#Fallout4: The gaming path to ‘Uber’ thrills ?

fallout gore

A still from Fallout 4: (Courtesy: Bethesda Softworks, Reddit)

 

10 Nov 2015 saw the much awaited launch of ‘Fallout 4’, made by Bethesda Softworks.

Awaited, as in….

1. It raked in $750 mn on the first day of its launch (12 million copies @US $60). In comparison, the biggest opening day movie grosser ‘ever’ was Harry Potter – Deathly Hallows II @US $91 mn). The ‘gaming’ industry is considerably BIGGER than the movie industry, this would suggest.

2. Its psuedo-counterpart (in terms of target audience, distribution), the porn industry reported a 10% drop in traffic on launch-day.

3. Big dividends for the game console industry, valued at upward of $25 bn (in the US alone). Compare this to the ‘mobile gaming’ industry valued at $30 bn worldwide. In fact, it’s mobile app, Fallout Pip-Boy, became the No. 1 game on the iTunes App Store.

4. It became the No. 1 game played on ‘Steam’, an online game platform – with more than 470,000 concurrent players. This pits people against each other, facilitates exchanges of money, encourages online social aggregation (imagine half-a-million people of similar tastes/ages..congregating at a single place at the same time).

Game Attributes:

1. Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rating: M for MATURE (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, use of drugs), meaning that it is ‘recommended’ for ages 17 and over. There is no caveat against ‘selling’. (that requires an ‘AO or Adults Only’ rating)
2. Drinking, drugs, and smoking: 4 out of 5
3. Positive messages: 1 out of 5
4. Positive role models: 1 out of 5
5. Language: 0 out of 5
6. Violence: 5 out of 5
7. Sex: 1 out of 5 (helps in obtaining a universal ‘ESRB’ rating like ‘M’. Also, explicit content, per se, may not provide any added attractiveness – explicit sexual content targets similar ‘neural centers’ as extreme violence does).

A few more attributes, of my choosing:

8. Addiction: 5 out of 5
Since there is much to discover and explore in the world-within-a-world, developers of this game are said to have played ‘400’ hours without discovering all that there is to find out. ‘Peer pressure’ on the online network encourages such behaviour.

9. A not-so-subtle introduction to emotional bi-polarity (real world vs gaming world): 5 out of 5
Role-playing necessitates ‘developing a personality’ for the character in question, one that involves internalising the game attributes – making it an embarrassingly involving experience. It has ’emotional moments’ by the bucketful, which non-gamers may find difficult to comprehend. It is basically ‘melodrama’ of the movies, upped many notches and considerably sophisticated (think $750 mn vs $91 mn). Consider the following:

“It’s the first taste of freedom you get after coming from a location (the real world) with so many rules. You don’t have to care about anything but your personal needs. How you survive is all up to your own wit and skill… No one is looking over your shoulder but you. While you have to drink water out of a bottle, because the rest of it isn’t safe, and shooting on sight is sometimes your only option, there’s an attraction to it. It’s not safe, it’s not fair, but it is free, and people crave that independence. Instead of dread, the player feels somewhat elated, with a sense of uninhibited opportunity….In a world of technological comfort and the unimportant making headline news, it’s a liberating feeling to be put in a place where your only goal is to survive and rise.”

10. Associative ‘coolness’ factor (attractiveness of the medium to non-gamers / groups / agencies): 5 out of 5

1. Two days after the release of the game, the American Chemical Society already released a video discussing the impact of a nuclear holocaust. Convergence of the gaming industry and an academic/professional agency indicates a strange kind of pull that the gaming industry is able to generate over the larger non-gaming world.

2. While it was INCORRECTLY reported by the international media that the Paris attackers communicated using PS4 gaming consoles (citing a statement made by the Belgian Home Minister three days prior to the attacks), this concept of gaming involvement in terrorist attacks follows revelations by Edward Snowden – that the NSA and CIA actually embedded themselves in games like World of Warcraft to infiltrate virtual terrorist meet-ups.

Summary

MMPORPG (Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games) represent an alternative reality that is surely taking over the world…a world blind-sided to non-gamers and a whole generation of adults, gaming consoles and games for their wards, thinking they’re merely satisfying an innocent urge…

This world is addictive, exhibits considerable peer pressure, enables a covert ecosystem – by way of fund transfers, communications, etc. and which converges diverse agenda into a single medium – enabling terrorists to interact with children, with child offenders to track targets…and so on.

Hopefully the above revelations should help break down ‘gaming’ barriers most of us have built around ourselves. The next time you choose to buy that PS4 game for your child, take a pause, at least.

ElectionsInterrupted – III: Redefining Bipartisanship in Indian Politics

Image(Picture Courtesy: http://www.cartoonaday.com/images/cartoons/2011/01/bipartisanship-political-cartoon-598×334.jpg)

Welcome to the final piece of my 3-part series, where I have attempted to touch base on a few social issues, pertaining to the Indian political scene, in view of the recently concluded elections. It all started with a query posed by a dear friend, Jillaine, and as I end the trilogy of posts today, I must express my gratitude for the incredible responses that I’ve received from all over the world. I write this knowing that the observations I make are not unique to India, but strike a chord in many societies (Brazil being one, as Renato brings out), speaking as they do about basic human qualities and interactions borne out of them. What gives me the greatest satisfaction is the assurance that my voice finds resonance, at least in a small measure, with so many of my friends from all over the world. Thank you for your support.

Having focused so far on a few social and proximal factors shaping the decisions made by the electorate, it is but logical to end with an insight into some aspirations and considerations displayed by the peoples’ representatives. This brings me to the following query, suggested during the first post of this series: “What are the major strategic considerations that go into formulating election strategies by the political parties in fray and what role do social values play in these?”

In hindsight, the latter part of the question seems central to the first, recalling the proximity argument made using Maslow’s pyramid. To sum up, the ‘social factor’ takes centre-stage, given how India is witnessing a centrifugal churn tugging various strata of society away from its central core. And the quality of India’s polity has a lot to do with the way things have turned out, and where they’re headed.

The aim would be to tackle this sociopolitical question, then, without losing perspective on Thane Richard’s take on India’s moral breach, which set the ball rolling in the first place (http://qz.com/178362/india-crosses-the-moral-line-of-no-return-if-narendra-modi-becomes-prime-minister/).

SOCIAL MOBILITY – A RACE TO THE IMAGINARY SUMMIT

Image (Picture Courtesy: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2012/5/23/1337796089250/mattkenyon-008.jpg)

In my opinion, there is one ‘over-riding’ concern that connects all Indians without exception, which is true not only of the candidates in the fray but for the entire diaspora – the anxiety over ‘status regression’. The question of Social Mobility is a perpetual cause of apprehension for the average Indian family. The demands of steady social ascendency results in, among other things, the high value placed on education (as a means to greater riches), the need to pick up a better paying secure job, the desire to marry within (at least) or above one’s station, and ultimately the penchant for publicizing accrued social success, however subtly, among social peers. The 3Gs symbolise this rather well – the Gaudy wedding, the Green card and the Greenback (nothing beats the USD paycheck).

On an aside, can this status-fanaticism be associated with the widespread maltreatment of women in Indian society? Domestically, women provide the essential social glue for the family unit to function (this probably explains why ‘working women’ is a relatively recent phenomenon in middle/upper class India). Social pressures on women may be responsible for them playing down acts of domestic violence and other forms of abuse, in the larger interest of family and its future.

SOCIAL MOBILITY AND POLITICS

With ‘hard cash’ steadily supplanting ‘intellectual aptitude’ and ‘ethical propensity’ as the currency of social prestige, it is but natural to see its influence grow in general. This effect has also manifested on the political scene. The statesmen of yore are no longer to be found in the melee. Their criminal backgrounds and their financial records all add up towards a stark observation regarding the quality of intellect and the moral attributes that modern day politicians bring to the table. While my first post in this series presents a statistic on these lines, I present another link that sheds further light on this phenomenon (http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/01/24/crime-but-no-punishment-in-indian-elections/gz9k)

WHAT PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUNDS DO POLITICIANS HAIL FROM ANYWAY ?

The professions generally associated with the political class in India are described below.

Image(Picture Courtesy: http://media.economist.com/images/20090418/CIR048.gif)

  1. The Others – I; their career path usually resembles the following: Students – Youth leadership – Activism – Politics. These have usually risen through the ranks, having achieved basic university-level academic qualifications in, generally, the social sciences – law is a favourite subject as is journalism/media related courses.
  2. Legal Experts; who, over the years have grown close to political parties, and are usually seen in the garb of spokesmen, currying flavour and subsequently occupying political office.
  3. Journalists/media representatives; come next, solidifying the relationships of the political parties with the media houses that pander to their interests, working essentially as PR reps in the media before graduating onto important portfolios.
  4. The Others – II (High status individuals); that contribute to the political cause either financially or via their personal image amongst the populace – corporate barons, film actors, sports stars, and the like.

