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.

The Great Manipulator

So, now that was the case till recently;  the US was besotted by China, dating Pakistan, and our best friend Russia in the doldrums. During the tenure of PM Manmohan Singh, there was sufficient movement on the economic ties and Barrack Obama had landed here in Air Force One, it was not hunky-dory yet. And then, Narendra Modi was elected as a prime minister of India in 2014. The Modi Government deliberately moved away from the Trump Duped India_7Nehruvian policies, spurned the Russians and courted the US, openly. Meanwhile, in the US, the American Indian community was also gaining much economic might, with quite a few them in top administrative and corporate positions. As the might of the Indian diaspora grew, so did the importance. The grand show by PM Modi in Madison Square Garden was an indicator of that, a foreign PM filling up a stadium for his speech. Not surprisingly, all the anti-Indian lobbies or the senators went mute.

The US Presidential election in this light was an interesting one.  Over the past many years, there had been an opinion that the Republican Party was good for India (as it was pro-business and so pro-outsourcing) than the Democrats (pro-labour anti-others). The commonest example is how Bill Clinton imposed sanctions and George W Bush signed the Indo-US Nuclear deal. Yet, the Democrats enjoyed much Indian support in the US.  After all, it’s easy to support an illogical candidate, if you don’t have to vote for him and he is not going to rule over you.  Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton enjoyed much support from the community, and hence garnered good funding.

As the Republican candidate, Donald Trump was aware of the power and the influence of the Indian Diaspora and hence courted them openly. Remember the “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar” campaign, or how Ivanka Trump celebrated Diwali at an Indian temple, the Republican campaign was decidedly pro-India.

But can you guess what excited Indians the most? It was not Trump’s love for India but the animosity to China. He promised that among the first things, he will do as a president was label China as a currency manipulator and impose trade sanctions. Now, wasn’t it Kautilya, who had stated that the enemy’s enemy is a friend. Trump was thus thought to be a great friend of India, so what if the world found him to be a fiend.

Good ol’ Trump was supposedly right-winger, and PM Modi was decidedly right-wing. Two ‘rights’ would always add to one big one. Right?

Apparently NOT.

The U-Turn President 

Any serious assessment of Trump’s first 100 days in office, would invariably throw up a cropper. From the Wall to Obama care, from a list of controversial appointments to an endless barrage of non-sensical statements on Twitter, there’s precious little for Trump to show in his report card. While none of that should be of concern to India, there’s actually one thing that does, or let’s make it two things. One is a U-turn and the other is a No-turn.

Let’s talk about the No-turn first. Among the many things that Trump promised in the run up to the presidency, one dealt with H1B Visas. Thanks to these special category of work Visas, thousands of Indian workers have got employment opportunities in the US. The Trump Duped India_4Indian IT industry especially has benefitted much, deploying scores and scores of low-paid software workers on highly-paid consultant jobs. This has been largely responsible for the boom in the $150 Bn Indian IT Services industry. With the Trump administration tightening the bolts on the H1B regime, the IT industry will be badly wounded. Little wonder then that ever since Trump has taken office, the stocks of Indian IT companies from Infosys, TCS, and even Wipro have been in the reds. Rather strangely, of all the promises made by Trump, the only one he is delivering on, will hurt India much, economically. He recently signed of an executive order on the issue and has promised more on that front. So much for Trump Sarkar!

Contrast it to the way Trump has capitulated in front the Chinese. Forget about all his threats of labelling China as a currency manipulator or imposing trade sanctions, Trump is going all goey-goey with Chinese President Xi Jinping, playing golf and eating chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago. In return for support on dealing with North Korean Kim Jong Un, Trump has done a complete ‘un’ on China. The dragon is back in the picture and the tiger is in hibernation.

If that was not enough, India also has to deal with a rather grumpy Russia. The Kremlin is not apparently happy in the manner in which India courted the Americans in the past decade, as the Russian influence declined. With a ‘Thou Brutus‘ kind of an approach, the Russians have been doing lambda with the Chinese. Like ex-flame, there’s a streak of revenge not too hard to discern.

Sadly for us, the counterweight to Russia has vanished. The US under Trump is a vacillating state, if not a vassal one.  Thus there’s a sort of ménage-a-trois of America, China, Russia which is kind of working against us. The funny part is, we can’t do a sh*t about it.

