Are you Swim-Dad or Swim-Mom? Here’s a way to find out..

Swimming when you do it for leisure is pretty harmless. In fact, it is a good and healthy vocation for the body and the mind. But, when it is taken as a sport, it kind of transmutes into something else. Swimmers seem like a different species altogether. They are focused, private individuals who are interested in just three things: swimming, eating, and sleeping, not necessarily in the same order. In that way, swimming as a sport is something quite different, it is an abiding passion that not only sucks in the sportsperson but also their folks, their parents.

Sometime between when the kid is practicing in pools and participating in local meets, a strange transformation takes place with the parents. At some ill-opportune moment, they transmute from normal fun-loving folks to an obsessive passionate lot. Called as the Swimming Parent (a Swim-Dad or a Swim-Mom), these are pretty normal beings most of the times but shows traces of abnormalities in the proximity of a water-body like a swimming pool or a sea. Abnormalities include garrulous or loud behavior, a fascination for trivialities like splicing or leg movement, and obsession over lap-times. The inflicted one is not shy and inhibited in showing his/her excitement or disappointment to the world at large. At meets, the Swim-Dad can be seen nervously timing the different heats and thunderously timing the ones that have his kids. Usually, he or she does not swim yet, knows the nuances of each stroke. He or she is well aware of dietary practices even though their body might not reflect it. He or she is obsessed with timings, records, and tournaments. And usually is not much liked by officials and coaches. The good thing is that, once away from the pool, the Swim-Dad displays normal tendencies, but now and then, some mutations occur and the Swim-Dad is equally obsessive even in while sitting in the living room.

To know whether you are afflicted by the syndrome, here’s a list of statements of the primary traits. Count how many the number of traits that you agree with and then compare it with the result at the end. So, let’s find out if you are a Swim-Dad (or a Swim-Mom). Here goes:

If pools excite you, 50 mt makes you happy, 100 mt makes you ecstatic and anything less than 25 Mt is disappointment

If keeping records of your kid’s performance is your favorite hobby, or better, your only hobby

If you go to meets armed with your camera, clipping all races for posterity Continue reading

Going Bust! Shouldn’t your Employees know it First?

Scores and scores of Tata Teleservices employees anxiously wait for the newspaper-wallah every morning. Getting their hands on the pink sheet, they pore through it with an alacrity of a cat sitting on hot cinders. Most of them have even taken up to surfing business portals on their mobile phones, even while brushing their teeth. And if that’s not enough, they would invariably be watching a business channel as they sip on their morning cuppa of tea.

The reason all these folks from Tata Tele have suddenly become so “news aware” is because their future are jeopardised. The company has been undergoing crisis for the past many months, and big changes are in the offing. Thousands of jobs at stake, so many careers hang in balance. But instead of providing hope, succor or reassurance to the hapless employees, the top management at the company seemed to have clammed up. They just went incommunicado. There was no clarity, or statement from the internal stakeholders. Except possibly for all the speculative analysis that was being discussed and deliberated in the newspapers and the portals. As one senior employee confessed to me wryly:

“ We get to know things from newspapers, not from our people.”

So this week when the employees received an email about a town hall by the MD Srinath Narasimhan, the signs were pretty ominous. The workforce was sure that some big decision would be announced, and the rumor mills went into an overdrive. The unsure people were clutching to any info tidbit as a clue to what will be the future course for the company.

The town hall was scheduled for Friday (the 13th) at 3 pm. And then a day prior, the news broke up on business channels and news portals. Tata Teleservices had decided to sell off it’s mobile business to Bharti Teleservices (Airtel), merge it’s enterprise business with Tata Communications (TCL). And apparently, the broadband part, the landline and photon will become a part of the Tata Sky. The newsbreak played through the day, with even the Group Chairman N Chandra talking about the decisions taken by the embattled Telco.

The floodgates had opened up for the employees.

Around 5 pm, a mail arrives in the official account of the employees, with the subject line “Employee Communication”. It’s a note from the MD’s desk, talking about all the things that’s already playing on TV. The mail talks about the impact on business and the reason for taking such a call, but oddly, it misses upon the most important point– reassuring the employees about their future. The email talks about business continuity but not employee continuity. There’s just nothing there to provide succor to an anxious heart or a worried mind.

And that brings us to the crucial contention, “Do Employers owe it to their employees to reveal firsthand any such wide impact occurrence?” Or to put it plainly, shouldn’t the management speak to their own first, before announcing it to the world?

