Monday, January 26, 2009

The Seven Days of Barack Hussain Obama

These items are taken from the New York Times headlines of the succeeding day.

Day 1 (21 January 2009):

Obama to Close Foreign Prisons and Guantánamo Camp

...imposes new rules on government transparency and ethics, freezes the salaries of his senior aides, mandates new limits on lobbyists and demands that the government disclose more information.

Day 2 (22 January 2009):

installs high-level emissaries to handle the Arab-Israeli issue and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Day 3 (23 January 2009):

President Obama on Friday stepped squarely into the fractious effort in Congress to assemble an $825 billion economic recovery package

Day 4 (24 January 2009): Give him a break, it's the weekend (Saturday)

Day 5 (25 January 2009, Sunday)):

President Obama will direct federal regulators on Monday to move swiftly on an application by California and 13 other states to set strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday. (The directive makes good on an Obama campaign pledge and signifies a sharp reversal of Bush administration policy regarding emissions)

Day 7 (27 January 2009)

President Obama dispatched his special envoy, George J. Mitchell, to the Middle East on Monday, kicking off a diplomatic initiative that Mr. Obama pledged would be vigorous and sustained, but would start off primarily as a listening tour.

I wouldn't say that is bad going for a newly installed Crown Prince who was always considered long on talk and short on specifics.

Republic Day and other matters...

Watching the Republic Day parade on the start of the 60th year of our republic, I was reminded of my childhood, when, living literally a stone's throw away (on Janpath) from Rajpath where the parade takes place every year, we used to go each year, wrapped up in our woolens in the cold January morning to watch the colourful spectacle. Now, in a more politically correct world, when I see it, it seems like a somewhat outmoded and anachronistic spectacle of a Government displaying its military might to its citizens and to the world - a favourite device of the socialist bloc countries to display a bit of naked muscle to both its citizens and the world.


Speaking of military might, I was reminded of Mumbai and 26/11 recently, from a quote from Sunil Mukhi's blog -- "I used to be a liberal but now, after 26/11...". I find an amazing variety in the spectrum of opinion about 26/11 and what should be done, all from my own institute. Two extreme examples..

1. The only solution is to declare war on Pakistan. This involves bombing a few cities like Lahore and/or Karachi (with the assumption that the Pakistan Air Force is asleep on its watch and will do nothing). One can safely assume in such a scenario and with the kind of populations that Indian and Pakistani cities have, that with consequent retaliatory bombing by Pakistan, many 1000s will die in a single day. The argument for this action is that we are at war anyway with the jehadis and tens of thousands have been killed by them in the last two decades of so. This takes the war into their own house. The problem frankly is that the numbers that will die in a day will match or surpass the numbers killed in all the terrorist violence since the late 80s, almost all of them innocent civilians (in both cases). Somehow this seems to be of no consequence to the arm chair war purveyors. And after all this, there is very little likelihood that the jihadis and their ilk will, like the old Arab in the parable, fold their tents and steal silently away. The US has been at war in two places, and from the evidence, it has only succeeded in adding more volunteers to the jehadi cause.

2. The other extreme view (what I would call the Arundhati Roy point of view) is that it is all the fault of the Indian state -- Babri Masjib, 2002 Gujarat riots and so on and we are just reaping what we sowed. In other words, the terrorists bear no personal responsibility for their actions, in killing hundred of innocent bystanders, rich and poor, Hindus and Muslims alike. This despite the fact that the Mumbai terrorists had no Kashmir or Gujarat links, and were petty criminals earlier who were attracted to this job by the promise of money and/or the dream of everlasting life in heaven, on martyrdom.

Amusingly both viewpoints exist in my workplace. How can the same initial conditions give such widely differing views? Just shows that the same facts can give widely differing conclusions in the so-called social sciences -- quite different from the physical sciences, wouldn't you say....

