Sunday, June 19, 2011

Just Another Cynic's Take on the Current Brouhaha Over Corruption and Politics in India

With Baba and his fast to mobilize masses in the fight against corruption, Anna and gang trying to bring PM under Lokpal's gambit and government taking stands/actions which to be fair it can definitely take legally, but then they make government look like a bunch of arrogant powerful folks. We have all shades of arguments being thrown in the debates we watch on TV or read in newspapers. Whatever these arguments are, at least everyone says that they want to solve the corruption problem, so let's go through some of their stands and arguments briefly.

First, we have Anna Hazare, whose fast did energize many intellectuals and enough in the middle class to support him because they were frustrated with the corruption scandals which have surfaced in the recent past. He and his colleagues believe that creating another giant power center cum government institution of Lokpal will solve the problem. Without getting into the debate on what should be the right size of government, let's accept that having a Lokpal with adequate powers to keep a check on the government and politicians definitely sounds like a good idea in the current times and in the Indian context. But team Anna's adamant stand on having PM under the Lokpal's gambit makes me wonder that if they would end up compromising on some other more critical aspects of the Lokpal bill in their attempt to have this symbolic victory over PM.

Next is Baba Ramdev, who has been making his speeches against the government on the corruption issue since past few years (I don't want to get into his claims about curing AIDS or medicines like Putravati or any other similarly ridiculous ideas). Disregarding some of the intellectuals who feel that Babaji felt jealous Anna's rise on this agenda and did all this, we can say that some times he even makes sense to the intellectuals. On the whole, probably he is creating some amount of positive energy in India through his yoga and speeches. But finally, with all the drama, a short lived fast and his flip-slops, he has definitely lost some of his credibility.

BJP/opposition: VP Singh took on the corruption issue of a Rs 64 crore scam and snatched the power from Rajiv Gandhi, who had led the Congress to get highest ever MP seats in the previous election (404 MPs). Contrast this with the current situation, BJP and other opposition parties have had the opportunity to take on the current coalition government on the scams worth humongously larger amounts of money than Bofors. Their inability to mobilize public support from the already frustrated citizens of India, clearly raises a lot of doubts about their capability (or the quality of their leaders) to come into power in the center in 2014 or maybe even 2019. Whether it is their lack of capacity or fear of getting trapped later because they also are equally corrupt can also be debated. In any case, opposition's showing has been pretty weak on an issue which is by nature a political issue.

Coming to Media, it is a group which definitely feels that they are the watchdogs for the government and convey that they are morally more responsible than us lesser mortals. Some of them have may have earned this feeling, but it is a shame for the media that the starting source of most good stories in the recent past has been civil society organizations (a topic for another post). Probably the economic pressures keep them from becoming anything but business of sensational infotainment. Whatever it is, they have been trying to take sides with Anna's team, or government. Ones taking side with Anna blindly are probably doing so because they can get more eyeballs, whereas the others lambasting Anna's team (and also NAC) for trying to hijack the role of politically elected lawmakers maybe doing so because feel they are smarter than others because they know the constitution.

Finally, we have the maibaaps in government i.e. Congress, which (along with opposition parties) seem to be totally ignoring the fact that politicians as a class have lost credibility in the eyes of us commoners. It doesn't mean that they won't win the next election, because to their advantage corruption and the amounts of money involved in an election make the electoral politics out of bound for rest of the mortals and the leaders of civil society organizations. And such is the audacity is our leaders in the government that they want to crush any of the efforts of civil society or public to even protest. In Baba Ramdev's case, his naivete in politics was leading him to a path of destruction only, but then government has to crush the movement, which made him gain empathy from even the intellectuals who disliked Baba for some of his ridiculous ideas. To add to this self-inflicted injury, they went ahead totally rejecting the idea of bringing PM into the gambit of Lokpal and made the statements which came along with their strict stand. It is a negotiation which definitely could have been handled much better, and thankfully they have now come to the idea of having more options on the table like keeping PM out till he/she demits, but it's so late that it just makes them look like bending a bit after they realized they can't do without it.

