Monday, April 14, 2014

Can't we be less cynical?

We keep cribbing. We rarely have any kind words for others. Even if someone does or says something good, we readily come out with a conspiracy theory. We are contemptuous and sarcastic. We have no hope in the future. Everything is doomed to fail.

The so-called realistic view is actually pessimistic view. All deals are scams. All politicians and bureaucrats are corrupt and inefficient. Everything is done with an ulterior motive. No one is straight forward or sincere.
  • A new is road built. O, just imagine the amount of money engineers and politicians would have made.
  • An NGO is doing good work. O, that is all just to get some foreign funds.
  • A new college has come up. O, that is just a way to make some money out of hapless parents.
  • The neighbour has bought a new house. O, he must be corrupt.
The list goes on and on.

Why are we so suspicious? Why are we so negative? Why do we see red everywhere?

Can't there be good people around? Can't people just be helpful to others? Can't there be many honest bureaucrats and politicians? Ok, the system is bad, but is it so bad as it's being made out? Aren't many people, performing well in spite of the system?

Have we lost trust in humanity? When we ridicule others, don't we realise that we are also liable to be ridiculed same way by others?

The exceptions

I have used the pronoun "we", since these highly cynical, very negatively charged perceptions seem to be all pervasive.

But there are many exceptions among us, may be very few in number.
  • I had an aunt, who in spite of unimaginable hardship in her life, was rarely critical or cynical. She always had a smile on her face, and was ever ready to help others.
  • One of my school mates, about five years elder to me, has always only good wishes for others. He is critical, but always very mild, and always sees a sliver lining in every cloud.
  • An former colleague of mine, who is a successful public relations professional simply infects you with happiness. He is always smiling. When something goes wrong, he recovers very fast and turns happy, because he sees that as an opportunity.
Just as no one can give us happiness, but we have to discover it ourselves; we need to consciously be less contemptuous and less cynical. Instead, we should consciously look at the world around us in a positive way.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gmail at it again -- with Shelfie

It's tailor-made for Gmail to pull it off on April 1. That is the day when the service was launched as a beta release in 2004. So, when Gmail tells you that on their birthday, they have something new on offer, it's quite natural for anyone to be taken in, unless of course, you remember what Google had been up to the previous year or years.

Almost all Google services relish pulling a fast one on April 1. Cashing in on the current narcissistic craze, they poked fun at selfies. As millions of Gmail users around the world logged in, they were greeted with a pop-up announcement: the box that lets you select or change the background theme. At the end, they added: Create a Shelfie. The idea is simple, don't be so selfish: don't just keep looking at your own photo, share it with others, so that they too can look at you, forever. That's a shareable selfie or a Shelfie.

Gmail said it all in their blog post.

It didn't strike me at first, let me confess. In fact, only after I read the last line of the blog post, it occurred to me that it is April 1 and it's Google.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Newspaper seen as credible source of information

Those days there were no apps, mobiles, computers, internet or 24x7 news coverage on a dozen television channels. After getting to know very briefly about news developments on All India Radio or Doordarshan, we had to wait for the next day's newspaper to know the details.

Cut to the present. The widespread belief is that fewer and fewer people, especially teenagers and youth, are interested in reading the newspaper. They, instead, turn to websites of their choice or apps on mobile phones or tablets.

The number of newspapers might dwindle, even substantially, over a period of time. But it may be too early to write their obituary.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend an open house of some readers of the newspaper I work for. And, in many ways it was an eye-opener. Some of the points I gleaned from the interaction were:
  • Newspaper, especially the broadsheet format, is considered as the most credible source of information
  • Children are not put off by the language. In fact, they look up to newspapers to learn new expressions and usages.
  • Youngsters love to see colour and illustrations in newspapers.
  • Few people think that newspapers should minimize or abandon their predominant serious role of informing and educating people, in favour of trivia and entertainment
  • It's very difficult to understand what exactly readers want since they are interested in everything from local civic issues to international political developments.
  • Web editions are mainly to check out the latest news developments. But there is huge demand for the e-paper format, the digital version of the physical paper. Because people want to see different sections and page numbers.
Even though lot of news is disseminated via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Reddit etc, most people turn to news organizations for confirmation. The web formats may be catching on, but for the average reader, the printed word on paper seems to still comes across with a stamp of authenticity. Just as movie houses have thrived, though in fewer numbers, in spite of DVDs and online, many years down the line, we would still see physical newspapers coexisting with the web and e-paper formats.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

