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Monday, January 30, 2006

Beating the Retreat

Among my favourites is the Beating the Retreat Ceremony that's held on the 29th of January every year at Vijay Chowk, New Delhi. I have been missing it during the past couple of years. But yesterday, I managed to watch it.

Once upon a time the armies ceased fire on sunset. They lowered the flags, stopped fighting, and made sure the dead got an honourable burial. Of course, not these days. The Beating the Retreat function is a purely British tradition, though the personnel who take part and much of the music are very much Indian.

The ceremony, which culminates with the spectacular lighting up of the Rashtrapathi Bhavan (the President's residence) and North and South Blocks of the Central Secretariat, draws to a close the Republic Day celebrations. It was introduced as a formal ceremony by Maj Roberts of the Indian Army in the 1950s.

This year there were three new compositions. There were 14 military bands, 12 pipe and drum bands, and 68 buglers from different regiments of the Indian Army. Navy and Air Force bands too took part.

Contingents carrying all those musical instruments, marching with pride and dignity, into a variety of geometric formations to the accompaniment of a mellifluous medley of military tunes, with the architectural marvels in the background -- is a sight that leaves an indelible impression in the mind. It's a sight I long to see every year. The informality of the music combines in a unique perfection with military order and precision -- not something we get to see always.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Implications of Hamas victory

Imagine terrorists getting the popular mandate! Yes, that's what Hamas has achieved. It won 76 seats out 132; and ruling Fatah won 43. It is a development, the significance of which has been hardly reflected in the media coverage, especially in the light of extents to which the United States has gone to spread democracy around the world.

One premise we need to make here is that the election has been free and fair. There hasn't been any major claim to the contrary so far.

Hamas, short for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, is without doubt a terrorist organistion. Its goal is destruction of Israel and setting up an Islamic theocracy in the area that is currently Israel, West Bank, and Gaza Strip; and towards that end, it has set off hundreds of bombs and murdered thousands of people; and proudly claimed credit for them.

That's the way Hamas operates. They don't have a problem, even if you have. What more, it has got the approval of a majority of Palestinians.

No wonder, America is furious. Bush has warned that nearly $400 million worth of aid to the Palestinian Authority will be withheld.

In Latin America, the US regularly has problems as Left-leaning leaders get elected. Venezuela is a typical example. Its President Hugo Chavez has been elected by the people and is a strident critic of American economics and politics. Bush just doesn't know what to do with him. Of course, Fidel Castro has been around for ages.

But implications of Hamas victory is altogether different. And, I have a few questions:

1. Has America really contemplated the prospect of its current enemies (terrorists) getting popular mandate? Already people in North-West Pakistan have rallied in support of Al-Qaida and Taliban activists.

2. Now since a majority of Palestinians have elected a terrorist group to rule them, will that mean most Palestinians are open supporters of terrorism?

3. Terrorists don't have a face, they don't have an organised conventional army, nor they belong to a nation-state. Now, does Hamas victory give a new dimension to this? Is Palestine is a terrorist nation (not the way US already sees it)? Will it be attacked, and destroyed; because the government is run by terrorists (even though they are democratically elected?)

BBC's Have Your Say is on Hamas victory, and there are a number of very interesting perspectives. 'Have Your Say' is broadcast on Sunday at 1400 GMT on BBC website, BBC World TV and BBC World Service Radio.

Avoidable crisis

Sonia Gandhi should be wiser after the Buta Singh fiasco. Looks she's not. Why she isn't asking Dharam Singh to resign is a mystery. She herself had declined to be the PM and won huge goodwill a couple of years back. Recently, Rahul Gandhi -- in a speech reminiscent of the one that his father Rajiv Gandhi delivered in Mumbai in the early '80s -- had spoken of the need for politicians to adhere to good code of conduct, a commitment to serve the  society etc etc.
 
Statements like "we will go down fighting", "JD(S)-BJP combine won't be able to snatch the government from us so easily" coming from Congress leaders sound nice, but they hardly lend any credit to the politicians or the party or to our democracy.
 