Showing you can crush when you have the power do so, is not considered being responsible. Compare the center's handling of Baba Ramdev with how Ashok Gehlot handled the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan. Nobody would doubt the integrity of some leaders in the Congress but still their strong reactions to these protests are just creating more reasons for the public to not trust them.

An odd thought here is that VP Singh was a rebel from Congress, and given that no one in the opposition has shown potential to lead the country in this fight against corruption, could it be possible that someone from the Congress would capture this opportunity. A rebel would definitely make a really interesting political drama, but it could tried someone staying within the system too e.g. Rahul Gandhi. Again it's an opportunity for him and someone else too, but we would have to wait if these men of power would just stay risk averse as they been mostly or take their chances.

Anyway, maybe because I am ignorant, I feel that this whole problem is much more complex than any of these stakeholders try to portray it to be through the solutions they propose. The near universal acceptance of corruption in the Indian society can make one say that within limits corruption has become a part of the culture for most Indians. Elites and some civil society’s members may be able to take a higher ground and claim that they have neither given nor taken a bribe ever, but rest of the mortals have their benchmarks of how much corruption is tolerable and what is a cancer for the society.

People are certainly looking for the options to place their trust upon, at least the voter turnouts at all the recent state elections suggest so, but there aren’t any options. That’s why they find it easy to trust some crusaders for their cause from the civil society when that role should ideally have been played by the politicians. It’s not just the people, but even the real centers of power like our PM, Mrs. Gandhi and the likes also find it easy to trust these NGOish leaders and thinkers than the politicians from their own party, and that is why we have a NAC.

My take on the situation is that it is all mesh of many vicious circles. Our polity has failed to provide us with the competitive leaders, primarily because it is nowhere close to equal opportunity world because the money required to be considered as a serious player is very high. This unfair competition then enhances to incentives to be corrupt, and then these corrupt leaders find themselves lacking any authority to stop others (bureaucrats, judiciary, govt employees) from being corrupt. Adding to all this the rising aspirations of citizens of our democracy living in an increasingly connected world where they can easily see that the possibilities of growth could be beyond imagination, and the result we get is what we see today: an economy quite entrenched in corruption (even in the private sector) with people have become very pragmatic and care more for their goals.

Another institution like Lokpal could also probably follow the same path and become corrupt over time if corruption problem is not targeted holistically. We need to clean up our judiciary, administration, politics all together while maintaining a right balance of power among these players and also managing the economic growth in a inclusive manner at the a good rate of growth. From where the change can start is a dicey question especially with so many entangled vicious circles, but more or less we can agree that politicians are the most likely candidates who could lead India through this transition, though not alone. We can just hope that either our existing political leaders will transform into such responsible and visionary leaders, or we will soon see another crop of leaders which is highly competitive and capable to deliver up to the expectations of public.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Case to Increase Resources for Computer Science Research in India Greatly.

Recently, I happened to see a report US President's Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST) on the Networking and Information Technologies

This report has a lot recommendations from an esteemed group of advisors for President on how US should move forward on the information and communication technology front. Obviously, there are many interesting bits in the report and most of the recommendations would be useful for India and other countries too. But what really interested me most was a sidebar box on page 71 titled, "Progress in Algorithms Beats Moore's Law". This box says that the increase in the computational efficiency due to improvements in the hardware is many time less than the improvements due to more efficient algorithms.

Basically, it says that we all admire the improvements in the hardware capacity which has been happening at the rate forecasted by the Moore's Law since decades, but probably we either didn't realize or at least never acknowledged that math geeks have been beating the Moore's law since always at a much higher rate i.e. when hardware efficiency was doubling every 18 months, algorithms were trebling the computational efficiency further in the same period.