Clearly, there’s no convention that states that an employer is obliged in any or whatsoever way to it’s employees. For instance, when a company I was working with went belly up, the MD didn’t even bother to tell me that the salary won’t be arriving in my account that month, and neither will all those that were pending for a few months. Finding a new job quickly became a priority, even at the cost of compromises on the salary. The EMIs went into a toss, the savings went dry, the PF piggy broken. It was a mind-numbing traumatic time, like someone had punched in a Ctrl Z.

But then, my ex-employer did not come with a Tata tag. Neither did it come with a legacy of over a 100 years. Of course the Telco business had been disrupted badly by the arrival of a new player on the scene and botched up by shaky government policies. But then for an employee, the Tata name is like a travelers check from American Express, it won’t let you down, it is not supposed to.

Without dwelling on the business side, let’s just say that there are many lessons that can be drawn from Tata Teleservices saga. Lessons on how NOT to communicate with your employees. Here’s a quick summary of it:

Communicate regularly

Doing business is not everyone’s cup of tea. Even the biggest fail and the smallest succeed. The woes faced by the Indian Telco sector is pretty obvious. The people employed in the sector are well aware of the challenges. But yet, communication is always a must. Good companies tend to regularly engage their employees through newsletters, intranet, or even internal social media tools like Yammer. Communication should be a regular affair, irrespective of crisis or not.

Rumors will fly, nip it

In the context of rumors it is often said that “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on”. What this implies is pretty straight forward. Rumors travel with an unmatched speed and frequency. And during any crisis situation they will fly. Many people tend to waste energies in trying to find the source and quell it, rather than accept it and combat it. The only way to combat rumors is to be upfront and candid. Truth is the only antidote to rumor. Thus, a company should readily source the rumor and counter it with truth. That’s the only way to nip it.

More than just  continuity

Business continuity is a phrase that is often used in corporate parlance. But what is not so often used is employment continuity. While it is fairly understandable that any organisation would give preference to shareholder’s value over anything else, it is not a sole criterion to live by. In fact, a look at the mission-vision-values of most organisation would tell you that employee success is a lofty goal most companies pursue. The good companies do not abandon their employees, but rather help them in the transition through a variety of interventions like counselling, job hunting, etc. Tata Teleservices too has promised similar set of diverse actions, right from extended pay to accommodating them within other group companies. The thing is to proactively assure the employees that come what may, they will be helped in days coming. While business continuity is ensured, so will employment continuity

The Rock of Gibraltar approach

The Rock of Gibraltar overlooking the Iberian peninsula in Spain is regarded as symbol of strength. It mountainous point faces lots of storms and disturbances, yet it provides secure succor to a variety of species that live on it. Similarly a management that does not shift based on tides, and stays firm is the one that inspires people and builds loyalty. Through the past century or so, Tata is synonymous with trust and faith. People aspire to work for the company, simply out of it the charisma of the brand. Random lay offs and retrenchments can have a negative impact on the brand.

It is in the time of crisis that true leaders, be it individuals or companies, stand out. A little concern in such days can go a long way to help people. Hopefully, things will work out fine for Tata Tele and its employees, and hopefully they will know things firsthand, instead of in newsbreaks. It is a festive season in India right now, a time when Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, visits homes and brings with her prosperity and riches. Lets just hope that the employees for Tata Tele too are enthused by the festival of lights and are able to tide over the crisis.

DO we really need the Bullet Train? Of course we DO — Dodo!

