Wednesday, May 28, 2014

No degree is better than having one

The controversy over the educational qualification of Union HRD minister Smriti Irani is quite needless. Apparently she hasn't studied beyond Std XII. My take is -- it's good.

It all started with tweets from Madhu Kishwar and Congress spokesman Ajay Makhen, questioning her competence to head the education ministry. And, it backfired, with a barrage of countertweets. Columnist Swapan Dasgupta said: “Someone remind me. Did Rabindranath Tagore go to university? He certainly established one & had enlightened views on education.’’ Jammu and Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah tweeted: "To say that someone needs to be educated to be HRD Min is like saying one needs to be a pilot for Civil Aviation or a miner for Coal Min".

I wonder when did educational qualification become an imperative to join politics or to become a minister. Not just in politics, elsewhere too everyone is looking beyond degrees. We have infinite examples of under-qualified people doing well, and well-qualified people under-performing.

Let her do her job

As a minister, Smriti and others are more of managers and leaders. What she needs is a good set of advisers. And she should have the will to push the policies that are good for the teachers and the taught, and generally for the educational setup of our country. And for all that, a PhD or an MSc or an MBA is hardly required. In fact, a highly qualified person may prove to be a disadvantage, since he or she won't be able to look beyond his or her field of specialization. Such people very often have a constricted view, while a minister of education of the country should have a very broad view.

Let Smriti be allowed to do her job. If she has come this far, she must be smart enough to figure her way ahead too. If we need to criticize, let us do that for her omissions and commissions as a minister.

(Picture credit: The Hindu)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Judge not Modi too soon

Narendra Modi being sworn in as PM by President Pranab
Mukherjee. (Photo credit: Rajeev Bhatt/The Hindu
Narendra Modi has just been sworn in as the Prime Minister of India in a grand ceremony in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. For the first time ever, leaders from all the seven Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) nations and Mauritius, besides 4,000 other invitees attended.

It should normally have been just another transition of power -- for the 15th time, if you didn't include two stints of 13 days each when Gulzarilal Nanda was the acting prime minister after the demise of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964 and Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966. But there has been so much of excitement this time around.

In the recent past, perhaps only two other transitions created so much excitement -- in 1977 when Morarji Desai became PM heading India's first non-Congress government that too after both Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi were defeated in the election; and later in 1996 when Atal Behari Vajpayee led a BJP-led minority government, for 16 days, just 4 years after the demolition of Babri Masjid.

Given the way the UPA-2 government was drifting rudderless courting one controversy after another -- under a competent man, who unfortunately never got to do what he wanted to (unlike in 1991 when he was the finance minister, Narasimha Rao was the PM and Sonia Gandhi hadn't entered politics) -- Narendra Modi becoming the PM was very much foreseen.

Why the excitement?
  • The hope that we will have a government that will be also seen to be functioning.
  • After 16 years, we have a prime minister who has campaigned and led his party to victory.
  • After 30 years, a single party has got majority in the Lok Sabha.
  • Regional satraps who have only a score or two MPs won't hold the entire nation to ransom.
  • The talk that Modi is an efficient and tough taskmaster who gets things done.
  • We have a PM who is backed by a reasonable set of achievements, though he has quite a lot of negative attributes as well. But in the absence of any alternative, many seem to have decided to focus on his pluses than minuses.
While the excitement is understandable. we are too presumptuous in judging Modi. I guess, we must allow him and his government to settle down. We have seen only a number of symbolisms, during electioneering and after, from Modi. Nothing wrong. After all, politics is a lot about perception -- formed not just by tangible substantive actions, but by intangible tokenism too. The most talked-about symbolism is the invitation of foreign leaders to the swearing-in, particularly Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

I am sure Modi wouldn't restrict himself to token gestures, as he and his team gets the wheels of effective governance turning again. Expect not just sweet symbolisms, but quite a few harsh and unpopular decisions as well that are needed if our country has to scale heights of economic and social excellence. Hopefully, sloth, lack of accountability and indiscipline in governance will be things of the past.

Eager anticipation

It's more anticipation than excitement; anticipation on how the future would be. Going by the way votes have gone, it has been established on multiple fora that people who voted for the BJP had chosen to look at economic issues over communal and religious issues.

