Random Thoughts

8 steps which AAP needs to take immediately

After all it has not been such a bad result. 4 MPs in your début at national level and 1 crore plus votes polled for your candidates are not bad at all. But can we improve.  We are perhaps better off than BSP. Despite polling 4.2 percent votes, BSP has zero MPs in the Lok Sabha.

1) Be gracious in defeat.

Let’s not react like Mayawati, we are lucky that we won four seats against all odds. BSP scored a null. Let’s accept that the common man did not find any appeal in us across 95 percent of the seats we contested. Let’s give all credit to Modi and BJP. They fought hard, fought well. They had money and muscle power, and we never had that. We made mistakes,several. Accept that our leaders are also gullible common men, and they can make mistakes. Question them, so that they are not complacent anymore.

When we set out to fight this battle, we knew the odds were heavily loaded against us. So why worry? But it’s important to do a post-mortem, and probe the reasons for defeat.

2) Accounting and Accountability

We have collected Rs 37 crore or so through donations to fund the Lok Sabha elections. We need to publish to the last detail where the money was spent, and what was the outcome. We need a provisional balance sheet of election spending immediately. Transparency is what AAP lacked in the run up to the elections, but transparency is what we need to have if we need to have a future. Remember this is public money, and need to be accountable down to the last Rupee. And that too on a war footing level without wasting any time.

The day we do that, we can hold our heads high and demand every other party to come clean on how they spent the money and how they raised it in first place.

3) Ownership of this defeat

The party leadership should take ownership of the election debacle. We need to first humbly accept that it is a debacle, since in January 2014 opinion polls gave us up to 40 percent support from urban areas outside Delhi, and that reduced to just 3 percent in the real elections.Precedence in the corporate world when an enterprise has a bad year, the CEO and key people in management step  down.

When Nitish Kumar of JD(U) and Tarun Gogoi of Congress can offer to resign from the CM post of Bihar and Assam, it’s time Arvind Kejriwal stepped down as the convenor, and accepted the blame on himself, and tender a resignation and called for internal elections to gain back respect.

4) Have Internal Elections

In independent India’s history there have been three political streams which has succeeded beyond 2 states. The Congress, Janata Parties(including BJP) and it’s predecessors and the Left. Why?

That is because they have built collective leadership, and had leaders beyond a family or a core group. Even for Congress, till Sonia and her son took over helms of the party, it had a national leaders who could win from anywhere. Now it’s a one way ticket to further destruction for the Congress, if they continue on their reliance on the Gandhi-Nehru parivar.

AAP cannot be caught in the same trap, and become a Arvind Kejriwal party. You cannot have your party’s fortunes(and the country’s) tied up with that of an individual. This is dangerous.

Let’s admit it. Outside core AAP supporters, Kejriwal has lost respect, and he needs to change his politics to regain his image. And it will not be easy in the run-up to the Delhi polls. But AAP having an internal election and the leadership reaffirming the faith back on AK may be even seen symbolic. But it’s important that such a step is taken by AK and team, and confidence need to be restored.

I believe every key office bearer should step down, and through some form a democratic process we need a new team  elected. I would like to see AK back as the national convener, but not nominated, but elected.

 

5) Drop the NGO obsession

We simply cannot have a leadership of activists with no proven record of governance, beyond leading dharnas or running NGOs. We need  entrepreneurs, professionals, businessmen, media men and senior bureaucrats to take up politics full time and led the party.While a number of activists who were not aligned to a political identity joined AAP,  AAP also scouted for activists across the country.  In fact getting activists and NGO crowd to join became an obsession for AAP.

99 percent of NGOs depend on three kind of funding. 1) Government 2) Corporate 3) Foreign.

Any serious Government funding to NGOs have always been associated with corruption or nepotism and funding from corporates with vested interests only beneficial to a few parties.

In the past few years, foreign funding to NGOs have been under scanner. There have been several stories spread about the origins of the funds, and about roles of CIA and other international agencies in these funding. There are some half-truths there and some blatant lies. We will never know the real truths behind some bizarre decisions, till the leadership comes clean.

Look at the results, none of these leaders managed to win anything. Some polled less than 1000 votes, almost in 40 percent of seats you had independents polling votes than an AAP candidate. Activism and governance are two poles apart.

6) Usher in new leadership 

I know it would hurt a lot of AAP supporters if I say that the leadership needs a complete overhaul if we need to be relevant for tomorrow. The core AAP leadership are a bunch of activists who stood with Arvind Kejriwal from the India Against Corruption days. They have done their job, and some of them need to go in the interests of the nation and the party.

Do we have the leaders to lead and win elections? We need leaders who will appeal beyond the current AAP support, which is anyway very small outside Delhi and Punjab.

The current national executive need to resign, and a new executive need to be entrusted in leading the party forward.  And  the representation should give equal coverage to include people from all walks of society, state, gender, profession and ideologies.

In the next few days and months there would be deserters across every party including AAP. If someone is quitting AAP for another party, we must not stop them. But if someone is quitting AAP to leave politics, we need them badly. Because the former is an opportunist, and the latter is just a quitter.

I expect several good leaders to leave Congress, BJP, BSP and other parties. We must invite them, if they are good and have good intentions. Experience is what AAP lacked the most in these elections, and there is no substitute for experience. For example invite Jaswant Singh. He may be far from perfect, but so are we.  Singh may say no, but he may still be gracious at least. We would want people from all ideologies to join us, as AAP does not have any specific ideology, and we will need to evolve one based on what is best for the country.

7) Build organization

The biggest positive we have is we have some presence everywhere. We even have party offices in many states even at district and taluk levels.Once the new national executive in place, you need to build organizational structure in every state. By now we know where we stand, and the current state leadership should  plan a road-map, with clear goals, and targets need to be set to grow absolute paid membership numbers.

