Friday, December 16, 2011

That 3%

Two photographers from New York -- Reed Young & Michael De Pasquale-- are here in India, capturing what it means to be upper middle class in the country. I met them last week and then this week went with them to Chandigarh to help shoot some portraits! It was very fun.. Read about it here:

The project:

And some behind the scenes pics:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mission Impossible

Tom Cruise should have stayed for this. The American actor, who visited India recently, had a decade ago starred in Minority Report, which was about finding people before they committed a crime or, as it was called, pre-crime.

Not quite as dramatic but we have in India a proposal for pre-screening content by social media providers so that the public may be spared the emotional torture of seeing politicians maligned and religious figures made fun of. So far, so good.

There are several ways to approach the recent comments by Kapil Sibal, the most immediate and obvious of which is to remind him that India is a democratic country where the government of the day should not be trying to curtail free speech. There are already mechanisms in place to act against those who willfully defame or incite violence.

Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar has repeatedly brought this up on Facebook and Twitter, reminding people that the Information Technology Act has provisions for victims to legally pursue action. Others, including popular blogger Shivam Vij, have pointed out that social media is run by the people and they will act upon objectionable content as soon as it is identified by those it offends.

However, before making impassioned arguments that "Kapil Sibal is an idiot", we — the Internet society — need to accept one fact: This is a brave new world with new rules and new tools. Cyber terrorism, online fraud, cyber bullying, viruses and access to child pornography are just some of the many challenges facing us today. These are easily identifiable instances of wrongdoing, and the lines of morality can be easily drawn. It may seem rather obvious, but the truth is that most of us have been using Facebook for not more than 5-6 years, Twitter for even less and, although we swear by them today, we have no idea how these will grow.

Today, most Indians don't have bank accounts (forget about online banking) and less than half of the connected population, over 100 million users, is using even one form of social media. That said, it is obvious that the online world is a good mirror of our real world, where crimes mirror physical crimes and gossip, slander, jokes and news travel through communities.

The difference being speed and spread, but our behavioural characteristics largely remain the same, ev­en as we grapple with new forms of media consumption. However, it is for us and Sibal to understand that the meaning of what is "the government" in this society is also changing.

It seems that a decade ago, governance was easier: news media was not as hysterical and investigative and public opinion was sought every five years. Today, there is instant feedback through the Internet, and the government has been trying to cope and adjust to this suddenly robust citizenry.

In March 2011, at a conference on social media, Sibal expressed doubts about opening up government departments on Twitter and Facebook because of the volume of criticism and insults the move might invite. He suggested that just the way the news media manages to show the government in poor light, it seems the same will happen in the online world. Analogous thoughts in this digital world.

However, he has been unable to fully grasp that citizens using social media to vent their anger or complain is paralleled by their efforts to praise and help. Ask Delhi Traffic Police or India Post about their experiences. And, as much support as India Against Corruption received online, there were questions raised about the validity of the movement and its principal actors as well.

Sibal's comments may have been prompted by hilarious videos of "Manmohan Singham", religious blasphemy or even the success of the Anna Hazare movement — we may never know. But by asking the intermediaries to try and correct the behavioural patterns of people, Sibal has shown a great disdain for them.

When I heard Sibal's comments in March, I had written on my blog about the government and social media, "...It will have to trust its people, and it will have to trust its own ability to respond to the people. Otherwise this system is going to crash".

The crash has happened. The government does not seem interested in responding to people or even trusting its own legal system, but is instead clamping down on them. If Sibal was tweeting along with the online community, this might have been a different conversation.

Under the guise of "cultural sensitivity" (after all, it is the politicians who play on religious and cultural feelings before elections), I think the governing cat is out of the bag. Generation 2.0 is being led by Generation 1.0. A good example of the much-needed new age politician would be Omar Abdullah — Kashmir is always a hot button issue and other users on Twitter might not agree with him but he is part of the new media conversation and that instantly makes him accepted.

Think about it — with a push to connect every village in India, will there be a similar push to limit thoughts of the villagers, now that people can finally hear them? Why couldn't Sibal announce that the government had requested Facebook to take down offensive material, and also urge the online community to flag other such content? Why did he not trust them to respond to him? Or, as one of my friends asked, why did he not raise this issue with regard to child pornography, which is truly offensive, instead of what seems like a move to protect his boss?

Punishment for unacceptable behaviour is justified. At the same time, it is wrong to try to "shield" the society from it, if that is the case, because it realises its own acceptance of morality and acceptability when it is faced with unpardonable actions (for which the perpetrators are then punished).

In a democracy, the state works with the citizen. This is why we have ministers for law and technology, but not ministers for morality. This is also why pre-crime didn't work in Minority Report, and pre-screening won't work here either.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Bloodlust: Sex, Teens & Vampires

The vampire was an object of fear, but recent Hollywood portrayals — brooding, dangerous, eternally young — make him the young woman’s ultimate sex symbol.

In an article I found in one corner of the Internet, columnist (and clearly not a teenager) Drew Zahn writes of Twilight: "a misunderstood heroine falling for the perfect guy — athletic, rebellious, dark, mysterious, sensitive, strong, protective, but wounded, needing her to heal him and at the same time worshipping her like a princess, a combination more seductive to girls than any pheromone and more addictive than cocaine." It isn't just the appeal of this older (though he doesn't look it) and deeper (after all, he is *living* history) vampire who falls in love with the heroine; it becomes a question of a relationship with something extraordinary. A tortured soul who needs healing, and teenagers acutely aware that healing isn't just emotional, and expressive love doesn't stop at words.

When I was a teenager, the biggest thing in my television world was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A 16 year old in love with a vampire-with-a-soul (a vegetarian vampire, as it were), conflicted by the human vs monster dynamic. In that show Buffy is a vampire slayer, so the question of romance with Angel, the vampire, becomes even more complicated. After Angel 'proves' his love to her with puppy dog eyes and by saving her life — and not biting her — they finally have sex, after a particularly hairy night. The consequence? He loses his soul and becomes her arch nemesis. Which really gives whole new meaning to the oft-experienced complaint girls have that guys "change after sex".

I'm ten years older than I was when I saw Buffy, and I've got another vampire on my TV, this one courting a 17 year old girl. (Yes, I know. I know!) The show is called Vampire Diaries, and many of my 28 year old friends are equally enthused by it. The girl is confident, she quickly figures out her almost-boyfriend is a vampire, accepts it, and they begin a sexual relationship. There is minor betrayal after the act — she finds out she looks exactly like his ex — but the matter is rectified quickly enough and it's back to bedroom for them.
The romantic market value of the vampire rocketed with great casting — six packs, angular jaws, broodiness —and story upon story drilled it into the psyche that sleeping with the vampire was special because he was so deeply in love with the human, that he would never hurt (read: bite) her

Somewhere along the line, we stopped fearing the vampire. We humans stopped fearing them so much, that, unlike Dracula, they no longer need to put humans in their 'thrall'. Humans are jumping up and down, begging to be had, as Bella asks Edward repeatedly throughout Twilight. Elevating his status from a mere mortal — and teenage boy — his "ancient" chivalry just makes him more sexy to her. And so the vampire has gone from a coffin toting pasty bloodsucker to an eternal 17 year old who keeps a copy of Gone with the Wind in his bedroom. Now that's hot.

