Hyderi Mansion: Gandhi’s greatest moment in shambles

The place where Gandhi was at the stroke of India’s independence lies hidden, forgotten and ignored today

Gandhi’s incredible work in South Africa and his leadership of various agitations against the British Raj are well known, remembered and commemorated.  His ashram in Wardha continues to be active, the ashram in Ahmedabad is well preserved and so are the places of his death and cremation in Delhi.  All of these are important considering how much he means for India and the world.

But, in my view, Gandhi’s greatest – and his most forgotten – moment was at India’s independence.  He had walked hundreds of miles since 1946 when riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Noakhali, in Bangladesh today.  Well into his seventies, Gandhi walked in the harsh terrain for hundreds of miles, day after day with the quest of peace.  How his body bore all this is beyond my understanding – but what is even more baffling is how he retained his sanity, meeting victims of riots day after day after day and reasoning with the perpetrators to live in peace and harmony.  Each day they moved into a new village and met with new stories of atrocities and this went on for over 150 days before he returned to Calcutta at the dawn of independence.

East India was torn by riots for a long time before the partition was achieved, and Gandhi decided to fast for peace in Calcutta.  In a bold move, he invited the Chief Minister of the state, who was widely considered by Hindus to be the architect of violence, to fast with him to appeal for calm from both communities and they fasted at Hyderi Mansion, located in an area that was devastated by riot.   They lived without protection and he was almost killed by a mob during his stay.  He persisted with his fast and that created the impetus for peace.  While the Western part of India was protected by over one lakh soldiers, the East was left to Gandhi’s peacekeeping, prompting Mountbatten to call him the “one man boundary force”. 

While violence continued in the West despite the army’s presence, sanity prevailed in the East within days of the partition, with Gandhi playing the paramount role.  This incredible history is rarely taught to us and I had to discover it in the 13th volume of a massive biography.  This neglect is also reflected in the fact that the place is forgotten by Calcutta.  Most of my friends from the city had not heard of the place, and even taxi drivers had no clue how to locate it.  I finally made it to the monument of neglect earlier this year in what turned out to be a bittersweet trip.

I am not sure what I was most sad about.  Is it that the place was dusty? Is it that some unthoughtful people reconstructed the place with no eye for history, covering it with tiles like any house would be today? Or that a place that could teach us so much was bare of any lessons of history barring a few pictures from those days? There were so many things to feel sad about, I know not where to begin.

My greatest hero in life is mainly an object of ridicule in India today.  Dalits take objection to his commitment to the varna system and Ambedkar’s scathing critique of Gandhi is increasingly read today.  There is much substance to this critique.  Ambedkar opened my eyes to that side of Gandhi, and in a painful moment it came home to me when I visited his Ashram in Ahmedabad, where a plaque announces the preservation of the varna system as one of the founding principles of that association.  There is also a lot that is said of Gandhi’s conservative approach to women’s freedoms.  I believe that there is foundation to that too. Not to mention the Hindu right’s constant undermining of Gandhi, which has been a decades long project.

I do not have a problem with all these critiques – especially those with reason behind them.  I accept my heros with many a flaw.   What I find unfortunate is that amidst this critique we are forgetting many a great thing about him.  He subscribed to the preservation of the varna system, but he played a role in the transformation of untouchability.  He has a conservative side with women, but he also trusted his young women associates to travel alone to riot torn villages with hostile populations to bring peace.  In an age when we are helplessly confronted by divisive politics, he was able to bring peace with astounding tenacity, courage and imagination.  The neglected, forgotten Hyderi Mansion symbolises our approach to him in so many ways.

I read an account of his work in Noakhali and Calcutta in 2000 and dreamt of visiting the place where Gandhi was at the stroke of independence.  It took me 14 years and a lot of searching to finally get there but only to realize that little was left of his memory and nothing was left of his spirit in that sad lonely building.

If you are interested in reading an account of these events, I strongly recommend the last volume of “Gandhi, A biography” by Pyarelal and Sushila Nair.  It is by far the best book I have ever read owing solely to the power of the story behind it.  Like many a book series, it may make sense if you read a few of the volumes before.  


