Monday, December 15, 2014

BJP Government - Indian middle-class's deal with the devil

Right when the BJP came to power with a thumping majority, a large part of modern(-ish) middle-class India knew we had made a deal with the devil. We all knew that this group of fellows would talk the talk and hopefully walk the walk also as far as basic governance and economy were concerned. We also knew that they were blessed with a section that can be politely termed as "lunatic fringe" that would somehow feel empowered to voice its opinions and spout general garbage.

In fact, we even knew that some elements who had kept their inner lunatic under control for many years, would now get the courage to voice their view without fear of ridicule. We had hoped that this book-revising, moralizing, nonsense-spouting brigade would be kept in check and that the big daddy about town was so serious about modernizing India that he would not get distracted with this. That hope still lives on. But the absolute conviction that the Messiah had arrived is gone. With Ms. Swaraj's brilliant idea of calling the Bhagwad Gita a national book, we can confidently say the honeymoon period is over. 

For a machinery that is so conscious of manipulating the news cycle, this government has been losing the PR war over the past few weeks. And funnily enough, the opposition has had little to do with this.

This government will be evaluated on both metrics - Right now they are in trouble

The first few months had the gentlemen talking reforms, foreign trips, goodwill gestures, etc. The last few weeks have been full of Sadhvis and conversions.

It is incumbent upon Indian middle-class to communicate that we will not put up with this revisionism; that we feel that this is abhorrent. If the middle-class does not convey this, it will further embolden the fringe to try more stunts.

What exactly did we (Indian middle-class) sign up for?

As an electorate, we do not ask for much. We do not want big bang reforms. We want a quietly efficient government that lets us carry on with life. We do not want government leading the charge on anything. Keep regulations uncomplicated, taxation non-onerous, government-servants non-smug; provide roti, bijli, pani for people. Thats about it really. Anything more is a bonus. The bar on governance is really low here.

But having said this, Indian middle-class also does not put up with moralizing, sanctimonious, religious-triumphalism.

This is the deal we signed up for in May 2014. If the government cannot deliver on this, then all bets on performance-led government are off. A world where the Economy grows 11% every year, but one in which Pravin Togadia should be taken seriously would be a sad state of affairs.

If the fringe keeps talking, the pressures on the government will shoot up. And this is something Mr. Shah and Mr. Modi need to keep in mind.

Where does the government stand now?

Not as high as they think they are on the Economy-front, but far worse than what they imagine they are on the lunacy front.

Why this is such a big deal? Because the jury is still out on what kind of person our PM is

The key questions surrounding Mr. Modi are - Is he a fiercely secular person who just happens to be religious? Or, is he merely a pragmatist who is going to push 'Hindutva' sooner or later? The above chart is from a previous post on Nehru, religion and secularism

People who voted for Mr. Modi, ones who were very happy that we finally had a 'strong' leader are still not sure which of the two slots Mr. Modi occupies. Mr. Modi has stayed away from all religion talk thus far. In the first few months, when no one else was talking religion this was good enough. But now, when everyone else seems to have developed a taste for religious triumphalism, this aint good enough.

Saying nothing now would be akin to when Mr. Manmohan Singh said he was a person of integrity, when all and sundry in his cabinet was filling his boots. At least Mr. Singh had the excuse of being merely a lame duck, Mr. Modi has not that luxury. If he cannot contain Ms. Sadhvi from saying inane things, whats the point of that 56-inch chest?

Sooner or later, the PM must come out and say in as many words that some of these jokers are talking out of their hat. Silence will not cut it any more. And as the middle-class, if we cannot convey that, the joke really is on us.

Friday, October 24, 2014

India, Religion, Nehru, Modi, Charts

Nehru was a fierce patriot and an ideologue. Luckily for India, he was also a powerful enough leader who could shape an entire Country's viewpoints around his ideology. This is precisely why secularism is such a heavily-used word in Indian lexicon. Nehru was unwavering in his view that India must be accommodating of her minorities (not just the on the basis of religion) and steadfastly inculcated this belief in her citizens. By the sheer force of his personality, Nehru built this 'accommodation' into the Country's DNA.