There were knotty issues, political and constitutional. But clear as crystal during the nearly 10 hours of Assembly session telecast live was the incompetence of the lawmakers to resolve issues and a sickening enthusiasm to obstruct any way forward. It's not always we see politicians at work. And, when we do --  like we did yesterday -- a mixture of shock, bewilderment, shame and helplessness overtakes us.
 
A system is only as a good as the people who run it. Democracy is only as good as its politicians. Yet, the silverlining is that we are progressing as a country despite politicians. That progress, though, is at a snail's pace because of politicians.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Anything to be in power

Currently in Bangalore, one set of politicians are in a last-ditch attempt to stay in power; and another set is trying its best to form the government.
 
Anything to be in power or grab power -- that's the motto.
 
Nothing wrong, but only if these politicians did something good for the people who have given them the power.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Murdericide

Is the term "suicide bombers" right? Aren't they plain murderers?

In the
January 23 issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer coins the term "murdericide" for the acts of people who kill others by killing themselves too. He says such terrorists don't commit suicide.

He quotes from Florida State University psychologist Thomas Joiner's scientific treatise Why People Die by Suicide, "People desire death when two fundamental needs are frustrated to the point of extinction; namely, the need to belong with or connect to others, and the need to feel effective with or to influence others."

Friday, January 20, 2006

Who am I?

The cellphone rings. The number is not familiar. I pick up the call.

"Hello, This is Pradeep here."

Even while I introduce myself, the voice at the other end says, "Rajubhai hai?" (Is Rajubhai around?)

Since I think he didn't hear me, I repeat."This is Pradeep, here."

But he is persistent."Rajubhai hai?"

I switch language. "Main Pradeep bol raha hoon." (This is Pradeep, here)

No use.

He: "Rajubhai hai?

Me: "Kaun? Rajubhai?" (Who? Rajubhai?)

He: "Ha, Rajubhai hai?" (Yes, is Rajubhai there?)

Me: "Nain, ithar koi Rajubhai nahin hai." (No, there is no Rajubhai here.)

He: "Hoga yaar..." (He should be there...)

Me: "Yahaa.. ? Kahaa...? (Here? where?)

He: "Wahan.. workshop mein." (There in the workshop.)

Me: "Yeh workshop nahin hai." (This is not a workshop)

He: "Rajubhai hoga workshop mein." (Rajubhai will be at the workshop.)

Me: "Lekin, muche koi Rajubhai ko jantha nahin." (But, I don't know any Rajubhai.)

He: "Zara puch lo na..." (Just ask around.)

Me: "Kahan..." (Where?)

He: "Workshop mein abhi aya hoga..." (He would have come to the workshop now.)

Me: "Idhar kuch workshop nahin hai... Mein office me hoon..." (There is no workshop here. I am in the office.)

He: "Workshop tho office ke baaju mein hein na..." (Workshop is just beside the office, is it not...)

Me: "Wrong number."

He: "Achha, theek hai." (Okay.)

He cuts the line. No apologies, no, nothing. Must be just another call, another day for him.

I wondered how long I could have carried on that conversation!

7 or 9 days - why?

Yesterday evening at 5, Governor T N Chaturvedi addressed a press conference. It's very rare for constitutional heads like President, Vice-President, Governor, Chief justice, etc to address press conferences. Even during times of constitutional crises, the President and the governors keep a safe distance from journalists and at best issue terse communiques, outlining in a very matter of fact manner the course of action. That is the tradition. But Chaturvedi's was a welcome break. On such occasions, a direct interaction with journalists is always better, since a number of doubts and grey areas can be cleared.
 
The political situation Karnataka faces today is nothing new in a democracy. When the majority of the government is in doubt, and the opposition senses power, the governor asks the chief minister to prove the majority in the assembly. That's the right thing. But the number of days given to the government is always a subject of controversy. It's the discretion of the governor, and rarely it passes without at least a murmur of protest.
 
Incumbents plead for time, opposition wants the test immediately. The objective is to let the political turbulence settle down. But the fact is, farther the date, more the time for horse-trading (even if MLAs are not horses, as our governor very generously enlightened all of us yesterday.) It's time for suitcases to be packed and exchanged. It's time for MLAs to be wooed and their allegiance bought. This is a flipside of democracy.
 