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Delivering public services effectively: Tamil Nadu & beyond

An excerpt from my forthcoming book. This is how the book starts, and this is how the project started.

The narrow-gauge train line built by the Prince of Gwalior from Gwalior to Sheopur was so much smaller than the standard trains in India that it looked almost like a toy train to me.  I took this train in June 2003 during my first trip to the Chambal valley, and with some encouragement I joined a group a group of colourfully clad men and women on the roof of the train to begin a journey that profoundly changed my worldview.  My toy train passed through beautiful sandy ravines interspersed with deep gorges and a sprinkle of monsoon rain had revived the greenery, making the place serenely beautiful.  My view belied the fact that the region was suffering the third consecutive year of drought that had led to widespread hunger and misery across Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states.  Every now and then I saw stray cattle roaming far away from villages; people who once owned them had let them wander away, unable to feed them and unable to watch them starve to death. There were a few in flesh and blood, but mostly I saw dry skeletons littered everywhere as a marker of the desperation lurking behind the beautiful landscape.

I was there as a part of a team to examine reports of starvation and deaths in Hirapur village. Our hosts led from house to house and gave us a long wooden stick to check if there was any grain in their storage bins, only to feel the empty floor again and again. At least six children had died in the drought of diseases that that they would have survived had they been better nourished. Most children looked visibly malnourished and seemed incapable of surviving even a mild bout of illness. We talked to people about what kind of government programs were being implemented in their village and found that a few relief works were started to provide employment, but they were closed even while the inhabitants hardly had any store of grain. The State government had decided not to spend any money on school feeding, leaving it to the Panchayats[1]. Since most Panchayats spent less than half-a-rupee on a child a day, children often got just boiled wheat with some salt, and as one of my former teachers put it, the impoverished children enjoyed even that[2].

The cruellest impact of drought was on the elderly people. Destitution was widespread and many old people had to live on the charity of hungry people. At least three elderly people had died the previous year accompanied by severe hunger in that hamlet. We met Gyan Bai, wife of the late Hira, as she was preparing her breakfast. The food consisted of a paste of leaves she collected from the forest; a clear sign that she had no food to eat. She ground the leaves and mixed them with water for food. She used to receive state pensions, which had stopped abruptly the year before, without any reason.

Our hosts insisted that we go to the bank of the canal to meet the old man who was sick. We were led to a row of ramshackle huts that could at most provide some shade from the sun for a part of the day. A frail skeleton of an old man named Duria was sitting inside on a cot. He was too sick even to move from his bed. Like many of the elderly destitute, he too lived on occasional charity. We did not ask Duria what he does for food. A terribly dusty plate that had not been used for a long time spoke its own eloquent tale.

Like Gyan Bai, Duria used to get a pension that had stopped a while ago. He was too weak to recount how far back this had happened. His son Pappu explained there was no way for him to help his father since he and his children themselves were going hungry. Amidst all this, Duria was not an angry man. He calmly told us that the people of the village were starving and they should be provided employment in the next few months. For himself, he just asked for an injection to cure his illness. He did not ever murmur a complaint about his starvation and complete destitution. He calmly awaited his fate.

Hirapur was just one case among thousands of villages that were homes to such hunger, disease and avoidable deaths, and I was convinced that a lot could be done to alleviate such widespread misery. Improving school feeding, providing reliable pensions and ensuring employment were well within the state government’s financial capacity; unfortunately they were not political priorities. Most families in Hirapur had received just 20 days of work in wage employment programmes that year, which was hardly adequate to sustain a family in those months. Low budgets to prevent hunger were further eroded by endemic corruption. We verified official accounts of three employment projects, and all three were fudged extensively. The dealer of the ration shop that was supposed to distribute subsidised grains and a few other necessities was mercilessly swindling even the poorest of the poor. We met many pensioners who were regularly cheated of up to two-thirds of their measly pensions, and even those who knew that they were being cheated could not complain for the fear of losing what little they got.