It is incredible that this has been the case and given that Indian has been doing decently well in computer science research, I suppose it is something to feel nice about for us as a country. Though we shouldn't but if we try to think of a stereotype of Indian researchers around the globe, then most good or reputed researchers will fall in the category of scientists doing theoretical or simulation type work than doing hands-on experiments. That's my perception and maybe wrong, but I think that lack of good laboratory's in India had a lot to contribute towards Indian scientists not doing as much experimental work as researchers in US would do.

If this stereotype or assumption is true (which I believe is) than we certainly stand good chance in competing with anyone in the world in the computer sciences. Probably no surprise to most Indians, but still worth noting that we are a highly competitive player in a research field, especially the one which is enabler for better research in almost all other fields. Indian government should focus a lot more on developing this strength of our further, and probably encourage researchers abroad to come back to India. I am hoping that someone in our government keeps a tab on such news and would provide the right inputs to the policymakers. There is no bright future without science and innovation, and this is certainly one of the opportunities which we can't afford to miss or not capitalize fully, if we want to have the India of our dreams.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Middle Class Rises

The success of Anna Hazare's India against corruption movement is of great importance, especially for the young generations because it the first time in our lives (i.e. younger people) that we have seen the whole middle class uniting so passionately for a cause with so much of positive energy. We have seen people uniting previously in case of Reservations and Ram Mandir, but in both the cases a lot of negative energy and probably money from narrowly interested groups was involved and some or other political party stood to gain. This time it is very different because no political party is going to gain, because it will change the very foundations of the way politicians and parties operate.

First it was Indian Cricket team and then just after Anna have provided middle class India with confidence and hope that I believe will transform us into an energized nation. For our politicians, it has always been easy to manipulate or coerce the poor class which constitutes the majority in India due to many reasons which requires a separate discussion. At the same time, middle class was rightly perceived to be as the people too busy with their aspirations of individual/family growth at the cost of society at large. Those who were interested in politics, just saw it as means to gain power which could easily be translated into money later. This perception has certainly been challenged and changed by the India Against Corruption movement and its success.

Never before we have seen the middle class becoming the part of a peaceful and positive movement to achieve something so substantial for the whole society. This movement had grown much beyond the civil society and people (not just youngsters) felt really strongly towards its objective, though a lot of them had only half-cooked knowledge about the exact means i.e. the Lokpal legislation. This will force the politicians to not ignore the middle class anymore and hopefully result in more competitive, transparent and results oriented politics at all levels.

Probably some enterprising leaders will not only see the opportunity/possibility but also create an agenda and means to organize the middle class again in this manner for some or other equally appealing cause. We as middle class know now that we can certainly achieve something equal, if not bigger than the Lokpal bill, and that itself is big boost to not just the self-esteem but to their involvement in community affairs too.

The point I have tried to make in this post is that this success means lot for all of us in terms of its unintended spillovers. It would make politics fairer and hence accessible, and at the same time, it would increase not just the interest of middle class for being a part of the system/politics but also their confidence for doing so. My belief is that this would do a lot more to level the playground and remove dynasty politics, than most other efforts/ideas to do the same. Finally, I think it is great to witness this rise of middle class and the best thing is that it was a Gandhian effort which made it all possible.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Wishing my best to Anna Hazare's movement - India Against Corruption

It sure is worth great admiration, otherwise people won't be flocking around Jantar-Mantar in order to support Anna. The timing of his fast is also good, because the momentum (or public support) against corruption is pretty strong so probability of such a bill passing even though very small is at its highest now. If that happens then, this will be the third great victory in recent years for the common man, first two being passing RTI Act and winning the World Cup.