It gets hotter. Some of you were probably waiting for me to get to True Blood, the sexiest, raciest, most graphic vampire show on television. Some would say its soft porn, others would say it feeds every masochistic tendency you have ever had. Without spending too much time on the details, let me give you a few: sex between vampires and humans, unlike our teen lovers, is aggressive and uncontrolled. Humans who go after vampires in this world (called, subtly, "fang bangers") like rough sex, and there are scenes which have vamps doing it while their victims are lying bleeding under the bed. Yeah. In fact, even the oh-so-virginal Twilight hints at a rough ride for Bella when the morning after brings torn pillows all over the room and bruises all over her body.

Its not just these wildly popular TV shows that have us gasping for breath, its the books too. Vampire books meant for teenagers have a great deal of sex in them - some would even call it an inappropriate amount - and its got some people worried. Researchers at the Journal of Sex Research found that scenes meant for 12-13 year old were no less steamy than those for over-14s. Also, since these were vampire related stories, in none of the books (including those for adults), was there mention of safe practices or negative consequences. At the same time, TV shows are freely available to download (legal or illegal) and some of the supernaturally crafted scenes are just plain disturbing. What would have otherwise been shelved at the back of the video store, with promises of handcuffs, dog collars and whips, have made it to prime time telly, with sex and violence intermingling, and the majority of viewers not really alarmed at all.

Over the years, we've adjusted to the fact that vampires are beautiful. Flawless, breathless, perfect shapes; frozen in time but not in emotion. The romantic market value of the vampire rocketed with great casting — six packs, angular jaws, broodiness —and story upon story drilled it into the psyche that sleeping with the vampire was special because he was so deeply in love with the human, that he would never hurt (read: bite) her. The second step, which always follows, is that she lets him bite her, normally because human blood can heal a wounded vampire. The act of biting and sucking is deeply personal; in Buffy it bordered on sexual, while in the Vampire Diaries it is more about the exchange of energy and trust. While there are female vampires in these universes, the story is extremely focused on the vampire man and human girl, because, in the end, the stories are for young women to lust after. Desire is the essence of any love story, but drop it into a parallel universe with little or no rules and it begins to unravel. A horrific scene in Twilight is when Bella's rib cage breaks as the vampire baby inside her grows at an abnormal pace. The TV ad campaign for Vampire Diares — "got wood?" — had parents up in arms about it crossing a line. For True Blood, well, to quote Joey Tribbiani — the line is a dot to it!

In interpreting the vampire's cultural significance, Franco Moretti had described Dracula as a metaphor for capitalism, and blood his currency. Stephen Arata believed it to be a story of colonisation, with the vampire moving to new lands to dominate its citizens. Then, what would today's vampire — sexy, strange, human-lover, as it were — signify? Writers have offered that today's vampires are a voice for America's sexual revolution, where being boring is bland. Or, is it, asks writer Stephen Marche, an acceptance of gay men? Or a wholesome acceptance of different people, with their peculiar choices and sexualities?

Chew on that.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Love Virtually: (Loved the book, read it - if not the review!)

It made sense that after reading Love Virtually, I looked for its presence on Twitter. And there it was, @LoveVirtually, trying to map readers around the world. The book – originally in German by Daniel Glattauer – is a modern day love story between two strangers over email. It's an appropriate romance for 2011, in a world where Facebook is breaking up marriages on one hand and reuniting lovers on the other. In fact, in a world dominated by social media, an email romance seems almost quaint. And in a world even more dominated by the physical expression of love, an emotional affair is, frankly, refreshing.

The plot starts with an accidental email from Emmi to Leo, which slowly develops into an email flirtation. Curiosity abounds, with Emmi taking the first step: 'Either Google's never heard of you, or it knows how to keep you hidden,' and Leo following it up with the first guess: 'Your shoe size is 36. You're petite, bubbly, and you've got short, dark hair. And you effervesce when you speak. Am I right?'

Emmi is married, while Leo is in an on again/off again relationship. For both, the email exchange takes a life of its own. Emmi finds herself getting jealous of Leo's love life, and Leo wonders if Emmi is unhappy in her marriage as she devotes so much time to emailing him. The banter takes a turn when Emmi asks Leo if he's wearing pyjamas and Leo wonders if she sleeps naked. They decide to 'meet'. Not really; but go to an assigned café for an hour,and later go online to hazard a guess over email as to who the other person was. Soon after this, Leo's mother passes away, and their bond becomes stronger. Drunken emails reveal real wanting stirring behind the mask of friendship. And in an attempt to prove to herself that Leo is only a friend, she sets him up with her friend, Mia, and finds herself madly jealous when they actually get along. And then, it's no longer a game: they are in love. You have to read the book to find out how it ends.

The story is told through email exchanges and nothing else. There is no narration, no description other than what the characters offer each other, and the reader knows only as much as they do. But the passion that language allows, harking back to the 'original' romance of love letters, coupled with the urgency of instant communication, makes the story both fast moving and very compelling. There are moral issues here: Emmi is married. She might not been physically cheating on her husband, but having a few glasses of wine with Leo over email exchanges is her way of going on a date with him. There are also human issues here: Leo finds himself utterly in love with a married woman, who seems to feel the same way. And then there are reality issues: Emmi's husband finds out about the depth of their emotional connect.

The third character in the book, to me, is time. In an era when email is instantaneous, an hour's delay can be catastrophic and a whole day, impossible to bear! Each email exchange is qualified with the time it took to reply: 'Five minutes later', 'Fifty seconds later', 'One minute later'. It hints at Emmi and Leo's impatience and confusion at certain emails, and adds the element of an unseen offline life to the story. The brutal honesty of it all makes for utterly interesting reading.

Love Virtually is a book you can finish in a few hours. I read it on a flight. But I couldn't stop thinking about about words and what they mean to people, and how we can read moods through the placement of words. In time, Emmi and Leo want to attach voices to these words and leave voicemails for each other. But they never translate the curiosity to actual phone calls, favoring the literal language of love. And Glattauer succeeds in giving two distinct, decipherable voices to his protagonists, Emmi Rothner and Leo Leike.

Ultimately, the story is about wanting to keep the fantasy, but wanting to realise it as well. When Leo suggests they (finally) meet up and Emmi asks why, his reply: 'Insight. Relief. Catharsis. Clarity. Friendship. The solution to a personality puzzle which I created and then blew out of all proportion.' She teases him further, asking him how he kisses, to which he says: 'I kiss like I write'. Her reply: 'That's incredibly big headed of you.'