In the end, for all the euphoria the high profile “Indian” appointments, like Amul Thapar to top judicial post, Seema Verma as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Trump Duped India_2Medicaid Services, Nikki Haley as US envoy to the United Nations, President Trump has been copiously silent on the several attacks on Indian nationals and Americans of Indian origin in the US in the recent past with two people killed in suspected hate crimes.

The Trump administration even crossed the laxman-rekha on Kashmir, when it offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, something that India has strongly objected to in the past and has so again.

In spite of all the acrimony in past (denying him Visa), there was a palpable bonhomie between Barrack Obama and Narendra Modi. Something that seems to be completely missing between Modi and Trump. They might exchange pleasantries on Twitter or platitudes on telephone, but the warmth in the relationship is just not there.

At the culmination of these 100 days, Indians should wake up and smell some kadak-chai. We need to bolster ourselves like the American citizens for some 1300 more days of Trump.  Probably, Modi should now hold more stadium shows in the US, possibly even think about lending Amit Shah to the Republican Party to help them win the elections, they are so bound to lose. We need to do something, and it better be out of the box.  Else, going by the way these past hundred have, one thing is sure, they will be anything but “huge, tremendous and dangerous”. Let’s start praying to our gods people, if not anything else!

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

Concocting Dissent, Fomenting Despair

At the very onset, before we move even move an inch, here are some current statistics on India for some ready consumption:

  • Real GDP growth – 7.1% (vs. 6.9% year earlier) *link
  •  Inflation – 3.17% in Jan’17 (the lowest ever) *link
  •  Foreign Exchange Reserves – $360 bn (vs. $294 bn in Mar 14) *link
  • Net FDI flows – $46 bn (up by 18%) *link
  • Current account deficit – $22.1 bn (down from -$26.8 bn last year) *link
  • Fiscal deficit (% of GDP) – 3.2% (vs. 3.99% last year) *link
  • Competitive Index – 4.52 points out of 7 (the 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report) *link
  • Per capita income – Rs. 103818 (vs. 94178 last year) *link
  • Financial inclusion – 260 million PMJDY accounts in Dec’16 *link
  • LPG for Poor – 5 lakh new connections given to poor  *link

And to top it all, in November 2016, the Indian government undertook a step that not only surprised its own citizen, but flabbergasted the world. It demonetized the high-currency notes (1000 & 500) that accounted for over 80% of total market cuurency circulation. Everything went into a tizzy, there were serpentine queues, there were issues of liquidity, yet, the government kept working on it, and within a span of 90-days, things were all normal. Not to forget, they were normal and Digital. 

Sone ki chidiya?

In fact, after a flurry of global economist debunking demonetization or predicting doom, things have much changed. There is a growing consensus that if the requisite Manufacturing dissent_shashwatdc_2complementary actions towards digitization are undertaken, demonetization could actually accelerate the shift to a cashless — thereby transparent and yes, less corrupt — society. Recently, the Secretary General of Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Angel Gurria came all out in support of demonetization. “India has been a star performer in gloomy times. We do not have many cases of 7% growth (GDP). It is a top reformer among all the G-20 countries he stated at an event.

Even on the foreign policy, India seems to be doing fairly well. China’s all caught up in the South China Sea, in North Korea, or back home, to really bother about us. Pakistan, well, it is there and will be. Russia is busy in the US, Europe is stagnating, so is South Asia, and President Trump is doing wonderful things in the US. Our influence and our equity has improved under the current government’s watch.

Now given all these facts and stats, one would naturally assume that Indians would be smug about themselves, happy, proud, ecstatic if not outright boisterous celebrations with Old Monk and Thumbsup.

Right? Right? RIGHT?

Rather strangely, No! Now imagine, if you were a tourist who’s come down to India, and wants to get a feel of things from news channels, print papers and digital medium about the mood of the nation. Well, in case you did, it would depress the daylights out of you. All that is there to read and watch are things about all these poor students that are being viciously attacked, daughters of martyrs are being threatened with rape, celebs that troll, ministers that patronize, I mean, generally, all things would seem so murky, sad and disconcerting. Suddenly, the India that the stats above extol, and the India that is represented is in absolute contrast to each other. So, while we celebrate the multiplicity of god, have we Indians also discovered the multiplicity of truth?