While categories 2, 3 and 4 are more professionally qualified, they are less in number (in relative terms) and are usually latter-day converts to the political cause – signifying interests beyond pure public service. Category 1, on the other hand, are committed to the cause from the very outset, which has maybe resulted in their ‘burning down the other bridges’ that may have opened up other professional avenues, beyond the political life they seem to be wedded to.

The situation becomes more precarious when one considers a ‘category 5’ not included so far, the ‘Princelings’ of Indian politics. This category largely relies on its familial connections for political survival, and only a few of whom can actually strike it out on their own, in the unlikely event that they need to chart a non-political professional future. The following link signifies how serious this problem is: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/Zhf6XtYVBcHtClvJ7xe91H/The-importance-of-the-surname-in-Indian-politics.html.

You see, there does exist a major contradiction here in terms of professional aptitude versus personal aspirations.

For the majority, the category 1 candidates, an exit from political activity would mean professional hardships combined with a drastic fall in social status. For the others, such an occurrence would still be socially damaging. This fact has been internalized rather well, across the broad political spectrum, an observation made on the basis of the long political tenures enjoyed by the political class. It may be concluded that politics in India is not as much about public service as it is about private gain – as a career, or rather, a family business. And this brings me to THE vital strategic calculation that forms the bedrock of political life – the issue of survival.

On an aside, the Chetwode motto at the Indian Military Academy goes like this: “The Safety, Honour And Welfare Of Your Country Comes First, Always And Everytime The Honour And Welfare Of The Men You Command Come Next Your Own Safety, Honour And Welfare Comes Last, Always And Everytime.”

The essence of these wordings are the sine qua non of public duty, however, many in political office seem to prefer reading it backwards – personal survival, party benefit and finally the welfare of the public. I base this observation on the fact that while India continues to wallow in need and poverty, the lack of improvement in the quality of governance (even alluded to by Modi) seems to have had no visible effect on the political careers of Indian leaders. In fact, their financial health only seems to be improving at the cost of the Indian taxpayer. Here are a couple of interesting links that highlights this privileged life enjoyed by a few while ‘austerity’ is thrust down the throats of other servants.

1. http://infochangeindia.org/governance/features/the-cost-of-indias-mps.html

2. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/politicians-enjoying-vip-treatment-at-airports-dgca/1/341021.html

MOTTO FOR POLITICAL LIFE – SURVIVAL

Political survival remains the KEY calculation amongst the Indian political class. And it is through the lens tinted by this inescapable reality that political maneuverings or election strategies need to be studied. All one has to do to make a grand success of a career in Indian politics is to survive. Squeezing all kinds of favours when in power, when out of it, there is only a waiting game to be played, for, the ‘brand’ can survive literally till ‘death do it apart’, and usually even beyond the grave. For dynastic lines have ensured political success for successive generations, as the article referred to above highlights.

To take a recent example, Priyanka Gandhi, who according to (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Govt-has-no-plans-to-withdraw-Priyanka-Gandhis-privileges-at-airport/articleshow/36236927.cms), is an individual deserving of the highest level of security in the country, (owing to the fact that she happens to be the daughter of the Congress Party President), along with her husband who is further removed from the political scene. They continue to enjoy privileges bestowed by the Home Ministry (under the control of the political opponents of India’s first family) at the cost of the taxpayer. Reading between the lines, one comes away with the feeling that it is not really the Gandhi clan’s survival that is at stake here, but the security of the public that is of concern, given the violent backlash that India may witness in case something untoward were to befall the first family of Indian politics. (The Congress Party-incited violence that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 comes to mind). In power or in opposition, India’s politicians straddle their dual roles with aplomb – whether as legally empowered leaders, knowingly or unintentionally subverting the political process (PC Pathak, a former Coal Secretary in the Government, in his “Crusader or Conspirator”, provides ample evidence of this) or as mafia bosses controlling vast swathes of territory through mob support.

POLITICAL VICTORIES ARE AT BEST, INCIDENTAL

While the bigwigs control the political machinery, there has also been ample ‘capital’ support from the corporates and other ‘unknown’ entities whose anonymity remains protected under current laws. Industry stalwarts have always curried flavor with political bigwigs. The names are not important; these are replaceable depending on the corporate climate prevailing in India. What is important is the technique of ‘buttering both sides of the bread’.

However, if one were to quote an example, the public spat between the Ambani brothers of the Reliance group (involving lengthy legal battles from 2004 onwards) renders credibility to this theory. After all why would a nation’s Prime Minister and its Finance Minister attempt to encourage a truce between two corporate entities? The argument that the health of Reliance Group was instrumental in affecting the investor sentiment towards India poses a further question – well into the age of liberalization, how did a corporate entity manage to grow into a monopoly in the first place (“Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis” authored by PG Thakurta gives a compelling account of the corporate-political nexus prevalent in India).

Image(Picture Courtesy: http://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-0ygMnNq3PbY/U2kTs2frPCI/AAAAAAAAEGc/Kl9Q_aj1EuI/w960-h748/Corporate.jpg)

As the above pictorial depicts, ‘money’ recognizes no divisions amongst the Indian polity. The same entities pump money either side of the political divide with grave implications on the value of the ‘vote’. With corporate barons pressing the right buttons as far as ballot politics go, it is but natural for them to trump the vote of the electorate. As is alleged in F1 racing, winning is but incidental – the real actions happens behind the scenes among the people who really matter – the ones with the money.

Image(Picture Courtesy: http://www.business-standard.com/article/politics/87-donations-to-national-parties-corporate-adr-114010801714_1.html)

It doesn’t end here, though. The above figure represents donations made by ‘named donors’, amounting to 8.9% of the total funding made to political parties between 2004-05 and 2011-12. In a land where black is the preferred color for money, 75% of their total funding comes from ‘unknown’ sources. The following report delves deeper into the issue: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/vKaQPbE0TN7SOg3G29mCSP/Political-parties-got-75-income-from-unknown-donors-report.html?ref=dd. Existing law only requires parties to name sources who contribute more than Rs. 20000/- towards party funds. The ‘loophole’ created by this clause enabled the 6 major political parties of India to amass as much as Rs. 3,674.50 crores without any accountability during the mentioned period (It is also interesting to note that 5/6th of the above amount went into the pocket of India’s largest political parties – Congress Party and the BJP, suggesting a bipartisan reorientation of political forces). Further, the refusal by political parties to open up their fund details to public scrutiny (by conveniently placing themselves outside the purview of the Right to Information Act) signifies the ‘big business’ that politics has become over the years. Political Survival needs to be understood in this regard – staying in the game is the actual objective. Everything else – ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ included, is but incidental.

THE SILVER LINING – FOR WHATEVER IT’S WORTH

There may be a positive side as well to this spirit of survival. That irrespective of ‘ideology’, all political parties when voted into power gravitate towards the ‘centre’- this provides the most room for maneuver, permitting the political patriarchs to sway with the sands of time, almost becoming a permanent fixture of the landscape, but never drawing undue attention, never committing to any ideal, irrespective of the interests of the electorate. True, the ‘coalition’ card is worth considering and so is the ‘regionalism’ that is increasingly influencing the Indian Political Scene. But all things said, when a handful of people can derail the political process, as was usually the case with the parties belonging to the ‘left’, the question becomes not of decision-making by ‘consensus’, but of the credibility of the majority power in Parliament. Inaction, or errant action, in such cases becomes a convenient course, which has ultimately led to the astounding mandate given to the BJP this time around.

Not that the BJP is any better, having its ‘Hindutva’ ideology rejected by the voters. But then, that is anti-incumbency for you, in a world of the two-party system (INC and BJP being the only two genuinely ‘national’ parties) that is represented by the Indian Political Scene. All those who believe that there is more variety in the Indian Political scene would do well to refer to the funding patterns described above. The ‘centrist’ view that politicians prefer to take, may in fact be detrimental to society, not only because it showcases a lack of ‘ideology’ but also because it is reflective of ‘apathy’ towards a wide set of issues that India continues to grapple with. Maybe this explains why problems keep languishing over decades, and this brings me to a small observation about the Naxalite case-study I discussed in my first post of this series.

RESOURCE CURSE IN THE RED CORRIDOR – REVISITED

Image(Picture Courtesy: http://www.cpiml.org/liberation/year_2011/april_11/photo/corruption_cartoon_1.jpg)

I had earlier argued that the Naxalite issue is predominantly a socioeconomic one rather than a law-enforcement related one, abetted by decades of exploitation of the indigenous people of the region. The present day manifestation can very well be equated with the ‘resource curse’ that has afflicted so many countries, richly endowed but poorly governed. Corporatization of Indian politics needs to be viewed in this context. This nexus helps one appreciate how people responsible for the various pogroms across India, over the years, and coincidentally from across the political spectrum, manage to get away scot-free every-time. Omission/apathy/lack of capacity is simply not an excuse anymore – especially with redistribution becoming a much-hyped issue in Indian Politics.