Anyway, I wish and pray that this bill sees the light as a law without any dilution, though I am slightly uncomfortable with another big increase in the size of state but I guess it is well worth it. As Mrs. Gandhi has come into the picture, my hopes have certainly increased. Though I am not 100% sure if her efforts may not be enough to achieve this humongous goal. I think Anna and colleagues also expected than Mrs. Gandhi will come in their support sooner or later and won't let her advisors make her try to dodge this issue, which is dear to her heart too. Still, it is not her will or sincerity that I doubt, but it is her capacity. She has so much power because it is beneficial for everyone in the Congress, the good guys, the bad guys, the competitive ones and the incompetent sycophants. Nobody wants to disrupt the status quo and also want to keep making the best out of it till they can. Passing this bill undiluted would harm most of them and they will try their best to not let that happen.

As for BJP and various other parties, they are worried like hell too. As for Congress governments (including the Centre and states), this bill would almost be a death pill for their state governments, but noone can afford to come out against the bill. So they all are just praying that the small power centers of the most experienced party Congress succeed in diluting the bill significantly. Also, we know that in the big cities middle class is coming out in support of Anna but most of people and their representatives are from the lesser known cities, towns and rural areas. We haven't heard much about how much active support is there for this movement.

In cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore we can easily find a huge number of middle class Indians whose jobs just don't involve any involvement with the government, and they are more aware and seasonally activist too. But I am not sure that rest of the India, which is quite different from these cities, will also provide a similar support to the movement so that the momentum doesn't die out slowly. I guess, this is certainly the juncture where media can play a huge role by shaping the public opinion. Let's see if they turn out to be a sell-out again or would show some conscience this time.

The anger and mistrust of politicians is certainly there everywhere. I hope it gets energized in all the small cities too, so that we can actually see the change we want to see in our system.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Strange Fascination for Gandhi's Sexuality

Currently very popular due to the recent controversy, Joseph Lelyveld's new book on Gandhi cites a few selected sentences from Gandhi's letters and some of his actions which can certainly imply him to be of bisexual nature, in the Western (especially American) context. Mr. Lelyveld claims to have "treaded very carefully" with the information, but being an Indian (and not because I admire Gandhi) I would like to say that he probably didn't have enough information. I say so because I think it would require a very good understanding of the Indian culture to be able to make such statements, and I am not sure if he had such an understanding, even though he has spent a considerable time in India.

To begin with, sleeping in one bed with another male is normal for males in India, in fact at times it is the preferred arrangement when there are more couples (guests) in a house than rooms. Sharing a bed, in fact even if a really small bed, where it is hard for two people to sleep without physically touching other person is really no big deal, and any Indian can testify for that. In fact, it is no big deal for Americans to confuse a normal heterosexual Indian male who moved out of India recently as someone with bisexual tendencies, because of the way they would interpret his actions. In a normal man's life, homophoebia in America is certainly many degrees higher than in India, though Indians being good hypocrites and have a very bad appetite to digest this idea when discussed in public.

Our conservative and closed society has made us much more open in front of same sex people, especially the way Indian guys seem cozy or careless with other guys bodies' touching them. Idea of an individual's space is really not a common occurrence in India. Also, in the absence of open and close friendships with the other sex, someone resorting to a strong (though touchy feely type) relationship with a person of same sex, shouldn't be considered anything more than what it is. It took me a reasonable amount of time in US, to understand the difference and behave accordingly. In India we used to hug guy friends and shake hands with female friends, it was just opposite in US, basically most things which are perfectly appropriate to be done in public for a guy and girl e.g. walking/sitting while holding hands, is considered appropriate in India for two guys too. In fact, in more conservative areas same behavior by a couple in public would be totally unacceptable :-)

Anyway, I wasn't lucky enough to be born in Gandhi's times so I don't really know how magical his influence was, but I sincerely think that if millions worshiped him and were willing to die for him from the hands of enemy without any retaliation to the enemy, then he must come across as someone really very powerful and godly. My point is that maybe Mr. Lelyveld read more than what it was between the lines or in the lines. Otherwise also, I think it is not wrong to assume that such a godly status is not awarded to anyone who doesn't do what he preaches. So, we can safely say that even if Gandhi was bisexual by nature or genetically, he would not have broken his vows of abstinence for anyone, either male or female.