Chimp sniffer

Of all the strange things that monkeys do, there’s this one trait that still takes the cake, sniffing — you know — sniffing their own bottoms. A lot many monkeys (apes, etc) have been observed with such a deplorable trait, putting their finger in the bum and then sniffing at it. Usually it ends in a disaster or disgust, like it did here. But no one has been able to fathom, why they actually do it. I mean, all is good, hunky-dory, and they’d put the finger there, sniff it and suffer.

Now, I believe, there’s this one trait that a few-many humans are inclined with. After all, we aren’t all that genetically different from our butt-sniffing cousins. There’s this chance that a quite a few of those habituated ones are currently residing in India and by sheer serendipity of life, are now at top positions in the media business, fashioning the outlook and the slant of the society with their morbidity. From their perch on the top, these ravens of despondency, relentlessly croak their views spreading all melancholy around.

And if that wasn’t enough, quite a few of these human-chimp sniffers can also be found on the social media sites, writing poignant messages or tweeting scathing masterpieces. Continue reading

Thousand to Zilch: Why Indians are rejoicing the #WarOnBlackMoney

It is extremely rare for an Indian Prime Minister to make an address to the nation. Usually, when he (or she) does, something seriously is amiss. The last time, I recall, a Prime Minister making “an address to the nation” was in 2014, where a serious looking PM Manmohan Singh bid adieu to the nation. Thus, a PM’s address is a bad omen. Not surprisingly then, when PM Narendra Modi did the same on 8th November, you knew something was up, it was his first “address” in over 2 years in office. And sure it was. A modi-address-759dour looking PM then in the 20 mins made an announcement that sent the whole country in a tizzy. He announced a war on black money with almost immediate demonetization of 500 & 1000 Rupee notes. “The arrangement of buying and selling through existing 500 and 1000 notes will not be available. These will be just worthless piece of paper”.

Never before in the history of modern world, 86% of currency in circulation was turned into worthless in a matter of 2-3 hours. And this was done with absolute planning. The decision came out at 9 pm, and the 500 & 1000 notes ceased being a legal tender at 11.59 pm. In this time, the black money hoarders could do precious little to convert it into another assets like gold or other precious metal. While the government would circulate a completely new (500 & 2000) denomination notes, the banks would be closed for a day, there would be limits on withdrawals, and so many other dos and donts. Come to think of it, there was hardly another way to bring about such demonetization, it has to be hard and it had to be sudden.

Immediately after the announcement, people hit the streets trying to exchange the ubiquitous 500 and 1000 bucks, by making small purchases or things like that. But as the shutterstock_388023334word spread, the exchange stalled. No one was ready to touch the currency with a barge pole. Shopkeeperrs would smile indulgently on being offered these notes. Outside ATMs, there was a huge queue of people, withdrawing 400 bucks at a time. Ditto, long queues at petrol pumps, as people tried to use the notes to tank up their vehicles. Even on the television, you could all these people standing outside ATMs and petrol pumps trying to lay their hands on whatever 100 or 50 they could lay their hands on. People across the board were confused, irritated, and even angry at the way their Tuesday night had been laid waste. But yet, almost all were in agreement that it was a bold, necessary and welcome move by the government. There was hardly a soul on the road, who did not support or complement PM Modi on this move.

So how is that when so many people were troubled and disconcerted with a policy action, yet they seemed to be happy and glad for it? Continue reading

Dear Uber, do you really ‘love’ the taxi-riders in Mumbai?

Recently, the Maharashtra government put forth a set of draft rules for regulating the taxi industry. These rules have been in the works for some time as various taxi-operators (especially in the city of Mumbai) have been demanding “uniform code” for the industry. The chorus for such rules has come from the lower-end (kaali-peeli taxi-wallas and the autorickshaws) and the upper end (radio-taxi operators like Meru and TabCab) as well. And yet, the funniest part is that there is already a stringent set of laws that regulate the functioning of these operators. So why the hell are they asking for more?shutterstock_345346703

Actually, they are not. These taxi stakeholders are demanding something more mundane, something basic. Something that spells as parity in business. The crux for any business to function normally is that all the players in the sector will be treated same. Simple to say that rules and regulations should be the same for all the players. So, what is good for the goose, should be good for the gander. Right? Apparently not, when the gander is a multi-billion ride share MNC that goes by the name of Uber.