SUMMARY – MODI AND THE MORAL LINE

Modi has over-reached once – and having bounced back from the edge of oblivion as many would suppose (I personally don’t think his political future was in any danger, considering how ‘survival’ is ingrained in the political ethos of India), he is unlikely to bloody his hands again, so long as he manages to play to the electorate’s desperate need to ‘believe’… essentially being able to ‘better’ the sales pitch vis-à-vis his opponents, however superfluous it may seem. Considering the amount of impoverishment and discontent around, it is not that difficult to make the public fall in line with the designs of one political party or another, especially when monetary ammunition is available in plenty.

Image(Picture Courtesy: http://www.thehindu.com/multimedia/dynamic/01634/29TH_CARTOON_1634284f.jpg)

Survival trumps performance ….. and the political opposition knows it just as well. The empowerment of the electorate, exercised every 5 years becomes a non-starter. This model has worked brilliantly so far. After all, with problems galore, one can’t expect people to be really in tune with the political shenanigans day in and day out. Short memory of the electorate struggling with the vagaries of everyday life and the politicians’ expertise at obfuscating matters (the media, doesn’t seem to be adept at probing and exposing deficiencies adequately) all play into the hands of the political class, who, once ensconced in their gilded thrones, choose to set about securing their permanent space in the world of Indian politics, constituents be damned.

After all, whether we speak of the ‘Ruling Party’ or the ‘Opposition’, it is all incidental, really. In the search for better governance, a model of corporate-sponsored bipartisanship bridging the political spectrum, as described above seems to go against the essence of democracy – posing more moral, ethical and legal questions rather than solving the basic needs of humanity.

I end this 3-part series with the following quote by Christopher Hitchens:

“The whole point about corruption in politics is that it can’t be done, or done properly, without a bipartisan consensus.”

 

In La’kech.

Elections Interrupted – II : The Impact of Proximity

This post flows from the previous one and focuses on the following question.

“How significant is ‘Proximity’, in terms of immediate issues that drive ‘voting patterns’ for a majority of the electorate and to what degree are these at odds with the social values – ethical and moral, that the author of the piece ‘http://qz.com/178362/india-crosses-the-moral-line-of-no-return-if-narendra-modi-becomes-prime-minister/‘ refers to?”

In the first part, I argue that the ‘moral line’ Thane refers to was traversed maybe years ago. India has been a victim of ongoing pogroms against its marginalized for decades now, and that sporadic incidents are but periodic aberrations that spike this steady onslaught on the moral fabric of its society. But what does ‘crossing a moral line’ mean, in the context of the electorate’s voting patterns? This post is my take on the issues that shape people’s choices come ballot time.

UntitledPicture Courtesy: http://www.cartoonstock.com

 

MASLOW’S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS – EXPLAINING PROXIMITY

The social values that Thane refers to form an essential part of an individual’s community needs, depicted by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, (refer Picture 1. below). You can read more at: http://www.consciousaging.com/Transpersonal%20Psychology/Conscious%20Aging%20-%20Maslow%27s%20Hierarchy%20of%20Needs.aspx. The bottom two rungs of the pyramid are the absolute basic necessities required to live a healthy life. Belonging and Esteem are the next two steps in the hierarchy, when the individual forms social bonds in order to enhance his acceptance within society, ultimately leaving him and his near ones more secure and satisfied. The top rung is self-explanatory, free from the struggles of everyday physiological needs and basic security, but an essential component nevertheless, contributing attributes and goods that strengthen the social glue. They represent the opportunity that capitalism promises to every individual, offered with an unsaid reciprocal obligation towards society.

Untitled1Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (http://changingminds.org/explanations/needs/maslow.htm)

 

While social/community relationships may not form ‘essential and necessary’ conditions in satisfying physiological and safety needs (as in the case of communist societies), these are crucial facilitators in societies like India where limited government involvement combined with social-sector initiatives have contributed towards social welfare. For instance, India’s joint family concept, extending to the patriarchal influence of the proximate community within the village/town structure has traditionally partnered with the government welfare programs – at various hierarchical levels (Village, District and State), culminating in what can be termed as a comprehensive National social program.

INTERPRETING THE PYRAMID – THE 99%

Lately, while government involvement in welfare programs has been on the decline (a ‘gradual’ therapy, if you may), the portion that still remains directed towards social welfare is by far ineffective (graft and incompetence combined), thanks to institutionalised malpractices, prevalent since independence but honed to perfection over the years. Criticism heaped at the implementation of the Mid-day meal scheme in schools or the questionable benefits of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are just a couple of examples illustrating this decline.

To add to this phenomenon, disruptive influences pertaining to rural-urban migration, gender issues, nuclearisation of the joint family, quality of education, availability of basic health-care, etc. continue to challenge the social order, in the face of an unyielding patriarchal hierarchy within proximate ‘communities’. A backlash to this can be seen in the form of increasing number of honour killings, violence against women, farmer suicides, unemployability of the diaspora (in spite of the proliferation of degree-donors – the dubious quality centres of learning), urban crime and persistently disappointing mortality (infant, female) figures, amongst other factors. The exceptionally high frequency of heinous crimes against women signifies the fact that we’re dealing with widespread disregard of the law, (leave aside common civility) in major parts of the country.

This gradual severing of the social cord in a country that has traditionally relied on community-led balancing influences is forcing a desperate struggle to grab the benefits of the bottom two rungs of the Maslow ladder, threatening the demographic dividend that the country’s leaders talk optimistically about. These, in my opinion, are the ‘proximate’ values that determine voting priorities for a majority of the electorate. Thane’s concern about the electorate’s disregard for essential humanity needs to be reconciled with this lowest common denominator that continues to rankle the bottom rung of the Maslow ladder.

Modi’s statement about his preference for ‘Toilets over Temples’ is quite significant in this regard. A lack of adequate and appropriate hygiene facilities may be a factor in explaining the prevalence of sexual crime against women. During a conversation with a close friend who had worked in Haiti during the post-earthquake period, it emerged that lack of illumination (electricity) around toilets was a major factor in the prevalence of sexual crimes against women. Once adequate lighting was provided, the frequency of crime came down dramatically. ‘Lighting’ as an important factor in human security was also amplified during the ‘Nirbhaya’ tragedy in Delhi. Modi’s statement on toilets also gives perspective to the magnitude of the problem. ‘Ram Temple’ and ‘India Shining’ don’t hold a candle to the issue of providing basic sanitation – among the most important needs of the other 99%.

With only the ‘vote’ as their bargaining chip, it is easy to imagine the extent of the voters’ faith in the electoral exercise, especially when one places into perspective their disappointing experience with electoral politics over the decades. Thane needs to understand the average citizen’s disillusion with the vote in terms of the larger social reality of India. To simply put down voter attitudes to ‘promise of prosperity’ and a ‘race towards higher GDP’ is a simplistic supposition, largely derived from popular media, political propaganda and the interests of the other 1%, who are at best fringe elements in the social diaspora.

Untitled2Picture Courtesy: http://www.cartoonstock.com

INTERPRETING THE PYRAMID – THE OTHER 1%

Coming back to the cited article, Thane, in his first paragraph, refers to a lady, whose background and seeming nonchalance should place her among the top 1% of the Indian electorate, light years away from the rest. As growing disparity continues to divide the masses from the elite, shared social spaces begin to contract. Call it safety concerns, divergent interests or time constraints, there’s little to draw the country together as a social whole. India’s penchant for status/class/projection makes it unfashionable to be too proximate the rest, most of the times, and this has an adverse effect on social order. For instance, as long as the 1% stay away from public transport or government/public schools, one cannot expect a massive improvement in the quality of services these provide, utility-wise or security-wise.

In all fairness to the Maslow logic, the top 1% is also populated by other elements that contribute their intellectual and financial capital in interest of the community, which gradually transfer social goods down the ladder. In fact, the potential effectiveness of the 1% as a catalyst of social action is not limited, by any stretch of imagination. 26/11 is a case in point. The direct attack on the 1% within their everyday environment was the trigger that brought the entire country on its feet. These are positive social actions that can bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots by addressing deficiencies in the macro social structure. But, are periodic catastrophes in urban areas the only ways to ensure positive social interaction? That is the question.

In terms of ‘proximity’ shaping the top 1%, safety and physiological needs, ever paramount, are met through personal traits – while community-based social attributes are only sought as aberrations, permitting a degree of non-concern for the social fabric across the various sections of society. This is a routine feature of India and also explains to an extent the lack of civic sense prevalent among Indians in general (at least while they’re within the ‘tolerant’ borders of the country).

I am not ashamed to admit that beyond my chosen profession (which pays me decently for my services), I too have narrow interests towards society, restricted to bettering the lives of the few people that play peripheral parts in my life and occasional contributions towards a few philanthropic causes. In fact, I am not that different from Thane’s lady – well, I don’t go about making remarks like her, but nonetheless, I largely remain a silent spectator.