Develop local leaders who can connect with the local  masses and the local media, who can take up local issues and fight for it.There are local body elections across many states. AAP’s chances are the best in local bodies elections, and new leaders and volunteers will emerge. It’s the in-the-face corruption that troubles the citizens most.

Every new political party have succeeded that way. Remember Shiv Sena did not win many assembly seats, but kept winning local body elections for more than a decade. A neutral voter would not trust a new party in a national election, but may take a chance in a local body election. But to win local body elections, we need to have local leaders who are willing to fight for local issues.

8) Woo back Middle Class

We need to accept that we have lost temporarily a large cross-section of middle class to Modi. And a few permanently.  The middle class is the most finicky of all voting classes. They are growing in large numbers. Across the country the poor which formed Congress and the Left parties’ core vote bank has middle-class aspirations. So the middle class will emerge as the largest vote bank in the country.

And AAP just needs to stick to the original plans to woo back this vote bank. I believe our fundamentals are still intact. It’s the implementation and focus what is missing. You cannot appeal to them taking up extreme left of the centre stance. An ordinary housewife in Delhi cannot be bothered with the issues which tribal group in Chhattisgarh face. There is absolutely no reason, the middle classes will not return to AAP and return even more strongly in Delhi. Their issues are simple, and their needs even simpler. We just have to stick to the original goals with no U-turns.

Endnote

The biggest appeal of AAP is that it was sans any specific ideology. Yogendra Yadav described it as a solutions oriented party and an ideology driven.Let that be our strength. No specific ideology, only a few principles. We want people from every stream to join us–  left, center and right. There is nothing wrong with either left or right thinking as long as they are not extreme.

And remember India’s problems are like a machine room with a large numbers of nails, screws, and bolts. Every political party have used a single tool depending on their locus standi. NJP with right wing agenda is trying to fix everything with a large hammer, andCongress is screwing around with a screw driver.

AAP need to evolve like a veritable tool box, using multiple tools depending on the job.

 

 

Categories: Random Thoughts, Renegade Politics | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

Why AAP Lost?

AAP’s journey till winning 28 seats in the state elections in Delhi was incredible. While there were several AAP supporters who criticized AAP’s decision to take support from Congress, it was the best decision AAP could have taken at that time. Arvind Kejriwal had a dream start, except for excessive media attention. The kind of attention literally no other political greenhorn has ever managed. Except for some minor flaws, the first 3 weeks of the AAP Delhi government was pitch perfect. But then the party started to make mistakes one after another and this has cost us a potential 50 seats.

1)The first mistake was to support the law minister Somnath Bharti. Whether Bharti was innocent or not was never the matter, good politics would have been zero tolerance once a serious allegation is levied, and AK should have asked law minister to quit and stay away till he is proven not guilty, instead of blindly supporting him. I am not even talking about his mid-night adventures in Kalkaji Extension. There was a serious allegation against Bharti being a spammer, and also one involving his role where he was warned by the court for trying to influence a witness a few days before the Kalkaji episode.
Such a move would have received respect from public and media, and would have put AAP on a higher moral pedestal.
Also party leadership or internal committees should never be used to pass judgements when party members have taken the role of public servants such as ministers of MLAs.

2) The dharna in Delhi just turned out to be a damp squib, and was finally perceived to be mere theatricals by public. It sent several wrong signals to the middle class and upper middle class voters who were banking on AAP as an alternative to BJP and Congress. Personally it reminded me of the good old communist party which used to call a Bandh or Hartal on the drop of a hat. For a CM in power sitting on a Dharna was never good Dharma. The Dharna alienated intellectuals, middle class voters and vast sections of media which painted AAP as a party which is not ready for governance. Moreover with no real action against the police officers. It ended up being an exercise to cover up for Bharti’s alleged misdeeds.

3) Quitting Delhi for not being able to pass a trivial bill (at least for the average person) was the biggest mistake. Lokpal Bill is perhaps central to AAP’s existence, and the leadership’s biggest dream. It’s probably the reason for AAP’s genesis. But the public gives a damn for the bill. For the voting public what mattered was a political party willing to resolve their issues, and AAP was doing just that even if the results were far from satisfactory. No one outside the BJP and Congress supporters questioned the party’s earnestness and willingness. AAP lost that goodwill overnight in Delhi.
AAP could have chosen 100 better routes to an honourable exit. The best would have been to force Congress to withdraw support by going after all the corruption cases of the previous governments. Public would have seen AAP as a real crusader against corruption, and the martyr status of being pulled down would have helped, instead of stepping down. Instead today the perception is that AAP has let Sheila Dikshit get away.
In addition, quitting gave an impression that Kejriwal was too eager to become the PM, and was greedy for power. People love ambitious politicians, but not greedy ones.

4) Filing of FIR against Ambani might have been a master-stroke if AAP handled it correctly. AAP could have initiated a larger debate, and several actions in a more matured fashion. However it is today seen more as a political gimmick. Tomorrow if and when Modi government agrees to hike Gas prices, Kejriwal can claim a moral victory. But it would have come too late. Also despite all his riches people  envied Ambani. They did not hate him. You cannot simply start a new war front, and draw others into it, and that too without ample proof.  People hated Congress and it’s leadership. In politics, if you do not tap into existing negativity to draw out the positives, you are a fool.

5) Immediately after quitting Kejriwal went after Modi. Modi had virtually disappeared from media during the 49 days of Delhi Government. The public anger was never against Modi, and was always channelized against Congress. Instead of being the strong ship in that channel, Kejriwal took on Modi, and in that process made Modi the only champion against the corrupt UPA-II. Worse, instead of tapping into the anti-incumbency vote bank, AAP became a part of the so-called pseudo-secular parties which had lost its charm in front of a Modi, who simply stuck to his development agenda.