Why so much time? What can't be decided in 24 or 48 hours isn't going to be decided in 7 days or 9 days, or even one month. There should be a constitutional mandate that the incumbent whose majority is in doubt should prove his majority within two working days (sooner the better) or may be three, at the most. Such a mandate will not only remove suspicions of partisan decisions, wheels of administration won't come to a standstill. Such a mandate should be put in place.
 
By the way, did Dharam Singh get 7 days or 9 days. If you include 19th (yesterday) and 27th when the CM has to take the trust vote, it is 9 days, if you exclude both it is 7. Give a political twist here too:  Dharam says he has only 7 days, but BJP says, no, he has been given nine days!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Gowda is out -- good riddance

It very much looks like Deve Gowda is out of the political scene. Good. He was one single reason for lack of any governance in Karnataka. He spoke and acted like an opposition leader, when he was in power. In fact the CM was at his beck and call. He used power just for himself, instead of doing something for the people. He did nothing, not even for the villages he so earnestly patronised.
 
I doubt if a new government can get worse than what we had. Dharam had sunk to very low depths. The power-sharing agreement between BJP and JD(S) group makes much better sense than the arrangement Gowda had engineered for the Dharam government.
 
A big blow to Sonia. Loss of S M Krishna itself was. But somehow Congress managed to stay on in an unholy dysfunctional alliance. That too is gone, almost.
 
BJP, though, is now very much like any other party, has always been more pro-active in governance than others. This will be their first taste of power in Karnataka. An opportunity for BJP, one they will capitalise on to prove their credentials and justify their claims that they are the right people to fill the political void the state, Bangalore especially, has suffered from.
 
Gowda neither did anything nor let Congress do anything. I only hope that won't be case again. Rather there will be an internal competition between BJP and JD(S) group to show who is better.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Truth is out - now what?

Travelling on Bangalore's roads, I have always been struck by the paradox of how such a rich city could have such poor roads. Why pick roads? Because, that is something so basic to a society. Remember what we learnt about how ancient civilisations flourished? They gave importance to transportation. Smooth vehicular movement led to better interaction, a livelier society; better trade led to a truly self-sufficient society.

Nothing of the essentials for good roads we lack. Best engineers, best managers, skilled workers who can work with the best materials; and an economy (I mean specifically of Bangalore) that is booming. Look at the money we splurge; who says we are poor? Definitely not in the monetary sense.

It's only the paradox that's puzzling. Like most Bangaloreans I too know the reason why we don't have good roads. We have never heard it on TV or read in newspapers, because no one has proof of it. Everything that you hear can't be broadcast or printed, especially negative things. If some journalist wrote, it will at best be seen as "his or her view".

But, now finally the chief minister himself has spoken. "There is a nexus between corporators and contractors. Vested interests are coming in the way of calling of tenders. Many road repair works haven't started." Not that Dharam Singh as a person has any more credibility than any of us. But by virtue of his position as the CM, his utterances gain a certain amount of value.

The words from the chief minister's mouth not only give credence to something that is popularly known; but also an admission of failure of political governance. That a chief minister and the enormous amount of state machinery that he has in his command have not been able to break this nexus shows how widespread and deep this nexus is.

There is more indication of this nexus. Many builders who have been only too willing to tar the roads themselves, are being prevented by corporators. Not without reason. The central government is about the release Rs 1000 crore for Bangalore's infrastructure. Should we state the obvious?

What hope do we have when the fence begins to eat the crop? Any way out? Cribbing is now considered a negative approach. So, what we can we do in a positive manner. May be, what Murthys and Premjis are planning to do -- move out to better places. What about others who can't do that? Pretty little, when people who have been specially designated with the task of doing a lot are either doing the wrong things or not doing anything at all.

Democracy is not just about voting and the power of the people to bring in change. "Power of the ballot" sounds nice, but is meaningless if the electorate have only thousands duds to choose from. Democracy works only when people who have been elected to positions of power exercise that power for the benefit of the people whom they serve. Voting is one time occurrence. But governance is a continuous process.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Tiredness - a state of the mind?