Back in September 2014, when India’s Mars Orbiter Mission or Mangalyaan had successfully traversed the wide interstellar space to place an Orbiter in the Red Planet’s orbit, there was much celebration, clamor and much pride on the achievement. After all, only a handful of countries had been able to achieve a feat like that, and more importantly our Dragonish neighbor had failed to do that. It was a moment of super-duper pride for Indians, something like winning a Cricket World Cup twice and that too by thrashing the Pakis in the finals by a big-big margin. Mangalyaan was really so big.
Yet, even among the cheer and confetti around, there were a few discordant voices that could be heard talking about things like the usability, feasibility, of a mission like that. “One-third of Indians don’t have access to regular power or water, yet we splurge money on fancy space missions. Let’s concentrate on the basics, and leave such things for the Americans and their NASA. Kya zaroorat hain yaar!”
Now, this logical reasoning, juxtaposing any project spend with rampant poverty is a favorite bogey of the intelligentsia in India. Sipping duty-free Chardonnay and munching on salamander tikka masala, the irony if their views are never lost in these very brainy folks. The poor-poor chorus had been playing for much too long, like some background music in our Hindi films.
The launch of bullet trains in India has brought out this music again. Everywhere that I see, I am confronted by the sheer analytical and logical reasoning of why bullet trains are an expensive fancy waste, or how the economics is all wrong on this one. Intelligent and intellectual folks are deriding the project on a variety of reasons, from financial to political. All this negative coverage is surprising, after all, shouldn’t we be celebrating one of the biggest infrastructure projects in modern times. Didn’t the naysayers similarly debunk the ₹15000 crore Mumbai-Pune Expressway, and guess what they are doing these days, crying about the traffic jams on the 100 km stretch.
So what’s the bit about the Bullet trains, is it really expensive and unnecessary? Let’s deal with some of the primary arguments against the project on a case to case basis.
At ₹1,10,000 crore, it is a bullet TOO costly
In deed the Bullet Trains are costly. Why else, would so few countries have them and not all. Okies, so we know the story, the Japanese have loaned India some  ₹88,000 crore at some very favorable terms like 50-year time frame with 0.1% interest, a moratorium on payments for 15 years, etc. The rest  ₹20,000 crores will come from India. Now, as Aakar Patel argues on Firstpost, the figure is “three times the size of India’s health budget” and goes on conclude that the Bullet Trains “will be a vanity project, sucking money that could be used for health and education”.
But then, every infrastructure project is always a costly one. Building infrastructure always requires money, it is fairly obvious and simple. To give an instance, here are a few projects with their approx cost in the brackets:
  • Gujarat International Finance Tech-City or GIFT City (₹60,000 crore)
  • Golden Quadrilateral (₹30,800 crore)
  • Navi-Mumbai Airport (₹16000 crore)
  • Yamuna Expressway (₹12,839 crore)
  • Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport (₹2,325 crore)
  • Mumbai Freeway (₹1250 crore)
Ever since India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru launched the ₹ 250 crore Bhakra-Nangal in the 1960s, we have been forever evaluating the cost in terms of infra-spend. A nation that will soon be the most populous nation on the planet does not have a luxury to not spend on infrastructure. We need the highways, roads, the metros (the Delhi metro at ₹552 crore per kilometer, it is one of the costliest), as much as we do healthcare and education. Government spending in infrastructure is also a great way to boost sagging economy, it generates employment, helps businesses, etc. And finally, don’t forget, Bullet Trains are not a social project, they will run like a business, charge a premium, etc. Given the favorable terms of lending, the overall cost is quite justifiable. The big worry is not the initial assessment but rather the cost overruns. Almost all infrastructure projects in India are delayed and exceed the projections if the Bullet Train go through the same rigmarole, then it will turn unfeasible and costly. The best (or rather the worst) instance of this is how India acquired INS Vikramaditya, or aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, from Russia. The initial cost was some ₹6000 crore, but instead ballooned to ₹ 16,750. For a decommissioned aircraft, this was a much higher cost to pay.

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Why just an Eco-Ganapati? How about a Net-Zero Ganesh Chaturthi!

Today happens to be the last day of the Ganapati festival. Especially in Maharashtra, and more so on Mumbai, the festival is celebrated with such pomp and fervour that it would amaze anyone. Speaking from a religious hat, Ganesha, the benign elephant god after visiting tera firma for some ten days, will now be returning to good heavenly abode, among energetic chants of “Ganpati Bappa Morya, Puchta Varshi Lavkar Ya” (All hail Ganapati. Please come early next year). There such an energy that flows through the city, that it envelops you and affects you. Witnessing all the myriad Ganeshas being taken out for visarjan (ritualistic immersion), amid chants, drums and flowers, it’s hard not to feel happy and charged up at the same time.

But sadly this feeling doesn’t really for long. Over the next few days, one will be confronted with the scale of mindless degradation, of the Eco-Ganapati - pollution on beachwater bodies, of grounds, it saddens you a quite a bit. Newspapers will publish photos of washed up idols of Ganesha strewn across the beaches of Mumbai. A few familiar voices that try to leverage every thing for a personal PR, will suddenly appear on the scene and start with their familiar spiel of how the city is unable to cope with the sheer scale of the festival, they will ramble about the destruction of mangroves, of beaches, of the Arabian sea, and once they have got their 15 mins, they will shut up and into in hibernation.

This whole environmental/ecological discussion has almost turned into a cycle, the narrative moves along familiar ways. It isn’t that the people at large have been oblivious or ignorant to the ecological impact of the visit by the celestial god. The immersion prices gas been largely streamlined, you can’t just immerse the idol anywhere that catches your fancy. There are designated points, there’s a process, and more importantly, there are people from the administrative side that oversee and conduct the whole process. Over the past couple of years, the judiciary too has done it’s bit in bringing some necessary checks and balances, the high court especially has been quite proactive in clamping down on noise pollution, or pulling up the government for shoddy work done.