Unlike in past elections, when communalism was a major issue, this year it was never a concern for most of India including a cross section of Indian minorities. Kejriwal’s fixation on Modi backfired completely.

6)By putting up candidates in 446 seats, the party spread itself too thin. With the lack of resources, staff, leadership and capital, most of the candidates have ended up losing their deposits.
You need at least Rs 2 crore (or Rs 15 per voter) and about 12,000 volunteers to reach every voter directly or indirectly at least once in the six weeks run up to an election in a Lok Sabha constituency. For 446 constituencies, AAP would have needed a fund of minimum Rs 892 crore. AAP finally raised about 4 percent of that figure. It was just not enough.
I remember Yogendra Yadav saying that this was an attempt to get a feel of what are AAP’s strengths across the country and not to disappoint supporters outside Delhi. That explanation is fine, and I agree if AAP had limited themselves to say 50 seats, at least couple of the Punjab seats might have missed out.

7) Candidate selection and ticket distribution were totally flawed. AAP called in for nominations from just about anyone from anywhere. Problem was that political aspirants were huge in number, and many managed to get 100 to 1000 supporters from their constituency and filed in their applications for a party ticket. Obviously only one can get through and there was no transparency in the rules around the final choice of a candidate. A friend of mine who was aspiring for a ticket from a UP constituency said that there were 30 candidates each with nearly 1,000 supporters who were vying for a party ticket for his constituency. Then leadership chose someone unknown to most party supporters. This alienated everyone else who were rooting for the party and their supporters. And AAP polled less than 4000 votes, when there were 30 candidates with 1000 supporters each in the first place. So essentially AAP alienated 29 of them and their supporters.
All bright ideas around having primaries just disappeared into thin air, perhaps due to lack of time.
Para-dropping of candidates work, if there are candidates who are really popular and you have a volunteer base which can work for them. AAP has just one star which is AK, and AK might have pulled off from any place if the opponent was not someone as popular as Modi.

8) AAP took on media, while Modi ignored every media entity for most of the elections until he was sure that the tide was clearly in his favour. Except AK, Yogendra Yadav and Ashish Khetan, very few of the AAP spokespersons knew how to engage with an aggressive media anchor baying for their blood, were always on the defensive.
And there were motor mouths who spoke their mind, and not the party’s, or at least what the party needs to especially during the election time. Prashant Bhushan is an example of someone who embarrassed the party and the leadership, with several politically incorrect statements, and then retracting them.
Your crusade against corruption gets diluted, when you include everyone in your list of corrupt. Media did not take it very kindly.

9) There were no clarity on the AAP’s larger agenda other than fight against corruption. Nothing concrete on foreign policy, or economic agenda except some specific plans on reviving SME and manufacturing, and a few other broad goals. Even BJP did not have any path breaking agenda, except broad plans and statements. However, BJP was harping about development from day one, and was showcasing the Gujarat model, which was marketed brilliantly. Narendra Modi had the clear backing of industrialists, pro-capitalists and the larger business community which controls the media. Modi except in select places like Varanasi stayed away from Hindutva and other touchy subjects, which could have potentially alienated thinking classes from the BJP.
The biggest challenge was AAP being perceived left of center(which it really is), and the image of being the New age Communist party. India can digest socialism, but communism is taboo everywhere except the three states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. And these states would rather prefer original communists to a left of center non cadre based party without a specific ideology.

10) There were several blatant lies and half-truths spread by BJP and it’s large social media army which AAP could not counter. Funding details around the various NGOs run by AAP leaders, AAP’s soft corner for separatists, Naxalites, Maoists and terrorists, and alleged connections with every anti-national group. AAP leadership either ignored such propaganda or were ignorant about such propaganda.
AAP’s failure to answer allegations by former party men and the likes further painted a wrong picture. In politics when you set high moral grounds, people expect you to follow that.
I guess millions switched over and started believing the BJP propaganda as AAP leadership could not successfully tackle them, however absurd the allegations were.
A few examples….
a) AAP is the Congress B Team and is a tool to stop Narendra Modi becoming PM.
b) AAP stayed in power so that Sheila Dikshit gets enough time to cover up and then disappear from the scene to be governor of Kerala.
c) AAP is a party full of Naxalites and anti-national elements, and their agenda is to destabilize India and hand over Kashmir to Pakistan.
The list is endless. But the BJP have been relentless, and I saw several AAP followers and supporters quitting under the attack. Clear written explanations and communications could have helped AAP.

11) Arvind Kejriwal. AK was AAP’s biggest strength and weakness. He was the face of the party. In him people saw a bright, honest, educated and progressive leader in December 2013. However AK kept taking U-turns, and several decisions by him turned millions of voters away from AAP. This lead to an image of him being indecisive, a trait which Indians also identifies with Dr Manmohan Singh, the outgoing PM.
Modi on the other hand was seen as a decisive leader. Throughout the campaign, Modi made very few mistakes, and never really changed his agenda. Every action and inaction of AK was scrutinized by public with media providing their own interpretations. From a corruption crusader, he was made to look like a bumbling, incompetent, and almost unstable person. This cost the party badly. In fact his actions have caused irreparable damage to his credibility as a leader among fence sitters who voted for BJP and not for AAP in these elections.

And AK must own complete responsibility of the election debacle.

PS

At this hour despite the debacle, I am fully convinced that we need alternative politics to what is dished by Congress, BJP and regional parties. And only AAP can provide that.

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Thoughts on an Independence Day

Today was the 65th Independence Day anniversary of our country.

To me it was a holiday well spent with my daughter. I always cherish days when I can spend most of my time with her. We get to learn a lot  from each other. Rather, I get to learn a lot from her, and I try to teach a few things with indifferent rates of success.