As the jacket cover says: 'Writing is kissing with the mind.'

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The endgame?

I don't know what to make of the question everyone seems to be asking: "Who is handling the government's PR/strategy?" It is welcome, in a way, because it shows that we think someone is making incorrect decisions -- those which can be rectified -- as opposed to the government being *bad*. We do seem to have a problem of elitism vs everyone else -- lets not forget that men running India right now are highly educated and boast of qualifications from Cambridge & Harvard etc. They are able to give their point of view (but sadly, arrogantly) and have resorted to finding technical legal remedies to a largely emotional situation. "Don't be clever by half," they would be scolded if they were children.

I find myself in an interesting position of not being sure exactly how to support Anna Hazare. Even during the first fast, I lauded the fact that he got people to care about issues, be it by fasting or coming online to engage in the functioning of this country, and I still do. Helped by constant media coverage, Anna became a household name, synonymous with honesty, and it encouraged others like Baba Ramdev to jump into the frey. Now, we know the Anna side of the story: he wants to see Jan Lokpal through, seemingly with no inputs from the government. There are many who have argued -- convincingly -- that adding another layer to our already weighty bureaucracy is no solution, and there is no guarantee that Jan Lokpal will be manned by honest people. Then there is the whole issue of who can be investigated, and if the PM/judges should be under Lokpal. Okay.

I'm trying to understand the political theatre taking place in front of me. Anna's first fast was a huge success, and the government invited the core gang to be part of the drafting committee. It was the first time any such gesture had been made (etc) and it was an interesting way to invite Anna and co to be part of the process. But a big blunder followed: Ramdev and the government's complete inept handling of his entry into the hunger strike arena. This is another one of those times when you must wonder - of course cabinet ministers knew the press was following them to the airport. Who thought it was a good idea to meet Ramdev there? Would it really raise his profile or lower theirs? Then to send the police in the middle of the night? The ironic part about the whole Ramdev fiasco is that once he was sent out of Delhi, it literally became a out-of-sight-out-of-mind situation, though I have heard that he planning to join Anna & co at Tihar. Anyway, to recap the rest of the story really quickly: the joint drafting commiitee of the government & civil society didn't really work out, Anna and co claimed that only 15/71 of their recommendations were in it, they want their version tabled and passed in this monsoon session of Parliament, else they will keep fasting till the first man drops dead.

Now, I want to reflect upon a few things: the first is this very interesting suggestion by Varun Gandhi (who, btw, also offered Anna Hazare his personal residence for fasting purposes when the government denied Anna permission) to table the civil society Jan Lokpal as a private members bill. I remember commenting, after the joint drafting committee, that Anna & co should exploit democratic options by asking politicians to comment on their bill, if they agree with it or not etc. It seems that as "civil society" one needs to immediately accept their draft as the *only* and *best* solution. Fair enough, but the suggestion to introduce it anyway is smart politics, and makes me also understand that this is obviously an option they (Anna & co) had on the table but rejected in favor of a fast. They might be ok with Varun Gandhi tabling it, but clearly they didn't want to share a podium with him, instead wanting to keep the mass movement going.

I was in Bangalore this weekend, and in my discussion with the cabbie understood that people do understand this issue pretty well. Its tough to be aware of all the nuances, of course, but the two drafts, what is included in each, and how this is the time to act! At the same time, CNN IBN headlines of the country "erupting" over Anna is stupid, its been fairly calm all over the India. Perhaps the government really thought that Delhi IS India and felt the need to stop a hunger strike, but I think they could have clearly avoided putting Anna on this pedestal if they had thought it through. And after arresting the man before his hunger strike, and then offering to release him 8 hours later, there were small news items floating around that this was done due to Rahul Gandhi's urging. Something like that *should* fall flat on its face.

I guess the question I am asking myself is: am I comfortable with endless hunger strikes to move legislation without discussion? Well, to be fair there was discussion but Team Anna didn't like what the Government was saying as much as the Government didn't like what Team Anna was saying. At the same time, the government is struggling to fit Team Anna's actions into neat boxes which they can "lawyer" their way out of. But I think that is the point: Team Anna has the right to fast/assemble peacefully and by placing inane restrictions, the government is exposing itself. Someone on TV commented that political rallies have so many people attended, so what is the point of stopping Team Anna? Soli Sorabjee said that the Congress should beware; the next time they want to hold a rally in a BJP state, the government there might place similar restrictions. So you should be able to fast against the government. Check. But to what end? That is the question I am grappling with.

How would it be if the government bows down? Says, ok, Team Anna -- your bill is law. You are the custodians for morality in the country etc etc. Then what happens? Fresh elections? More fasts for hosts of issues by people more dubious than Team Anna? Breakdown of democratic procedures? Populist policies (well.... I suppose that we already have). Multiple investigations followed by the arrest of the Prime Minister, a few judges, a whole lot of bureaucrats. The Bhushans & Kirat Bedi as the new cabinet? BJP in power before New Years? What I mean is.... where are we going with this? I want people who are to look beyond the political theatre and try exploring this... I would love to throw some ideas around.... ??

Saturday, July 30, 2011

You don't know me

Of all the recent asinine things I have heard -- and you know I have -- two stung me. One was last night, a joke from a co-worker, who tweeted that I am a "white in an indian girls body". The other was during the break at this seminar I have organized and am attending in Aurangabad, Maharashtra -- when I told a certain gentleman my mother is Maharashtrian, he responded that I am not because I didn't grow up here, and nor do I speak the language. I told him I spent a lot of summers in Pune at my grandparents and understand Marathi, to which he replied, "yes, but came as a foreigner."

The thing about identity is that if you aren't secure in it, you can often be lost. I have written about this on my blog before -- about how, as a child of a cross cultural marriage (Maharashtrian/Kashmiri) who grew up in neither state (I did in Delhi and at boarding school in Dehradun) -- I've always thought of myself as someone with a fluid, cross cultural identity. When the gentleman make this snarky remark about being a "foreigner" I took great offence. I told him that because of boarding school I can understand a host of languages (to get by) which include Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati. The truth is that in school we didn't think too much about where we came from or what religion we were. Mrs Varma routinely read out prayers from all the holy books at assembly, and as a result the Quran, Granth Shib, Bible and Hindu prayers are equally familiar and alien at the same time.

I couldn't stop thinking about identity. Who am I? Where do I belong? I would say Delhi, because thats where I was born and brought up. But a few years ago I found myself adding a caveat to this explanation by saying that I didn't study or go to college in the city -- a reaction to being categorized with empty headed floozys our city is so famous for. A very calculated decision made me leave the safety of my plush Indian Express editorial job which kept me firmly in Lutyens Delhi to roaming the small towns and villages of India, to feel connected to places out of Delhi. And the thing is I do understand this country better, I see how people are different, but at the same time, perhaps that gentleman was right -- a part of you might always remain foreign.And you know whats funny? All of it has connected me to Delhi stronger than I could have expected!