On the common folks level, people have become sensitive and concerned about how the commonly available plaster-of-Paris (p-o-p) idols truly besmirch the lakes, rivers and the sea. Idols crafted with mud (Shadu mitti) are costlier but quite common. There are now idols that are available that dissipate into a potted plant, once the festival passes. Even the media, more so the FM radio channels drive home the point quite laboriously through many days before the festival.

Eco-Ganapati - flower decorationPersonally, I have grappled with such issues myself, thrice has the elephant god visited my place, making me aware of the kind of challenges that present themselves, even when you are willing and keen to go green. While my first idol was a p-o-p one, the next two were of shadu mitti. Ideally, that should be making me happy and glad, as I seem to have have done my bit by going the “eco” way. But I frankly am not.

It’s only when, we started bringing in Ganesha at home, did I realise the scale of issues that confronts you. Greening in the idol is just one aspect of the festival, there’s much that needs to be done on that front.

Especially this year, I started to make notes of the environmental impact or rather the CO2 footprint of the Ganapati fest. In fact, we even tried to go in for eco-products in our quest to go green. It was costlier, but felt good. Yet, it is really not enough.

To give you an idea, let me enumerate with a few thoughts.

Beginning with the idol, while many people are now going in for eco-ganeshas (made of mud/clay) we embellish the idol in not-so ecological paints. The idols are painted in vivid colors, and accessorized with glassy objects that are anything but eco. In fact, idolly — or ideally, the idol must be in the pristine condition that it is made, with a natural color that manifests itself. While there could artistic refinements, there should be minimal embellishment of the idol itself. Continue reading

How long will you live; Dad?

Ok God, if I cross that line before that car does, you will add 20 years to my mummy and papa’s life. Done!,” Mumbling something like this I would dash full speed ahead, trying to cross an imaginary on the street before the car coming from the front does so. To be honest, the line was always drawn in a manner which would be a trifle hard to attain but with a certainty nonetheless. Also, the opponent car would be selected with care, the slow-poke stuttering Fiats and Ambassadors would be preferred over the flighty Marutis. Not surprisingly, I would win almost all the contests, crossing the line, winning the race and yes, adding years to my parent’s lives.

Though I am not too sure as to when I started playing this game, it was surely when I was less than 10. I guess, there’s something about that age when we suddenly become conscious of mortality, about life, death and the things beyond our control. We see birds dying, people dying sadly in films and on TV, we hear about the deaths of some far-off uncles and aunties, and then there are these absolute strangers that die up in some conversations, that were snatched away by  the pot-bellied Yama in some accident, disease, crime, or just about anything. Sadly, the blissful reverie and the innocence of childhood is besmirched by the burly god of death riding his dark buffalo to the underworld. It is at this age that it dawns upon us that life is a balloon that can be punctured by the prick of death. La Vita, is not necessarily and not always, est Bella.
The vulnerability is acute when it comes to our parents. Somehow the majority of the people dying seem to be strangely of about the same age as that of the mum and dad. In fact, the very thought of a lifeless dad or mom can absolutely ruin the fun and frolic much common to that age. We do realize that the parents are pretty crucial, as providers of course, to our existence. They buy us gifts, they give us food, new clothes, fees, toys, and other things. And though they can be pretty irritating with their lists of dos and donts, they are like a protective shield around us, saving us all the times from the big bad in the world. In a manner of speaking, parents are a necessary evil for our existence, like that sour medicine that spoils the taste but makes us healthy nonetheless.
Even the fairy tales are replete with instances of how terrible life can be without parents. I mean look at poor Snow white who lost her real mum, or for that matter Hansel and Gretel who were almost cooked to a curry because of their step-mum.  Or the reason why the big bad wolf was able to gobble down Red Riding Hood was because she had no mum and dad to take her care. You see, in almost all the fairy tales, the misery for the kids is beset by the death of a parent, most often a mother that is replaced by a wily step-mum.
Such tales kind of underscore why we kind of need our parents at that age, and why we are so interested in them living out long — often very very long. 100 years to be the very minimum!
It is the interesting conversations that I have with Idhant and Vihaan that reminds of my childhood dash that helped me to add continuous years to my parent’s lifeline. Invariably, any discussion that even has a hint of death and tragedy ends up with a discussion of how long we both (dad and mom) will live. Numbers are thrown up, calculations are done, and then a figure is arrived at.  At present, as per the current negotiations, we are supposed to live at least a century, a number of 150 years is not all that undesirable either.