When I heard the news of this controversy, I couldn't stop laughing because just a day earlier a Hindu conservative was trying to convince me that Gandhi used to eploit minor girls and other women in his Ashram, etc. So, my first reaction to this controversy was that it as a funny fight between a Hindu conservative (who generally tend to hate Gandhi.. more on that in another post) and a Western Liberal.

Interestingly, almost all of this controversy has gone viral before anyone has even read the book, which I read focuses on other aspects of Gandhi's life and has only a very short discussion on this controversial topic. Probably people are also making the same mistake which author has made (i.e. if he has made one.. this is for disclaimer's sake because I also haven't read the book), which is, reading more than what it is there in between the lines.

In any case, one thing is certain that this strange fascination for Gandhi's sexuality will never die both because of the Hindu conservative who want to prove him as a fraudster (probably because they blame Gandhi for partition and other issues very dear to their hearts) and because of the western liberals who may just be too curious to begin with, and then finally start seeing what they wanted to see, while they might be unconsciously choosing to not see it all from the way things really are in some other culture, cultures which they can't fully relate to or understand.

Whatever it is, or even if Gandhi broke his vows of abstinence, nothing can make him any less of a man then he was in our history. And yes, it is finally so nice to hear that for once government of India will not ban a controversial book :-) It seems, even after death Gandhi is leading India in teaching something important, i.e. freedom of speech.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Dhoni has Lifted India's Morale with Cricket World Cup

By winning the world cup MS Dhoni's has done something really significant for the people of India at a moment in history when it is most helpful. It also has a lot to do with the way it all happened, i.e. India not choking after Sachin was out early in the game. We, in this a country of billion were not certain if the future really belongs to us, as media and many reputed names around the world keep saying. Now we have learnt that we can really aspire to be a world leader, and that is a great feeling.

Other sports, our research system and business environment are mostly resource constrained to achieve something like this, and our politicians certainly don't have either credibility or guts which could have a similar impact. To experience the impact of this win, I also decided to hit the road to India gate in Delhi for joining the victory march when someone told me a lot of people are collecting there to celebrate the world cup victory. As I saw later on TV, similar things were happening all across the country. It was a phenomenal experience, seeing the crowds cheering and congratulating strangers, dancing and celebrating the victory as wildly as they could.

One could sense that almost all of them were much more happy because inside their heart all of them had probably lost the match once, like they often lose other battles in their everyday life. Sri Lanka, a tiny country with resources nowhere close to India's cricket associations and many more internal problems than India, had also taken over the minds of all Indians for sometime. It happened most likely, because our self-confidence has never been in a great shape before and probably because we have no memories of winning something like this, and though we felt it could be done but we were not sure. So rightly at the time when the new generation of India wanted to believe in itself, Dhoni delivered this win to make it possible.

I was on cloud nine seeing the "we can do it" or "we did it" feeling in everybody's eyes I saw yesterday. Friends from everywhere in India and even London, San Francisco and New York said that the same of victory marches there. It is no exaggeration to say that what Dhoni has done is the best thing which has happened to India in the memory of my generation. We haven't experienced such a feeling of national pride ever before.

People said at the semi-final that it doesn't matter if we win the World Cup of not, but we must not lose to Pakistan in the world cup, because maybe deep down in our hearts we knew that winning over Pakistan is possible but we feared that the World Cup is something much bigger and maybe nearing impossible. We wanted to satisfy our ego by setting up a lower, achievable target of winning the India-Pak match as a non-negotiable target. But the celebrations of yesterday night will shut everyone's mouth who said that winning to Pakistan was more important to all of us than winning the world cup. It was just that we didn't fully believe that we could win.

I believe that now we will start seeing the spillovers of this win as leadership in other sports, science, technology, business and (hopefully) politics too. Thank you Dhoni, for winning the World Cup for us! We will not remain the same ever again.