We've all had these experiences. For us North Indians, it happens in the south where everything is different. I'm sure its a vice-versa case. It reminded me of people who say they are "global citizens" or some who purposely say things like "I am Bengali only by birth." I started to wonder why you would not define yourself by your rightful cultural heritage, and something popped into my head. It could be because someone felt very causal about taking it away from you. I once joked, in a previous post, that thank god for Delhi. In Kashmir I could not buy land since I was not born there, and in Maharashtra I'd be penalised by some for being a half breed/non speaker. I guess that might be the reality. For heavens sake, I have people who casually decide that you are not Indian because you enjoy Hollywood movies and don't east spicy food? Really? Are we that shallow? I can't imagine a parallel situation where I'd tell someone they were not Bihari for choosing to live in Delhi, or not Punjabi for being a vegetarian.

But its never that simple is it. For the scattered people who deem themselves the decider of YOUR identity, there are so many others who warmly welcome you to the fold. When I travel in Maharashtra (and this includes this very trip, with people in the same room, same conversation) who feel an instant connect to that fact -- that a part of you belongs here! Where is your mother from! Oh, what is her family name! They come up with connections, or describe the street she lived on and start asking you simple things in Marathi to be affectionate. I felt the same in Kashmir when I'd say I'm a Kashmiri from Delhi, so many people smiled and said they were glad I was visiting.

Identity politics are fascinating. Not long ago I was at a seminar in Varanasi focusing on Dalits and the media. Not surprisingly, at some point, the conversation turned to identity. Many Dalit leaders felt abandoned by their brothers and sisters who had done well and conveniently forgotten their community. A part of me wondered whether this was because they wanted to keep away from this sense of disillusionment that I could feel running through them. A sense I felt, which was clouding a sense of opportunity. Without analysing that, the point to be made is that we seem to be conditioned to relate to our communities, and when we cannot, it seems both the individual and the community suffers for it.

A while ago, I participated in a workshop for Video Volunteers where we were trying to explain to a bunch of people from all over the country that they should not box up their identities simply into Dalit/Woman/Tamil etc. For this, Stalin made big placards which had words like 'Punjabi' 'Woman' 'North Indian' etc etc and asked people to go to the card they identified with. Through the exercise people moved to different cards, and we showed them that you can see yourselves as many things. Sometimes given a choice between Punjabi and mother, the woman would choose mother. But given the choice between Punjabi and North Indian, she may choose Punjabi. The point to be made is you have different identities on you at all times and you should never box yourself in.

So, what should I learn from all this? That it is easy to upset, anger and manipulate someone based on their identity, especially the threat of taking it away. But its even more important for us to always remember that one identity isn't what defines us, and perhaps even more importantly, you are who you are. No one can tell you otherwise.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Babas, mantris and their eager audience

Political theater is the best kind of spectator sport…until it turns bloody. We were all here when Anna Hazare launched his fast in support of the Lokpal Bill, and like many others, I too visited the Jantar Mantar grounds to participate. When people on FB/Twitter spoke out in favour of his ideas, I applauded the fact that many young people were taking an interest in politics, and I still do. The taste for politics and current events has to start somewhere, and for many 26/11 started a fire that is continually fanned by the media when something ‘big’ happens.

The image of Anna Hazare – old man with a nehru cap – worked very well visually. He seemed genuine. Joined by Kiran Bedi and other not-so-well-known (in basic public perception) activists added to his credibility, and when politicians tried to join in, they were booed out. However, behind closed doors, his demand that the PM and judiciary be included under the purview of Lokpal rattled the politicos. What I found very interesting was India’s new experiment of a joint drafting committee – today uncertain because of rising tensions – but an innovative way of attempting to include experts and social activists who often work tirelessly for causes without any political muscle. According to reports (including Outlook) the government looked to prop up Baba Ramdev as a counter to Anna Hazare’s group as he did not support adding the PM/judiciary under Lokpal.

Since I was out of town and away from the media, I didn’t get to see the unfolding of events through either a 24/7 news channel prism or a New Delhi prism. I was sitting in Varanasi at a Dalit gathering, and there scepticism ran very high. Who is this Ramdev who has become so rich in such a short time? Isn’t he the same guy who claimed to have cured cancer and AIDS? Questions, questions.

Later, as I read about the events, they seemed rather extraordinary. Ramdev landed at the airport, only to be greeted – very openly – by cabinet ministers. A deal was struck, but by all accounts, both sides were lying. The baba claimed his demands had been met and the government would “allow” his fast. It became clear to the government (as if this was a secret) that Ramdev’s fast was giving space to RSS elements, and instead of being an anti-corruption rally, this was potentially anti-Congress. The police was sent in in the middle of the night and after 30mins of negotiations on the dias, he jumped into the crowd to escape them. A human wave around him prevented the police from catching it, and it seems that is when it went horribly wrong, with teargas, lathi charge and bullets in the air. There have been some very serious casualties as a result. Ramdev, in the meantime, was found hiding in womens clothing. He was taken in, and sent back to Haridwar by private plane where he continues to protest, this time I believe at the injustice done to him.

As an observer, one can’t help but have a million questions. I’ll start with Ramdev because I can’t understand the intention behind the fast. Is this genuine – a need to protest against a corrupt ridden system, or a platform for launching his political party? Frankly, if it’s the latter, I would be more satisfied because it would make sense. The baba has claimed that in their closed door negotiations at the airport and later at the Claridges hotel (where he was staying) the government intimidated him, threatened him, and told him that they would kill him. He had also made a secret deal to end the fast in 2(?) days but publicly pretended that he had not. So supporters came from far and wide, unknowing that they were pawns in this political game. When he police came, he did not allow them to arrest him – becoming a martyr of sorts – but instead chose to hide in the crowds and then don a woman’s salwar kameez. Right now, conspiracy theorists (and India Today) are questioning the perfect fit of that salwar kameez and wondering if it wasn’t already tailor made to suit his slender frame. But wardrobe issues aside, is the move to have a fast opportunistic or genuine? Everything about the media circus screams opportunistic, but then he is not alone in making this a “success”.