On my way back from Hirapur I started thinking about Tamil Nadu, and my perception about my home state underwent a sea change.  Until then, I had thought of Tamil politicians as populists who pander people with ‘freebies’ in order to get votes.  I considered TN’s extensive nutrition programmes a waste. I guess I acted like a middle-class boy who took basic necessities of life for granted, and so could not appreciate the importance of school feeding, childcare or subsidised food grains, and my thoughts were confirmed by others in similar positions whose ideas made their way to the English language media that I read.  The same class background made me devalue these services, since they did not meet my standards. As a result, I was an enthusiastic supporter for winding up these services that were a useless fiscal strain. But watching a landscape littered with dead cattle from the top of the toy train forced me to re-evaluate my world view.

The book is about how Tamil Nadu developed its strong social commitment to providing basic public services such as water, education, nutrition support, transport, etc. to most of its residents – and how Tamil Nadu’s experience can help us understand the performance of states such as Kerala, Bihar and West Bengal.

 


[1] Panchayats are village level governments comprising of elected members. It can also refer to the informal judicial body of the village or of a caste, but in this work the word is used to refer to elected governments, unless mentioned otherwise.

[2] In a conversation with Jean Drèze during summer 2003. I should add here that Jean has also written about this experience in news articles that were published during the drought.

Combatting corruption with mobile phones

During the 1980s, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), an NGO working in rural Rajasthan in India began to campaign for access to government records related to wage employment programs for the rural poor. In the course of their work, MKSS discovered that accessing official records and information was critical to exposing corrupt practices by officials at a local level. This soon became the central strategy in their fight against acts of corruption. MKSS rallied the support of other NGOs in Rajasthan, and started protests to make access to official records a legal right. The success of this movement in Rajasthan encouraged organizations in other parts of India to join hands with MKSS in lobbying for a powerful right to information law for the whole of India, which was passed in 2005.

MKSS and other NGOs involved in India’s right to information movement realized that merely having access to government records was not enough given the sheer complexity of the records and peoples’ ability to understand them. Over the last 20 years, they have developed a system for collecting, processing, and verifying government records and information on the ground. This process, known as a social audit, has now become one of the most popular tools to combat corruption in India.

Social auditing evolved in a rural setting in response to corruption that happens on a regular basis at the village level. This form of corruption is often referred to as corruption in the “last mile,” and it manifests in forms such as siphoning of pensions from the elderly, appropriating the wages of daily labourers, or diverting subsidized food grains from beneficiaries. The social audit approach allows India’s poor to play an active role in reducing corruption in their communities.

Social audits are typically organized by NGOs that work closely with the community, though some state governments in India have institutionalized this method with official patronage. The process of an audit involves gathering official records about a particular government project or development work (for example, cash books, muster rolls, measurement books, supply lists) and verifying if the activities and projects on paper, actually exist in reality. For example, let’s say that a ration shop that distributes subsidized food grains has recorded that Ram came to the shop every month and received 10 KG of wheat each month for the last six months. A social audit cross verifies this information through a door-to-door survey, where Ram is asked if he actually received his entitlement. If the audit finds that Ram did not receive his fair share, the community has proof that the ration shop siphoned rations and thus the act of act of corruption is exposed. The power of this process is evident by the fact that even though very few convictions happen on the basis of the findings of a social audit, data shows that the levels of corruption have reduced appreciably in places where audits have been organized regularly. After the data has been compiled, a large public gathering is organised where the data and findings from the audit are presented to the public. Typically, government officials, administrators, and citizens are invited to participate in these gatherings. .

The fundamental method of a social audit seems rather simple at first glance: access the official record and cross verify it with the person receiving the services or goods, such as the case with Ram. But, when you dig more deeply into the actual details of how the process takes place, there are many complexities and challenges. For example, one needs a lot of experience and expertise in order to understand which records to access, and whether they are complete and accurate. Once official records are obtained, it takes considerable skill and time to process the records before the door-to-door survey for verification of records can take place. These and other complexities make a social audit a costly affair requiring considerable human resources, skills, time, and organizational effort. As a result, social auditing has not been adopted on a wide scale throughout India, despite its promise. My hope is that with the right technology, the process can become more streamlined and efficient, and thus adopted more broadly.