Tailpiece: Here is an excellent account on why the Pakistan Government finds it so difficult to act against all these jehadi groups. The conclusion is sobering: President Zardari’s government, many had hoped, would dismantle the Pakistan that Zia-ul-Haq built — a Pakistan based on the dual primacy of the military and the mullah, resting on the pillars of religious chauvinism and hatred for India. If President Zardari’s handling of the fallout from the Mumbai carnage is any indication, the forces he represents have neither the will nor the resources to reverse history. Islamabad, post-Mumbai, isn’t in denial. It is simply driven by the reflexes imprinted by the history which gave birth to it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama inauguration

Last night I sat through the Obama inauguration on CNN (which also meant sitting through the interminably long sections before the actual event). His much awaited speech, on which we are told he had been working for two weeks pressed all the right buttons. It mentioned Jews and Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and, I think for the first time, non-believers! It spoke actually of restoring science to its rightful place (again I suspect a first for an inauguration), climate change, the economy, and what is reassuring, that better security needs cannot be an excuse for trampling on people's liberties, the two can exist together, -- something that †he Bush administration has specialised in subverting. (Probably a lesson here for Indian hawks who are forever clamouring to have tighter laws that give the go by to standard legal procedure and habeus corpus). His speech was short but forceful, though it was no Gettysburg nor, for that matter, a 'Tryst with Destiny'.

But this post is not about the speech, great though it might have been. Watching the inauguration, I couldn't help wondering how Christian theology suffuses the whole ceremony. Despite all the talk of America being the land of all religions which Obama was at pains to point out, the invocation at the beginning was by the Rev. Rick Warren and the benediction at the end by Rev. Joseph Lowery, both ministers of the faith and both of whom called upon 'our Lord Jesus Christ', the former ending with the full Pater Nostra; the oath of office is taken on the Bible and all oaths end with 'so help me God'. And I got to wondering what would happen if a Jew or a non believer were to get to that position. I suppose a Jew could still take the oath on the old testament though I am not sure what a non believer would do (having a Muslim there or, for that matter, a Hindu, is for the moment such a preposterous idea that it doesn't call for comment at present). And I think the answer is that such a person would not reach that position in the first place. Large numbers of Americans we are told are non practitioners but I believe they would have great trouble voting for a God-less candidate (let alone a Muslim one). Thus, even though there is indeed separation of church and state (despite God occasionally talking to Presidents like George W Bush), the Christian motif runs deep within the psyche of the country.

Comparing with India is instructive. Here the administering of the oath is a strictly secular affair. It is taken by members of Parliament including the Prime Minister either 'in the name of God' or 'solemnly affirm'ed, the latter being the preferred mode of all left parties. I believe this is a legacy of Nehru and Ambedkar, both of whom were deeply suspicious of religion insidiously creeping into legislative matters. An equivalent of the Christian ceremony above would be like having a bunch of priests chanting Vedic mantras, and the Homam the sacred fire, presiding over the inauguration of a new Government, and with members taking oath on the Bhagavad Gita. Even the BJP in its worst avatar would balk, I believe, at this perversion of a purely legislative practice. As a younger democracy, I believe our secular ideals are stronger in intent, than that of the much older one, though we fare more and more poorly in practice with every passing year.

Tailpiece: Science has indeed appeared earlier in 22 Presidential inaugural addresses -- see here. (via Doug Natelson through G. I. Menon).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Underbelly

"...though because it is a movie, it misses one thing that truly distinguishes Mumbai, the way it smells: part drying fish, part human waste."

Let me begin with a confession -- I have neither read Arvind Adiga's Booker winning book -- The White Tiger (yet) - nor have I seen (yet) Slumdog Millionaire which seems to be doing fairly well in the awards category. But it is the above quote from Somini Sengupta's review of the movie that exasperated me enough to write this post.

Much has been written about these two events -- and a lot of it has been predictable. While not denying the considerable literary merit of both the book and the movie, many Indian reviewers, many of them not particularly jingoistic, have pointed out that the so-called seamier underbelly of India's rise, the filth and squalor, are themes that seem to resonate more with Western audiences, or at least with Western critics. I normally do not hold with such views. A lot of it has often to do with most Indians' very prickly reaction to any criticism of their country, their society and their way of life. We are mostly intolerant of any view that punctures the feel-good factor of the so-called India Rising campaign, notwithstanding the fact that the equivalent India Shining campaign of the previous Government came a cropper in no uncertain terms.