One important area that has suffered over the past few years is investment. We are not talking about the more controversial foreign direct investment, that too in retail. We are talking of investment in infrastructure, education, science and technology, agriculture, industry, tourism etc. And we are not talking of foreign investment. We are talking of Indian investment. Many Indians, wary of investing in India itself, have been turning to foreign countries.

The biggest change most Indians are looking forward to is this. Because, it will have a great bearing on jobs, state of the economy, and by extrapolation, the standard of living.

But the huge flip side of the mandate is that very other Indian who voted, didn't vote for BJP. Its vote share was a little over 30%. The majority of those voted, the nearly two-thirds, will be keeping their fingers crossed with a lot skepticism.

Hopefully Modi will keep them in mind, the huge majority who didn't vote for the BJP. Finally, his image and success, will depend on how he takes care of them.

Test of crisis

It's said the strength of a chain is its weakest link. It means, when pressure is applied on the chain, it's weakest link that will snap first. So, how long lasting the chain is depends on that weakest link. Similarly, how good Modi is will depend on how well he can handle a crisis. It's during a crisis one's abilities are put to test. So, we will be able to judge best, when he is faced with a crisis, by looking at how well he resolves it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

We will miss you, MP. Rest in Peace

Flying Officer (Rtd) M P Anil Kumar, the unbelievable source of inspiration for countless people, left for his heavenly abode at 8.15 am today. He turned 50 on May 5.

Funeral will be at Bopodi crematorium near CME (Harris) Bridge, about 2.5 km from Paraplegic Rehabiliatation Home, tomorrow, Wednesday, May 21. The body will reach the PRC at 9 am, where tributes will be paid by PRC inmates. The body will be moved to the crematorium at 10 am. From 10.30 to 11.30 friends and well wishers will be able to pay their tributes. The funeral is at 11.30 am.

From June 28, 1988, to today, a stretch of 26 long years, MP (as we all called him) fought his adversities so bravely. He was a fighter pilot, flying MiGs. But ended up fighting a different battle from his wheelchair and bed.

MP was one year senior to me in school: Sainik School, Kazhakootam, Kerala. He was there for the games and parades. He got into NDA like many of my schoolmates, shone like bright star, won medals and accolades, until that fateful day in June, by a strange quirk of fate he was rendered immobile from neck downwards.

With the IAF chief.
I will let MP himself tell what happened, in this highly inspirational essay: "Airborne to Chairborne", which he wrote for the Indian Express. Click here. (In case the link is not working, you can also read the full essay at the end of this post.)

His home was the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre, Kirkee, Pune. Whenever I had a chance to go to Pune, just like many of his friends, I too made it a point to call on him at PRC. He would just keep talking about politics, defence, sports, media. He had an amazing depth of knowledge and was well tuned into all that was happening around us. He wrote many articles on defence related matters in, and middles in Indian Express. Despite his limitations, he was always cheerful, with a great sense of humour.

Once when I met him in 2000, I was amazed to see the books on computer that were stacked in his room. That was the time, when personal computers were getting affordable and popular. He got on to the cyber world to keep himself active, and be in touch his friends. He kept himself engaged, visiting schools, giving inspirational talks. Many school and college projects have been done on MP.

When I met him on February 21, 2012
Two years ago, when I met MP, he was telling me how age had caught on, how his body had become weak, and how he wasn't able to read for long, how he became too tired too fast etc.

Things were getting more difficult for MP, but the most tragic blow, after all that he had suffered, came last month. He was having frequent bouts of fever, and on April 12 he was admitted to Military Hospital Kirkee, Pune, for detailed tests. A few days later, he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (it is one of the more dangerous forms of blood cancer). Due to his quadriplegia, severe treatments were ruled out. He was administered one round of chemo.

I visited him on Sunday, May 11. I was a bit skeptical as to how the meeting would go. But the moment I saw him, all my worries vanished. He was smiling, instantly started talking to me, with that sense of humour he had. He just put me at ease. I was there for close to 2 hours, from around 12.15 pm. He also spoke on phone to my father, who taught him in school. I wished him speedy recovery. He thanked me. After one final caress on his forehead and cheeks, and I left, with the fervent hope that I will be able to meet him again.