MH370 tragedy: questions for which we may not have answers

Ever since the Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew members vanished about an hour into its flight on March 8, conventional wisdom all along, though not explicitly stated, was that it had crashed. Only runaway, bizarre conspiracy theories spoke of possibilities ranging from abduction by aliens to hijack by terror groups.

It was always hard for the kith and kin of the missing travellers to believe the obvious. The vacuum of information was filled only by the belief that all the 239 would be alive somewhere on earth and would one day emerge to tell the tale.

Since there were no sightings of MH370, the suspicion was that it had come down either over sea or over some remote forested land. Satellite images turned the focus area first to Strait of Malacca, then to South China Sea and then to Southern Indian Ocean.

New analytic method

After 16 days, yesterday, the time had come to face the inevitable. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said, "... with deep sadness and regret ... I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean."

The new data he was referring to was an analytic method, "never before used in an investigation of this sort".

Full text of Razak's statement here and the video here

Two agencies -- the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch and British satellite communication agency, Inmarsat -- were involved in the research. They used a mathematical model which was described by Inmarsat Senior Vice President Chris McLaughlin as ground breaking, to determine which way the plane flew and the point of last contact.

McLaughlin explained to CNN how they came to the conclusion. Read here.

In short, scientists analysed the pings the aircraft emitted and picked up by the satellite, to determine the direction the plane flew and and the approximate location of last contact, not long after which the plane would have gone down.

Bigger mystery

What we now know is only an area where the plane may have crashed. But it's no consolation to the kith and kin, who are demanding evidence, either wreckage or bodies. Going by the efforts being made, surely the wreckage would be found, may be after many months, or even many years.

But questions still remain, which are quite unlikely to be answered.

  • How and why did the internal communication systems get turned off? 
  • Why did the plane turn back from its normal flight path?
  • If the pilots wanted to make an emergency landing, because of a mechanical fault, the plane should have headed to a land mass. Why did it fly to the remotest part our planet over sea, thousands of kilometers away from land mass? Unless something catastrophic happened too soon for the pilots to attempt a crash land, and the plane flew on auto-pilot.
  • Was it a mindless deadly fantasy trip of someone on board?
  • Was it a flight adventure of one of the pilots that went horribly wrong?
  • Was it a hijack attempt that went wrong? Even if the pilots or crew wanted to thwart the hijack, the pilots would have guided the plane to land mass. 

The black box, when found, will yield a number clues. But we may still not know what went on in the minds of the pilots, crew and the passengers.

The Kairali ship mystery

The MH370 tragedy reminded me of the disappearance of Kairali, a ship owned by Kerala Shipping Corporation. It had sailed from Mar Goa to Rostok, Germany, via Djibouti, Africa, on June 30, 1979 with 53 people and 20,000 tonnes of iron ore. It vanished in Arabian Sea. That was a big story during my school days, and we used to spend time spinning conspiracy theories.

There is technology to locate the debris. The Kerala government periodically reiterates its determination to find an answer, but nothing really happens. Probably because the technology is very expensive. It was and might still remain a mystery.

Need for continuous tracking

How paradoxical that we can track both spacecraft that travel to outer space as well as a palm-sized mobile phone, but planes and ships vanish without a trace. Did technology fail us, or we failed technology? May be both.

The MH370 tragedy surely drives home the need to summon all the technological resources to put in place a system that will ensure continuous real-time tracking of aircraft and ships. It may be expensive, but might just be worth it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A political rally with a difference

Political party rallies aren't very different from one another, barring the party that organizes them. There are huge crowds; and an implicit assumption is that they have been hired, brought by the volunteers from neighbourhood villages and towns for a price. Speakers portray themselves as saviours of the poor and downtrodden while tearing into their opponents. Speeches dissolve into bland political rhetoric, notwithstanding the speakers' high vocal pitch and oratorical theatrics; finally everything sounding like pots calling the kettles black.