When I saw images of Pranab, Sibal etc go to the airport, I actually thought – no, they couldn’t be that stupid…. Knowing fully well that the media was going to follow them. If Outlook is right, they wanted to accord Ramdev with the kind of status they did not do to Anna – or they wanted people to know that they had reached out to Ramdev. What happened at Ramlila is beyond unfortunate, and for Congress spokespersons to blame to Delhi police is very tacky. For the BJP to jump on this chance is expected and except for Rudy saying on Times Now that the government was planning as “mass genocide” in the dead of the night, I think the reaction is as expected. Frankly, I am dreading the fact that Parliament will again resemble a drunken pub brawl instead of what it should look like. But this situation highlighted the lack of leadership in the Congress. The PM was nowhere to be seen, and 2 days is 2 days too long in this 24/7 media world. By the time he emerged #findingmanmohan was already a popular buzzword on Twitter and the jokes didn’t stop there. I commented that perhaps Sibal, Pranab, Chidambaram should be given the reigns of the Congress party because they seem to be able to stick their necks out. The PM’s statement that this incident was “unfortunate” but “unavoidable” which many took to mean that he had to say over the police action in the dead of the night. And any huge incident also reminds people that the lack of an opinion from our crown prince just means that it is clear case of power without responsibility.

So in the end, the Baba has not come off as a simple sanyasi fighting corruption. The government has come across as wanting to seem decisive but ending up brutal and insensitive. The opposition has come alive in a way that no one could have predicted. And the pressures of all of it has lead to a crack in the Lokpal drafting committee with the government saying that they can certainly draft it without civil society members. And the spectators? I wish elections were round the corner and not 3 years away. Cause in this spectator sport, that is the tie breaker that counts.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Improv, SNL, babies and 30 Rock — Fey’s giant juggle act

Tina Fey’s already best selling book is not so much a memoir as an explication of her philosophy of being a modern woman, writes Mahima Kaul

At first, a full disclaimer: I have, like possibly millions of other women, a complete girl-crush on Tina Fey. It began with a special edition DVD of Mean Girls, which cemented my Fey Fandom, and since then she has not failed to disappoint. Sarah Palin impressions on SNL, her award-winning show 30 Rock, even the film Date Night...her career has marched to the beat of its own drum, and this is one loud, celebratorial drum!

So, this brings us to her book, a loose autobiography. Fey has departed from the standard format and divided the book into various sections that cover the people and moments that have defined her life. And its decisions such as these and the million anecdotes in the book that make you realise this woman knows exactly who she is, and the confidence is electric.

To the book! Fey writes about the first moment she became aware of the millions things that can be considered "incorrect" on a woman's body. I remember mine — it was Aishwarya Rai, saying in a TV ad, 'if only our stomachs could be as flat.' Fey is clear about the traps society sets women. She rejects them outright, hilariously listing out body parts for which she is grateful, and this sets the tone. This actually is a book that deals with Fey's philosophy about being a woman in the 2000s. It is not really a memoir, which was a little disappointing.

She does on to describe her foray into the world of improvisational comedy (improv) — listing out rules for the uninitiated — and describes the thrill of performing for an audience. This is where Fey hits her stride. She talks about interviewing for Saturday Night Live and meeting her future mentor, Lorne Michaels. From a geeky kid growing up in the suburbs, she suddenly morphs into a career gal who is quite aware that her chosen profession is in truth a boys' club. A very quoted part of the book, when Amy Poehler slams Jimmy Fallon for not finding her funny — "I don't ***king care if you like it" — is a "cosmic shift" for Fey because she internalises this comment. Just because someone else doesn't like it, doesn't mean it isn't good. She advises women to do the same — "Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you're in charge, don't hire the people who were jerky to you."

Bossypants reveals Fey's love for her coworkers, and I suspect this deep connection can be found in her improv roots. She talks about leaving SNL and coming up with the concept for 30 Rock, all while pregnant with her first baby. Her decision to lampoon Sarah Palin on SNL, and her description of the incredible media coverage that followed, are the best chapters in my opinion. It is the eternal question when looking at a woman as successful as Fey: how does one act, write, executive produce, raise a baby and continue to look as relaxed and pretty as she does, all at the same time? There is a confidence to Fey that comes from an impressive understanding of the world she operates in. Her description of posing for magazine covers, when she reveals her willingness to be Photoshopped rather than opt for cosmetic sugery, is so endearing that you can't help but like her. I absolutely love that she writes about Amy Poehler's rapping during Sarah Palin's SNL guest spot: "The moment most emblematic of how things have changed for women in America was nine-month pregnant Amy Poehler rapping as Sarah Palin, tearing the roof of the place." If you haven't seen this clip, you need to Youtube it, because it is a phenomenal few minutes of entertainment television.

I had been searching for a chapter on Mean Girls and felt a bit cheated when I didn't find it. But, after I slept on it, I realised the book actually continues the philosophy she espouses in the movie -- if women are bad to each other, then it signals to the men that it is okay to be so too. She is brutally honest about her decision not to breastfeed, about the awkward relationship between a working mother and her babysitter (she means nanny) and finally, about deciding to have another baby at 40 and the many complications this brings in terms of her career.

The final verdict: it is an incredibly witty and honest insight into the life of a successful woman executive in the entertainment industry in the US. It is also not a book meant to talk about her life per se; she has glossed over her scar, the fact that she was a virgin until 24, and her romance with her husband. Instead, she's focused mainly on that personal development which led to professional development. By all accounts, the audio book might be funnier, as Fey's reading of the chapters include mimicking Alec Baldwin and Tracy Jordan. If not, watching her hour-long discussion with Eric Schimidt (available online) to see these stories come alive. Because, if anything, Tina Fey is a performer, and by god, Bossypants is an excellent performance.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

OBL's death puts Twitter on overdrive

Osama Bin Laden may have tried to duck technology, but it ultimately caught up with him. A fairly large house in a well-to-do suburb without connectivity? It was just a matter of time before the inevitable alarm bells rang. In 2011, it is absolutely foolish to not be connected to the internet, and in OBL's case it was downright lethal. (OBL is the acronym Bin Laden goes by on Twitter.) Just how connected are we?

For starters, the fact that OBL's neighbour, Sohaib Athar, was live tweeting the raid, and in doing so, he outed the operation, is impressive: "Since taliban (probably) don't have helicopters, and since they're saying it was not 'ours', so must be a complicated situation." He wasn't alone. After a successful operation, Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tweeted, "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn." This tweet went viral and in a short amount of time, thousands and even more thousands of people started logging on to Twitter, speculating and circulating whatever news they could find.

An online poll conducted by revealed that the majority of people were getting their information off social networking sites, with TV operating in the background. Ask anyone, and the answer will echo that sentiment.

Twitter went into electric overdrive (if that is even a phrase), and official estimates state that right after President Obama finished his remarks, there were 5,008 tweets per second. This means 300,480 opinions per minute. This is second only to the spike witnessed in the aftermath of the Japan tsunami, which peaked at 6,939 tweets per second.

It has been widely recognised that OBL's death has officially put Twitter's influence as a news source above the mainstream media's, with major journalists tweeting away as well.

Not to be left behind, Facebook has seen close to 500,000 people join a group called "Osama Bin Laden is DEAD". Taking advantage of this clear expression of interest, links to Osama's death video have been sent out by hackers via email and social networking sites in an effort to steal sensitive personal information or infect computers. The virus is so widespread that even the FBI has put out a statement cautioning against clicking on the links.