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Walking with Nanak to uncover Sikh History

The first thing that immediately catches your attention is the beautifully illustrated cover, that has Guru Nanak in saffron robes, a staff in one hand and a rosary in other, all set for a long journey. And if the alluring illustration was not enough, the title itself invites you on a journey, Walking with Nanak, scores big in the first instance itself.

The author of this book is Haroon Khalid, who is a teacher by vocation and an avid traveler and writer by passion. This book is his third one, the other being A White Trail and In Search of Shiva. Basically, over the years Haroon has been writing on issues related to the minority communities in Pakistan, namely the Hindus and the Sikh. He is a sort of wandering chronicler who talks about the status and the current state of monuments related to Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan.

In the present book, Walking with Nanak, Haroon makes an interesting journey of all the important points of reference in Guru Nanak’s life as they exist in Pakistan. Guru Nanak was born in Rai Bhoi di Talwindi or what is known as Nankanasahib in 1469 and breathed his last in Kartarpur in 1539. In the 70 odd years that he lived on this planet, he made an astounding journey across the Indian subcontinent visiting places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia and so on. He apparently made 4-5 or five journeys that took him all over the place. Yet, at the end of it, he would return to his ancestral place in Pakistan at the culmination of each trip. Thus, because of this association with the first Sikh guru, the shrines in current day Pakistan are very important for the religion.

Guru Nanak traveled across all the places on foot and was accompanied by a companion named Mardana, who was a Muslim man from his village. Mardana would accompany him and play rubab on which Guru Nanak would sing his poems. The bond between that of Guru Nanak and Mardana is that of a murshid (guide) and mureed (follower). Haroon too travels to all the sites accompanied by his murshid, Iqbal Qaiser, whom he considers to be his mentor (and much more). Being a scholar (self-taught) on Sikhism, conversations with Iqbal provide an interesting insight on what has been the religious state of affairs post partition.

Relying on the Janamsakhis as a guide, Haroon “travels to historical places and witnessing the unfolding of history with imagination”.  Through the pages we uncover the numerous legends pertaining to Guru Nanak’s life right from Sacha Sauda to Panja Sahib. We also encounter interesting legends like how Guru Nanak had cursed the village of Kanganpur with “May the village of Kanganpur prosper.” Meanwhile, he had blessed the village of Manakdele as,”this is a hospitable village and it was an honour to stay here. I hope that this village never prospers and remains small. May the villagers of Manakdeke scatter from this place to the different regions of the world.”

But Haroon does not limit himself to Nanak, he gives us an insightful overview of the Sikh history, giving us a ringside view of the intricacies of how the various Gurus rose to power. And also tackling the contentious history of the relation between the Mughals and the Sikh Gurus. In a strange karmic way, the destiny of the Mughals seemed to be entwined with Sikh Gurus. For instance, the first Mughal king Babur had an encounter with Guru Nanak, whom he jailed for a few days in 1519. Post that in 1606, the 5th Guru Arjan Das was executed and Guru Hargobind was incarcerated on the orders of Emperor Jahangir. Then in 1675, the 9th Guru Tegbahadur was killed on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb. And then in 1707, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb died, and the empire when into decline, the last living guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobindsingh was murdered by Pathan horsemen in 1708. Haroon deals with this history at length, chronicling the transition of the Sikh Gurus as a religious head to that of a military one, like the formation of the Khalsa by Guru Tegh Bahadur.  He also touches upon the fratricidal conflicts like the one with Prith Chand on the selection of his younger brother Arjan as the Guru. Or even the objection by Guru Nanak’s elder son and wife to the appointment of his disciple as a successor. Continue reading

Kashmir: An albatross around India’s neck?