Today, I went for the Aam Aadmi Party's public meeting at Freedom Park, Bangalore. It was a political rally with a number of differences.

I reached the venue at 3 pm. There was a fairly a good crowd. At a booth near the entrance, one could pick up the AAP caps. They were for free, but the organizers expected a contribution -- of any amount -- towards the party. One could also register as a volunteer or even formally join the party. I made my way towards the podium, through the crowd, with some difficulty. I noticed that there was a barricade separating the audience -- women who had come alone or along with men, and senior citizens on one side; and men on the other side.

The composition of the crowd stood out. They were definitely not brought to the town from neighbourhood villages. No one paid them. But on the contrary, the members of the audience had offered whatever they could to the party's kitty. The audience comprised middle class and upper middle class people in the 25 to 40 age group. But there was a significant number of elderly people as well. Definitely not the ones who would normally go to such rallies, they were the new breed political followers who were evidently attracted by the pitch of the greenhorn party.

The huge crowd of young middle class and upper middle class people who had come to the AAP rally in Bangalore 
The atmosphere was festive. It made me feel as if I was at some college reunion or some youth festival. On the stage were youngsters with musical instruments like drums, keyboard and violin, playing well-known patriotic songs and a few ones composed by the party's lyricists mocking the current political culture. The rhythmic numbers and the young lady moderator's exhortations steadily electrified the atmosphere, with the crowd continually breaking into handclap and loud cheers. There was also a performance of "broom dance": a few young men and women doing an amateurish jig with brooms in their hands, and a song resonating with AAP theme playing in the background.

The podium wasn't covered. Obviously, since the party doesn't have the money to get an ornamental pandal and decorations. Everyone was sitting in hot (by Bangalore standards) sun.

At 4.10 pm, Arvind Kejriwal arrived to a thunderous applause and cheers of the crowd that had swollen to huge numbers by then. The AAP candidates were introduced to the crowd and there were speeches by a number of people, including a 96-year old person, Doraiswamy, if I remember the name right. He spoke so vociferously and passionately on the state of the nation lamenting the lack of progress even after decades of independence from the British. A former career diplomat, who resigned after the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, too spoke, singing paeans to Kejriwal's dream of a new India.

Around 4.45 pm Kejriwal began speaking. It was the usual tirade against Congress, BJP, Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and many others of both the national parties, besides Mukesh Ambani. Most of the attack was targeted against Modi, since he is tipped to the next prime minister going by multiple opinion polls. He read out names of many politicians of the BJP and the Congress who were allegedly involved in corrupt deals. He kept asking why Modi had to have people involved in dubious backgrounds in his ministry or in the party.

Arvind Kejriwal addressing AAP's Bangalore rally
He said he would consider himself fortunate if he had to lay down his life for the country. Mocking Modi for looking for a safe seat, he said if the party decides, he would contest against Modi in Varanasi. The speech went on for close to an hour. There were constant cheers on the lines of "Kejriwal, we are with you!".

This was definitely a political rally with a difference; at least for the following reasons:
  • The type of crowd, comprising young, educated middle class and upper middle class people. 
  • The lack of any decorations at the venue. There was no shade or even chairs on the the podium.
  • The festive atmosphere, with music, songs and dance.
  • The determination of speakers to plough a new and different track in India's political discourse. 
  • Speeches free of old rhetoric of freeing the country from poverty, a staple of usual political speeches; 
  • Projection of common man's problems as the most pertinent political theme. 
AAP's ideals sound noble. They reflect the frustration and disappointments of common people. Kejriwal seems to be a good leader, is a good speaker and knows how to steer political agendas. He has positioned himself as a politician with a difference; and AAP as a political party with a difference.

But the challenges before Kejriwal and AAP are huge. Because they are not fighting an issue or two. They are taking on an entire system which has run the country all these years, and to which we all have got used to.

Not many realise that this is a challenge not just for Kejriwal and AAP but for all the common people too, since they all will have to get used to a new system crafted by Kejriwal and AAP. Fired-up party leaders may be ready for the required sacrifice, but are the common people ready for that sacrifice?