In India, OBL's death has brought up another controversial subject, Indo-Pak relations. Twitter lists out "trending topics" on the right side of the page that indicates the topics being discussed the most, and the group @Trendsmap India tabulates the results for India. Here, the conversation went somewhat like this: #osamadead, #abbottabad, #dawood, #kasab, #zardari, #bombers, #afzal, #assassination and so on. These topics make it very clear that unlike the US, which was more concerned about proof of Osama's death, and despite the large conspiracy theories floating online, Indians were primarily reflecting on their own war on terror. And this demographic has great untapped potential. Half of India's population is under 25, and 2/3 are under 40 years. In a figure released by Antti Ohrling of BLYK this week, a company that works in the sphere of mobile-based marketing, just over 50% of Indian youth accessed the internet in the past three months. Even if a healthy number of these use or begin to use Twitter as a way of expressing opinions, this will give traditional media a run for its money.

Social media's appeal has been widely discussed in the media. I think it has been best described by Patrick Ruffini, when he tweeted, "last night, the real time flow of text on a 3 inch display proved more compelling and addictive than the moving image." The thing about social media is that the narrative keeps shifting and adjusting according to new information and opinion that appears online. So, if someone were to ask, "how did they identify OBL's body?" it is only a matter of minutes before another person links to the New Scientist's article explaining how. The speed at which new information gets updated on social media, and the variety of sources it links back to, is unprecedented. That is why the computer/mobile screen has come to become a hotbed of interactivity that newspapers and televisions simply cannot compete with. And they don't need to since the phenomenon of "Social TV" has arrived.

This is when viewers watch the mainstream and report it on social networks, therefore connecting those who are on social networks with the mainstream. It is also the reason why most television channels and newspapers have a social media component, and why government and politicians are getting social media accounts. And what makes compelling reading is the mixture of news, opinion, jokes — "so OBL is dead... amazing what the Americans can do when they Playstation Network is down" — and personal anecdotes.

As for OBL, his death is historic for many reasons. But the unexpected one is that people went to Twitter first to talk about it. And even bigger, Twitter told them about it first.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

New Delhi reacts!

My little byte in this video by Global Post:

"Whats after Bin Laden?"

Monday, April 11, 2011

Digital inclusion is the need of the hour

Hot on the heels of a Budget that aims to bridge India's "digital divide", a story comes to mind. About seven years ago, a friend of mine who had been working on Wi-Fi hotspots in Montreal, Canada came to India as part of an Indo-Canadian trade delegation. At a meeting with the then Minister of Telecom, he proposed doing the same in India. To his great disappointment, he was told, "Wi-Fi would never work in India."

Today, everything has changed. Wi-Fi is growing and my friend is back from Canada, but this time he isn't "pioneering", he is just standing in line with the other entrepreneurs, imagining an India connected to the last mile and profiting from e-commerce.

Unfortunately, this country has been driving in second gear for the past decade. The "need" for the Internet was understood, but the urgency, clearly, wasn't. In 2010, 84% of rural India was unaware of the Internet (as revealed a study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, IAMAI), a gap that the government is desperate to close now. The Union Minister of Communications and Information Technology has set a target of providing broadband coverage to five lakh villages in India, but this target only serves to remind us of time lost. Eight years ago, the Department of Telecom (DoT) set up the Universal Service Obligation Fund, which was meant to get private telecom players to enter rural markets. In 2004, two years later, it amended the rules to enable disbursal from the USO Fund to reimburse telecom operators for rural telephony. In 2006, another amendment supported mobile services and broadband in rural and remote parts of the country. Which brings us back to today.

What has resulted due to the slow moving government machinery is innovation by the private sector in the area of Information and Communication Technologies for Development or ICT4D. For example — and this might be a gross generalisation — governments choose to focus on e-government, businesses look to the online economy, while civil society groups try to make the Internet more inclusive, and therefore, concentrate on creating both content and software that allow minority speakers to participate online. The 2011 budget has further allocated Rs 4,500 cr on e-Panchayat systems, which is a welcome move under National e-Governance Plan (NeGP). NeGP, under which over 87, 000 Common Service Centres have cropped up in villages across the country. These CSCs are front end kiosks for government services such as payment of utility bills (water, electricity, telephones), certificates (birth, death, income) and other services like train tickets, mobile phone top ups and so on. But what is still lacking is an assured supply of power to keep the CSC running and above that, an understanding of how best of utilize an Internet connection. This ties in with the need for fostering entrepreneurship and educating people about the Internet itself.

An example: at a village outside Hyderabad, the village level "entrepreneur" who opened a CSC with government support was unable to turn a profit as not enough people were paying bills or buying tickets. But at another village in Thane, Maharashtra, the entrepreneur, a schoolteacher, understood the need to utilize the CSC in different ways to turn a profit. He put the office hours at a limit and introduced computer classes and is making money from teaching little children how to use a computer. This is the difference between technology and its use. There are countless other projects that use ICT to create opportunities where none existed. Online portals like Aporv, Chanderiyaan and Eyaas help artisans expand their markets by selling their ware online. Eko has set up mobile banking through an SMS system which allows its customers to save and transfer money using the neighbourhood grocery shop, as you would to top up a SIM card. Others emphasise local language content. Community media — both radio and video — are popular ways of getting minorities to engage with technology platforms. There is also the more sophisticated Project Bhasha which translates Microsoft products into 12 languages including Assamese, Gurmukhi, and Telegu.

Of course, the challenges of navigating an increasingly digital world — information societies — are not India's alone. Globally, the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) has been set up to explore common threads; data security, cyber hacking, and of course, the digital divide and inclusion. Civil society organizations have also pushed WSIS to accept the importance of ensuring human rights through an equal distribution of technology. Open source products and online activism are a reflection of society fearing that government and business interests may one day become too big to control. For example, today a lot of geeks fear Google as the company has collected so much private data through people's online activities. WikiLeaks is an expression of mistrust against hegemony, made possible and served up through technology.

The truth is that activities on an international platform can help boost efforts back home. That France, Finland, Estonia and Norway have declared the Internet a fundamental right will help bodies like the Digital Empowerment Foundation and IAMAI who encourage closing the digital divide back in India. More so, it will help smaller bodies apply for funding because international treaties and declarations help guide funders and philanthropists to those who deserve it the most.

Think about our global village in this way. Prepaid connections for phones and the Internet are popular in the developing world as companies are not confident that customers have enough financial stability to pay their bills. After the global financial crisis, the West is emulating these ideas. In Canada alone, four new mobile phone operators have come up, following this model! And above all, as we have seen with countless natural tragedies, most recently in Japan, disaster management has been revolutionalised because of the information society. As has political activism. This is why it is important who gets to use ICTs, and how they use them — "digital inclusion". And this is why my friend from Canada is moving to India.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

GOI's social skills.