Kashmir is ablaze yet again. This time, over the killing of a terrorist Sabzar Bhat from the Hizbul Mujahedeen by the Indian security forces. The Valley seems to have erupted in support of the slain mercenary. Protests broke out in southern Kashmir, especially in Tahab area of Pulwama, Anantnag, and Shopian. The turmoil that has been kicked up on Bhat’s death seems to be like deja vu, a replay, of the anarchy that had gripped the Valley last year when Burhan Wani, another Hizbul terrorist, was gunned down by Indian forces. 
So why is the northern-most region of India erupting in violence over the death of dreaded terrorists like Wani and Bhat? Why is that the populace in Kashmir more sympathetic to the cause of the radicals rather than those of nationals? Why is Kashmir burning? Why are the Kashmiris so thankless and so darn unpatriotic?
These are some of the basic queries that seem to crop up in the mind of the Indians across the mainland. Fuelled by jingoistic coverage of events on media, which almost borders on absurd, there seems to be an invisible wall that lies between Kashmir and India. We seem to be looking at each other through a coloured prism, unable to understand or comprehend.
What could be the reason for this disconnect? Do we really understand the problems that beleaguer Kashmir? Are we even aware?
A political issue or something more
The turmoil in Kashmir is often portrayed as an old issue, dating back to right when India attained independence from the British. The story of Kashmir and its accession to India is too well-known to require a repetition. But let me add that the wounds that were opened in ’47, have not healed or have not been allowed to heal by various elements within and beyond the borders.
Meanwhile, back in mainland India, Kashmir is portrayed as a law and order problem, Pakistan is blamed for fanning the flames of violence, and so on. The common argument is that till 1989, weren’t the Kashmiris cohabiting with Indians happily, letting the Yash Chopras of the world shoot Bollywood movies in the charming locales. Now, if azaadi was not desirable till the 90s, how did the game change so drastically and dramatically? Why did the Shikara-driving or Kahwa-sipping Kashmiri suddenly develop political ambitions and such massive ones?
In our allergy to the word azaadi, what we really fail to realise is that it quite widespread in the Valley. From the rich owner of the houseboat to the lowly Gujjar horseman, everyone would at some time or the other talk about the concept of azaadi in varying degree of rapture. Instead of retreating into our patriotic shell, we need to face up to the call for azaadi, asking aloud as to whom is this freedom sought from; the Indian state or the state of affairs in Kashmir?
Solving it with might
In the stirring poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Coleridge tells a tale of a ship caught in a storm in the Antarctic waters and is rescued by the appearance of an albatross that guides the ship to safety. One of the mariners on board shoots the bird and brings bad luck to the ship. As the ship gets stuck in the ocean, the crew blames the mariner for the ill-luck and hang the dead albatross around his neck, as a sort of punishment or reminder of his crime.
Metaphorically, Kashmir seems like an albatross around India’s neck. The difference is, it isn’t yet dead but gasping for air, mortally wounded. Like the mariner in the poem who killed the beautiful bird with a gun, we too seem to be doing so, with lot many guns and an amazing array of them (AK47s, pellets, rubber, tear-gas).
Kashmir is being strangulated by the very hands that are meant to save it. And no prizes for guessing; it is the Indian military.
The first striking thing that you notice the moment you step out of Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport in Srinagar is the sheer numbers of security forces on the street. All over the roads, the crossroads, the corners, the hillocks, the distance, the near, the shops, the roundabouts, the camps, the schools, the ATMs, everywhere that you see are men in fatigues armed with automatics. One gets a rather odd feeling at seeing such pervasive military presence. I mean, you kind of wonder, whether you have accidentally landed in Kabul or Baghdad instead of Srinagar.
Apparently, there’s a record in the Guinness Book as well that talks about Kashmir being the most militarised place on the planet. Figures vary from a few lakh to a couple of millions depending on bias behind the number. Nevertheless, even on a per capita Kashmiri basis, the sheer number of Indian military force is mind numbing.

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Were we duped by Donald?

It’s been 100 days with Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States (POTUS) — a 100 very long days. And while there’s much debate/discussion on the achievements of the orangish president with huge hands across the world — right from his travel ban on Muslims to his dropping bombs on Muslim countries — the Indian state seems to have been caught in a Catch-22 situation. You see, Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman, had raised many hopes of a recharged Indo-US strategic relationship. He Trump Duped India_5claimed himself to be a fan of Hindus, an admirer of Modi, not to mention his takes in Indian real estate market, all these pointed to a rosy future.

But 100 days on, there seems to have been little movement on the ‘dosti’ front. The US continues to be ambivalent on India, there has not been much change in the relationship, be it on the economic or political front. So, the big question is whether India should celebrate the 100 days of President Trump or just clutch its head in despair, like much else of the world is doing?

India-US Bhai-Bhai?