Only time will tell, but surely, a beginning has been made -- a beginning that will, for sure, have a bearing on the results of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Educate legislators, not voters

The general election to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha is less than 100 days way. The excitement will steadily increase in the coming days with the announcement of candidates, party manifestos and nation-wide campaigning by political bigwigs, besides of course the stepped up coverage in the media. Simultaneously, we will also see efforts by, mainly non-profit social organizations, to enroll new voters and exhort them to cast their ballots on the voting day.

Voting is our right. We are told that it's also our responsibility, that if we don't go and vote, we will only allow the present morass to continue. An implicit assumption here is that if we vote, we can usher in a new society that is fair, just and devoid of the most ubiquitous vice of corruption.

Indeed elections form the bedrock of a democracy. We must be proud that our country is one of the few nations in the world where the citizens enjoy this freedom to vote in and vote out rulers.

Whenever I could vote, I have voted. And I value that right and freedom greatly.

But I don't understand how the number of people who vote can determine the quality of governance? And, how voters, by turning out in huge numbers, can ensure a better government.

We have corruption and poor standard of living not because all eligible voters don't vote; it's because, the people who are voted to power (be it by 30, 60 or 90% of the electorate) do not work sincerely for the welfare of the society. For the lawmakers, comfort of ordinary citizens figures very low in their priority list.

The media have covered extensively how our legislators fall short of expectation, and how a lot of precious time is lost in our legislatures. There is more of disruption than any constructive engagement.

We in India have the freedom to vote. Even without any effort, India's voters have been coming out in good numbers to cast their franchise. India's voting percentage of around 60% is not bad at all. It's comparable to the turnout in the UK and in the US. It's extremely difficult to draw a correct correlation between the turnout percentage and quality of governance or the standard of living of a society.

During the past 10 to 15 years, we have seen a lot of efforts by social organizations to get youngsters to register for voting and educate them to take part in the democratic exercise. But the fact is that in spite of all that, during the assembly election last year, Bangalore recorded the lowest turnout. There is a lot of cynicism. Some people are indifferent, but many are disenchanted. Part of the blame lies in the failure of the political class to inspire voters. I have heard so many times, remarks like: "If these are the type of politicians we have, then why should I vote?"

What has been happening Parliament during the last few days over Telangana, and yesterday's incident in the UP assembly are the more recent cases.

There is definitely nothing wrong in campaigning to educate voters. It should continue. Citizens, especially, youngsters must be made aware of the precious democratic right we are privileged to exercise on one single day once every five years.

But that merely won't do, and won't achieve anything substantial. A high voter turnout is a high voter turnout, one one particular day. That's it. What matters to any society is what happens during the next five years. So, a much more intense effort must be undertaken to educate lawmakers and other politicians on their responsibilities and how to serve the people, during the five years of their tenure. The exercise of voting will have any real meaning only if the elected representatives honour the votes cast in their name and serve the society.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Economic challenges will be Kejriwal's acid test

A lot of us have been for years saying that India will not change unless we change the way we do politics. A few attempts have been made in the past to bring about that change.

In mid-70s, when many thought that Indira Gandhi was getting dictatorial and corrupt, Janata Party was cobbled together. In an unbelievable electoral wave, she and her Congress were swept out of power in 1977. She herself lost her seat to someone called Raj Narain.

The Janata Party experiment was largely reactionary: it set up Shah Commission and hounded Indira Gandhi. Their undoing was they practised the same politics as Congress. Morarji Desai as PM couldn't keep the disparate power centres together. The same Congress, the same Indira Gandhi, came back to power in three years.

Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, gave us lot of hope. He tried cleaning up the system, and called upon bureaucrats and technocrats to come to public life. Even now there are many talented people, young and old, in the Congress. But none of them are able to break out of the party’s culture; and instead of reforming the system, they have virtually merged with the system. The BJP, positioned itself as an alternative with a different approach, but in many ways, they are no different from the Congress.