Talking to me, when I met him on Feb 21, 2012.
He was okay, and a few days later, he was shifted back to PRC from the MH. But soon his condition worsened. On Saturday, May 17, he was moved to ICU in MH, Kirkee. Doctors put his condition under DIL (Dangerously Ill) category. Last night, one his friends messaged me that his condition had got really worse. And, today morning, that valiant struggle ended. An irreparable loss.

There are very few who touch people's hearts the way MP did; very few who are looked up to for their strength of mind and their determination, very few about whom children study as a part of their curriculum in schools, when that person is alive.

MP was an unbelievably true fighter. God had scripted this different life for him. But, MP taught us that there is plenty of life even with the worst adversities. He taught us many many invaluable lessons.

Life is not about longevity. It's about what you mean to others, people around you. MP, you achieved so much, in spite of all your hardship. You meant so much to every one who knew you.

You have been a true guide, an invaluable inspiration. Will never forget you.

Rest in Peace, MP.


Airborne to Chairborne

All my attempts to move my limbs were futile. The pain in the neck was excruciating and it intensified by the second. I was stumped for a moment but quickly recovered to realise the seriousness and significance of my inability to get up. I do not remember whether I screamed involuntarily, then, in sheer desperation. On that abominable night, my mind was in a medley of intense frustration, utmost dejection and extreme disappointment. For some timeless moments, I wished I were dead.

On 28 June ’88, at around 2300 hrs, whilst returning to the Officers Mess on my motorcycle after night flying, I drove onto a road barrier just ahead of the technical area gate, inside Air Force Station, Pathankot. The impact of the helmet on the wooden bar wrenched my neck and broke the cervical spine. Fifteen minutes after the accident, I was taken to the Station Sick Quarters in an unconscious state. While being carried, my head was left unsupported. The base of the helmet (rear side) which was resting against the nape of the neck pushed the fractured vertebrae into the cervical spinal cord. (The casualty must always be carried in a stretcher, after immobilising his/her neck with a cervical collar.) The resultant spinal injury completely paralysed me below the neck.

After overnight’s stay in Military Hospital (MH), Pathankot, I was transferred to Army Hospital, Delhi (AHDC). Neck surgery failed to mitigate my predicament. Though I had brief spells of consciousness during the fortnight’s hospitalisation in AHDC, my memory fails to recollect my fight for survival. On 12 July ’88, I was transferred to the Spinal Cord Injury Centre of MH Kirkee, Pune.

Two weeks after my admission, I gathered my wits and eagerly inquired about the prognosis. The medical officer looked up and motioned his hands skywards; perhaps he wanted me to adjure divine intervention. This charade instantly deflated my hopes but it lucidly conveyed the enormity and helplessness of the incurable nature of the incapacitation. Inconsistencies of life have always bemused me but not even the wildest nightmare presaged that one day I would fall prey to such a quirk of fate. The modicum of faith I had in Providence got shattered when I failed to show even an iota of improvement.

The cervical spinal injury (quadriplegia) necessitated me to lead a totally dependent life, tethered to the bed and wheel chair. Now, I am like a man fettered for life; unable to use my hands and legs, incontinent and spoon‑fed. Ironically, the most painful aspect of quadriplegia is the painlessness! It isn’t mere loss of tactile inputs and outputs but absolute dependence on someone else to accomplish mundane necessities and domestic chores that yoked me; even for things like swabbing ears and swatting flies.

Disuse atrophy had set in within a couple of months and took its toll by altering the geometry of my torso and limbs. The mirror replicated the image of a human skeleton swathed in a layer of wizened skin. Two years’ stay in MH Kirkee taught me how to battle the numerous encumbrances and how to conquer the bouts of depression. With a smile on my face, I managed to dissemble the pangs of the heart. The Indian Air Force (IAF) realised my uselessness and discharged me from the service on 12 April ’90. The silly accident dealt coup de grace to my aspirations and terminated my fledgling career in the IAF. In August ’90, at the young age of 26, I got admitted in Paraplegic Home, Park Road, Kirkee, Pune, as an inmate to begin the second phase of my life afresh.