THE POLITY’S ROLE IN INFLUENCING SOCIAL PATTERNS

Modi’s pitch for ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ implies the sad state of affairs that has been the norm so far. This top-heavy structure has been largely responsible for the paralysis and vacuum that we associate with so many areas of Indian policy making. The surrender of ‘public interest’ for vested interests, prevalent since the early days of independence has only become refined over time (adequate reference to this has been made by the erstwhile Coal Secretary, Mr. PC Parakh, in the book “Crusader or Conspirator”). This has proliferated into different sectors of government policy-making, and has in the process ensnared all and sundry associated with governance. Over a period of time, such institutionalisation has eroded the integrity of our judicial, law enforcement and regulatory bodies, thanks to manipulation by the powers that be. The previous post’s reference to ‘criminals’ in the polity indicates clearly the steady inroads made by criminals into the political arena. The blatant extent to which the polity has manipulated the system can be observed by the way the Union Cabinet, in Sep 2013, overturned a Supreme Court of India judgment stating that “… an MP or MLA would be immediately disqualified if convicted by a court in a criminal offence with a jail sentence of two years or more.” (http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/cabinet-overrules-supreme-court-clears-ordinance-to-protect-convicted-mps/1173585/).

India is fast turning into a lawless society because of political, bureaucratic and judicial corruption. With senior civil servants crying hoarse over the quality of governance and corruption, even within their own ranks (as Mr. PC Parakh does in his account), it is not difficult to visualize the influence of these developments on the voting patterns of the electorate. The moral line that Thane talks of, regardingwhat is acceptable in a politician’ needs to be studied with this background in mind. The ‘vote’ no longer commands the power and respect that it traditionally stood for. This dilution of standards over a period of time by a polity bent on subverting due process is of greater immediate concern. While I doubt the emergence of a Hitler in India, given the ocean of difference in the cultural and social norms between the two countries, a new type of ‘Chimera’ raising its head cannot be ruled out.

HOW POLITICAL APATHY MARGINALIZES THE COMMUNITY – AN ILLUSTRATION

The polity’s unabashed behavior is made possible by the growing fissures in society between the haves and the have-nots. In fact, to an extent, the polity may even be responsible for sowing some of these seeds of discord/nonchalance. Take the following case for example.

The governing class has never bothered to provide India’s Defence services assured suffrage over the years. By this I refer to the inability of the government to facilitate an easy/convenient process through which members of the Indian Defence Forces can cast vote come Election Day. Not only is the Indian military amongst the largest in the world, but it also is a vital stakeholder in the security and integrity of India. Most importantly, though, it is staffed with motivated and intelligent individuals who enjoy high trustworthiness of the nation’s citizens, a rare and exceptional privilege not usually associated with the other structures of the state. The resignation of the Indian Naval chief a couple of months ago over a spate of accidents (amidst a political culture where such instances have an ET-like aura) lends credibility to this argument. As vital tax-paying stakeholders in India’s future, what is being suggested is simply a system of ensuring their participation in the electoral process, adequate opportunity is available for them to caste vote, with due consideration to their restrictions in terms of connectivity and time. Unfortunately, in the absence of such a process, the uniformed few are resigned to the misplaced perception that their duty to the nation doesn’t require meaningful involvement in the nation’s problems, beyond those pertaining to the written charter. This enforces a sense of entitlement and elitism, contributing to their lack of concern for societal problems. This is not an attempt at rationalization, merely an observation. I’m sure other factors are also at play here.

SUMMARY

What is important is that due to conflicts of interests at various levels of the electorate, it is not pragmatic to expect people to ‘rationally’ evaluate options and voting choices as Thane describes. Unless there exists common social cause as a matter of fact, and not purely as a matter of vested interests, the ‘desperation – intolerance – frustration’ cycles is likely to play out with increasing frequency and brutality at the lower levels in response to the insensitivity-apathy led disconnect at the other end of the spectrum.

This marginalization of the electorate over the decades by the polity is one of the major factors responsible for the eroding social values-based system found in present day India. Under these circumstances, I believe it is way optimistic to expect the voter to relinquish his ‘proximate’ concerns in favour of the bigger picture. Rather than blaming society for its apathy towards the odious episode in Gujarat, adequate focus needs to be paid in ensuring that the political aspirations of the people’s representatives remain in line with the requirements of the electorate. In order to ensure this, adequate regulatory mechanisms need to be ‘implemented and enforced’ to examine the polity’s culpability towards social malaise that is rapidly overwhelming the citizens’ ability to cope. Unless mechanisms for accountability are instituted, errors of omission will continue to conveniently brush social maladies under the carpet.

Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing” – Hannah Arendt.

With the knowledge that short-term survival remains the proximate concern of the majority of the electorate, in a social environment shaped by forces beyond their control, the last part of this three-part series will examine the major strategic considerations that go into formulating election strategies by the political parties in fray and the role that social values play in these?

In Lak’ech.

ElectionsInterrupted – I : Electorally Dumb or Socially Numb ?

The election frenzy is over and we’re finally permitted glimpses of the world beyond. As sweeping as the results were, significant events did occur elsewhere. But I guess proximity matters, considering how elaborately cloistered our lives have become. Even so, there are issues like the ones i discuss in this post that are equally relevant to everyone who inhabits this planet, however removed the individual may perceive himself to be.

This post aims to address a critical issue highlighted by a dear friend, Jillaine, through the following piece (http://qz.com/178362/india-crosses-the-moral-line-of-no-return-if-narendra-modi-becomes-prime-minister/) The author makes valid arguments. Like the lady he refers to, I too count myself (although consciously, I may add) among the minority – the top 1% of the electorate shielded from the everyday physiological and security struggles waged by the rest. But then I was also afforded the opportunity to comprehend the struggles of the other 99%, thanks to the nature of my profession as well as my interaction with those around me who have largely been the less fortunate ones.

I would like to add here, that while my perspective of things may appear to be grim I’m only writing about social values-based activism related to mainstream political action. The fact that India continues to be a land of hope for a billion, and that it has tolerated the divisive nature of politics bears testimony to the faith of its people in the ideal of democracy and the semblance of rationality that India’s laudable civil-society, some dedicated bureaucrats, a few clean politicians and certain sections of media have contributed towards social awareness and welfare. The Aam Aadmi phenomenon, the meteoric rise followed by a slow and steady deflation, is one such constructive social development that keeps one’s spirits high. Irrespective of their naiveté, these folks breached a frontier that made people sit up and take notice, the mainstream parties included.

With this background, I choose to divide my take on Thane’s article into three parts, each question flowing to the subsequent point, to be probed in succeeding posts.

 

1. Does Modi’s victory signify a ‘water-shed’ in terms of our ‘numbing’ as an electorate?

2. How significant is ‘Proximity’, in terms of immediate issues that drive ‘voting patterns’ for a majority of the electorate and to what degree are these at odds with the social values that the author stresses – ethics and morals? Maslow revisited.

3. What are the major strategic considerations that go into formulating election strategies by the political parties in fray and what role do social values play in these?

 

The subject of this post is the first issue raised above. I am in disagreement with the author’s view on India ‘crossing the moral line’ now that Modi has become the Prime Minister. This is not a justification for Modi’s alleged actions or omissions, but an attempt to highlight the pervasive exploitation of a significant proportion of Indian society which, in my opinion is the major contributor to the social numbing that we continue to witness everyday (beyond the sporadic bouts of violence that capture popular imagination). I think we have crossed the ‘moral line’ some years, or maybe decades ago, but only now are we witnessing its fallout on our social fabric on such a mammoth scale, as the “frustration-intolerance-desperation” cycle driven by political insensitivity moves into high gear, with social media/networking providing greater visibility.

While ‘mass-executions/ethnic cleansing’ remain peripheral catastrophes waiting to pounce on a society, India’s socioeconomic complexities and complicated social equations also make it a home to many ongoing ‘pogroms’ (decades old if not more) that hide silently within the blanket of anonymity that the country offers – its vast size, its rigid class/caste divides and the mayhem concealed within the never-ending struggle to access basic physiological and security needs. These endemic and systemic pogroms have been severing social bonds for generations – voiceless and hidden, but never ceasing. 1984, 1991 and 2002 are three ‘isolated’ incidents that form part of a generations-old systemic campaign of exploitation of the marginalized masses. Mass migrations (rural to urban) and demographic changes are exacerbating these effects further. Eroding community values like those Thane (the author of the piece) describes – morals, ethics and civic sense, though laudable, need to be reconciled with these realities. India is simply too vast and its problems too endemic to permit society to rally consistently behind these ideals – periodic demonstrations do occur, but these are usually in retaliation to gross violations of the most basic of human rights. I’ve chosen to write about a couple of such problems, a recent one from the state of Uttar Pradesh (thanks to the glaring media attention it has received), and an ongoing issue affecting a sizable portion of the country since the late 1960s, remains conveniently hidden from popular discussion.