Much as people would like to believe, India has never had a real good “Howdee Pardner” kind of a relationship US. The last time an Indian premier had a great thing going on with the US leadership was when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was in office and Jackie Kennedy was in the house, the Whitehouse. But then, Nehruji took a left turn and went all gooey with the Babushka lady from the North. And so, the subsequent American presidents were either ignorant or unsure of India. Also, the fact that our enemy-number-numero-uno (Pakistan, in case you forgot) just happened to forge a strategic tie-up with the Americans against the Hammer-Sickle alliance in Afghanistan, worked much against us. So, while our ageing Mig 21s, and 22s kept flying into the ground (oft times with the pilots still strapped within), the Pakistanis would somehow manage to procure a whole squadron of F16s that too, paid with American aid. Can anyone beat that?

In fact, the US-Paki bromance had reached such a level, that when India had to intervene to stop the genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh now), the mighty Seventh Fleet had set sail for the Indian Ocean to aid the beleaguered Pakis. Luckily for India, a tipsy Yahya Khan was the president of Pakistan and took them to their eventual defeat. But the fact remains, the Americans were on the Paki side on this one.

History is replete with instances of how the Americans have not really loved us. Right from Trump Duped India_6denying a place in the security council, to imposing economic sanctions after the nuclear tests; caught between the love of Islamabad and the scepticism of Beijing, New Delhi seemed to have mattered very less. In fact, between the years of 1978-2000, there was not a single US presidential visit to India, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton.

And if our dalliance with the Soviets were not enough, our wily Chinese neighbours were no less. As the economic and military might of Beijing increased, the American was forced to choose the dragon over the tiger. Back in 1965, when the Chinese had attacked India, the Kennedy administration had even contemplated using the nuclear option against the Chinese. Apparently, in one of the meetings, President Kennedy had stated: “We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India.” By the turn of the century, the Americans had to apologize to Beijing to secure the release of a pilot that had been shot down while flying a spy plane over China. That’s how dramatic, the shift was post the Great Leap Forward under Mao Zedong that turned China into an economic powerhouse. The Chinese with their manufacturing might had turned the tables on India. The Great Wall kind of dictated the way US dealt with us.

There was a little thaw in the Indo-US relationship in the 90s though, with the collapse of the USSR and India’s economic liberalisation. With the global MNCs finding a large market opportunity in India, Uncle Sam suddenly seem to be aware of the country’s existence.  But even so, India was never the most favoured nation, say the way the Chinese or the Pakis were. Continue reading

More than just intelligence. Here’s why we should embrace AI.

Have you seen a short-film called Sunspring? It’s a rather insipid tale about the future, with three characters mulling about love, revenge, and having to “go to the skull”. The 9-minute odd film has been directed by Oscar Sharp, and was made as part of the Sci-Fi-London film festival’s 48hr Challenge. All in all, if you haven’t seen it till now, you haven’t missed much in life.

So, if the story is nothing to rave about, the acting was no great jigs and the direction was so so, why are we discussing Sunspring?  Well, it is due to Benjamin, who wrote the AI_01screenplay of the movie. And no Benjamin is not some celeb writer or some Pulitzer-prize winner. You see, Benjamin happens to be a rather nondescript piece of technology, which goes by the real name as a recurrent neural network called long short-term memory, or LSTM for short.

Simply speaking, Benjamin is your friendly neighbourhood Artificial Intelligence or AI. It is a bit of technology that is able to learn and create, for instance, in this case, it crawled through 100s of scripts from the 80s and 90s to come up with this one.

It is for the first time ever that a screenplay has been written completely by AI. It is a giant leap in this regards, when AI becomes so intuitive that it can now move into the artistic space, and create content automatically. It is quite unlike say winning a game of chess or even hoping contestants in Jeopardy.

Elementary my dear Watson

Artificial intelligence has been around for quite some time. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the term artificial intelligence is defined as “the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour”. When John McCarthy had coined the term in the AI_31950s, he had meant it a bit different, dubbing it, “It is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs. It is related to the similar task of using computers to understand human intelligence, but AI does not have to confine itself to methods that are biologically observable.”

Thus, from the 50s AI has moved from understanding human intelligence to mimicking it. It is no more about software or hardware, but rather more encompassing in that sense. Effectively, AI could now be an intelligent piece of software, a super-computer, a cloud-based system, or even a smart robot.

Yet, even as the definition evolves, there are certain core characteristics of the system that do not really change. We can broadly characterise AI as a system that is able to remember and learn without much external inputs. It is a self-learning system that learns from its successes and failures. Like say, how IBM’s Deep Blue defeated grandmaster Gary AI_02Kasparov in a rematch in 1997, after having decidedly lost to the master in 1996. It seemed to have evolved, learnt from its flaws, analysed its opponent’s strength.