However, I cannot help but feel that there is some truth in the assertion that poverty and squalor sells better in the West than prosperity. This is, of course, a slightly cliched view (it was used in the past even to run down the international acclaim of Satyajit Ray's movies, who, so it was claimed, sold India's poverty to the West - an outrageous claim, by any standards), but clearly it has a germ of truth particularly in a contemporary context. The quote I began this post with bolsters my firm belief that any movie or book that confirms certain people's comfortably condescending view of the country, is clearly on the road to success. (Is it not outrageous that that the reviewer, (of clear Indian origin from the name) is actually unhappy that the filth and squalor in the movie is not sufficiently representative of the real India -- or at least of the real Mumbai?) This is particularly true now when India's (and China's) growth rates coupled with the poor condition of the economy in many Western countries have threatened at least the economic dominance of many of these states. India has still a long way to go, in my opinion, before this growth rate becomes sufficiently inclusive to start on the path to becoming a developed country. But that does not stop the West from worrying about these growing economies and what it will do to their consumption patterns and their way of life.

The issue has a resonance not just in books and movies. The glee with which the Western press has pounced on the fact that one of India's top IT companies Satyam has fallen flat on its face, is clearly indicative of this schadenfreude factor. After all, it shows that the mighty Indian IT industry is not as invincible as it was believed to be. (This is not confined to India alone...the Chinese milk scandal has occupied many many columns of the Western press, far in excess of what a similar scandal in their own country would occupy).

As Jug Suraiya mentions in one of his Times of India articles, perhaps we could grab this new opportunity that has come our way -- instead of the slogan Mera Bharat Mahan let us propagate the slogan Mera Bhikari Mahan.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Eyes Wide Shut

The lighter side of life...

This is an amusing account from James Reynold's (BBC correspondent in China) blog. Pictures always show officials "faithfully listening to long speeches made by Communist Party leaders. The TV pictures show the officials carefully noting down their leaders' words for further study later on. None of the officials ever shows any trace of boredom whatsoever - no matter how long or how dreary the speech they're listening to."

However, this fiction is maintained with a little bit of help from Photoshop, it seems (or Gimp!). Read the blog, and take a look at the two pictures and you will see what I mean.

Unfortunately our unruly Parliament scenes cannot be photoshop'ed away since they are transmitted live. Oh! for the joys of a tightly controlled state....

But I am being unfair...the joys of Photoshop'ing exist in the free world too! What is even more hilarious here is the free market economy getting into the act. Look for the dental ads on the left hand side of this news item :):)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Foreign Certificates

Ramachandra Guha in his biweekly column in the Hindu, today wonders (in an eponymously titled article as this post) why we Indians always need a foreign certificate to convince us that we are doing the right thing. (The Hindu right produces some obscure Belgian priest to bolster their claims of Hindu victimisation, the left regularly trots out its poster boy Noam Chomsky to justify their opposition to economic reforms (even though Chomsky a giant in his field of linguistics has little or no knowledge about India or economics) and so on.

This got me thinking about whether scientists like us also have this tendency to look for pats and plaudits from the white man (or Westerner). I think most of us who have collaborated with Westerners or interacted with them in conferences and other such venues, can testify that collaborations by their nature tend to be egalitarian in their interactions since it's a collection of minds trying to jointly solve a problem. With rare exceptions, I would say that our dealings with Westerners is little different from those with other Indians as far as scientific interaction goes. This could be due to the fact that what is right or wrong in the physical sciences (as opposed to the social sciences where there is considerable subjectivity) is determined by your calculations and not by any subjective judgement. In that sense science is indeed colour neutral. Where it could make a difference is the attention the work receives in the West by virtue of having appeared from the East, or the importance that it is given. Even here, I think attitudes in the West are changing and no longer are papers from India or China or South Korea treated with any condescension. As a result, scientists in these countries do not feel that they play an inferior role in the global scientific establishment -- at least not to any large extent. Though it cannot be denied that recognition of one's work amongst significant numbers of Western scientists is not unwelcome, but that is natural.