In fact, Uber has raised a stink regarding the Maharashtra government’s draft, opposing it with all the muscle that it can muster. The US-based cab aggregator has decried the rules, calling them restrictive and archaic. It even launched a high-octane public petition, seeking the lay citizen to sign-up and fight against the restrictive norms. The petition paints a rather gloomy picture, namely, if the rules are implemented, it “will mean an end to the Uber I know and love today”.  Rather than talking just logic, or talking about the facts that are hurting competition, the petition tries to tug the emotional chords, love, shove and the works.

Now that seems to be taking things a tad bit-bit too far, like a Karan Johar movie with Anurag Kashyap dialogues. You see, taxi-riders in Mumbai don’t really love Uber or Ola, but yes they do seem to hate the kaali-peelis and autorickshaw-wallas. After decades and decades of suffering the indifferent and condescending attitude of these monopolistic ruffians, they have finally found deliverance at the hand of these cab aggregators. This welcome shift started with start of Meru in the city, and blossomed with Ola and Uber. To put it rather bluntly, the taxi-riders in the city like the convenience of a no-nonsense service that is way cheaper than the kaali-peelis. I mean Rs. 6 per km is even cheaper than taking your own car out. That is secret behind that “love” that Uber claims it receives. Yet, this incentivised love is usually not monogamous, the denizens will shift to anyone that offers a bigger bonanza. I mean, if there was a cab operator that offered Rs. 3 per km ride, of course, more would ‘love’ it than any Uber or Ola. There’s no emotion in economics? Continue reading

Congratulations on winning the Bronze Sakshi. I so wish you had Not!

To be honest, there can hardly be a bigger high on this planet than winning the Olympic Medal. Competing against the very best athletes in the world, it takes a hell lot more from an individual to make it to the podium. In that regards, the dramatic win of a 23-year-old Indian lady from Rohtak is nothing short of spectacular. It was a fabulous treat to have a charged-up Sakshi Malik taken on Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova in a dramatic finish in the 58kg freestyle wrestling category, winning the bout and finally opening India’s medal account.Olympic 7

The excitement and buzz that the win generated is fairly understandable, the #SakshiMalik hastag was trending on Twitter, you had all sorts of celebs that were toasting the young lady, right from PM Modi to our Olympic Ambassador Salman Khan (ohh sorry, @BeingSalmanKhan hasn’t found the time yet to congratulate Sakshi, possibly will, after his promotions of Freaky Ali are over). I even heard Sakshi’s mother on radio exploding into how the “bharat ki beti” had brought honour for the nation and Sakshi’s brother was like, this is the best “rakshabandhan gift”, et al.

From here on, the tale as it will unfold is fairly straight. As soon as Sakshi lands in India, there will be a whole lot of jubilation and celebration, she will ride out from the airport to shower of rose-petals, will be hosted by the PM and CM, granted land parcels, would be featured in adverts, and there might even be a film made on her struggle. And then, we also have another medal winner in PV Sindhu, who by the virtue of getting a gold/silver would be as joyously feted, in almost a templatised approach.

The trouble is that in all this euphoria, what will be forgotten is that it took a good fortnight and more for India to win a medal in an event, where you have 207 countries participating with over 11000 athletes in 306 events and 28 sports. A nation that aspires to be a global power; will shortly be the most populous country on the face of the world, cannot even manage to reach the finals of most events, let alone win a medal. If one looks at the performance of the Indian athletes, it will be a very long-list “Did Not Qualify”. The fact, that a Dipa Karmakar had to attempt a death-defying Produnova move to reach the 4th position, speaks volumes of how ill-equipped Indian athletes are. And yet, every 4 years, India continues to send a bigger and more bigger sports contingent to these Olympics. This year, in fact, India had the biggest contingent of all nations. And yet, where do we stand on the medals tally, at 71 right now, with even countries like Kenya, Jamaica, Indonesia and even Mongolia ranked much higher (let’s not even take the name of our neighbour, whose name starts with a C). Continue reading

Trekking up the Tiger’s Nest

“Come on, of course you have to do it. Everyone who comes to Bhutan has to do it. It is like almost mandatory,” is basically how Dawa Penjor, the CEO of Bhutan Media Foundation, reacted when I told him that I was giving Tiger’s Nest a miss, especially as ‘I hate trekking’. There was a look of incredulity on him, like I was planning to not see Eiffel on the visit to Paris, or miss the great Pyramids while visiting Egypt. Similarly, I guess, missing Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) is just not an option in Bhutan.