This was also the time that the majority religion was reformed and large parts of the Country brought into a single legal code. Superstitions were contested and Hinduism probably gained its character as a truly modern religion during this period. The basic tenets were uncontested, but the religion had kind of upgraded itself for 21st century. More importantly, the fanatical, rabid segments were consigned to the fringe.

India's middle class lapped this up as this suited the prevailing mood in the Country as well. As it turned out, the only real opposition came from the religious right and they were rightly considered a bit off. And as the law of unintended consequences goes, Indian polity came to be aligned on one axis. On one extreme was secular, on the other was the religious right.

I have the duty to be secular, and a right to be religious - Can these two not co-exist?

So, perversely, Indians had to position themselves on this axis. Indian elite was mildly derisory of anything overtly religious. This axis, although it gave primacy to Secularism, was an oversimplification. Indians who were religious were sooner or later going to feel bad about being prima-facie non-secular. The elites' derision of religiosity also grated middle-class Indians. Because, truth be told, the axes on religion and secular ought to be really defined differently. They are not on either ends of the same spectrum, they are independent axes.

And on these axes, Indians camped in the top right were screaming for someone to articulate their case. The fact that one could be deeply religious and fiercely secular was not well-articulated. Perhaps because he was not that religious, even the visionary Nehru did not realize that this quadrant constituted a majority of Indians and the oversimplification of religious vs. secular was an affront to this brigade. Unwittingly, and by the sheer force of his personality, Nehru was dragging this group to the bottom-right quadrant.

Unfortunately, because India never really had a leader to champion the case for the top-right quadrant, the Country has seen a consistent struggle between religion and secularism. For long, religion did not have a role to play in public life. More recently, religion (Hinduism, particularly) has become more assertive of its place. This is not to be seen as a per se negative. Indians are a deeply religious people and it would be a mistake to again classify this as something to be apologetic about.(a mistake Indian liberal media often tends to make).

Where India lies along the vertical axis is irrelevant, as long as it is on the right side of the horizontal axis. This is a point that Indian elite never got. The liberal media (especially magazines such as The Hindu) thought everyone else was bigoted. And this patronizing attitude drove the middle-class towards the right-wing. This shift towards the right-wing was also helped by the ruling party.

When does one A-word become the other?

Nehru built an India designed to be accommodating of segments that needed to feel secure. However, his progeny had not that kind of vision, nor did they have the charisma to drag the entire Country towards one direction (Nehru-Gandhi family's charisma curve is asymptotic with the X-axis). The party that he built also lost its backbone and came to be in thrall of the family. So, the thin line separating accommodation and appeasement blurred and soon disappeared.

So, it has come to a point where the right-wing is having its moment under the sun. How the Indian right plays its cards now will probably be crucial. The Country's PM has steadfastly stayed away from any talk on or of or about religion in his first four months in power. He has nobly stayed away from anything that takes him away from governance. But apprehensions still persist about what he is really about.

Is he a fiercely secular person who just happens to be religious? Or, is he merely a pragmatist who is going to push 'Hindutva' sooner or later?  I think ordinary Indians, Congress top brass (what is left of it) and RSS are all mulling over this question.

Now, on to the caveats. Kindly bear in mind that this is more or less a thought experiment and nothing more than that. Nor are these charts in any way reflections of my own prejudices. I am the same bigoted guy I was before these charts.

Personally, I have seen a lot of right-wing assertiveness of Indian heritage, Hindu religion and what-not on Social media recently. 30 years ago, we were built to be proud of the fact that Zail Singh was our president, merely because he was a Sikh. Now, this right-wing brigade wants us to be proud of the fact that Obama lights diyas or Cameron says vedic maths. Neither feeling of pride is going to do us any good.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Go to their world

Great parenting is about two things - i) Hanging in there and ii) Deluding yourself into believing you are outstanding at this. Being from a modern Indian family (ahem!), the wife and I have split things right down the middle. As it turns out, I am so good at my part that I can now share the gyaan as well.