 

CASE 1: GOVERNANCE GONE TO THE DOGS

The electorally attractive state of Uttar Pradesh (population-wise it equals Brazil, and is responsible for 80 out of the possible 542 lower assembly seats in the Indian Parliament), recently witnessed a series of heinous crimes against women. In the first case, two women were raped and hanged on a tree, in full public view, just a few days ago. The case is strikingly similar to the one that has repeatedly come to the forefront over the years – low caste victims, higher caster perpetrators and apathy by the police and other administrators. The theme is eerily similar to the one in Mississippi Burning, but with a far more divisive character and abetted by the pervasive culture of caste-politics. It is evident to me that we’re no longer seeing communal divides play out on ‘historical’ and ‘traditional’ lines. We’re witnessing the arrogance of power, through state-condoned lawlessness that has permeated all boundaries of religion, caste and sub-caste (and other invented social divisions that I’m sure have taken shape). This case was followed by another shocking crime, perpetrated against a female Judge. She was gang-raped at her official residence before being left to die. When the upholders of law (the elite) can expect no safety in this country, the situation for the other 99% remains grim indeed. They are likely to continue to face the brunt of pogroms, leaving the electorate marginalized and divided, thanks to the fear psychosis such a situation stokes.

Uttar Pradesh, popularly called UP, seems like ‘Godfather’ territory, without the suits and the ‘Brando’ drawl. The shenanigans of the ruling ‘Yadav’ family do seem to validate this, considering their dynastic control over state politics. And it doesn’t end with UP. Its Chief Minister, under media scanner, was kind enough to highlight to the citizens of India that his state should not be singled out when similar barbarism was rampant in others – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and so on. Absolute control made possible by dynastic entrenchment, with no larger agenda than to amass power, is largely to blame for such rampant lawlessness and apathy in many regions of the country.

 

CASE II: ETHNIC CLEANSING VERSUS SYSTEMIC ETHNIC EXPLOITATION

ImageFigure 1– Indian Naxal Affected Districts: 2007

     (Picture Courtesy: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/76/India_Naxal_affected_districts_map.svg)

      As horrific as the above examples were, sparing life in order to shackle generations into destitution is no lesser crime. I’m talking about the ‘systemic ethnic exploitation’ that continues in India’s Naxalite corridor (refer Figure 1). In April 2006, the Indian Prime Minister declared the Naxalite issue as the main internal threat to the integrity of India, calling for a combination of law enforcement measures and socio-economic development initiatives to tackle it. As the graphics below depict (refer Figure 2), as far as election outcomes go, the PM’s diktat hasn’t produced any discernible changes. In spite of the encouraging official figures, these non-trends are disturbing. In 1984, the Congress Party was in majority (BJP was non-existent) across vast swathes of the country….30 years later BJP enjoys similar spoils (Congress Party being reduced to a never-before tally).

 

ImageFigure 2 – Electoral outcomes in the Red Corridor of India over the decades

(Picture Courtesy: http://gkdutta.wordpress.com/2014/05/17/result-of-indian-general-election-of-2014-was-held-to-constitute-the-16th-lok-sabha/)

     It is striking to note (please excuse the difference in the ‘legend’ descriptions – the left one denotes constituencies as ‘dots’ while the one to the right denotes the same as ‘geographically shaded’ portions) that while blue has largely given way to saffron, the Eastern regions stretching from the South to the state of West Bengal continue to remain out of the ambit of the main ‘national’ political parties of India, almost ignored. The election results show how wide spread and historic the Naxalite problem is and the scant regard that major political parties of India have shown to the affected region over the decades. Beyond regional calculations and political alliances that have sprung up over the years, the absence of these mainstream political parties raises a big question mark about their commitment to the social welfare of the country as a whole. That this symbolizes the disillusion of the constituents of the affected districts is not lost on the mind. What is striking, though, is the continued disinterest of the country’s leaders to rectify this situation over the years, in spite of the periodic publicity the problem has received.

Eight years in power and a Prime Minister’s personal commitment to the Naxalite corridor was not enough to prevent a leader from his own party, the Congress party from being assassinated in the Naxalite belt during 2013. One reason could be that, discerning the effectiveness of law enforcement operations remains subjective at best (considering the cyclical nature of naxalite violence – the present phase is said to be led by the 3rd generation of fighters, post 1967). While the official government website has revised downward the number representing the Naxalite-affected districts from 183 to 33 over the past 08 years, the reliability of this data is very much in doubt. According to a report (http://www.janes.com/article/35219/naxalite-attack-in-chhattisgarh-highlights-terrorism-risk-in-india-s-red-corridor-ahead-of-april-general-election), the district of Sukma in the state of Chattisgarh (part of the Naxalite corridor), which was the site of the assassination of the Congress Party leader described above, still continues to witness Naxal violence. Surprisingly, it doesn’t find a mention on the government website listing Naxal affected districts: http://tribal.nic.in/Content/ListofnaxalaffecteddistrictsasidentifiedEducation.aspx

On the socioeconomic front, if the PM’s 2006 directive had been taken seriously, one would have expected the takeaways to percolate on to the electoral result sheets. As the above figure indicates, this has not been happening for decades now. The affected population’s disillusion with/ignorance about the whole concept of democratic governance and the election process is evident from the following examples.

1.     An excerpt from the Business Standard (Elections in the shadow of guns, 08 Apr 2014): “In the last election, supporters of a candidate took many villagers away and made them drink all night. They were repeatedly shown talaa and chabbi (lock and key) – the candidate’s election symbol. Next morning, they went to the booth dancing and singing talaa, chabbi, talaa, chabbi and pressed the ballot button,” recounts Anil Kakreti of Karma village.

2.     Echoing the irrelevance that polls have traditionally held in these areas, a colleague of mine, who hails from the corridor, explained in a matter-of-fact way that entire villages still cast their vote in favour of Indira Gandhi, believing her to be still alive and running the country from New Delhi. Talking about numbing, these folks have been in ‘comfortably numb’ territory for a while now. WAIT !! Is it really them, or could it be us who’ve receded into this ‘numbness’, indifferent to their plight. Floyd sheds the light, once again (http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pinkfloyd/comfortablynumb.html)!

I personally consider this ongoing issue to be an elaborate pogrom that started off marginalizing the people of the region and has ended up exploiting them, supported by the government, by the anti-government forces as well as the local mafia (land mafia, timber mafia, mining mafia, etc.) that links these forces to the people, their land and their resources. (An official view: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Naxalism-A-Rs-1500-crore-red-corridor-empire/articleshow/4628045.cms). While I do believe the Naxalites to be an anti-social force and their violent cause harmful to the unity and integrity of India, the government’s apathy towards this half-century old problem reeks of the customary “sins of omission” that the governing classes are so often accused of.

Beyond the mishandling of such core issues, the obfuscation of social data, in terms of accurate assessments (as described using the ‘Sukma’ example above) or in the perceived inability to undertake a definitive census on literacy and poverty exposes the ‘hollowness’ in our political convictions that reverberates even beyond the borders of India. It is not surprising that apart from Bhutan, no other neighbor enjoying an ‘evergreen’ relationship with India, not even Bangladesh, for whose liberation India fought a war in 1971. Can we really expect the world to treat us any better, I wonder?

SUMMARY

“Roti, Kapda, Makaan” translated roughly as “Food, clothing, Shelter” started off as a rallying cry in order to rid the country of its basic deficiencies, but IT continues to remain a distant dream to a sizable proportion of the electorate. I think we’re looking at a deeper political malaise that extends beyond Modi and points a finger at all mainstream political parties, who have all been named and shamed at one point or the other, in our post-independence period.

While I consider myself to be an optimist, I wonder what we can realistically expect from our chosen political leaders. For all the optimism that the electoral outcome has generated, this crisis in leadership becomes evident when one attempts to interpret the financial records and criminal histories/backgrounds of the winning candidates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_general_election,_2014 scroll down to the end, please). With 1/3rd of the winning candidates (185/542) in the largest democracy in the world having criminal cases against them – with 1/5th of the total belonging to the ‘serious’ criminal cases category, one can’t but feel distraught about this deficit in Indian politics. Other links that you may find of interest include:

1. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/02/fifth-india-election-candidate-face-criminal-charges)

2. (http://www.hindustantimes.com/elections2014/election2014-placeholder/maximum-women-mps-ever-in-ls/article1-1220549.aspx)

In my opinion, this muddying of our political processes has incentivized the ‘desperation – frustration – intolerance’ related misdemeanors in society. While statesmen no longer populate the political spectrum of the country, the best one can expect is for an elected leader to develop a few vital qualities once in power. Manmohan Singh deeply disappointed the electorate with his inactions, in spite of his credentials and the potential that he exhibited during his first term in office. With the Sonia-Manmohan ‘dirty dancing’ tango creating a political vacuum after 10 years in power, the electorate was left with very few options.