I am working on an initiative at Stanford University’s Program on Liberation Technology to explore ways that technology, and particularly mobile phones, can be used to combat corruption at the grassroots level, and enhance the existing social audit approach. Through basic mobile phone SMS technology, official records on basic individual entitlements such as pensions, subsidized food grain, and maternity entitlements could be delivered to individuals via monthly text messages. Individuals, such as Ram in the scenario mentioned above, would be able to compare the count provided in the text message with the amount of rice he actually received. This would help him identify if he received what is legally due to him, or if a part of his entitlement was swindled without his knowledge.

We hope that this knowledge in itself would empower people who have been victims of corruption and would enable them to use this information to approach various grievance redressal mechanisms that they have access to. This might involve approaching senior officials, confronting the corrupt, or even taking up protests against the corrupt. At a later stage of the project, it may be possible to add other features that will enable the victims of corruption to take action using mobile phones. For example, the SMS could include the phone number of responsible officials, or an NGO could collect the complaints and initiate action on their behalf. While possibilities abound, we believe that the best initiative will come from the people themselves.

The main benefit of using SMS technology is that it requires very limited skill, knowledge, or effort from the user. And, it eliminates costly, time-consuming in-person surveys and audits. By using this technology, official information can be disseminated on a regular basis, unlike in the current model where social audits are done sporadically.

Like any technology tool, this of course has its limitations. One of the critical functions of social auditing in India has been its role in mobilizing the general public. The process of gathering people together face-to-face in a public meeting creates a collective energy, which can motivate people to fight corruption. By digitizing this system, these public gatherings will no longer be needed. That said, we believe that mobile technology brings the ability to more widely and regularly expose corruption that directly affects individuals, and as a result, has the power to ultimately lead to even greater collective anger that is often a precursor to mobilization. Further, it arms individuals with precise information – something they never had before — that officials cannot argue or ignore.

The project has now received the commitment of officials in the states of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh in India and a team that we helped organize is just starting to build the basic technology to store and disseminate public records. We will start with select programs such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India and expand the coverage over the next few years. Once the technology is ready, it will be implemented for two years in randomly selected villages, so that we can test if it has an impact on corruption compared to other villages where the system has not been introduced

In the last 15 years, the number of countries with right to information laws has increased dramatically. Along with this, there is increasing digitization of public records, which will make this kind of exercise relatively cheap. This means that we now have the legal and technical infrastructure to enable millions, rather than a small number of well organized groups, to combat corruption.

I would like to thank Alma Freema’s support in editing the article.

Two tips for expressing love to your wife

I realised early in my marriage, which is not yet a year old by any calculation, that 90% of all verbal communication between me and my wife are either sweet nothings or to-do lists. This unanticipated fact of life threw me into a conundrum given my scant history of jabbering away love and affection. I tried it once towards the end of my undergraduate life, when I started telling my friends that I would miss them. The second or third time I mentioned it, my best friend tersely told me that he does not want me to bore him with that sentiment anymore.

Contrary to my friend, my wife left no room for doubt that she liked sweet nothings. I tried to get away without indulging in it, but could not escape the do you really love me look on her face. I learnt the common adjectives and phrases, but ran out of these in no time leaving me to come up with my own devices. That’s when I my refuge in my academic training.

Discussing love in the class

I remember only one serious occasion of discussing love in my classes, and this was with a professor who goes by the name MDC at the Delhi School of Economics. He argued that economists had a major argument several decades ago on measuring well-being. One group suggested that there should be a unit of measurement. In our case, this would translate into statements like X units of love, Y units of sweetness, etc. This approach (called the cardinal approach) lost to the alternative (ordinal approach) where assessment is done not only basis of some unit, but by comparison. In other words, economists don’t say there is X amount of goodness, utility or well-being; they say X is better than Y. When a serious economist was asked by a journalist if he loves his wife, the economist retorted, compared to what?

I am not sure if those economists who were debating on measuring well-being had any inkling on how it can affect love lives, but thank god, the ordinal approach won. Consider the implications. If one were to take the cardinal approach, all you can tell your wife is that you love her X units. You will have to repeat that again and again, making it boring and banal, which in my opinion, is the opposite of love. The ordinal approach lends itself to infinite use, and I have used it rather productively. I now routinely tell my wife stuff like: “Sweetness, I love you more than I love squirrels“, “I love you much more than I love the girl in that apartment“, “You are way smarter and way nicer to me than my android phone”, etc. The advantage of this method is that every new invention and every hot product in the market presents you with a renewed opportunity to express affection, and you can always stay up-to-date and hip.