Thankfully, Dawa moved from incredulity to encouragement, and went on to soothe my frayed nerves that had started jingling at the very prospect of a climb up the mountainous path. “Don’t worry; you will surely be able to do it. After all even 70 year-olds are known to have climbed up the hill, pretty easily,” was his winning argument. It was only later that I Taktsang monastery Bhutanrealised, that “70 year-old” was more like a placebo for hassled nerves.

Nonetheless, I took the bait, and then our common friend Sonam Gyambo tinkered with my itinerary to fit in the one-day trek in the two days that I was left with in Bhutan. A phone call to his friend in Kicchu Monastery — whom he referred to as a healthy monk, and then we were all set for a climb up the hill. From skipping Taktsang to setting out to visit it, I had made a big leap of faith in a matter of few hours.

My reservations against Tiger’s Nest were not without reasons. You see, I am certainly not in the best of physical frames. The last time I had stood on a weighing scale, it groaned itself to some 3 digit number. Secondly, I am certainly not the trekking types; I more like the loaf-wander-drifter types. I loathe the very concept of those trekkers whose only aim is to quickly reach a point, take some selfies, preen and quickly descend. I am more likely to contemplate on a silly lily, or admire an ant-hill. I hate the rush in life, and I detest it more so on those scenic beautiful mountains. After all, “what is this life full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”, and I love to stand and stare without a rhyme or a reason.

And then, when I saw the pictures of Tiger’s Nest from a trek-able purview, I knew it would be stretching myself to an impossible scale. The last trek, I had undertaken was more than a decade back and here was a monastery that challenged you from an edge of a cliff, 3000 metres above sea-level. Nah let the tiger (or tigress) rest peacefully there. I had no intent to disturb it at all.

Anyways, on my last day in Bhutan, I was down there in the Paro Valley, with the healthy-monk to guide me to the top, and my better-half and two sons to inspire me to the there. On the first glimpse of monastery, as a tiny little white dot stuck afar into the green hill that stood rather tall, I knew it would not be an easy task. And how right was I.

Taktsang monastery BhutanWe were there at the base by around 7.30 am, after parking the car, we started on the route. It was a dusty hilly road, and immediately, it started up. At the start you could hear the horses grunting, possibly doing some horsey pranayam in preparation for the taxing climb ahead. For a moment, I was much tempted to load myself on a horse, but our monky guide was firm, and dissuaded me from it. Believe me; very shortly I would be cursing him for it.

Just about 30 minutes into the climb, my pace had dropped considerably and I was huffing and puffing badly. To save myself from embarrassment and also to not drag the others back, I requested the lot to move ahead, promising them that I would catch up soon. The kids were unaffected by the incline and bounded on their way to the top with the monk and another friend. Meanwhile, the better half was perturbed as well, but she was doing better than me. I asked her to move ahead as well, so that I will have some inspiration to move on. She reluctantly agreed but even that didn’t seem to work.

It must have been an hour and as I dragged myself grudgingly up the road, my condition seemed to get progressively worse. I would walk for 5 minutes and then for the next 15 Taktsang Monastery Bhutanminutes, I would be catching up on my breath. In between, there would be all those horses with those relaxed riders would pass by, and I would grunt in dismay. Why did I ever listen to that monk, is what I grumbled. As the sun gained strength as it made its way across the sky, the going seemed to go tougher.

But then, I was not alone. There were a lot many others from all across the world, climbing up the path to the monastery. The fitter ones would move ahead and pass by, but the not-so fit ones (like me) were moving in a sort of pack. We all were struggling, and the struggle seemed to make us aware of each other.

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Make In India Week: A ‘Nautanki’ that was much necessary

Kya zaroorat hain itna zagmag se event karneka? Make In India simple se bhi to ho sakta hain” (What’s the need for all this extravagance, the Make In India event could have been arranged in simple manner), the elderly sort of man sitting right next to me in the autorickshaw blurted out. It had been a tenuous Monday morning since the auto-wallahs in Mumbai had gone on a flash strike; making the task of finding an auto no less than one of one of Hercules labor. After much consternation and time, had landed myself in a share-auto to BKC, along with two other gentleman who had squeezed in. The fact that all of us were agitated and angry was not surprising, after all when something as mundane as IMG_0356finding an auto becomes an ordeal, something as extraordinary as a Make In India Week (MIIW) seems completely unnecessary. Thus on spotting a green colour media pass for MIIW dangling from my neck, the gentleman in the hard-won share-auto could not help comment. “Auto strike to rokh naheen paya, phir itna bada nautanki kyun?” (The administration could not stall the auto strike, so what is the real need for such an event).