I am working on some marketing ideas for the company right now, so am in the mood for pithy sayings. So, parenting can be captured in one phrase - "Go to their World"

Kids live in a part make-believe, not fully-formed world of their own. They are trying to make sense of all the inputs they receive. Let me provide a sample of what my son has said to me over the past few months.

After watching Ice Age, continental drift, he said: In earlier times, they could drive by car from America to here as the entire world was connected.

When he was told that he didnt exist when Amma and I got married,
he went "So, you guys got married 100 years ago?".
Me:  "Illa da, only 8 years ago".
G: "Then I must have been there, no?
Me: Dei, you are only 5 now. How would you have been there 10 years ago?
G: Why not? I became 5 year old and have been 5 for a long time no. Like that I could have been 1 year old for a long time, 2 years old for a long time no.
Me: Stumped.

It took me a while to explain to him that the seemingly static variable that is his age, is actually a dynamic variable. I really struggled. His idea is actually kinda intuitive as well. (His way of counting is also adopted by a few individuals. All of us know of people who have been at n years of age for more than one year)

We also had a discussion on girls that cannot be put in the public sphere.

Point is, they live in a world that makes sense with the info they have. They continuously adjust their world view with new information, But often, their original world view has its own internal consistency when viewed from the information they have. Its a shame that we rarely see the world from that limited but internally consistent point of view. I am sure it would be brilliant.

Often,we are just anxious to correct these inconsistencies and bring them to our world. But de-camping in theirs is probably a way more brilliant alternative. Once, my son was playing a planes war-game with his Grand-Dad. In about 30 minutes, the pillow dividing the two sides was called Line of Control and they were discussing names of fighter-craft that I did not know about. That evening, my son told me - "We should be careful not just with Pakistan but also China, pa". Hahahaaha Even Nehru did not get that insight before it was too late.

Kids laugh for silly things, they love repeating the same theme over and over again - traits that can be incredibly irritating from an adult point of view. Having said that, they definitely live in a more vivid world that they are more than eager to share with us. Often we do not have the bandwidth to take the effort to go to their zone. Because we know we can survive there for 10 minutes, but would be bored stiff in 20. This is where the "hanging in there" part comes in; better-equipped people should write on that.

I find that I can engage my son and play different games with him, but I lack the patience to stay in his world and engage him on his terms. In a way, writing this down is my bid to increase my patience levels and engagement levels. The most important trick while dealing with kids is to figure out how to engage them - it is way easier if we try to improvise in their world, than if we rush them into ours. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Left and Right

One of the biggest plusses of the 2014 elections has been that fact that Indian youth has become more engaged in the political process. We see more political discussions online, see fearless expression from youngsters and an overall increase in curiosity levels as well.

I sense that youngsters in the Country want to talk politics more, especially the ones that have cast their votes for the very first time. Very often they find themselves unable to partake in discussions because they do not know the jargon or are unable to place the different names that the older generation refers to (I went through this when I was younger, I would never know any of the names or terms). This very often turns off the youngsters and they become disengaged. This is a shame.

This piece is a bid to improve the vocabulary of political discussion. I never understood these terms left or right or center-left, center-right, etc. And when I started understanding them, I realized that a great many were using these monikers incorrectly.

There are two axes on which we can define Left and Right, the Economic axis and the Socio-Cultural axis. Very often, the parties to the right on one axis are also on the right on another axis, so we do not care to distinguish between the axes. But it helps to know both axes.

Left vs. Right - The Economic Axis.

Essentially, the left espouses the role of government; and the right wants more freedom for the market (private sector)

Left and Right - The Socio Cultural Axis

On this axis, the right is conservative, holds the idea of "values" dear, holds religion to be important and is proud of lineage and tradition. The "left" is liberal, prizes the idea of individual freedom, and believes that the state has no role in prescribing morality.