When I was a kid probably about her age, I was fairly politically aware growing up in Kerala. My paternal grand parents were staunch Congress loyalists, my mother was a communist sympathizer, my aunt’s family was supporting Janata party (this was the late seventies and Morarji Desai would have just stepped down). There were political discussions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And kids learn a lot by listening to adult conversations.

I spent a lot of time with my paternal and maternal grandparents during childhood, and there were no televisions. People had time for children, and I guess by five years, I knew more about the puranas than what I remember today.

Back in the late seventies, we still had a couple of generations around, who knew life during pre-independence, who had seen the freedom struggle at close quarters. There were one or two freedom fighters (no leaders, just Congress workers during the forties) in the family too. Hence I had heard stories of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru, Bhagat Singh and others by the age of seven. We used to have comic books on their lives. They were my heroes, unlike Spiderman, Shinchan, Doramon and others whom my daughter idolizes.

Today probably for the first time I decided to check Ammu’s political quotient. I have always had discussions with Ammu on subjects she wanted to listen to or know about. But this time around, I wanted to have a chat with her on some thing which I think every child in this country needs to know about.

I wanted her to understand  the day’s significance. I wanted her to understand what independence meant to all of us. I wanted her to understand that this was not just another holiday. But then, she is a child who barely knows what India means. For her, life so far has been one bright, colorful joy ride, where she has been protected and completely cared for.

I was thankful that while she has heard of Mahatma Gandhi somewhere, she does not know who he is and what his contributions are. She has not heard of the freedom struggle except for a casual mention that one of her senior friends from school is to bring pictures of freedom fighters pictures to school the next day.

How do you explain what independence and freedom means to a child in 2012? I tried telling her about how people from an alien land called the Great Britain ruled over our country. She could not understand what it means to rule over another. Then I explained to her that we fought against them, that thousands lost their lives, and many more were jailed by the British police. I told her what a great man Gandhi was and she asked me –
“Did Gandhi have soldiers?”
“No. He did not have soldiers.”
“Then how did he fight?”
“Well, he did not fight. He believed in not fighting.”
“But you said he fought for freedom. And now you say he did not fight!”
“Yes. He got us freedom, by fighting with the British, without fighting them physically. He did not like violence. He did not like to hit, beat, or fire guns at people. He said that if you do not fight physically, the enemy will give up fighting with you after some time, and will try understanding you.”

She gave me a confused look. I gave her a discourse of about three-minutes using examples that I believed a child could understand and introduced her to the principles of Ahimsa and the larger values that Gandhi stood for. I told her the famous story of Gandhi showing his other cheek when someone slapped him.

She was silent for some time.

“But you have told me that if a kid hits me, I should also hit back. I should not cry and be a coward. That’s what even the Karate teacher has taught me. But now you say Gandhi said otherwise.”

I did not have answers, and luckily our dog Sheero distracted her, and the conversation ended there.

I have enrolled her in a Taekwando class, because I wanted her to learn self-defense. I wanted her to be self-reliant. I wanted her to have some physical exercise, and a sense of self-esteem. I don’t want my child to become a victim tomorrow, without putting up a fight against someone who might try to harm her.

Gandhi was never against self-defense. In fact, he supported the British whole-heartedly in the first World War. He even said that as a subject of the empire he enjoyed the protection of the empire, and so he supported the war effort. He did use support for the Second World War as a bargaining tool with the British. More than a million Indians fought in the wars.

Perhaps I am not a good story-teller, or my grandparents and other kin during the seventies knew how to tell stories, make a child politically and socially aware, and implant seeds of patriotism in him.

Today for a child growing in a middle class family, Ammu is not really exposed to the real world. Her parents struggle to give her every comfort that they can probably afford. She is emotionally protected by her ecosystem at school and the neighborhood.

How can such a child understand what it means to be treated as a second class citizen in their own country? How can she understand that several thousands laid their lives in achieving a dream called Freedom?

Today my Facebook page was full of dedications, trivia, and messages related to independence. There were few jingoistic posts too. Tomorrow people would forget this Independence Day and move ahead.

My good friend Aubrey Almacs feels that we must mourn our Independence Day and call it a Partition Day. I partly agree with him because partition was one of the biggest tragedies of the 20th century at least in South Asia.

Many of my friends who are in their mid-thirties and early forties are cynical. They feel that we have not achieved anything from our independence. They blame our democratic system, and they abuse our freedom fighters. Today Nehru is squarely being blamed for the Kashmir issue, Gandhi is blamed for our attitude towards dealing with political issues. Many feel that his philosophy of Ahimsa has made us a soft nation. Congress leadership is blamed for the partition.

I really don’t know. For the moment I am confused, like Ammu was a few hours back. I feel I have a great sense of history, reverence for the contributions of people who fought for a change. I would like my daughter to inherit a bit of that sense and reverence. But I really don’t see that happening.

Every Independence Day once we had a TV at home in the eighties this video used to play. I grew up listening to and learning this song. That is, till satellite revolution took over in the nineties and we could easily flip channels.

Categories: Random Thoughts, Redolent Memories | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Sachin and Paan Singh

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the Bharat Ratna; and why the iconic batsman and perceived God of Cricket, Sachin Tendulkar must be rewarded with the honour. In fact, I remember listening to this theory around the time India entered the WCC finals in 2003 for the first time. The idea was buried in a hurry following the humiliation of the Indian team at the hands of Australia that year.

Since India won the World Cup in 2011, the demand has once again resurfaced. Fans of Tendulkar want the government to award him the highest honour, an honour that have been bestowed upon just 41 human beings since being instituted in 1955.