Come election time, it is the daily struggle that forces society to focus largely on proximate issues, at the cost of other vital issues of national concern. After all, the balanced and philosophical approach that would enable an alignment with Thane’s arguments demands a sufficiency of time, knowledge, etc., restricting its reach to a privileged few. Comprehending these voting patterns and the political parties’ resulting strategies requires some dwell-time on the disconnect between the proximal and the long-term. Interpreting this will form the subject of my next post.

Note: My observations and opinions have been formulated over a period of time from various events, diverse interactions and a rich horde of reading material, stretching across the political divide. However, proximate events do tend to create a bias within one’s mind that shapes thoughts and gives a partisan flavor to ideas. Search for unbiased evidence does sometimes clash with an instinctive resort to vindication, and I do suffer from this malady. I welcome and indeed appreciate conflicting opinions that can help me set my moral compass pointing to the True North. Debate and Dialectics can hopefully counter the devils of obstinacy and intolerance that populate my mind.

For those who are disturbed by reading this account and for those who mistake my concern for cynicism, here’s an interesting quote:

“One cannot be deeply responsive to the world without being saddened very often” – Erich Fromm.

In Lak’ech.

MediaInterrupted – Foxification

ImagePicture Courtesy: Cartoonstock.com

     As the election coverage by the media draws to a close, it is but pertinent to raise questions about the quality of discussion that was on offer on the televised debates (Times Now and Arnab Goswami merit a special mention – replacing NaMo chant in favour of ArGo as counting day drew nearer). Hardly worthwhile, is my assessment, in terms of core issues affecting the country and positively embarrassing in the way the news channels projected their own agendas. ‘Development’ was uttered unanimously, but adequate amplification of policies or strategies put forward by the warring factions in their manifestos, was seemingly lacking. “They did it wrong; we’ll set it right – was the only chant that could be heard from the puppets on display.”

I have a few theories about why this may be so.

1. Hijacking of the ‘intellectual capital’ by the adversary may be one of the reasons – Intelligence and commonsense may be a domain of the few in national polity, but such insecurity is ludicrous. And, if manifestos are indeed ‘transplantable’, then one may conclude that the ‘ideological’ divide is rather superfluous – resting on simplistic assumptions and populist sentiments. It is akin to justifying the ‘lack’ of developmental push during the final years of a government’s tenure on the basis of potential benefits that the opposition may claim if elected to power, owing to the long gestation periods involved in national projects. On an aside, I recollect an earlier incident when a minister, when asked about the poor state of infrastructure development in the Northeast, claimed that, “the better the basic infrastructure is, the easier it will be for the Chinese to invade us”. Astounding logic justifying the zero-sum rationale in developmental politics!

2. Restrictions in directing the activities of the civil servants, the ‘Yes Minister’ phenomenon – This seems to be a logical explanation, considering the observation that irrespective of the political flavor of the governing members (‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’), ultimately everyone tends to gravitate towards the moderate ‘centre’ when in power. This would also seem to justify the hollow ideology of the political parties covered previously. An idea may bring one to power, but maintaining power requires a lot more. The Spoiler is powerful indeed!

3. A general supposition that the Indian public does not need to be exposed to the nuances of policy – Considering the quality of material one is exposed to through the print media, it may be fair to assume that the media houses associate their idiot-box activities to suit the instant gratification needs of a certain quarter of the public. When the ultimate judgment relies on quantity (ratings), any number of reasons can be used to support the argument. Such ‘foxification’ of India’s news media has probably contributed to the sensationalism that pervades most television news networks today. John Oliver describes this aptly at: http://news.scroll.in/article/663108/US-comedy-show-host-John-Oliver-takes-a-dig-at-Arnab-%28and-berates-the-US-media-for-ignoring-the-Indian-polls%29

Earlier, I shared this link on FB with the enjoinder, “That guy reminds me of John Stewart…I don’t care who becomes the PM, but I sure would like to know when we’re getting our own Johns!”. If the present trend continues into the future, as it is likely to, I hope to see John-styled humour introduced at some stage into the discussion.

4. Maybe the media moguls and political pundits don’t have the inclination to pursue a comprehensive analytic line of reasoning – for reasons ranging from lack of politically-connected subject matter experts (so called technocrats with a role of advising the government) or due to concerns about viewership and ratings. Why is this so?

The former could be due to the difficult equation between the political class and the media, and also the narrow subject-matter expertise found in political circles – mainly drawn from the fields of law, journalism and amongst the bureaucracy. Lateral representation by Technocrats is likely to mitigate this to an extent, but it remains to be seen if the incoming government favours this.

In the latter case, the power of ratings is well understood. Yet, given the performance of the electorate in the recently concluded polls, it is evident that the collective conscience of the country knows how to rally behind a powerful idea. That they also recognise rationality and pragmatism is for time to tell. They may not be experts in the sense of the word, but they may be relied upon to reliably distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant. While there may well be other reasons to justify superficial, irrelevant debates, the media may do well to recognize the phenomenon of erratic mood swings associated with the easily-wearied Indian television surfer.

 Image

     Picture Courtesy: Cartoonstock.com

     Introduction of intellectual variety in the form of comprehensive analytics – whether in the form of formal debates or satirical humour may in fact open the way for an informed national debate passing down the telly-tube to the minds of a revitalized and empowered public. This low-hanging fruit may be on the verge of ripeness. First movers are likely to enjoy enormous advantages if this were to be delivered to the hungry audience.

Lest it be forgotten, this reasoning rests on the supposition that the media is genuinely independent and fiercely competitive as it is made out to be. Whatever the case may be, future developments are sure to enlighten us on the workings of the media and their equation with the political class.

Jillaine, the next one is for you. Looking forward.

 

NannyInterrupted-DiplomaticFarce+SecurityJeopardy

protest(picture courtesy: theaerogram.com)

Recent events related to the external affairs of India have cast a sad light on issues of integrity plaguing this critical area of government policy-making. The Indian diplomatic scene has degenerated to a level where their interest in the genuine well being of the country has to be questioned. This is true at least in the following case that came to light a few months ago but has now conveniently escaped the memory of the public.

The issue in question is the ‘Nannygate’ incident, extensively reported in the media, but not researched to the extent the Indian media is capable of. For instance, beyond the diplomat’s involvement in the so-called visa-fraud, the ‘Adarsh’ fraud (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adarsh_Housing_Society_scam) and the issue of nepotism/favouritism in the diplomatic service, not much attention was paid to the crucial element related to ‘national interest’ and ‘security’ that take immediate precedence over the fore-mentioned issues. This is also an issue in which the entire ‘Indian Foreign Service’ is culpable, that of ‘dual passports’ held by the children of the concerned diplomat, not to mention the citizenship status of the spouse.

Central government employment rules require employees to relinquish ‘foreign’ citizenship post-marriage. This is what India’s constitution says about ‘citizenship’.

 

Article 9 in The Constitution Of India 1949

” (A) Person voluntarily acquiring citizenship of a foreign State (shall) not to be citizens. No person shall be a citizen of India by virtue of Article 5, or be deemed to be a citizen of India by virtue of Article 6 or Article 8, if he has voluntarily acquired the citizenship of any foreign State..”

 

When a ‘conflict of interest’ arises, the country’s laws would either require the spouse to relinquish foreign citizenship or allow its serving member to resign from service unconditionally. While it is evident that the nation’s security cannot be compromised, as per laid down rules, the country doesn’t bar any individual from exercising complete freedom in choosing a marital partner.

Beyond the criminal breach of security and questionable integrity displayed by the diplomat, this issue raises crucial questions of the entire diplomatic corps of India. The amount of sensitive data accumulated over a lifetime by Indian diplomats, who incidentally number only 900 odd (incomprehensible considering the size of the country and its international interests) is a matter of concern, considering the wealth of information shared by so few, and the obvious lack of sensitization towards security and the questionable integrity of its office-bearers.

The inaction by India’s Ministry of External Affairs so far, in reconciling this issue highlights the rot in the system and exposes the diplomatic corps’ weaknesses. Having heard no statement or intent of action by the ministry for the past 3 months (the latest media articles are from March 2014, produced below), it is but pertinent to ask the diplomatic community not only where their interests lie, but if they genuinely consider themselves as representatives of the citizens of this country? The community’s new found penchant for social media connectivity via FB or twitter reveals its ability at self-aggrandizement, but its lack of meaningful engagement with its audience exposes the superficiality of this exercise and highlights intellectual dishonesty on their part, in that positives are sugar-coated while issues of concern are kept out of public view. After all, social media usage by government entities is meant to reflect transparency and accountability – something that their social interaction so far has failed to demonstrate.