Those of us in the digital inclusion/innovation space have understood the crucial need for e-government. We're not alone, the government has realized it too and many states are making a direct play to turn dusty old files into online folders. This intention has been further solidified by the first draft of Electronic Delivery of Services Bill, 2011, which has proposed that all ministries and government departments will have to deliver services electronically, be it through the internet or mobile phones.

All of this sounded very good to me till I attended a conference called "The Power of Social Media for Governance" a few days ago. It was called the '' forum. Social media, we all know, can be employed to create knowledge networks, disseminate information and keep track of the world around you. Personally, Twitter is a better source of news than any newspaper homepage can hope to be, and Facebook keeps me abreast of my friends in a way email or simple phone calls could not do. But that's not the point right now: in the context of social media, it allows strangers to connect over a decidedly neutral platform and talk about issues. Sure, people get nasty, but there is a distance of a computer screen (mobile) to save you from any unnecessary facetime.

The first time that any of us heard about any government official *really* engaging with people online was probably Shashi Tharoor's twitter account. LK Advani's homepage had created a lot of buzz during the last elections (I did a story on it too, for The Indian Express) but it wasn't quite as chatty as Twitter can be. In fact, I was invited to a BJP youth meet where Advani was speaking, and to my surprise he did not answer a single question asked of him or even address the topic at hand (it was about employment and the future, if I remember correctly) but gave this inane speech about the first time he saw a cell phone and then basically said what he wanted and left. Contrast that to what we see online today, with politicians actually answering individual questions online, with the safety net of being measured if they want, because they can type, delete and retype before pressing enter.

Tharoor, of course, ended up on national TV in (for the most part) retarded "scandal" after "scandal" and social media was perceived as something "serious" politicians should not do. But he did, at a later stage, point me to the Ministry of External Affairs Public Diplomacy Division, where I learnt that officials had set up a Twitter page and were actively seeking social media strategies to let people know about what the ministry and diplomatic missions do. At the time I think they were focusing on promoting India's soft power (even within the country) by creating goodwill among people. I think the whole theory turned on its head in the light of events in Egypt and Libya, where the MEA actually had a Twitter account set up, with MEA officials manning it, and they were able to save lives through the technology.

The rest of us in Delhi were also getting familiar with Delhi Police's Facebook page, and that immediate cause and effect made most internet savvy people proud. The MCD has an online FB page that focuses on garbage disposal, India Post helps people track parcels through Twitter etc. Now imagine being able to converse with any and every department you can find out about electricity issues, passport issues... you name it.

Back to the conference. Kapil Sibal, Minister for Communications and Information Technology, gave the first speech. Although the topic was to discuss what I have already discussed above, I was immediately struck by the reluctance Sibal had in opening up government departments to social media, because it seemed, in his mind, it would go the way of TV News. What do I mean? The way TV news picks up a topic and wages war against it has clearly left a lot of politicians burnt, and it seems Sibal was looking at FB and Twitter (and other social media which we use next) as a device by which campaigns against the government will be waged, and complaints made even more public. He chose to, instead, focus on simple delivery mechanism e-gov stories, which kept the narrative simple. "I build software, you save time = less corruption".

The very interesting part is that this whole time I had this phrase from the West Wing stuck in my head (yes, I know, I'm sorry, I am obsessed!) where a Republican blames Democrats for "not liking the people" and that being a reason for big government. In this case, it was obvious that the government is not inclined towards "trusting" the people and is not very keen to move forward on allowing them to have free say in the way they are governed. At least not via the internet, that vote being saved for elections.

This was a reason the panel that followed, which included many bureaucrats, warmed my heart. These were our own babus who had taken steps to engage with the public (I have mentioned the examples above). The names, as far as I can remember now: MEA's Navdeep Suri, Census Commissioner Chandramouli, Gujarat gov's Ravi Saxena, Dept of IT's Shankar Aggarwal, MCD's Anshu Prakash, Delhi Police's Satyendra Garg, India Post's Ranjit Kumar, MEA's Abhay Kumar...... and so on. There were also other specialists on the panel who weighed in on e-government, but more to the point, using social media to complement e-government work.

The takeways were simple enough: although there is criticism, however, if you respond to it then social media users will also come to your defense. And even if the technology seems alien to you, if you keep at it, you can really bring people over to the side of governance. Perhaps the most important was: if you don't have a team in place to deal with all the questions/comments/complaints that come your way, people become very impatient and think your department is lazy. So, all in all, its not easy to *just begin* but as someone noted, if you are not in it, you are out it. Sounds simplistic, but being out of it will cost a lot.

I know this post is very long so I'll try and end it: In discussing policy and IT laws that govern the country, a very big concern came out. The draft amendment to the IT act places intermediaries responsible for content. For example, now that bloggers have been called intermediaries, they will be responsible for comments on their blogs. And because of these changes, the government can then shut down blogs and sites because of concerns, none of which they are really concerned about spelling out. During the conference this question was asked twice: is there a list of banned blogs and why the government has banned them. The person asking drew the comparison to books and said; we all know which/why books are banned. IT lawyer Pavan Duggal also pointed out that state governments have a lot of power in blocking sites and in the case of non national interest reasons, they must disclose what the reasons are.

What all of this is adding up to is this (for me anyway): there is a divide between the government's instinctive reaction to *not* trust people with the kind of freedoms the internet intrinsic nature allows them, and harnessing this power/potential goodwill to become a better democracy and a more responsive government. However, right now, we must go according to the highest statements -- the additions to the IT Act and the ministers reserved language. And they seem to say: we want to adopt e-government because “technology” is here to stay, but we are wary of blogs/social networks because citizens can offer direct and public opinions, and the tide may go against us.

There seems to be these waves of imagination and creativity passing through the Indian government, especially when it comes to the internet. But it will have to trust its people, and it will have to trust its own ability to respond to the people. Otherwise this system is going to crash.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Egypt has lessons for the world’s Internet freedoms

(Written for the Sunday Guardian)

Last week, the Egyptian government blocked social networking sites in the country to control the civil revolution brewing in the streets. Massive protests had been arranged via SMS chains and social networking sites, and this shutdown was a direct attempt to quash them. Very unsurprisingly, some enterprising young people managed to bypass the blocks. Proxy servers helped users hide their locations and access certain social networking sites, while third party apps, like Blackberry for Twitter and UberTwitter, were found to work since they did not access the sites directly. Some people accessed the Internet using private networks, outside of the state's purview. As a result, the rest of the world was able to see videos of the protestors being hit by teargas and read updates online, despite the blockage. That's when the government decided to go for a total Internet blackout.