Originally, the award was meant for individuals for their services including artistic, literary, and scientific achievements, as well as “recognition of public service of the highest order.” In 2011, the Indian government added sports to the category prompting speculations that Tendulkar would win soon.

If you look at the award winners of the Bharat Ratna,  you will see that many of them were highly deserving individuals. In fact, the early winners were all architects of the nation. We have recognised Mother Theresa, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, and Nelson Mandela. Yes, several awards have been politically influenced. I will never say they never deserved it but only that the timing of the award had political reasons. There are several Congress leaders who have won the award, perhaps not so much for their contribution but more for their loyalty to the party.

I do think Sachin Tendulkar, Dhyaan Chand, or Vishwanathan Anand would easily fit the celebrated list. But there are several other individuals who deserve to make it into the list, more than a sportsman does. I thought Field Marshal Manekshaw deserved it, and might have made the list, if he had not rubbed the political leadership on the wrong side. I feel that any award should be bestowed on an awardee, when he is at his peak, or is at least active.

Two weeks ago, I happened to see Paan Singh Tomar, a movie starring Irrfan Khan, whom I believe is one of the finest actors the country has produced. If you love sports, or good cinema you must watch this daaku film.

I am not reviewing Paan Singh Tomar. Please read reviews here and here; or better still, go and watch the movie. Tomar was a former national steeple chase champion and record holder, who represented India at the Asian games, won accolades for the country. Unfortunately, he got such a raw deal from the government, the society, and the system he was in that post retirement from the Army, he was forced to become a dacoit.

Apart from the pure cinematic appeal, Paan Singh Tomar leaves you thinking about how our country has treated our sportsmen.

Unfortunately, we only celebrate the best and the most admired. We are a country of sycophants who would prefer to go ga-ga over a few and ignore the contribution of the rest. We love iconizing and idolizing, whether it’s the film stars, cricketers, or politicians. Yet we forget that behind every star, there’s the brilliance of a number of deserving individuals who are sometimes undiscovered and unrewarded.

So the question is whether Tendulkar deserves this honour.

I feel that it’s important that we look at protecting the interests of the thousands of sportsmen who struggle for sponsorships, for financial support during their careers, who probably work as hard as Sachin did. They probably strived harder against the odds. There are just ten nations that play really competitive cricket. But an athlete needs to compete with the best from over 100 nations. It’s a lot tougher for an average Indian sportsperson to win a medal at the Asian games or even qualify for an Olympic final than it is to make it to the national cricket team.

While a fan would like Sachin to add the Bharat Ratna to the number of feathers in his cap, I see that we need to start looking seriously at the plight of our not-so-celebrated sportsmen, especially those from the not-so-celebrated sports.

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Of Writing and Writers

These days, I am surrounded by writers. Though I have been associated with the media since 1996, where every third person I interact with has been a writer; my acquaintances have largely been limited to business journalists and news reporters. Business writing or mainstream journalism, I believe, is not a creative medium at all.

However being a part of the support team for Bangalore Writers Workshop brought me close to the founders, two very lovely women – Bhumika Anand and Rheaa Mukherjee. Both the ladies are very gifted writers, and would be published authors very soon.

Back home, my daughter Ammu who’s all of six years has also expressed her desire to be a writer. She has in fact written four stories so far, all about snakes, monkeys, lions, tigers, and princesses. She is a very determined writer, extremely choosy about her subjects, and literally spends hours finalising names of her principal characters. She tells me that when she grows up, she will be a writer. I cannot be a prouder parent.

And like all writers before her, and surely many after her, she is presently going through a writer’s block.

Meanwhile, Bhumika had shared some of her yet-to-be published stories and asked my humble opinion on her works. I must confess, that I played a hard critic which did not go well with her. Of course, my only motive was to get her to write better. Bhumika is a very gifted writer, with several admirers for the blog she keeps, where she discusses mostly her own life, relationships, her health issues, matters of her heart, and her views on humankind. Though her stories are also heavily inspired from her own ecosystem, I found them to be a bit underwhelming. I was surprised since I am an ardent fan of the blog, which has similar roots.

Our correspondence triggered a few discussions on literature and the craft of writing. And, in turn, has resulted in this blog post.

What makes a story/novel/cinema/creation impressive, interesting, and exciting?

To a large extent it would depend on the readers, viewers or the audience; and their tastes. It’s how they gauge, and what kind of an impact it creates on them that counts.

Sometimes we write, create, and perform for ourselves. In fact 99% do just that. That’s why we have  bathroom singers, thespians after a few pegs, and writers who keep secret diaries.

But if your creations need a larger audience, you need to deliver something special. For brevity’s sake, let’s limit this discussion to writing, and not music or other performing arts. We’ll also simplify every kind of creative writing to stories.

I feel from a plot perspective, there are just four kind of story frameworks. The framework has a few elements extra depending on the audience.

An extraordinary experience in an ordinary person’s life
This is the most common theme of all popular narratives. The protagonist is someone whom a reader can relate to easily. He/She witnesses a murder, or gets raped, or gets caught in a racket or meets a ghost, or ends up being a hero. Since it’s a shift from the protagonist’s normal day-to-day life, it makes an interesting tale to tell. The reader should be able to get into your story, and connect with a central character, and go through the experiences of the central character.

If you consider some of the best scripts in world cinema or some of the best novels written, then you would see this to be a common theme. ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jewel Thief (Hindi), North by Northwest etc are prime examples. Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Enid Blyton all thrived on this thread. Daily soaps on the idiot box are yet another example.

Another day in the life of larger-than-life character
All super hero stories derive from this theme. This is because the central character is no ordinary person, and is gifted beyond an ordinary mortal. That’s why Superman, Spiderman, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes all are very interesting to read.

The reader does not see himself as a protagonist, but would love to be the protagonist. There is that superhuman nature of the protagonist that attracts the reader, and he or she starts worshipping, admiring, and sometimes even despising the key-role.