As I alighted the auto and walked past the huge crimson red pavilion with the words “Make In India Centre” emblazoned in huge golden letters, with flags of very many nations fluttering in the foreground, I was thought over the words of the man and was reminded of an anecdotal parable we often share about the way Indians function. It’s the one that has an open dish and Indian cockroaches within it. None escapes, because no sooner one tries to climb out, the rest gang up and pull him IMG_0358down. Somehow, that anecdote seemed apt to me. It seems that we Indians seem to have a problem with success, especially when it is of our very own. We find it hard to digest, to come to terms with it. So we lash out at it, debunk it, call it useless, futile, nautanki, etc.. That is a typical way in which many react in India. But this trend has exacerbated with the coming the PM Narendra Modi. Everything now is perceived from a political prism, thus, if you don’t agree with him, everything he does has to be negative. So what if it is Skill India or Make In India?

The best instance of this bias could be seen in the way the media in general covered the event. The fourth estate largely avoided talking about the event, or when they did it were the negative aspects were highlighted. So the fire at one of the Make In India event became a talking point. There were talks about mismanagement, the lack of coordination by the organisers, the absence of non-NDA states, and then was all the talk about the quantum of MOUs signed and how much would be realised. These were the things that were talked about, not the fact how many attended or what was on display.

Looking beyond the extravagance

Strangely, jamboree was the appellation that the MIIW has been dubbed by the media at large. The event that was spread over a week, and inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, has either been ignored or spoken in a bIMG_20160217_142435lithe manner. The term jamboree (essentially means a large congregation or party; extravagant and lavish. Usually, a boisterous affair.) is symbolic of that mindset, a perspective that has been tinged with ignorance
or naivety. Anyone who visited the event would vehemently argue over the term of reference. The scope and spread of MIIW cannot be expressed as jamboree; it is much beyond those trivial description that hinge largely on size and scale.

But before we come to the very core of what MIIW was, let’s do touch upon its most talked aspect; the size. Indeed, it was one of the most impressive event in terms of scale. Spread over 2,30,000 sq. mt of prime land in Bandra Kurla Complex, there were 27 air-conditioned pavilions that were erected in crimson red.

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Why the Indian Science Congress needs be Banned — For its Indianness

Imagine, Shiva, the lord of destruction, being hailed as the greatest and the first environmentalist of the universe? Sounds like a plot from a latest Amish Tripathi type of fiction doesn’t it? And then you have a theory that by blowing a conch shell, one can exercise rectal muscles, prostrate, urinary tract, lower abdomen, diaphragm, chest and neck muscles. No wonder all those warriors during the times of the Mahabharata, and thereon were in excellent shape, after all, they blew a lot of conch back then.

Had this sort of discussion (of Shiva the Environmentalist and Conch as rectal reliever) taken place at some mythology or some religious conference, or programme running on448408-lord-shiva-700-1 Astha TV, all would have been rather fine. But instead, these points were thrown up at the prestigious annual science congress event that took place in Mysore this year. The event is an annual jamboree that travels from one Indian city to another, apparently to promote scientific temperament within the country. Yet, the only thing that this event seems to doing is promote psuedo-relegiousness of the worst kind. Science, the empirical discipline, has taken a back seat to mythology and religion, which has no relation whatsoever with empiricism.

And it isn’t just a one-year thing. Last year, was even more awesome, as there was a paper presented by one of the researcher, a certain Captain Anand Bodas, who spoke about the “science” of Vimanika Shastra, and how ancient India had flying aircrafts, long long before, Leonardo da Vinci had even imagined anything similar.  Or if that was not enough to amaze you, there was another paper based on the Sushruta Samhita, titled “advances in surgery in ancient India”, which described surgical instruments and claimed plastic and reconstruction surgeries were performed more than 3500 years ago!