I was born and brought up in a village by name Chirayinkil, 35 kms north of Trivandrum. At the age of nine, I entered Sainik School, Kazhakootam. A slow learner and an unobtrusive student by nature, I had excelled consistently in both academics and sports. Later on, I was found worthy enough to be adjudged as the best Air Force cadet of 65th course of National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakwasla, Pune and as the best in aerobatics of 134th Pilots Course of Air Force Academy, Secunderabad. In Dec ’84, I was commissioned into the IAF as a fighter pilot. I had 700 hours of flying experience (including 500 hours of flying in a magnificent flying machine called MiG-21) during my truncated career in the IAF.

All my efforts to rationalise personal catastrophes have always mystified and at times stupefied me. To adapt to the new challenges posed by the debility, I had to unshackle myself from the self‑imposed stupor. Therefore, in Sep ’90, I decided to learn the art of writing by holding a pen in my mouth (because of dysfunctional hands). I began scribbling illegibly but was chagrined to find little progress even after 3 weeks’ laborious efforts. Then, I decided to change tactic and wrote a letter to Sheela George, the person who kept on chivvying to start mouth‑writing (earlier I had paid little attention to her exhortations). My joy knew no bounds when I completed the few lines that embodied my first mouth‑written letter. Initially, I found my hard work to be a mere pie in the sky; but, 4 to 5 months’ assiduous efforts resulted in attaining a readable style of writing. This modest achievement enabled me in reviving the chain of correspondence and begetting new friends.

In May 1991, I was presented with an electrically operated wheel chair, with chin controls for manoeuvring, thanks to the benevolence of the IAF. Motorised mobility, though only a poor substitute for natural one, has enlivened my lifestyle considerably.

It was Wing Commander PI Murlidharan, my former flight commander, who mooted the use of a personal computer (PC), as a writing tool. He added that it would assist me to utilise my mental faculty to the hilt. Hitherto unsuccessful attempts in procuring a keyboard (modified to suit my requirements) have somewhat emasculated my resolve. Nonetheless, my hope of acquiring a PC remains undiminished.

In the meantime, I toyed with the idea of teaching. For some untenable reasons, I kept on declining the offers by bringing one imaginary reason or another as an ad hoc excuse. Aforesaid setbacks notwithstanding, I’m very hopeful of converting the second phase of my life into something as meaningful as the one I would have had from the confines of a cockpit.

"Believe it or not, every dark cloud has a silver lining. To surmount even seemingly insuperable obstacles, one has to muster the remnant faculties and shun the thought of disability and then canalise one’s dormant energies purposefully and whole‑heartedly. It isn’t just physical ability and average intelligence but an insatiable appetite for success and an unflagging will power that would texture the warp and woof of the fabric called human destiny. Greater the difficulty, sweeter the victory."

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Congress 44 seats out of 543. What next for Sonia?

As poll surveys and exits polls dominated television, and everyone seemed to be pretty convinced that Narendra Modi would be the next prime minister, I wondered if there would be any surprises yesterday, the day votes were counted. Exits polls on most previous occasions, overestimated the winner. So the fear was if NDA would end up just around 272, allowing smaller regional parties to have a field day. Anticipating that, BJP started even looking for more allies a couple of days before counting.

But I was proved wrong and there were plenty of surprises yesterday. The biggest of them all was the the sweep of the Modi storm. Though Modi would have dreamt of this, and worked strenuously for the result, I am sure he himself was taken by surprise. So too millions of voters, who voted for BJP but just kept their fingers crossed. My random guess is that many people who don't basically agree with BJP ideology (including Muslims) would have have voted for BJP. Why they voted for the BJP could be the subject of a debate.

The other big surprise was the depth to which Congress plummeted yesterday, which didn't get highlighted so much, thanks to the blinding effect of the BJP gust.

Congress managed to win just 44 seats in a House of 543. Simply can't believe this.

Their worst performance was in 1999, when Vajpayee-led NDA restricted them to a mere 114. In fact, that itself was worse than the 1977 tally of 153, when a hurriedly cobbled together combination of Janata Alliance dealt a body blow to Indira Gandhi-led Congress -- a punishment for the severe excesses during the Emergency: a particularly black chapter in India's independent history. Then, both Indira and her son Sanjay lost the election. At least the family members have won this time. Some consolation for Congress.