An extraordinary day in the life of an extraordinary character
This is treading a difficult path. You can end up creating something that’s mostly over the top. There would be too much sound and fury.

An ordinary experience in an ordinary person’s life
This is what we can all easily write. But then you have to be a gifted writer to make it an interesting read. And getting readers for what you write could end up being a daunting task.

More than two decades ago, I had attended a theatre workshop, where a renowned theatre person had explained the nava rasas. He said that if you are a good actor, then the same rasa or a complementary rasa should reflect on the faces of your audience. That should be your end goal as an actor.

If you are a writer, try replacing the audience with your reader and then set your own ambitious goals of bringing related emotions in the minds of your reader.

If you have reached so far, let me play the faithful pimp. If you feel that you would like to explore your creative side, and you are in Bangalore, then look at enroling yourself in the next workshop at BWW.

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In Pursuit of a Perfect God

I am an almost atheist. I really find it difficult to believe in God, and I find it even more difficult to believe in a God according to a specific religious belief. Yet, when it comes to the inexplicable and unexplainable, I am one of those who would like to take refuge in a Superior Force. My atheist friends brand me a coward for this reason.

I grew up under the influence of my grandmothers who were fairly religious. My paternal grandmother who passed away about seven months back at the  ripe old age of 96 years was a great influence when I was a kid, and used to tell me stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In fact by the age of four, I just about knew all stories from both the books. In fact getting me to tell a religious tale was a favorite past-time to some of the older folks at home during those days. My maternal grandmother was a huge Sai Baba devotee and used to have poojas and bhajans regularly at home. My father, at least during his younger years, never cared much for religion or God, but turned around by the time he reached 60. My mother is very spiritual and spends hours, even today, praying; and is a follower of Sri Paramahamsa, Vivekananda, and the Brahma Kumaris.

I was also fairly religious till I was around 13 or 14. I remember, after spending a very spiritual summer vacation at my maternal grandmother’s house listening to talks from preachers and thought leaders, I decided to give up on meat, and even cried when I saw it being cooked at home. Around the time I turned 14, I suddenly gave up on God. Looking back, I cannot pin-point a single reason for such a reaction, but there were many. One of the reasons, I decided to give up on the Hindu Gods, were because they were too many. I was scared to align with one.

I also could not understand why Christians prayed in a Church, and Muslims in a Mosque, while I had to visit various temples.
I grew up with friends from all beliefs. I studied in a Catholic school, and my classmates were from various Christian communities, which Kerala is famous for. One of my best friends was a Muslim, and he used to share  his lunch box generously with me. My father’s best friend was a Jew, and we were always invited to his home during their festivals. I started questioning. “Why aren’t my friends Joseph or Tareeq not scared of our Hindu Gods, and why am I not scared of their Christian and Islamic Gods?”

Another issue which I had was the depiction of God by all religions, and the morality associated with the phrase, ‘God Fearing’.

All religions advocated a God who became angry when human beings goofed up and I was advised to be Godfearing, and never invite the wrath of God. When a plane crashed, when floods or famine occurred, or even when someone young died, they held God responsible. God was angry because he has not been appeased properly. Hence slowly in my mind, God became a tough school master, the kind of teachers in our Catholic Boys High School, who used to use the severest form of corporal punishment on young boys. I was very uncomfortable with that image of God. My age of innocence died, and I started indulging in practices that were deemed to be a sin during my wonder years. Then again, I was reminded. God does not like bad boys. You must listen to your parents and teachers. You must focus on your studies. God does not like children who lie, who do mischief. The image of God being a task master who keeps snooping around you like a Big Brother was very uncomfortable. And if God does not punish you in the form of an angry parent and teacher, you are going to get punished on Judgment Day. The concept of Hell and Heaven exists in all religions, and I found that amusing. I don’t know of any major religion that does not have the concept of rewards and punishment once you die. The sinners go to Hell, while the pious souls are rewarded with a heavenly abode.

Also God is supposed to be so powerful, that he can control human beings, human feelings, and human nature. When a classmate fell into a pond, then God sent a passer-by as a savior who jumped in and saved him. When the snake was about to bite, God appeared in the form of a mongoose, and fought with the snake.

Again I had questions. “Thousands die of snake bites every year, and a similar number drown to death. Why doesn’t God send someone or appear in another form?” Elders who  were probably tired of my questions said, “God helps only the innocent souls, people who have done good things in life, and always punishes the sinners.”
“But then several children die young; they are innocent,” I argued.
“No. In their previous birth, they certainly have done something wrong,” came the reply.

I read the Bible when I was in the 9th standard. It was gifted to me by a Christian friend, who wanted me to accept his belief. I read it almost like a Charles Dickens novel, getting very confused between the two testaments. Now God became not just a tough school master, but also a judge, who knew your case too well. A close Christian friend used to regularly go in for confession, and confess his sins, and then come back and commit them all over again, and then repeat the process over. He reasoned. “Confession absolves me of all crime, and I am pure again so I can sin again.” I found that hilarious.

We were told to pray to God, and strike deals with him for special reasons. Doing well in an exam was the most important reason. And if I did not do well, praying to God so that my father takes my results lightly was an automatic step. I found this was almost like bribing. Can God be bribed?

Then the wiser lot told me that there’s just one God, and he’s everywhere, and even inside you. I was comfortable with that idea, and I stopped visiting temples, and even stopped the little prayer I performed before I left for school everyday. By the time I turned 15, I started reading more serious stuff, and over the next three years, I had read enough to denounce God and religion. I gave up on God while still being a teenager.

I spent the next two decades in a more or less godless world using my own moral compass for directions. However suddenly, I have started questioning myself. I have started to miss my God! Well, I don’t know where he is, and what he is like. I don’t know whether he really exists. I know I need to restart the pursuit again.