Loving her more than a squrriel

Loving her more than a squrriel

The super-advantage of subsets

The second element of my academic training that came to my rescue was set theory. I use a basic tenet that if an element is the greatest in a set, it is also the greatest in all the sets that are subsets of the set. This is particularly useful in a competitive world where appreciation is expected to be in its superlatives (i.e. best or the greatest in a set). You may not believe that this is capable of rescuing you in your amorous predicament; just wait till you recognise the use cases.

It is not uncommon to say sweet nothings such as you are the best girl I could’ve married in the whole world. Considering that continents are subsets of the world, that statement should also hold true if it is expressed in terms of any continent. This expansion alone allows me seven different ways of expressing love compared to the singular alternative. For example, I could now say that she is the best girl I could’ve married in Australia. The use cases can be multiplied easily, and I have employed them with tremendous success: “you are my best wife ever in Brazil“, “you are the prettiest girl I have ever known in Minnesota”… I guess you get the point.

I am sure that if I dig into my academic training a little bit more, I will find other alternatives. As of now, these two have presented me with a world of alternatives. Most importantly, they keep me entertained. Luckily, she seems entertained as well, and considering that you have come to the very end of this article, I guess it has served the rather unanticipated consequence of entertaining you.

Thinking of NREGA from the beautiful Adirondacks

The highlight of my summer has been to camping trips to the incredibly beautiful Adirondacks Mountains. It is a long chain of thickly forested mountains occupying 6 million acres, which is one third of the state of New York. Hundreds of thousands of acres of this forest was destroyed by fires in early 1900s and were rebuilt using and “NREGA-like” program called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This breathtaking view I had from a fire tower in the Adirondacks reminded me of how much we could do with such employment programs.

CCC has made an incredible contribution in the US by planting millions of acres of trees, planting nearly 3,000,000,000 trees and taking up other issues of forest management including building fire towers, pest control and other issues. The impact of Rosevelt’s Tree Army can be seen even today.

In India, the Minister for Environment and Forestry, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, has made welcome remarks that his government will take up afforestation in a big way. Jairam Ramesh is one of the pioneers who helped NREGA become reality; I hope his vision for afforestation will prominently include a role for NREGA and through this demonstrate the potential that wage employment programs can have for India.

NREGA for the disabled

NREGA represents an unprecedented opportunity to create employment for people with disabilities in rural India

 

NREGA for people with disabilities

The promise of 100 days of guaranteed work should be meaningfully extended to people with disabilities

Something in me changed as I saw the young man hold the microphone with his artificial arms and talked of the work he did in NREGA. He took care of the paperwork that every field assistant dreads. A visually challenged person in the same meeting told me about how he joined others in desilting his village lake. There are millions of disabled persons in India who do not find opportunities to work and contribute to the society; NREGA can change that and provide them with opportunity to work, contribute to the society, earn an income and live with dignity.

Unprecedented opportunity

NREGA is an unprecedented opportunity since it is implemented in all villages across India and thus has an unprecedented reach. It provides only 100 days of work at Rs. 100 a day, but this can go a long way in improving economic situation, self-respect, and recognition in the community as a productive member. More than anything else, it can be designed to showcase the abilities of “disabled people” and change the image of disability forever in our society. But as things stand, NREGA is not designed to do any of these today, but with some creative thinking on our part we can change this situation substantially.

Making it accessible

NREGA today mainly provides unskilled manual work. Traditionally works have been designed such that they are most suitable for young, able bodied couples working together in a project. Ashagram tried some interesting experiments in Madhya Pradesh to make these works accessible, mainly by identifying parts of the work that disabled people can do. They pointed out that distributing water, mixing cement, and an assortment of other tasks can be performed easily by people with disabilities. Ashagram’s list will go a long way in making NREGA accessible, but I feel that it is inadequate for many reasons.