I guess so. Because, there have been days when I didn't sit for minute, ran around the place, did one thing or the other; but felt hardly tired at the end of it all. Of course, I was enjoying all that I had been doing. It led me to think of the adage: "It's all in the mind."
 
What about the perception of others?
 
There have been occasions when my friends, colleagues, have told me: "You look tired", when actually I wasn't feeling so! Conversely, there have also been times, when I was depressed, but my looks didn't seem to say so!
 
Are there two distinct states of being: physical and mental; often one not reflecting the state of the other? The inner self and the outer self?
 
Are appearances indeed deceptive? Always? Often? Sometimes? Very rarely?

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Knowledge and wisdom

Newsweek brings out excellent annual special editions on issues of the year ahead, and is appropriately called Issues. Brought out in association with the World Economic Forum, Issues 2006 is in its sixth year and is undoubtedly worth preserving. This time the topic is the "new world of knowledge".
 
By virtue of being a journalist, I am constantly dealing with the dynamics and dissemination of information, and thus, this year's Issues, comprising 44 essays, is of particular interest to me. Unlike in the past editions, Newsweek this time managed to get a number of prominent personalities to write, like: CEOs of Google, GE, Infosys, Cisco; Bill Gates, Prime Ministers of Britain, Sweden, Singapore etc.
 
I have always wondered why in this age of "information explosion" and "information overload", the temporal aspects of human life haven't shown a proportional improvement. Science and technology have made quantum leaps ahead. But human attitudes have remained where they were, at best. We haven't still understood the value of knowledge. Instead of assimilating information and adapting to one's requirements, there is constant efforts by people and institutions to unfairly, hurriedly judge knowledge as right and wrong. Censorship and various other forms of bans only negate the advantages the surfeit of knowledge and the ease of its dissemination offer us.
 
I liked this year's Issues because it deals with many such points.
 
Bill Gates in his piece writes: "Most of the knowledge on which the knowledge economy is built is actually just information -- data, facts and basic business intelligence. Knowledge itself is more profound. As management guru Tom Davenport once put it: 'Knowledge is information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection.' It's the knowledge derived from information that gives you a competitive edge."
 
But Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria takes this further, and analyses this information explosion much better. He says: "Diffusion of knowledge is the dominant trend of our time and goes well beyond the purely scientific... (But) knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom. Knowledge can produce equally powerful ways to destroy life, intentionally and unintentionally. It can produce hate and seek destruction. Knowledge does not by itself bring any answer to ancient Greek question: What is Good Life? It does not produce good sense, courage, generosity and tolerance. And most crucially, it does not produce the farsightedness that will allow us all to live together -- and grow together -- on this world without causing war, chaos and catastrophe. For that we need wisdom."
 
Somewhat in the same line, Danny Quah of London School of Economics writes: "(Today) there is one commodity in excess supply. It's knowledge -- and in the long run, the overlooked knowledge glut could be more dangerous than the many more obvious shortages. Though the raw supply of knowledge is booming, the fraction we use productively is plummeting to ever-lower depths." He says knowledge shouldn't be bottled up, but be disseminated. "History shows that successful societies favour dissemination.... Blocking the free flow of knowledge, paradoxically, exacerbates the excess supply, diminishes human welfare and puts us on the road to economic extinction."

Friday, January 6, 2006

Missed evenings

Six days into the New Year. Perhaps the only thing we need to adapt to immediately is writing 06 instead of 05 in the date. Make sure you are careful especially while writing cheques.
 
One thing journalists like me miss out on is the fun of evenings. While last New Year eve I was on leave, not this time. I completely missed the cultural evening organised by the residents of the apartment complex I live in. I just managed to sneak in some half and hour before midnight to ring in the new year.
 
One consolation is that journalists are not the only ones. Many people, whose services are taken for granted, slog it out when others have fun. Until the BPO industry sprouted here, no one really thought there are a lot of people who work late into the evening, even if not overnight. Some of them are: aircraft pilots, train and bus drivers, doctors, nurses, factory employees, fire service personnel, security guards. Still, when the issue of working at late hours crops up, people think only of BPO employees.
 
During a train journey, when we wake up in the morning, how many of us spare a moment's thought for the driver, guard and others who were doing their work when we were sleeping?