Yes, the pursuit of a Perfect God.

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New Year Resolutions

I stopped making new year resolutions, by the time I turned 14.

I realised by then that I am a weak mortal, with weaker will power, and concluded that since I am anyway going to break them, why generate another laundry list.

But here goes for 2012, which according to Mayans is End-of-World.

  1. Get back to shape, and hit the treadmill or hit the road regularly. At least 3-4 times a week.Buy that cycle, and start cycling. Allah give me some more money.
  2. Be punctual as far as possible. Don’t over-commit….
  3. Start reading the books that are piling up.
  4. Be less philosophical and more pragmatic.
  5. Eat more vegetables. Reduce carbs. Avoid colas, sweets and other rubbish food.
  6. Write this blog regularly. 21 posts in 4 months I guess was fantastic, but I am getting lazy.
  7. Clean-up more code, and release more to Open Source world.
  8. Write sensibly.
  9. Sleep on time & wake upon time.
  10. Be more social.
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Why supporting Anna still makes sense

The name Hazare till a year back meant Vijay Samuel Hazare, the elegant batsman who was also India’s captain in its first Test victory.

However these days, Hazare is symbolic with Anna Hazare, a former army man, socialist, Gandhian and professional protester par excellence.

My acquaintances and friends often ask me questions such as what I think about Anna, whether I support him and so on. Well, my opinion should hardly matter to anyone, and I have so far shied away from being opinionated on the Anna brigade and their actions.

Some of my friends on Facebook and other social sites have  suddenly started projecting themselves as anti-Anna, while others who form the vast majority are pro Anna. It’s  soon going to be fashionable to go anti-Anna.

Media is divided, while most of them did their bit in building Anna into a super hero, almost comparable to Rajni Saar, some of them  have slyly started taking digs at Anna. Team Anna has been criticized, and there are several conspiracy theories around some of the members.

Many reputed citizens have started criticizing Anna and his team too.

Frankly, I did not quite understand the nuances of the proposed Lokpal bill, and I realize it does not really matter. You do not need to know anything about Lokpal to support Anna.

That’s because I am sure that Lokpal bill will not end corruption, and I am willing to bet on this. This is no silver bullet to problems of corruption. In fact, the change that people are expecting is Utopian and is never going to happen.

Yet I guess we need to continue to rally behind Anna and his proposed Lokpal bill. First of all, it’s the right step or at least it’s a step against corruption.

Today corruption is so rampant, and the cuts which the corruption racket take are humongous. It’s no more a mere 10%; in some cases it’s 100%. Yes, there are many bills which are passed when no work has been done, no materials supplied, and no progress made in many government projects.

A strong body, at least on paper, which is expected to be vigilant and may not be toothless, after all, will make a corrupt officer think.  He will be cautious, and will be more careful.

You need to remember that a corrupt man is not brave, and hence he will take lesser risks and chances. Today 80% of government officials accept bribes, because they know they are not going to get caught, and even if they do, they can get away by paying up. This confidence is something that needs to be shattered.

When a corrupt government official or a politician considers the risks because of a stronger layer, of a potentially vigilant body, then the cuts they take would also automatically become smaller. They would take lesser risks.

Even if we can cut down corruption by 5%, and that funds get utilized in meaningful projects or two,  it’s a great start. It’s a great result too.

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Bloopers from Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a writer who took a lot of care to get his plots correct. One of the reasons, was that he borrowed heavily from the news of those times. However he had his fair share of bloopers even in the Holmes series. Here are a few bloopers that’s difficult to reason logically.

The biggest I can think of is the one surrounding the book The Valley of Fear and the story The Final Problem.

Here’s a passage from the book the Valley of Fear.

“Porlock, Watson, is a nom-de-plume, a mere identification mark; but behind it lies a shifty and evasive personality. In a former letter he frankly informed me that the name was not his own, and defied me ever to trace him among the teeming millions of this great city. Porlock is important, not for himself, but for the great man with whom he is in touch. Picture to yourself the pilot fish with the shark, the jackal with the lion — anything that is insignificant in companionship with what is formidable: not only formidable, Watson, but sinister — in the highest degree sinister. That is where he comes within my purview. You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?”

“The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as — ”

“My blushes, Watson!” Holmes murmured in a deprecating voice.

“I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public.”

Here is a passage from the Final Problem.

“You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty?” said he.
“Never.”
“Aye, there’s the genius and the wonder of the thing!” he cried.

The problem is that in no way the Final Problem can precede The Valley of Fear. This is because within a week of the above dialogue between Holmes and Watson, Moriarty meets his end in a wrestling bout with Holmes, where thanks to his Baritsu skills, Holmes kills Moriarty.

Defense statement: Dr Watson suffered from short term memory loss. Much like Ghajini.

In the Sherlock Holmes short story “The adventure of the Priory School“, while investigating the countryside in an abduction case, Holmes and Watson come across a bicycle track, Watson enquires on the direction the bicycle was travelling in, Holmes replies that the direction can be ascertained by the impressions made by the tracks made by the cycle.

“The more deeply sunk impression is, of course, the hind wheel, upon which the weight rests. You perceive several places where it has passed across and obliterated the more shallow mark of the front one. It was undoubtedly heading away from the school.”

There’s a flaw in this explanation. Since the rear wheel follows the front, it will always cross over the front wheel unless the cyclist circles around and crosses his own path.

Defense: None

In the classic story the Adventure of Speckled Band, Dr. Grimesby Roylott whistles to a deadly snake, called swamp adder of Indian origins. Snakes are deaf. AC Doyle was a man of medicine and it’s surprising that he never knew about this basic fact.

