiration for a better life and nationalism, they simply have no answer at all, and it doesn't help that their leadership (the Dynasty) does not have the slightest clue as to how to build a party organization, wrongly believing that the Delhi media can substitute for it.

The SP, as the incumbent, did quite badly, but that is not a big surprise. What's more surprising is that the whole drama of the war in the Yadav clan, and Akhilesh Yadav - 'Mr. Clean' - breaking with his corrupt family, came a cropper. Which is not to say that Akhilesh was not popular - he was - but that popularity alone could not translate into votes. It goes back to the fundamental fact of winning elections - you need organization and strategy beyond, and a real message. Akhilesh lacked all of them, and his own personal popularity couldn't make up for that.

If the Congress has been on the decline in UP since the 80s, the BSP's defeat may just spell doom for the party. From winning  simple majority in 2007, Mayawati first lost big time in 2014, and has now lost again in UP. The person who nourished ambitions to be Prime Minister should now really wonder how she can even become the leading opposition in the only state where the party has any sizable presence. This time, she tried to forge a Dalit-Muslim combination, going as far as preceding campaign rallies with Quranic recitations, but the fact is that aside from Jatav voters, who are spread too thin, Dalits themselves are not buying it. Thus, her core constituency is not with her any more, and any attempt to create a larger coalition will fail without a stable nucleus.

Lastly, this election has ramifications for the rest of the country, as well. This is the third consecutive election that has given a clear majority to a single party, firmly ending the coalition era in the state. And while coalitions do exist in many other state, they are clearly not here to stay. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A new beginning!

Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
By Ben Kane

Ah, Rome! From the ashes of the Empire that went down fighting (twice) have come many a work of historical fiction. Robert Harris was the one to have gotten me hooked to Cicero and the tumultuous transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. But I will be the first to admit that I know very little about the entire breadth of Roman history. Well, one century at a time.

One period of Rome's history that I have remained blind to is the Punic Wars - yes, I did hear of Carthage courtesy video games, but I had no idea that the Roman adjective for them was 'Punic'; and yes, I heard of Hannibal, but that's just about it - I had no idea about his miraculous trek through the Alps into the very heart of Rome. Now, courtesy Ben Kane's Hannibal: Enemy of Rome, I can start a new chapter and learn about that period.

Don't get me wrong, the novel is not written as a history textbook. But, as the author justifies, a lot of it is based on actual events and even actual characters, thanks to the Roman fetish for maintaining detailed records. Having finished this book, I intend to find the next one in the series. I think I've found a worthy successor to Harris (until he comes out with something new, that is)!

Worth a watch

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Produced By: 20th Century Fox, Marvel
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, and others
Pros: Good story, good VFX, no dragged-out action scenes
Cons: Too long
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Finally! After being subjected to the twin tortures of Zoolander 2 and Dirty Grandpa, I found a good movie to watch. Of course, it was hardly a risky affair, coming from the already popular - if slightly overdone - X-Men franchise. And, as has been the case with the last couple of films in the series, the story is going somewhat backwards, introducing some characters in less-than-flattering terms.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a standard formula film - it gets a good story from the comic books (with some modifications - credit due there), and melds it with good VFX and cinematography, basically doing everything by the textbook. Which is sad, because the director seems to have expended minimal creative energies to improving on the story - if anything, Bryan Singer should've tried to avoid some unnecessary sequences and bring down the length of the movie.

One problem with action films recently is the excessively long action sequences that go on for far too much time (cough,... Transformers...). Apocalypse steers clear of that - the sequences are timed as needed, and does not make you yawn. Overall, a movie you should consider watching. (OTFS)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Fadnavis Wave

Typically, municipal elections don't get much national coverage - the issues are hyper-local, the candidates unknown outside their wards, and the larger impact limited. But in one of India's most urbanized states, Maharashtra, and the city government of one of Asia's richest metropolises, Mumbai, rarely have municipal elections become so big. The reason? Things are changing in the state.

Today's municipal results in the state can be described as the culmination of two simultaneous and connected waves - a wave in favor of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who many in the right wing see as a worthy future successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi once he chooses to leave public life; and a pro-saffron wave that decimated the so-called "secular" bandwagon led by the Congress and NCP. For those two parties, which ruled the state for 15 years until they were unseated in the Modi wave of 2014, the results today come as a reminder of just how much ground they have ceded.