Exclusive & inclusive work

NREGA is designed to provide employment when people do not have alternate work. Availability of alternate work is radically different for disabled people, and relying merely on inclusive works cannot help create stable and predictable employment for them. We have to create a class of works that could be done mainly by disabled people when they wish to find work. In creating some projects exclusively for the disabled we can also allow for some skilled work, some of which can be done from their homes.

Many disabled people in Tamil Nadu are trained in weaving chairs. Their talents could be used to provide basic furniture to schools, child care centres and government offices. St. Joseph’s hospital in Trichy trains blind people to cultivate vegetables; it should be possible to create a kitchen garden for all schools and anganwadis using such talent. Educated people could be used to maintain paperwork in NREGA and other Panchayat work that often takes a huge amount of time. Other possibilities abound.

Tweaking the design

Apart from designing accessible works, NREGA needs some tweaking to make it work for disabled persons. Today’s schedule of rates assesses how much work an average able person can do in a day. A new SoR should be developed that reflects diversity in human abilities. Secondly, it is not practical to expect our overworked engineers and block officials to create appropriate designs, do separate measurements of work, and to transition into an accessible system. It would be useful to appoint 2-3 trained social workers in each block who will be mainly in charge of this task. Andhra Pradesh has expanded the guarantee of work to 150 days for families with disabled persons. Instead, it would be meaningful to provide unlimited individual guarantee of work at least to disabled persons. Finally, it would be meaningful to include some skilled work.

These changes are well within our reach, and all it requires is some thought and a lot of care on our part. The fundamental idea of NREGA is to use unused human resources to create assets that we cannot live without; some tweaking of NREGA can help us as a country to tap into the talents and energy of at least 5% of the population towards this end. I guess this is one thing no one can complain about!

Unable to reach Stanford.edu subdomains: Fix

I had a strange problem recently that I was unable to reach any subdomain within Stanford.edu.  It turned out that my problem was due to Time Warner cable, which I was using.  There is a quick and simple fix to get around this.  All I had to do was to change the DNS of my wireless to Google’s public DNS and it worked like magic.  The process takes just 2 minutes and you can find detailed instructions for it here: https://developers.google.com/speed/public-dns/docs/using.

 

 

 


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What broke UPA II

A spectacular defeat like the one suffered by the United Progressive Alliance II government could not have happened without a confluence of reasons. A consistent and careful messaging by the opposition and organisational and financial muscle of the BJP, among other things clearly played a role in UPA’s loss. What one cannot deny is that UPA II lost public confidence based on its abysmal record in office over the last five years. I’d like to focus today on one factor that created the greatest anger against the UPA and one more that gave people no reason to support it unlike in 2009.

Corporate Dolonomics

Arguably, the most important factor that led to the negative perception of the government was the massive and unprincipled doles given to large corporations, which we know as 2G, coal and other scams. Free or highly subsidised allocation of public resources to the wealthy and the connected was the very basis of all the scams, and it is undeniable that these doles caused the greatest public anger against Manmohan’s government.

It would be interesting to see how things will play out in the newly elected industry-friendly government. An argument that has been made in Modi’s favour is that he protected businesses from paying exorbitant bribes in order to conduct business. I would welcome it if businesses do not have to pay bribes to survive in the new dispensation.

But, ‘business friendliness’ does not stop there. There will be demands for large doles to large corporations including subsidised public resources for private profit, the very fact that contributed most to the downfall of UPA II. There is no reason to believe that corporate dolonomics will change in the current dispensation, and there are good reasons to believe that it is going to increase dramatically.

Failure on the social front

In 2009 many had a reason to support UPA that they did not have in 2014. Despite the noise made about the NREGA, Food Security Act and the so-called socialist commitments of the Congress, UPA II completely failed on the social front. The Food Security Act was brought in towards the very end of the government, and in a very cynical way. This was in sharp contrast to UPA I, in which the landmark laws were brought in the very first year of the government, demonstrating true commitment. UPA II was nothing but empty rhetoric that is clear to those who did not get an extra KG of grain home through the Food Security Act.

Perhaps owing to the pressure of The Left in the first tenure, UPA was in the business of delivering on the social side. The exit of The Left and UPA’s comfortable victory in 2009 led to the rise of hawks such as Kapil Sibbal and Chidambaram, while voices of people like Jayaram Ramesh were stifled. UPA II consistently undermined existing programs including NREGA, and it introduced the Food Security Act in the most cynical manner, but with no one available to fool.