Countries placed on this matrix

Caveat Emptor: The above diagram is merely thematic. I have put this here in order to encourage some form of thinking/discussion. So, if you have any views on where some country ought to be placed, please voice those.

Indian leaders, parties placed on a matrix

Again, the above chart is subjective. Kindly bear that in mind. Might be a fun exercise to think in terms of where you would fit in.

I am mildly right of center economically, and sharply left of center socio-culturally. So, I will probably occupy (2, -5) in what will henceforth be termed as the enlightened quadrant.

Thoughts, comments are welcome.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ishant Sharma and Rahul Gandhi

I would have never thought of any parallels between Ishant Sharma and Rahul Gandhi but for this wonderful piece of commentary by Kapil Dev. As a commentator, Kapil wears his heart on his sleeve and plays the role of half fan-half pundit to perfection. In the recent India-Australia series, Ishant managed to best his previous record by conceding 30 in an over. Kapil was seething; you could actually imagine him breaking windows if he had been in the dressing room. But in a few seconds, he calmed himself down and said

"Isme Ishant ki koi galti nahin hai. Agar, selectors mereko ball denge our bolenge bowl karo, mein to bilkul try karoonga. Aap bhi karenge. Kyo nahin try karen? Ishant bus wohi kar raha hai "

"This is just not Ishant's fault at all. If the selectors give me the ball and ask me to bowl, I will try. So will you. Why will anyone not? Ishant is doing the same thing"

This is exactly the same with Rahul Gandhi. If the largest party of an extremely populous country bends over backwards and begs you to lead them, what would you do?

And if we can pause for a second, and then rush past the impulse that says that this analogy can be milked no further; we can find more parallels between Ishant Sharma and Rahul Gandhi.

Both started with promise, best-case scenario for both now is adequacy, and fans of both will call it a good day if they dont get embarrassed by something their icon has said/done. One was born great (should it be greatly born), one had greatness thrust on him; both are now aspiring for mediocrity.

One spell led to Ishant's birth in international cricket. One birth has led to Rahul's spell in Indian politics.

Both have nothing to offer, but plod along because we have no alternatives. Congress's leadership ability compares well with India's fast bowling stocks. Eventually, when this all plays out, we might all come to the realization that Kapil Paaji reached - "Isme inki koi galti nahin hai" (They are not to blame)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Galti bahut kiya, lekin chori to nahin kiya

In recent times, I have seen a spate of articles and comments on social media that are part of a tremendous backlash against the AAP. I struggle to find a sound rationale for this. So, I have taken it upon myself to write the piece in defence of the AAP.

The arguments have been on three planks

1. There is no difference between AAP and Congress (or AAP and BJP): 

This is fantastically absurd. These guys took on the Congress on all planks, led the rout in Delhi. They were asked to step up and take charge when the BJP 'honorably' stepped aside on the issue of govt-formation; they were called irresponsible for holding the state to ransom; called impractical for calling for fresh elections. And then they decided to try and govern Delhi because the Congress 'offered' support, without being asked. Now it is somehow their fault for trying to run the show. In their short life-span, they have never sought any help from the BJP.

2. These guys are 'activists', they know only to disrupt, they do not know how to construct something:

They have been in power for less than a month.  Our history has seen governments that serve full terms and achieve far less than what these guys have done in few weeks.

Let me just take the example of honorable Mr. Kapil Sibal. He was in charge of the Human Resource Development ministry for a long time. In the first few weeks, he came up with a plan that could actually revolutionize the way Indian schools were administered.

Within days of taking over the ministry, he said - Let us have a unified board system. Let us scrap all these different boards and simplify the system with just one board of education. Many of us cheered for this (Personally, I was thrilled to bits). This could be awesome, could really make life easier for millions of school kids because no state could game the system and spend an inordinate amount of time playing politics with history and language books. Of course Mr. Sibal had not thought this through; of course he could not push it through. Unfortunately for the country, this was the last good idea Mr. Sibal had.