Consider first the Fadnavis wave. Less than 5 years ago, the BJP was a bit-player in Maharashtra, with only some influence in Vidharbha because of the influence of the RSS. Since 2014, Fadnavis has used political tactics together with a strong development plank (no doubt borrowed from Modi himself) to decimate the NCP which, unlike the Congress, used to have a fairly loyal and strong voter base. On top of that, he had reduced the Shiv Sena to the second pole of the state, with the BJP now the biggest party, controlling a plurality of local bodies, not to mention being the senior coalition partner in the State Government. The results are for all to see - in Mumbai, once a Sena bastion, the BJP has come second on its own, and first if you count pro-BJP independents. True, the BMC is now hung and there is going to be a major tussle for the post of Mayor of Mumbai, but the fact is that this was considered impossible a few years ago. Nothing says it like numbers: the Sena offered the BJP all of 60 seats to contest in an alliance; Fadnavis refused and broke the alliance, and won 82 seats.

Which brings me to the saffron wave. Although the BJP and Shiv Sena are clearly at loggerheads, with the latter threatening to pull down Fadnavis' government (their threat to pull out of the Central Government is mere symbolism, because the BJP has a blackmail-proof absolute majority of its own in the Lok Sabha), the fact is that they both represent the same general space in Indian politics (which is why they are fighting in the first place). As one tweet put it so well - it is center-right versus far-right in Maharashtra. Between them, the BJP and Shiv Sena control a strong majority of local bodies in the state as well as the state government itself. The NCP has been severely weakened by Fadnavis' policies regarding APMC markets and his successful Jalayukt Shivir program, not to mentioned Sharad Pawar's retirement from active politics (his daughter is more a Rahul Gandhi-image). And the Congress is and has been on a national meltdown since the 2013 round of assembly elections - the party is actually the biggest loser in Maharashtra (after the MNS, but that is a story of its own).

Will these elections have national reverberations? Highly unlikely - not even Mumbai has that much clout. However, they will have one immediate impact on the ongoing elections in UP, which is proving to be difficult for all the three major groups fighting there. Prime Minister Modi, in an election rally, brought up his party's strong performance in Odisha  local polls in a bid to convince UP voters (and this may work, because as FiveFortyThree rightly says, Indian voters tend to have a winner-take-all psyche). No doubt he will do the same with Maharashtra - and remember, the vast number of migrants from UP in Mumbai, all enabled with Whatsapp, can be a potent force-multiplier.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Oh, the torture

DIRTY GRANDPA (2016)

Producer: Lionsgate, and others
Director: Dan Mazer
Starring: Zac Efron, Robert de Niro, Zoey Deutch, Aubrey Plaza, and others
Pros: -
Cons: Everything
Rating: Don't even bother

It seems 2017 is going very badly for me in terms of what films I watch. First there was the epic disaster called Zoolander 2, and now I had the misfortune of subjecting myself to Dirty Grandpa, a pathetic attempt at sleazy humor that was not funny in the least, and was boring at best. I am not being overly harsh here - even bad movies have gotten at least one star from me in the past. But this one was in a league of its own.

This movie has only one thing going - beautiful bodies (except Robert de Niro's, that was... never mind). That's it. The storyline is flimsy at best, the characters are entirely random (Zac Efron does a particularly bad job oscillating between good boy and nut job), the less said about the acting the better... need I go on?

Recommendation? You've got to be kidding me. (OTFS)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Talking about Fake News

Ever since Donald Trump beat virtually everybody to be elected to the US Presidency, a lot of talk has been going around about 'fake news' being the means by which Trump managed to 'fool' the electorate, because of course those who voted for Clinton were the enlightened lot. This has been attributed to some sly teenagers in Eastern Europe, or to a 400 pound person in bed. The term was then taken over by Trump when he called CNN, 'fake news', which he has used repeatedly. It goes perhaps to the political genius of Trump that he showed the mirror to the mainstream media and used their own term on them!

But the term 'fake' has a certain connotation to it - it implies that everything coming from the media is the truth. In that respect, it is as much as a condemnation as it is self-praise. Except that it isn't true - the credibility of the media, world-over, is at such a low that hardly anybody believes what so-called journalists say. The trend of 'celebrity journalists' - people who are better known for their opinions than their ability to report news - has only added to this.
What we get from the media today is some facts, massively distilled through the fire of the journalist's personal opinions. And, as media is increasingly controlled by a few big corporations, these journalists then to be a part of the elite, possibly the most-hated class in the world today (and perhaps since the dawn of history?). Thus, trust in the media has declined. It didn't help that most big media houses were confidently proclaiming that Clinton would win the elections, and had to eat crow when Trump won.