 

a. http://daily.bhaskar.com/article/DEL-delhi-news-fresh-trouble-children-of-devyani-khobragade-hold-dual-citizenship-4537474-NOR.html

b. http://www.firstpost.com/india/khobragade-still-faces-trouble-as-dual-citizenship-of-daughters-is-illegal-1416665.html

c. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/trouble-for-khobragade-as-govt-finds-daughters-have-us-indian-passports/

 

The subversion of government policy by the bureaucracy, the apathy of the policy, the disinterest of the media and the public’s short memory are all responsible for the sad state of affairs plaguing Indian Diplomacy. However, as primary stakeholders of India’s ‘international’ face, the Indian Diplomatic Community needs to stand ahead of the pack and rise to the occasion.

And, while we’re on ‘nanny’, let’s also do some housecleaning in the process.

Looking forward to the next one.

 

Tigertourisminterrupted

Cheers

Cheers

Already time to get on the blog? But, I guess that’s part of starting something new. One suddenly has so many things to contend with – like the interesting couple of new assignments I am presently working on. On that, may be later.

Plus, my mac has a new keypad. A slight change in the configuration, but for conventional typists like me (my old keypad had to be replaced because a few letters had smudge marks from over-typing, covered under Apple Care) that could mean wasted time.

As I contemplate our recent adventures at Ranthambore on the journey back to Delhi, I’ve decided to present my take on our experience…..with the ‘tiger’ operators of Sawai Madhopur and with the tourist services accorded by the Government of Rajasthan.

The trip contingent included five, including Ahaana, our 20 odd month old cub. It was planned online, courtesy the Govt. of Rajasthan website. Accommodation was arranged at RTDC (State Govt.) ‘Classic’ category ‘Castle Jhoomar Baori’, a quaint ‘hunting lodge of yore’ nestled atop a small hill, overlooking the tiger habitat. We chose it for the location and the food and we weren’t disappointed. ‘Government’ has its privileges, in this case a view, which no other resort in or around Sawai Madhopur can boast of.

View from RTDC Castle Jhoomar Baori, Sawai Madhopur.

View from RTDC Castle Jhoomar Baori, Sawai Madhopur.

It also boasts of a Tripadvisor – Certificate of Excellence…the ‘Michelin-par for the course’ of the Indian tourist scene. From the reviews on Tripadvisor, it is evident that people have not rated it highly (even with the certificate to boast of, it comes a lowly 12 out of 17) and for obvious reasons – Quality of Service. If only people understood the actual reason for this. ‘Customer is King’ doesn’t exist in the Government Services Scene…and I don’t mean to extoll the virtues of the private sector, while lambasting the ‘culture’ of government. ‘It’s different’ is all I can think of, and I’m sure you’d agree based on the following idiosyncrasies we had to contend with:

1.         What you pay online is not the ‘total’ sum. You are supposed to pay taxes at checkout. Fair enough, even if one considers that no mention of the ‘taxes’ is tantamount to ‘hidden’ fairs in these days of ‘all inclusive’. It is possible that savvy advisors suggested this ploy to bait those still in two-minds about the place. Tourists, beware….and please read the fine-print, like we almost forgot.

2.         While professing ‘strictness’ for timings and rates, the staff nevertheless likes its ‘Baksheesh’, so much so that we found a couple of people lingering rather uncomfortably, not to mention the sudden improvement in service, if only for a fleeting instant. Upshot – do what your conscience tells you, but if you’re going to pay him, let him earn his keep. There is too much ‘kharcha’ without the ‘khatirdaari’ anyway in State-run establishments, IMHO.

3.         While I’m on timing, it is worth mentioning that our request to stay on in our rooms for a couple of hours after checkout (Noon) met no sympathetic ear. With no one to occupy those rooms, we did feel a little slighted, but then one can only sympathize with the operators, considering their own predicament in entertaining their special guests, due to arrive later. TIME is of the essence…keep track of it and stick to schedule.

4.         Another issue worth mentioning is the ploy for charging extra-lunch fees. Check-in at Noon implies ‘lunch’ on the house. But what if one checks in at dinnertime? In that case don’t expect that the lunch you missed would be adjusted forward. This ‘implied’ suggestion can by way of the manager when I called to confirm my booking prior to arrival. “Sir, its 1300h. We’ve already prepared lunch for you.” While I understand the operator’s lack of concern for wasted food, a single phone-call to confirm our plans prior to preparing the lunch would have sufficed. That there was no lunch in the first place was confirmed when I went about completing my departure formalities at the Reception, on the day of our departure – the bloke gave the same line to another arriving party due to arrive later in the day. Important lessons for the future – Read the fine print, discuss all your issues well in time and then ‘decide’ if you’re up to the task.

Serving with the government, I understand the psyche of the state-tourism operators, and under the circumstances, find their behavior and actions justifiable. But, expecting a different standard of treatment elsewhere, I would argue that the internalization doesn’t arise out of a sense of ‘work-ethos’ camaraderie, but from being able to tune the body’s response clock while straddling the time-zones between the government sector and the private sector. The benchmarks are different and the operator assessment is based on factors beyond the scope of the viewer reviews on Tripadvisor. (The fact that these may be growing apart is not the core issue here, but is reflective of the trends in the evolving service industry in India).

            Not over yet…or, come back later, for there’s more. Now, it’s time for the ‘tiger’ safari saga. Ranthambore is ‘evidently’ well populated with the big cats. With the recent exposé a lá Sariska, who know how many there really are…, I wonder. Anyway, we booked two tours, an evening gypsy ride into zone ‘6’ (Kundali) and a morning canter ride into the main zone (there are five zones – we got zone ‘4’ – the ‘creamy’ zone as our guide put it—-naturally!!).

Entering the Creamy Zone

Entering the Creamy Zone

            We saw no cats at all. Sloth Bear, Blue Bull, Sambhar, Indian Gazelle, Wild boar — the graziers were all there, remarkably calm and composed. Bad news, if you ask me – for the watchers and the cats. Anyway, that was expected. The pure thrill of passing through the tiger’s habitat was enough to satisfy our souls. What irks the senses is the big game that the guides and drivers have on show as they play to a narrative. ‘T-19 was seen on that hill, passing through that way so and so minutes ago’. What gives it away is the frequent reference to ‘the other guide’s later plans’, ‘offers to swap trips between the drivers’…and the mechanical, synchronized proceedings played to an eager audience…. the former soon tire of the game, as they ponder their future plans and the latter resign themselves to a ride sufficiently exciting but not to the level of the hype generated by the ‘tiger’ of Ranthambore. We came away more than satisfied, as our cub rose to the challenge of two back-to-back safaris, braving rain and the early morning elements with ease, waving a friendly greeting to one and all.

            The ‘Safari’ experience needs to be improved, if the quality of tourism is to be enhanced. While one can’t expect a sanctuary-like experience, modern-day technology plus other infrastructure developments can make the experience enriching for all.

1.         First on the list is geo-tagging the big cats. While we thought this to be a normal procedure, that is not to be. As the recent ‘Machli’ incident suggests (the grand empress of Ranthambore vanished for a couple of weeks recently before resurfacing), geo-tagging can help locate tigers, track their movements – providing important seasonal information that could help the conservationists, but also help tourists improve their chances of capturing the beast in action. The only downside I see is that the information can passed on to the highest-bidding poacher, a bright possibility, considering the fact that (as our guide pointed out) ‘The opportunity a guide/driver gets to ply his trade is infrequent (once in 4/5 days), hinting at the competition/lack of alternative opportunities in the local job market.

2.         Also, rampant ‘black money’ access to the park (indicated by the fact that no ‘online’ bookings are available for ‘gypsy’ rides most of the time while our driver offered us an ‘upgrade’ from canter to gypsy for ‘only’ Rs. 1000/-) indicates the flourishing underground economy for ‘all things tiger’ at Ranthambore – from tours, to memorabilia, to ..!!

            For the sake of all, I hope state lethargy and privateering comes to an end….before the reign of the tiger at Ranthambore does !

Every squirrel a tiger !

Every squirrel a tiger !

While we don’t expect much…. indeed, the quaintest things give most pleasure….but one can definitely try to make the experience a little better….everyday….and in everything we attempt.

Looking forward to the next time.

SarkarInterrupted-II

…Continued from earlier. In gist, our dealings with the local Delhi government towards getting our marriage registered.

Armed with a ‘reference’ provided by someone-who-knows-someone-who-knows-someone, we reached the concerned office 10 minutes past the designated time..blame it on our tardiness combined with the awful approach to the offices of the Sarkar (translated as government, can also refer to an ‘individual’, symbolising the powers and influence he wields).

It appears that the area surrounding the government office in question, a site chosen for the convenience of users, has been overwhelmed by the burgeoning industrial area around its periphery. With due respect to the disaster management response vehicle in the office premises, one hopes the authorities in question pay adequate attention to the entry/exit issues plaguing the offices. If the offices can’t be shifted, it is but natural to seek an improvement in traffic management, unless the authorities are okay with arriving at ground-zero after the hens have gone home to roost (true Bollywood style, that).