Defense:None

In the Study in Scarlet, Dr John H Watson by his own admission had a wound on his shoulder, apparently by a Jezzail bullet from the famous battle of Maiwand. In later stories he complains of war wounds on his leg.

Defense: It’s probable that Watson fell of his horse and broke his leg too.

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Oppose FDI in Retail

What I dreaded since a long time is happening. And I am stunned to see that several of my esteemed peers and colleagues, especially from the Fourth Estate, celebrating the Government’s call to allow FDI in Retail.

I am worried because this would change the landscape of the country, kill dreams of millions of small entrepreneurs, and would be the beginning of the real MNC Raj.

The real economic backbone of India over the past two decades, has been the small businesses owned by the middle class that spans the length and breadth of the country. These are the small mom and pop shops in your neighborhood, often called kirana stores. These are the small retailer of garments in the next street. These are the grocery stores that sells everything from vegetables to vinegar. These are the friendly computer dealers next door.

The FDI in Retail will crush this backbone.

Government is selling the pros very aggressively which can be summed up as follows.

  1. FDI in retail would benefit the consumer. You won’t be fleeced by the next door shop owner, and will avail the best at the lowest price, in increased competition among the large retailers.
  2. Farmers will benefit as they can sell their goods directly to the LFR, and avoid the middleman completely.
  3. The unorganized sector does not pay any taxes. Even if they are organized, they avoid paying taxes. There is a lot of black money in this sector.

Consumer is the King, is a myth.
I’ve been consulting for various businesses for the past decade or so, and I know that no business is a charity. All of them want to sell a perception – they offer the best in terms of value. In reality, all of them just want to make more.

All Large Format Retailers (LFR) have offers that look great on paper, and would be cheaper compared to a kinara store next door. Cheaper by how much? By a few bucks only. Like on Atta or Rice, it would be two to five Rupees per kilogram. They want you to abandon the next door shop, and drive all the way to the LFR for a few bucks less.

In reality, you get this discount because you end up buying a lot. All LFR stores take advantage of the fact that consumers value their time, energy, and the distance they have travelled to reach their mall. Most consumers are not comfortable unless they end up spending a few thousands on a visit to the mall. You end up spending that kind of money, not just because you can afford to, but also because it’s seen as a return of investment for the time, energy and the distance you have travelled to reach the mall.

You end up spending thousands so you can get back your return of investment. When you buy more, you end up getting bigger discounts, chances to take part in schemes that you have a million in one chance of winning. You return home with a feeling that you have saved big money.

You also end up buying several goods that you may not have purchased in the first place, had the shopping experience not prompted you to purchase it.

I did a dipstick survey with my friends and relatives about large purchases. This is what I figured:

  1. They end up spending more than they planned to, and purchased more.
  2. They all feel they saved money
  3. They all agree that some of the stuff they bought may not be used immediately; some may not be used at all.

This implies that at least 10 percent of what you buy on average from an LFR is either a waste or a not-at-all necessary buy. I have quoted a conservative figure here.

You don’t spend similar amounts with the nearby kirana shop, where you buy for the day or the week. Of course, you defend the decision by saying that you don’t get similar discounts.

Some time back, I checked with Metro, touted as the biggest discount wholesaler in Bangalore and also compared to prices that my local store was willing to provide, after a round of bargaining and for volume purchase. I was surprised that in almost all items which I needed, the local store was more than willing to match.

You can bargain with the local store, and not feel ashamed in doing so!

Farmers in this country have never got a good bargain, thanks to the middlemen. When you buy a coconut for Rs. 10 or a kilo of onion for Rs. 18, you need to know that the farmer who has grown the crop, gets just 20 per cent of what you pay. The middlemen or the wholesaler gets a large cut. But the middleman is not a single entity, there are multiple hands, and then they also face the issue of perishable nature of agricultural products, and the cost of transporting them into the cities and towns.

While there would be a temporary benefit for farmers if they sell directly to an MNC retailer initially, I doubt it will last long. Knowing how an MNC works, it would be just a matter of time before they formed a cartel and squeezed the farmers.

Finally the question about unorganized sector not paying taxes. Agricultural produce in this country is generally not taxed, or is taxed very low. The rest of the products sold at a local store are branded, and they all are taxed at multiple levels; the manufacturer pays an excise duty as well as sales tax. The distributor pays sales tax too. A retailer who is the last link in the chain, and other traders, apart from the provisional stores, also pay their taxes. They employ very ordinary people who all earn less than 10,000 on an average. Where’s the question of  income tax for people working in unorganized sector, when 99.99% will not fall under any taxable bracket.

In India, the opposition does not need any reason to oppose. This naturally means that states manned by BJP and its allies will oppose the bill. However, it’s just a question of time for these states to bend. The Communist states like Kerala and West Bengal will not allow, unless the MNC retailer is a Chinese.

The Finance Minister of the country says that if the bill is not passed, the stock market would crash by 400 points. When masters of this economy are enslaved to the stock market phenomenon, then there’s little hope in our leadership.

If the FDI in Retail happens, many of the shop keepers will be forced to shut down. Many of them are fairly old, they are not even employable. No doubt, the LFRs would employ many youngsters. Yes, a number of urban MBAs will get jobs. But at what cost? At least a hundred million will be rendered jobless.

It’s the duty of every citizen to protect and promote his neighborhood, and ensure that local businesses flourish.

Further Reading

  1. This paper, prepared by Stephan Goetz and Hema Swaminathan of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology of Pennsylvania State University, describes what effect the opening of a Wal-Mart can have on a whole community. 
  2. Impact of Malls on Small Shops and Shoppers, a research paper presented in the Economic and Policy Weekly, June 2, 2007, describes the results of a survey of small shops who have been affected by the growth of malls in and around Mumbai.

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