Sadly this is what our Indian Science Congress has become in the past few years, an event of pseudoism and stupidity. With everything in it, except possibly science. Little wonder CYAbJE-UMAAtMzX (1)then, Indian-born Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan dubbed the event as  “circus where very little science was discussed“, stating that he will never ever attend it.

In the light of such howlers, does it really do us justice to carry on this sham? Should not the Indian Science Congress be banned for good, disbanded till it finds its feet and soul back? Why waste so much money on a “science event”, where there is so little science? Continue reading

If it’s FREE, then why is Facebook spending 100 crores over it?

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” was an adage that was popularised by economist Milton Friedman back in the 1960s. The core contention of the advice being that everything in life everything has a cost; be it upfront or hidden. But it is always there. Nothing is available for free.

Hence, when Facebook launched the Free Basics with much fanfare and excitement, presenting it as a do-goody social thingy, not everyone was able to swallow it. Not many, and not someone like me.

To be fair to Facebook, any corporate entity in the world exists only for one single purpose, namely, maximisation of shareholder’s value. This is the primary (and often, the only) reason why most company exists. Thus, if Facebook is trying to hook significant number of users that will join the cyberspace in the years to come, it is not something that we should hold against the company. After all, growing its numbers is the only way it can ensure its profitability in the days to come.

But sadly, that is not the way Free Basics is being promoted or pushed. By talking about the poor and the downtrodden, who can “at least, enjoy the limited and curtailed internet”, Facebook is sounding quite like those proselytising missionaries of yore, that would defend the harvesting of pagan souls, because at least they were better off now than before. By masking the whole program in the garb of philanthropy, Facebook has only put itself in the spot.

And then to make things worse, Facebook is now using its huge financial and marketing muscle to push things through. By some accounts, the “What’s on your mind?” company has earmarked some $20 million to promote (read educate) Free Basics in India. It is using all the mediums that are available for the battle, print, TV, digital, offline. Rather than having an open and fair discussions on finer aspects of net neutrality, Facebook is now seeming like those corrupt politicians who have been proven to be corrupt, but then try to correct their image by glitzy campaigns and doing some charity work.

freebasicsad1The reason that Mark Zuckerberg is going ballistic this time in India, is because of the manner in why Facebook had been splattered with a cake on its face, the last time round. In fact, it had been just some 6 odd months back when Free Basics in its earlier avatar as Internet.org faced immense resistance by the public at large, and thus was stalled by the Telecom Regulators. At that time, Facebook was taken aback by the power of the collective, by the sheer virality of things. So this time, it kind of came prepared, it repackaged the offering (giving it a kinder overtone), gave the offering an emotional spiel, had the creatives in place, and even Zuckerberg, who is on a paternity leave, is now writing blogs defending the offering. Continue reading

Native ADvertising; or should it be Native EDvertising?

To be honest, the term ‘native advertising’ is a tough one to define and explain. From the plethora of definitions that are available, the one most plausible is that it is any sort of content that has been paid for by a corporate entity or even an individual. But yet, native is very much unlike the advertorials that we used to have in the past, which used to specifically peddle a product or service, trying to mask it as an editorial. Remember those “Impact” Features in India Today magazines, the ones that we were attuned not to read or pay any whatsoever attention to?

Thus in a manner of speaking, native advertising are basically advertorials, but not as we know advertorials to be.

So what is this native advertising? Is it more of editorial or advertising? Are there not ethical issues associated with creating such platforms? Is it any more successful than traditional content marketing platforms?

There are many such queries that thrown up, whenever there is a discussion on native advertising. For someone who has been involved in the creation of some of the biggest native advertising platforms at India’s biggest business portal, let me attempt to give an insight on what native advertising is, and essentially what it actually is not. Just a few disclaimer before I begin, since I have much of the last few years in the digital space, so when I say native advertising, I very much mean “digital” native advertising. Secondly, the instances that I use in this piece are my personal choices, not reflective in any manner of the brands they belong to, or the platform they were published on.

So, now that I have the necessary asterisk in place, let me begin with what Native Advertising is actually not?

More than advertising — Native platforms are not pitches for products or services like we see them traditionally

Not about lead generation — Native platforms are essentially not lead-gen or sales platforms that will give you a list of prospective buyers and potential clients

Not about customer servicing — Native platforms cannot be customer servicing or sales, or anything like that. Continue reading