Yesterday, as one saw Sonia and Rahul come out to meet the media, and valiantly put up a smile and graciously accept the result in all humility, it was difficult to suppress a surge of sympathy for the plight they find themselves in. To be fair to Congress, their government did launch a number of social initiatives aimed at helping the disadvantaged, besides a slew of economic policies to benefit the youth and career-minded burgeoning young middle class. But the barrage of negative tidings for the top leaders of the party was so strong, Congress had time only to keep themselves afloat rather than counter the BJP. No one understood or took notice of the few good things the government did.

The Sonia family will have to seriously introspect why such a fate befell their party. Congress is just riding on the family tag. That will have to definitely change. Congress doesn't have a leader. Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka are always in the background. They need a strong leader: both Sonia and Manmohan were weak. Rahul just made sporadic appearances. Priyanka came in too late to make any impact.

Rahul was simply no match for Narendra Modi.

Also, the Congress experiment of two heads -- one for the party and the other for the government -- has failed. It was made worse with the two leaders who could make no impact.

Congress needs to project as their leader, someone who has strong grassroots presence and is a leader in his or her own right. Neither Sonia, nor Rahul, nor Priyanka can take that position. The family's first task will be to identify that person, and groom him.

The family also needs to consider if loosening their grip on the party, would help in any way. It would be a tough call to take.

But things are so bad for the Congress, any decision to revive the party would be better than no decision at all.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How smart are you with your phone?

All phones are now smart. If someone wants to buy one, and there are quite a few less expensive not-so-smart phones available, most people willy-nilly choose an expensive smart one. Nothing wrong in it.

But I wonder, how many people really make use of the smart features in their phone.

Everyone may not know all the interesting features a phone offers. So, if you have got yourself a smart phone, explore the device, and start making use of the smart features.
Most of the phones may be Android, but Nokia's Lumia series phones are equally good providing a slew of smrat features. The photo shows Nokia's executive vice president of smart devices Jo Harlow posing with the new Lumia 925 at its launch in London May 14, 2013. -- Photo credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
Let's take a common example, of Google Search in Android phone.

In phones that run on Android 4.1 (released in June 2012) and above, Google Search is integrated with Google Now.

What is Google Now?

It's a personal digital assistant -- the Android counterpart of Apple's Siri. It helps you with a lot of information, by quietly doing a search in the background. For example, it gets you the weather, it reminds you of appointments, it will tell you how long you will take to reach your office etc.

If you enable the Google Now function, then these information show up in the form of cards. Information becomes more and more accurate as you continue to use it.

But the best part is you can search Google by just speaking into the phone. Look for the "Voice Search" icon in the menu of apps. Just tap it, and ask Google whatever you want to know.

The process is so simple and the results are amazingly accurate as well.

Ask questions like:

  • What is the weather in Bangalore?
  • Who is the prime minister of Australia?
  • How much is 478 dollars in Rupees?
  • What is the height of Barack Obama?

Google will tell aloud the answers to all these questions.

You can also get the phone to do some functions too. Like, set the alarm. make a call. Just tell Google, "Set alarm for 7am tomorrow." Or, "Call Ravi Kumar".

Or even "Take a selfie". Google won't click the camera, it will just open up the camera, for you to pose, and then you can click yourself when you are ready.

There are many other smart features a phone possesses. For example:

Getting directions using Google Maps. There is no need to ask anyone the direction. And using a very simple function called MapMaker, you and I can enrich the map contents by adding landmarks, or even suggesting changes. In fact much of all that you see in the Maps has been added by users.

Maximize the use of apps. There are definitely many apps that suit your interest. Just check them out.

On a Lumia phone of Nokia, there is a Kid's Corner function which I like a lot. You can activate that function when you give your phone to children to play. You can include in that feature only those functions of the phone that you think the child should have access to. It's great feature in these times when children play a lot with elders' phones. They sometimes accidentally call others, or even wander into unsafe areas of Internet or download unnecessary files.

You can do pretty much everything with your phone. One of my friends got herself a "very basic" phone, that will just let her make calls, text, take photos, and listen to the radio. But the phone was smart. So, she has ended up discovering many interesting features, she never thought she would ever use in her life.

So, get smart with your phone.