Having filled up some more forms (the staff was amazingly receptive, now that we were suitable armed with a reference) and having wearied of a game of hide-and-seek with the birds, narrowly escaping their attempts to coat us with their unmentionables as we stood outside the office (a surprising lack of basic amenities), we were ushered into the presence of the approving authority. Having examined our documents, he clarified that since the marriage was solemnised in another city (Baroda, Gujarat), the bride didn’t belong to Delhi anymore rendering the issue irreconcilable. While we came away disappointed, his reasoning seemed to be within the confines of law, as argued by him. We don’t grudge him that, especially as government servants begin to wield the ‘book’ under extensive public scrutiny post the recently held elections.

What we did was ponder over were some issues that merited a little brooding (a decent way to pass the time as we negotiated traffic). This is also an effective ‘indigenous’ response towards reconciling oneself with the doggedness of the powers that be. Make peace alright, but not without the usual bout of cribbing, which is a god-bestowed right, exercised unabashedly by every Indian.

The first thing that struck us was that the so called reference, who held a similar post prior to his present appointment was surely aware of the rules. Why then the Kolaveri Di? For one, while online process may not be in vogue, one can at least expect relevant extracts from the rule books to be pasted online. It wouldn’t take too long for the rules, the description of the process and the various forms required to get populated on the government website. A small step in governance, but a giant leap towards greater transparency, reducing uncertainty in the process (I guess the ‘unknown’ is more unnerving than the outright ‘rejection’). And yes, these rules need to have the 4Cs built into them – Crisp, Clear, Concise, Correct (flyboys, take a bow).

Else, the other ‘ingenious’ but sometimes unwelcome ‘jugaad’ that Indians are so proud of, rears its head from time to time. This time it was my better half, quipping rather impressively that ‘had we printed a wedding card with Delhi as the venue the bloke wouldn’t have made such a fuss’.  With the right ‘degree’ of reference, we could indeed have pulled it off. And by the way the staff handled our paper-work (checking and double-checking our documents), it appears that interruptions like the one described can be brushed aside with ‘discretionary’ judgment on the part of the Sarkar.

If only the government did something about the nagging suspicion that  ‘a level-playing field is still a pipe-dream, and the road to it littered with whimsical discretion’ amidst a culture of favours and references. And while we are on the subject of ‘roads’, will someone tend to road leading to the government office, in the interest of the ‘disaster response’ community of Delhi?

For now, we’re happy that at least our documentation is in order for the next attempt (in Baroda, can’t say when). For those not overtly familiar with Indian culture, it is worth mentioning that while registering a marriage is required by law, greater credibility is rendered through social acceptance, rendered through a ceremony and presided over by scripture reading priests and attended by a well represented gathering of well-wishers from both corners (red and blue). To dispel any doubts, happy married we are, whether Sarkar likes it or not.

Looking forward to the next one.

SarkarInterrupted-I

IMG_0796

A cursory glance at the disconnect between the elements of government (Sarkar) and the public, arising out of a recent personal experience. It started when we decided to get our marriage registered with the government…soon after our wedding (almost 06 years ago). Lack of planning at our end led to a delay, which has extended to this day. Lack of ‘comprehensive’ documentation (combined with difficult demands like producing the priest who presided over the ceremony) was the main culprit as was a ‘lack of available time’ to a lesser degree. Living away from our domicile cities and being afforded short leave intervals added to the delay.

To our surprise, we were recommended a Delhi government website (http://delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/doit/Delhi+Govt/Delhi+Home) that allowed online registration and provided a list of documents required, which was elaborate but not quite the ‘labour of modern-day Hercules’ we were confronted with earlier. The website is under maintenance as I write this. The acknowledgement letter was received promptly, confirming our appointment between 1000h and 1200h on our chosen day (two days later). We were pleasantly surprised with this online process, but in retrospect, I admit I forcefully suppressed a few doubts that began surfacing from the depths of my mind. Having arrived at the said place on time, we were surprised to find that ‘online’ applications were not welcome. It turned out to be a facility actively subscribed at one end and conveniently forgotten at the other. This was confirmed by the intermediaries, the staff, who actually rule the roost in many government offices. Not only that, we were told that ‘the groom’ had to be from Delhi (against the ‘either’ parties we were led to believe from the website). Sexism to this degree was unexpected, but then so was our encounter with what we hoped would be facilitators, and who in fact were more than happy to leave us stranded with a big question mark (and a couple of exclamation marks)  in our minds.

Being government servants ourselves, and having been acquainted with the inner workings of such offices, we did the obvious. Track connections at the senior level of government who could clarify doubts and facilitate our process. It turns out that sexism is passe, but for the whims and fancies of the support staff. We were also assured of a ‘reference’ provided by someone-who-knows-someone-who-knows-someone and who could reconcile our issue amicably. Having experienced a classical ‘interruption’, I can think of the following pointers towards resolving such hindrances in the future. Although, I warn you, this is just a theoretical exercise, for the horse is stubborn and it will rather die of thirst than taste the sweet elixir of life.

1. Force the ‘online’ process into daily government dealings – Cuts flab (reduces the burden on already taxed staff), streamlines the process (good riddance to opinions/whims/fancies), thus reducing the ‘human’ element and avoiding conflict/misalignment of interests as the above case suggests. I guess an ideal working day for the staff in question would be one without petitioners.

2. Enforcing newly introduced practices – The fact that an online process exists draws attention to failure in implementation, requiring periodic audits and revisits to smoothen the changed pattern of working. Any change introduced in a process that deals with a huge population needs to be given an adequate gestation period. Although I’m not sure about the true costs involved, it is safe to assume that they’re not negligible. Apart from the incurred expenditure, a lack of returns also needs to be factored into the overall costs, in terms of man-hours lost/wasted as a result of failure in implementation. Taken together, the costs would add up substantially.

3. Incentivising the Staff – I don’t blame the staff for their attitude. True, when we find exceptions, we hold them in high esteem, expecting their traits to symbolize the minimum acceptable bar of performance (I think this has to do with our inherent ability to set standards in our minds for each and everything, progressively increasing the bar till our next near-to-perfect experience). One needs to remember that the staff is employed on a ‘particular job’, gets a particular ‘pay’ and has specific ‘career paths’, all incentivised by ‘survivability’ rather than ‘performance based merit’. Piling on workload under such circumstances, while not unwelcome, would definitely be a drain, especially when no additional benefits accrue (and when the ‘unchosen many’ continue to draw similar benefits without the extra burden of work). One way of addressing this issue would be through optimum measurement of ‘effort’, in terms of ‘result-based performance’ rather than the normative ‘work-hours’ put in (getting rid of the ‘over-time, under-worked’ work ethic). However, this would require additional resources and comprehensive monitoring mechanisms, justified only under certain specific instances where the ‘online’ process doesn’t offer better yields and in some where a combination of both is recommended. Passport processing have been well addressed during the last few years, relying on a combination of ‘online’ application process and ‘in person’ verification process.(http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-04-03/kolkata/31281195_1_appointments-passport-officer-passport-seva-kendra). I added this link to highlight two issues: that serious attempts to convert plans into ground reality are forthcoming, and the fact that ‘follow-up’ still continues to be a weak area (as evidenced from the comments). Enforcement continues to be a bane, whilst the posterboys walk away from the scene after a glittering ribbon-cutting ceremony.

4. Enhancing the capacity for institutional learning – As the case of ‘passport processing’ above suggests, there are vital lessons here than can be applied on other cases of similar nature, involving registration and verification. Applying these lessons can help reduce costs, provide an effective method to store data, help streamline further processes through data retrieval, and help individuals and government bodies manage their time and effort optimally.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s failed efforts to address petitioners in person speaks volumes about the issues plaguing the masses and the impracticability of addressing these in-person. While it is not practical to expect any drastic improvement in the present system of functioning, buoyed by the public mood, it is possible to ‘crowdsource’ change from the bottom up. In my conversations with a few friends from Brazil, I chanced upon the option of utilising internet/networking/communication towards creating a hybrid of direct and representative democracy. It emerges that in Argentina, this phenomenon is being experimented upon by an interesting group called “La Red” (The Network), a political party totally constituted through the internet. They have gone so far as to develop a software called Democracy.OS (http://democracyos.org/), which will enable direct participation of citizens – to get informed, join the conversation, and vote on political and legislative topics.

Through such initiatives, we may chance upon some unique solutions that could fit well into our local context, helping draw attention to the ‘effectiveness’ of the government’s best laid plans. Just as software giants manage software for the government’s initiatives, off-line interaction may be judiciously outsourced to private players (akin to the ‘aadhar’ effort). Online or offline, anything will do, as long as one can ‘reduce’ effort and time. Top -> Down can and should be turned upside down.

Food for thought: “When common sense starts sounding like a prized commodity, there is obviously much work yet to be done.”

Looking forward to the next one.