For the first time, a group of educated people, not belonging to any established political parties, but sworn to public service, took corruption as a major issue, and decided to clean up the system by getting into the system. (Of course, AAP was helped to great extent by Anna Hazare's Lokpal campaign.) That’s the reason why the AAP victory in Delhi assembly elections and today’s formation of new AAP-headed Delhi government is historic.

So far the AAP story has been a heady mixture of populism and idealism. Nothing wrong with that. But now they will have to find space for hard reality too. The AAP movement grew on India's anger against corruption. But corruption is a part of India’s socio-economic culture. Changing the way we do politics will now have to extend to changing that culture.

For example, we have been brought up on freebies and subsidies. A lot of these, which should actually go to the poor, go to people who don't need it, the upper middle class and rich. Our economy and development policies are in a shambles; and that’s one reason why our infrastructure and standard of living are way poorer than what they should actually be. Political changes are easier compared to economic changes. And therein lies Kejriwal’s acid test.

AAP and Kejriwal have a real battle ahead. But as of now, they are the best bet we have. They are not only talking idealism, but also making every effort to practise it

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

Monday, December 9, 2013

AAP has bigger challenges ahead

The AAP is on a roll. But as Arvind Kejriwal would know very well, the path ahead will be harder from now on. This is a track he chose consciously: to fight the system by joining it, and not as his mentor Anna Hazare prefers, to be outside the system. So far so good.

Politicians may not admit, but surely the Aam Aadmi Party’s performance has made them sit up. If it were any party other than the AAP in Delhi, we would have seen power-brokers jumping into the fray, leading to the all-too-familiar scenario of wheeling and dealing, and before long we would have had a government.

There may be a few reasons why the BJP is not staking claim to power. One, with the AAP-inspired vigil, it's difficult to woo allies to cobble the requisite number. Two, President's Rule will lead to a re-election in Delhi, probably along with the Lok Sabha election. BJP might well be hoping that the Modi wave will give it a greater momentum for a decisive mandate.

Kejriwal's hope is that the AAP will be able to repeat the performance at the national level. But the extrapolation may not be so easy as it sounds. The citizen-driven party will have to mobilize state and district-level participation in big numbers to counter the well-entrenched local influences of the established parties, not just the Congress and the BJP, but also the many regional parties. It may not be beyond Kejriwal and his highly motivated team. Their theme of 'clean politics' is one which has a pan-India resonance. If Kejriwal has his eyes on a big number in the Lok Sabha, then the work will have to start right away.

The Delhi election result is a milestone in India's story of democracy. The light at the end of the tunnel is now a shade brighter. Kejriwal and his team need to ensure that the light only burns brighter. Hopefully, we are seeing the beginning of a change. If the right people are elected, the right people will be in power, and there will surely be better governance.

Friday, December 6, 2013

RIP Mandela

Nelson Mandela was more than the first Black President of South Africa. He was more than an anti-apartheid leader. What inspired people across the world was his compassion and forgiveness. There aren't many fighters and achievers like Mandela.

His African National Congress was once classified as terrorist organisation. He spent 27 years in prison. Once he walked out he carried no vengence against the people he fought a life-long battle against.

He set up a Truth and Reconiliation Commission. He was not just against senseless minority domination purely on the basis of colour of human skin. He was also against Black domination. The way he accommodated Fredrick De Klerk, the last apartheid era head of state, is a monumental example of his deep understanding of the society for whose liberation he fought.

The sort of societal transformation he brought about is unparalleled in the world. He avoided massive bloodshed that could have ensued. He was so humble and forgiving that he invited the prosecutor who got him jailed, for tea in his presidential palace.

He taught us the value of the age-old saying "Let bygones be bygones". He said we had to move on and the country had no time to waste to achieve its larger goals of elevating the standandard of lives of people.

How many leaders we see around have the vision Mandela had? How many can sacrifice their comforts for the good of the society? Mandela is guiding light for everyone, especially so for leaders who are championing people's causes. We have a lot to learn from his life.

May his soul rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Our poverty has nothing to do with Mars Mission

To say that the Rs 450 crore spent on Mars Mission (comparatively a small amount) should have been spent on feeding the poor, is mixing up issues. If many Indians are hungry and homeless, if India has poor public infrastructure, it's not because Indian space scientists are doing their job. More