So what really is fake news? There is the obvious candidate - downright untruths peddled as facts. But there is a more subtle form of fake news: opinions masquerading as facts. It used to be called propaganda once, but today it is basically CNN every night. The death of 'truth' came when news and opinions were melded seamlessly on prime time news. Trump has merely reminded the media of that 'fact'.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Republic Day Lecture: The Judicial Republic

In the grand scheme of things, the concept of the separation of powers is fairly new. For much of human history, the tribal leader, and later the King (and sometimes the Queen), was the one who made rules, executed them, arbitrated disputes, and handed out punishment. If not directly, then the ruler would delegate powers - but those powers would ultimately flow from one. The idea of electing the leader came next - but, as in France, that leader was still all-powerful. The idea of separating and limiting powers is fairly new, and therefore, quite untested.

Ideally, separation of powers calls for the legislature to create laws, the executive to implement them, and the judiciary to hear appeals about those laws. However, each of these is, at the end of the day, run by fallible humans, and it does not work as well. The classic case is when the executive usurps the legislature and creates law. While Nazi Germany is an extreme case, even within India, the 10th Schedule has essentially made it difficult for the elected majority to act against the executive in Parliament, even if they disagree with them. Thus, in India, the government at least controls the legislature, although the opposition prevents it from de facto legislating.

The Benevolent Leader
But India's experience with Westminster democracy is by no means unique. True, the 10th Schedule institutionalizes the hold of the party on both the executive and the legislature, but even without such an institutional setup, many democracies have a patronage system that more or less ensure the same thing. Perhaps that is the very nature of the system, which a Presidential system consciously avoids by separating the mandates of the two branches. Regardless, the founding fathers of the Indian Republic felt it suitable to have this system, as do many countries that are not doing that badly either.

What is fairly unique to India though, is the usurping of both executive and legislative powers by the judiciary. There is no other country in the world where judges appoint themselves, making them completely unaccountable to elected representatives or even the people, for that matter. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Indian Supreme Court is quite unique in the way it orders inquiries, institutes taxes, hears cases with extremely diluted locus standi requirements, frames regulations, and in some cases, interprets the Constitution in exactly the opposite way as the most obvious interpretation would be.

Not all of this is a bad thing though. It was the Supreme Court which outlawed the inhuman practice of ragging in colleges, possibly saving many lives in the process. In many cases, the court is the last resort for many in the face of an ineffective government and an unconcerned legislature. And yet, these is always a slippery slope - last year, in ordering people to stand for the National Anthem in theaters, the court stunningly declared that there are no individual rights, but only community rights, a move that would have made Ambedkar cringe, for he knew what community rights meant for Dalits.

The Making of a Democracy
Speaking of Ambedkar though, he never did see the Constitution as the final solution to the problems of India. He famously called it a window dressing over an inherently undemocratic country, yet he knew that it was the only chance to give a voice to those who had none. Liberalism, democracy, and free markets are the only escape for those historically oppressed. But if a Benevolent Court could order away all problems, why did he and his colleagues bother?

Because the truth is, the Court cannot fix everything. It can be a huge thorn in the political machinations of the other branches of government, but if push comes to shove, it will be ignored. As it is - there are several rulings (which are really more regulatory in nature than judicial) that states are simply sitting on. The tyranny of distance also helps - the Court can summon any officer in Delhi and would get an immediate hearing, but in far away states, it would be ineffective. What else explains the fact that old diesel vehicles seem to pollute only Delhi's air?

The truth is, as Justice Katju said, the court is so overwhelmed by pending cases, it would rather not deal with them. The courts cannot fix our democracy - only people can. And by that, I do not mean some reckless revolution. The thing about democracy is that it takes a very long time, and is quite ugly. But it lasts. The Supreme Court can dictate quick fix solutions for the BCCI, but once its attention shifts, it will be business as usual, because whoever it appoints will be people from this very society, cloth from the same yarn.

The Judicial Republic, which the recently retired Chief Justice seemed to like very much, is a myth, a chimera to sooth well-meaning hearts. A better democracy will be a long journey ahead - and there are not going to be any shortcuts.

Happy Republic Day!
Jai Hind!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

What just happened?

ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

Produced By: Red Hour Films and others
Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Penelope Cruz, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, and others
Pros: Creative
Cons: Not funny, poor acting, boring
Rating: * of 5 (1 of 5)

Oh boy, comedy - that genre that everyone thinks they can do, but few actually do well. I confess that I dislike most movies in the genre for, with the exception of a few, most of them cross the fine line between funny and ridiculous. Zoolander 2 not only crossed that line, it completed a marathon beyond it.

One word describes this movie best: boring. It was not funny at all - most of the jokes were flat and childish. Sure, Penelope Cruz had some funny stuff in her arsenal, but it just felt so hollow in the setting that it made no real difference. The movie was creative, in that the director took care to make it as absurd as possible and present that as the USP. Well, it certainly was a USP that the director deserves credit for - but that's just about it. And, to top it all off, the acting was pretty poor and barely believable. Overall, a sad mess of a movie. (OTFS)