Then largely because he could not be seen as an old man doing nothing, he came up with a series of inane proposals. He talked of the pressures of students writing many entrance examinations and came up with a plan to simplify this. Now, all AICTE approved colleges had to select students based on this one great exam called CMAT. "One exam kills all, and I have justified my existence" he said. Only, the ministry could not outlaw CAT, XAT, SNAP, IIFT and NMAT. All of these exams existed in 2010, and they exist now. Only exams that have been scrapped are JMET and FMS, and these had been scrapped BEFORE CMAT came into existence.

Our honorable minister created an exam to ensure students would write one exam instead of 5; and ended up making them write 6. He went after Maharashtra CET then, and scrapped it. I think even that exam is back now. There has been a lot of confusion regarding CMAT for the past 4 years. No college selects based on this, but every college tries to ensure that the people whom they admit have written this exam. I sit on the admissions committee for 1-2 colleges and I pretty much told them "CMAT is a crap exam. Do not select anyone based on this. Select based on CAT, XAT, MAT, or anything else. And then whoever you select finally, ask these guys to write CMAT so that you do not end up violating some norm" This reminds one of Soviet Propaganda of the 1980's, but this is what Mr. Sibal made us do. So, more than 2 lakh people write CMAT because Mr. Sibal had a brainwave.

Mr. Sibal also pushed through government policy on expanding IITs. Someone who had consumed an inordinate amount of Tequila said "IIT = good brand. More IITs more good brands. And therefore, more good Engineers", the entire government machinery nodded and we have  a bunch of wretched new IITs.

I have arbitrarily picked one department and one minister. I am sure there are other ministers who have accomplished even less. I am not trying to paint a relative picture here. That is not the bar we should set for our new governments. We would have to reach a new level of ineptitude to perform worse than our current brigade. So, there is no glory in saying "it is not as bad as them". Nothing can be.

But all things taken into account, these guys have been in power for less than a month. They have shot to prominence, live in a TV capsule and are trying to govern the most difficult state in the country. They do not have control over their own police force and do not have much experience. And Congress and BJP are both good at creating trouble. So, let us not underestimate them either. BJP stepped aside from governing Delhi pretty much because it was a high risk state just prior to general elections. Now, they are essentially saying "Good luck with that".

Let us remember some basics. Once you give smart people some time, they will eventually figure out a way to get things moving. If we have intelligent, corruption-free guys in charge, they will get past a few errors and get it right, sooner or later. Mr. Kejriwal is an extremely intelligent person. Not in the Mr. Laloo Prasad is called 'smart', but in a way that scientists probably call someone intelligent. We have invested 50+ years in muppets. What Mr. Sibal says passes for intelligent TV these days, Mr. Salman Khurshid can look around a talk show table and realize there are 4 others who do what he does for a living - say lots of words that mean nothing.

We should not stare a gift horse in the mouth. Mr. Kejriwal is sharp, he is not corrupt - thats it, that is a manifold improvement on what we have had thus far. Whether he is left-of-center, right-of-center, or trying-to-be-in-the-center does not matter. These monikers are created by people who think they have had a good day if they can make Mr. Sibal agree to appear on a talk show. If he can be clean, provide Roti, Kapda, Makaan to everyone; and then Bijli, bandwidth to everyone; I dont give a tiny rat's behind which side of the 'spectrum' he is in.

In a recent interview, Mr Kejriwal said as much as well. He also said "Galti bahut kiya, lekin chori to nahin kiya" when asked about how his team had performed in 21 days. I want to vote for this guy for that statement. Amidst spin merchants, this is refreshing.

3. Why is Kejriwal playing spoilsport with the grand Modi march to Delhi?

This is central theme of a great many enthusiasts' angst. And this is the one that riles me the most.

A great proportion of India's social-media savvy youth has invested emotionally in this election. This is an extraordinarily good thing. What is less good about this is the fact that great numbers have invested in the Modi phenomenon. And they now feel that this new Kejriwal guy is out to steal their thunder. They feel that Kejriwal will end up playing 'spoiler' and should 'give way' in order to create a strong unified India.