As least in the social sciences, the Indian system is also considerably at fault. Intellectual stalwarts like Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen were only recognised after the West put its stamp of approval. Amartya Sen has always been a very distinguished economist (albeit a highly prolix one). However, it is only after he received the Nobel Prize that he became a fixture in various programs, forums, discussions and the general media.

But let me return to science and scientists. There are minor ways in which being a Westerner in India is different from being an Indian of the same stature. For instance, a Western visitor to an institute is always treated with somewhat extra care. It could simply be a matter of making sure there is water in the bathroom, the geyser is working, the towels and sheets are clean and so on. An Indian visitor would not perhaps get the same degree of attention. This could be interpreted positively, of course. An Indian, being part of the system would know how to handle these problems and bring it to the notice of the appropriate people. A Westerner would be more uncertain about what to do and therefore needs more attention. It could just be the Indian notion of hospitality towards a guest from a distant land who is unfamiliar with the system (Atithi Devo Bhava).

But perhaps it is also just that little bit of extra deference that subconsciously an Indian lavishes on a white man. And perhaps pats and plaudits from the West are just that little bit more important than those from India.

I look forward to your comments on this issue.

Friday, January 2, 2009

India Rising?

Gurcharan Das, was a CEO, of Proctor and Gamble, India, who, after retiring, turned to pontificating on the economy (pro-liberalisation, needless to say), reservations (against, needless to say, since it devalues merit, to which an economist friend of mine pointed out that it doesn't require so much merit to sell soap and shampoo) and about everything else in between and became a fixture on talk shows where he would be considered an expert on everything that came his (or Barkha Dutt's) way. Along the way he wrote a book and now he has made it to the New York Times Op-Ed column making fatuous remarks about India's economic rise (yes, yet again).

However in the middle of all the verbiage and vacuity and some (hopefully tongue-in-cheek) claims about the caste system being responsible for India's economic success (Vaishyas being the trader case are trained to accumulate wealth and more such piffle along those lines, forgetting that neither Narayan Murthy nor Azim Premji are Vaishyas) he actually manages to quote an interesting observation of Lee Kwan Yew - why is it that China's rise is considered a threat whereas India's is just considered a wonderful success story. For an explanation, he goes all the way back to the Rig Veda dismissing the influence of Gandhi and the Buddha in between.

I find it difficult to subscribe to his somewhat jingoistic ending wherein he gleefully considers the possibility of India's formidable presence being a source of worry for the Chinese. However, there is more than a grain of truth in the fact that as a noisy and overly diverse democracy (albeit a bumbling and chaotic one) rather than a monolithic political entity like the Chinese system, India is automatically less of a threat than China. Despite the muscular rhetoric of the Hindu right, it is perhaps indeed true that most Indians' primary objective is not to dominate the world but to have a good life, enough to eat and a bit of luxury. In the Hindi catchy election slogan, it is BSP Bijli, Sadak, Pani i.e Electricity, Roads and Water and perhaps a little more beyond.

I think one would be doing the ordinary Chinese people an injustice to claim that, contrary to Indians, they are all interested in a world dominating role for their country. But the actions of the authoritarian regime in the way it treats its own dissenting citizens, let alone others, creates a fear factor over how they would behave towards other peoples, in the unlikely event of becoming a superpower.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

A vacation without internet access and a somewhat hectic visit to Italy just before has meant that this blog has been neglected for almost half a month now. However, before infusing life into this blog again, let me wish all my readers a very happy and successful New Year 2009. Perhaps we can hope for a little more peace and less bloodshed in this all too violent world. Even though this blog is not exactly suffering from a surfeit of comments, I have frequently encountered people (in meetings, through email) who tell me they are 'avid' (their words, not mine!) readers of my blog. This is, of course, deeply satisfying though I do wish some of them would leave some comments at least, as footprint of their visit. I do not aim for the stratospheric comments level of Amitabh Bachchan's blog, where every vacuous remark, every word exchanged with Abhishek and dutifully reported in the blog is met with 646 equally vacuous comments -- however a little less use of the Invisibility Cloak would be nice :) . So here's to peace in the world -- from the Jacquie Lawson card site.