The reach of the Internet and new media is best understood by its two biggest stereotypes today: the yuppie on Facebook and the fisherman with a cellphone. And while businesses and civil society have been preoccupied with strategies to expand the reach of the Internet to all citizens, there is a parallel attempt to control it by the governments of the day. The reasons cited are overwhelmingly related to cyber security; but this power over channels of communication can certainly be used to control the aspirations of a defiant public, as we have seen from time to time.

The thought of a complete 'black hole', as some people are calling Egypt's Internet blackout, is frightening in today's context. The possibility of the same occurring in other countries is directly proportionate to the control that a State has over the ISPs (Internet Service Providers). According to reports, private ISPs in Egypt shut down their services within three minutes of each other, indicating a directive from higher up. This level of control has never been witnessed, even in China, where access to certain content is permanently restricted. In Pakistan, websites with 'blasphemous' content have been banned at various periods, including blogs and other media that challenged President Musharraf's electoral win in 2008 by alleging vote rigging. Similarly, in 2009, Iran blocked Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites to minimize a growing urban protest against President Ahmedinejad's "landslide" election. But these are all examples of certain websites being blocked, nowhere near the Egyptian government's total shutdown of the Internet.

Could this happen to us?, is the question being asked in forums across the globe. Most US commentators believe that a systematic shutdown would not be possible in their country because there are too many operators, many of which are far too independent to adhere to a government directive. But the events of the last week have brought on fears of a cyber security bill in the senate -- 'Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset' -- which would allow the President to 'switch off' the Internet in the name of national security. A law that might be passed in the name of economic security might well be used in the name of curtailing civil unrest.

Back home in India, 'removing objectionable content' is pretty standard fare, with even Google complying with these requests from the government. During the Kargil War of 1999, access to the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, was blocked online, and more recently, in 2006, when the government asked for certain websites to be blocked, the ISPs obliged. And in 2009, many Indian men discovered to their horror that the government had blocked the comic-porn site, Savita Bhabhi. As for social networking sites, Orkut has also agreed to remove 'defamatory content'. But India has never been tested on the scale that Egypt has. One mustn't forget that the government of Jammu and Kashmir banned text messages in the summer of 2010 to restrict rallies and protest marches by the youth. Whatever the official explanations were, denying access to communication only served to further alienate people and resentment against the establishment.

Judging by experiences across the digital world, the move by the Egyptian government to deny the entire country access to the Internet becomes a gross violation of human rights, especially at a time when countries like France and Norway have accepted the Internet as a fundamental right. Today, ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) is becoming an increasingly common phrase, and an accepted medium of delivering on the promise of development, modernisation and open communication. Incidents such as Egypt's only serve to remind us that these ideas rest on shaky ground. And in this case, we've just been reminded, yet again, that Marshall McLuhan was right in 1964 when he said, the medium IS the message.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When everyone comes out looking bad

I woke up this morning wondering what happened to the BJP walas trying to hoist a flag at Lal Chowk. You know, when I think of the BJP, I can't help but get confused at exactly who these actions are meant to impress. Don't get me wrong, there are enough Hindu nationalists who will be pumped up at an India Yatra and charging into Kashmir to "re-claim" it (seems to me what they are doing) but at the same time, if the situation dissolves into violence, with innocents killed, what will it get them exactly?

But to a more basic point. When I heard about this proposed flag hoisting at Lal Chowk, like so many others, my initial reaction was "why are they messing with Kashmir?" It seemed like a situation tailor-made for disaster, and looking at images to these well fed hoards of men, walking in a big crowd, one can't help but feel nervous at the potential for violence. Some of the Hindi news channels showed footage of the BSF jawans lining up at the Punjab border, ready for a showdown, and I couldn't help but wonder why they needed to waste their time saving India from, well, India.

But outside of this PR stunt, there were other news items that rung alarm bells. The government was not allowing BJP leaders to proceed to Kashmir. All of us read the tweets and saw on the news when Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley & co were detained at the airport. There was an incredibly funny (read:slapstick) story about how some BJP workers from Karnataka were heading north and the train engine was switched at night to the back, so they ended up back in the south! What kept bothering me about these stories was the blatant violation of our freedoms - of expression, of movement - especially when ostensibly, this is a peaceful march to hoist a flag.

Another point that just bugged me was, as an Indian (even though I don't actually support this PR stunt), why should we be nervous of it? Why couldn't the government in the state say we welcome you to join us at Srinagar, or failing that, we would love to join you to do this together. It was just a few weeks ago that I saw a report in the news that hundreds of young men showed up to join the police force, their reason being a solid job. One can't help but get frustrated at the treatment Kashmir is given by the rest of the country. It almost seems like the Valley being held hostage by separatists is the only situation that is acceptable and any move to treat it much like any other state is met with a harsh NO.

But this stunt itself doesn't make sense to me. I can understand this India Yatra (and as Ravi Shankar Prasad said, the rest of the yatra has been peaceful, no one even got slapped) but I'm not sure what it gets the BJP. I'm a young educated voting Indian, so I understand that no party is particularly interested in wooing me, especially not by appealing to my intellect. But at the same time, I keep hearing about this move to developmental politics (hell, I see enough indications of a rising country when I travel) so why didn't the BJP, or the Congress, or anybody else announce a charity, or expel tainted leaders, to show that we are changing as a country?

Last night I was watching The Daily Show and there was an interview by this Indian-America journalist who said that there is a growing culture in this country, one of creativity and this sense that we need to move forward, and this culture will be a bigger threat to America than economics. In contrast, he felt that America's uber-capitalist culture would be its Achilles heel. While there are so many Indians, now finally allowed to play with their entrepreneurial and development-oriented instincts, if you look at the headlines in this country one can't help but feel sad at how much politics and government lets them down.

At a meeting with a senior government official last evening, he told me that I must take on the issue of how the UPSC exam is letting the country down. How bureaucrats are promoted on the basis of how much they oblige their seniors, rather than competence. He told me that most custom officials keep a few wives and families, with assets distributed equally, to hedge bets. He talked about e-government projects trying to curtail this rampant corruption. "It is the government which has let the people down," he kept repeating, and I honestly don't know who would argue with that sentiment.

But back to my BJP/Kashmir quandary. I'm not really sure what is the right thing here. Should the BJP mess with a volatile region (and possibly lives) for a photo-op? Should the Government of India be this nervous of its own state? And especially when Yasin Malik, separatist leader makes statements like "BJPs flag hoisting won't destroy the resolve of the Kashmiri people". It seems the government is protecting those who want to burn the flag rather than hoist it. What does this say about us?

I think the people of India, one by one, are creating a culture of progress and prosperity which is completely divorced from what our political leadership seems to be pre occupied with. The people I work with, in the digital empowerment and ICT4D sector are the real leaders today. The people I see on my TV every night, really, really don't understand what it is to lead by example. Happy Republic Day!

Edited to Add: So, Omar did finally invite the BJP leaders to his official flag hoisting. Right now, I have no idea what their reply is.