This right to rule and 'destiny is with us' chatter cost BJP dear in 2004, and they are flirting with it again here. The BJP fanboys seem to have forgotten some basics - i) No wave is a wave unless you win some seats, ii) No seats are reserved for Modi. Have a message, have a leader, play ball.

The shoe can be fit on either foot. In New Delhi, the AAP can come out and say they could have routed Congress 60-10 if the BJP had not spoiled the party. In many ways, BJP joined the AAP-IAC show late, and are now demanding that AAP leave the stage once the comedy act is done. Veterans of the BJP basically sat on their behinds for 8 years and competed with the Congress on "Who is more inept, government or opposition?". The really big challenge to this stint of misgovernance came from Anna and then AAP. Now, BJP has stormed back to claim its rightful place as the number 1 alternative to Congress. Where were they from 2004 to 2011?

The narrative one can spin is - Modi is riding an anti-incumbency wave. A wave that was set in motion by Mr Hazare, pushed along by Mr. Kejriwal and whose fruits Mr. Modi is now looking to reap. For all his accomplishments, the biggest plus point Modi has is that he has Congress on the other side. In a nut shell, all parties competing in the 2014 elections are in it to have a stab at the 500 seats Congress WILL NOT win. Congress not winning is the theme of this election. Even in far away Tamil Nadu, elections are going to be about how to try to give the Congress another kick. If there were a way to give Congress -1 seats in this state (they are looking up at zero now), people would be queuing up for that.

Truth is, BJP would never have restricted Congress to just 7-8 seats in Delhi if AAP had not been there. Truth remains that AAP took as many or more seats that were potentially Congress's than those were potentially the BJP's.

Put differently, without AAP, BJP would have easily got a simple majority in New Delhi, but would never have banished Congress to single-digits. Delhi has struck fear into the Congress, something BJP could not achieve in 8 years as primary opposition party.

There is no god-given right for Modi to become PM in 2014. The BJP would do well to remember how they were in the mid 80's and how one rath yatra shaped their destiny. The man who went on that yatra seems to be the only one saying words of caution now. Too bad he borders on senile on occasions.

BJP is a party that built itself brick-by-brick, a party that became the face of the nation's desire to have something non-Congress. And then they became part of the fabric. They are still non-Congress, but less so with every passing year. And this rankles. This rankles a lot. Even the die-hards BJP-ites do not call themselves the party with a difference.

The BJP expected to turn up, beat a drum, say out loud thrice that they were not Congress and march to the Lok Sabha. It aint going to be that simple.

Let us not stare a gift horse in the mouth

It is not going to be that simple for the BJP and perhaps middle class India should be thrilled with that.

In many ways, India has long clamoured for an alternative to the two big parties. And somehow when an honorable one steps up, we cannot take it. We 'need' to stick to our original us vs. them narrative.

What more alternative do we want? A combination of Churchill and JFK riding in on a magic horse distributing gold coins to the peasants?

There have been so many times when we have looked at all of these SPs, BSPs, Shiv Senas, DMKs, ADMKs,  talk one language when in opposition and do the same mistakes when they come to power. And the simple theme has always been corruption. We have all said "Is hamam mein sab nange hain" at one point of time or another. Here is a guy who says, no matter what we do, we will not steal. We will not be corrupt. We will not screw over people.

And we want to fall back on the old rhetoric again.

Mr. Kejriwal is intelligent (somehow I prefer that adjective to Smart), extremely forthright & honest and someone who seems to be capable of governing well. Let us not jump to the conclusion that he cannot govern in less than 100 days.

Whichever constituency I vote in, if an AAP bugger stands in that constituency, I will vote for him/her. I am giving these guys a long rope. They defined hope in public life for India in 2013 (for the first time since probably 1970) and I will be damned if I give up on them within 6 months. I have held on to bad investments and bad employees for longer. I am unwilling to give up on this hope this soon.

And I hope you dont give up on them as well.