But then, don’t mistake AI to be a costly proposition, the kind that exists in Deep Blue or IBM Watson. It can be much nimble and ubiquitous. So, your input keypad on the mobile device that remembers the colloquial and vernacular terms used and does not auto-correct them is a form of AI. The mobile assistants Siri, Google Now, Cortana, are also AI. Meantime, the self-driving car that uses concurrent data from sensors all over the car and manages to navigate is an example of a rather complex and a bit more advanced form of AI.

Yet, AI is not about remembering words, or navigating roads, it has a much broader approach and depth to it, ranging from deciphering the string-theory of the universe to say splitting the atom. There is no limitation to where AI can be applied or used, from the puny mobile phone to the massive Hubble telescope.  These days, Google Deepmind is defeating AlphaGo champions, IBM Watson is all the time keen to take up challenges for games or discussions, Intel is using deep learning to make machines smarter, GE is using Predix to create brilliant factories or digital twins. Continue reading

The Blueprint of the Saffron Sweep in UP Elections

In the annals of Indian politics, it is often said that the road to Delhi passes through the state of Uttar Pradesh. With 80 MPs, UP accounts for a lion share in the Lok Sabha. And it doesn’t end there, the state also sends 31 members to Rajya Sabha, thus, winning is important in UP, in case you desire to rule India.

Not surprisingly then, UP also accounts for the maximum Prime Ministers who fought from a constituency in the state, namely, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Choudhary Charan Singh, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Chandra Saffron Sweep UP_shashwatdc_1Shekhar, Atal Behari Vajpayee and now even Narendra Modi. In a sense of terms, UP is like the steering-wheel of Indian politics, he (or she) who controls UP, can steer the politics of this nation in his/her wake.

Little wonder then, winning the election in UP was extremely critical for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Coming bang in the middle of his term, he could not afford to be lax about it. Over the past two years, the aura around PM Modi had waned a bit, with his hands tied up in Rajya Sabha; the NDA government was unable to push its reform agenda as it would have wished. The constant chitter-chatter of intolerance was also taking a toll; he was being pulled for all promises. Even allies like Shiv Sena were not missing an opportunity to jibe at him.

In the past, two state elections had exposed BJP’s Achilles Heel. The first one was in Delhi, where an overconfident BJP received a severe drubbing and stoked the ambitions of Arvind Kejriwal. The second one was Bihar elections, where a Nitish-Lalu Mahagatbandhan was able to stall the Modi juggernaut. The losses in Bihar and Delhi emboldened the opposition, and PM Modi was seemingly much weaker than the ‘loh purush‘ image that he projects.

In the midst of this melee came a must-win UP elections. For PM Modi it was almost a battle of survival and of relevance. A loss in UP, would not only give a boost to the opposition but would also have the demurred party-wallahs start questioning the “my way or the highway” approach of the PM. Modi had little option, but to win UP and win it big.

This is the reason, why Amit Shah and his team shifted bag, baggage and bunker to UP, and worked tirelessly for months and months before the elections. The blueprint for UP was constructed on numerous pegs, right from caste arithmetic to development politics; the whole campaign was mounted on a grand scale. Here’s a primer to how story of lotus-blossom unfolded in UP:

The great gamble of demonetization

One of the biggest rallying points for the opposition parties, including Congress and rest was the black money issue. In the run-up to the general election in 2014, the BJP in many ways had overplayed the black-money bogey promising impossible things like 15 lakhs in Saffron Sweep UP_shashwatdc_5each person’s account to give a size of the problem. Yet, while the figure was notional, it was used a baton to whack BJP and especially PM Modi every now and then. “Where’s the black money in my account?” had become a common jibe by the opposition party leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamta Banerjee and so on.

Even though the government had put in measures to deal with black money, the public perception was building against them. PM Modi had to do something big and monumental to truly shift this impression. This was especially more critical as in the UP elections, there was nothing significant to showcase to the populace. It was in this regards that the PM brought in the demonetization on November 8, 2016. By presenting the exercise as a war on black money and corruption, the PM was able to create a narrative that worked with the common populace. While the whole nation was troubled by the sudden annulment of 86% of existing currency, the fact that a leader was doing something seemed to have mattered more for the layman. The fact that PM’s personal integrity is rated quite high, helped shaped the narrative well. The opposition were in disarray, knowing not how to react or whom to attack. By turning the demonetization debate personal, politicians like Mamta Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi played into the hands of Modi. No more, were we discussing the logic, rationale or economics, but using exaggerated adjectives to debunk it. This turned the whole discussion into a “Us” versus “Them”, in which the public sympathy was with the man who was taking on all the rich and powerful. Continue reading