Early legislation of progressive laws and faithful implementation of public programs contributed greatly to the success of UPA I. NREGA, old-age pensions, health insurance and other forms of social protection were implemented well in states like Andhra Pradesh during YSRs tenure, which was the pillar of UPA’s success in the 2009 election. UPA II did precious little on the social front, having failed on food security, right to education, health and other fronts. While UPA I created the strongest right to information law in the world, the efforts from 2009 onwards were to undermine the existing law, with the attack led by none other than the Prime Minister.

Election lost or won?

Paradoxically, the vision offered by the BJP in this election had the same basis that led to UPAs loss of public support. This makes me question how far it was an election in which people wanted to throw the UPA out for what it was and how far we elected BJP for what it promises to be. [After all, I am from Tamil Nadu where we have elected DMK to power at the end of a very corrupt AIADMK government (and the vice verca) – not because we believed that the alternative will be corruption-free, but because we have to punish those who indulge in it].

Let’s think for a moment if there is a CAG report four years from now arguing that there was a large notional loss to the government when some public resource was given at tremendous subsidy to corporations, will it be accepted by the public since the government was voted on an industry friendly plank – or if it will lead to the same kind of anger that one saw against the UPA?

Interestingly, BJP’s victory in this election would not have happened without the deep support for its state governments in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the basis of which has been the delivery of public services including a highly effective PDS in Chhattisgarh. If the incoming government starts undermining these programmes, will it lead to a loss of support in the states along with the same kind of anger against the incumbent government in other parts of India? After all, ignoring the social sector contributed to the defeat of the India shining story in the recent past, and the loss of State Chief ministers such as Chandrababu Naidu. In contrast, commitment to public services has been at the heart of public support for the most successful Chief Ministers of the current era in India.

If 2014 were a vote against the UPA, it is possible to understand how the BJP won even though we know that it would continue dolonomics and that prominent voices in it demand the dismantling the few measures of social protection that India has. But if 2014 were a vote for the specific vision put forward by the BJP, then perhaps, India is poised for a change in directions. The answer to these questions are only likely to be available five years from now when we get a chance to evaluate what actually will be implemented by the incoming government.


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Don’t grow up too fast

Less than twenty months ago you were only a one-cell organism that started dividing furiously to become a tiny little human being. Mom and I watched you all through as you developed those little limbs, a head, and a heart. We felt you every day and wondered what you would be like. Some days you responded to our touch with a little kick as if it were your own little Morse code to let us know that you are well. Merely nine months from the first day, you met us as a fully formed human being with no resemblance to the simple cell that you were just a few months ago. When I held you I could not believe that a little dot had become this.

You will be a year old soon and you have grown so much. You crawl, you smile, you lift things and you can even eat by yourself. You have likes and dislikes and you have started understanding what is correct and what is not. More than anything else, you have addicted me to your laughter. If only someone were to watch me do things I do to make you laugh while you were not around, they would have no hesitation in committing me to an institution – but what I do looks so sane when one hears your soulful laughter for the silliest of things we do.

Watching you grow has been amazing. We cheered every new thing you did and every milestone you crossed – your first smile, your first sounds; the way you wiggled your butt in an attempt to crawl, and your first attempt to stand. We watched you with pride, clapped, took pictures and called your grandparents to report every new moment. You have grown fast and I know that you will grow with incredible speed over the next years. I cheer that, but I also know that what I have now is incredibly beautiful and it makes me sad that it will go away all too soon.

I have begged and pleaded with you every now and then to stay just the way you are. You did not pay any heed to my pleas, but thankfully you bettered yourself with every passing week. I can’t wait for you to start speaking and yet I cannot bear that thought that I will never hear you babble like a soulful little bird again. I so look forward to holding your hand and walking with you; but I would miss the days when you would crawl with so much joy to every piece of garbage found in any corner of the house.

I know you are in a hurry to grow and it is only correct that you do so. I wish at least that time would go slow so that this wonderful moment is prolonged; but you have done just the opposite you mischievous child. You smile at me, play games and everything you do is so beautiful that the clock slips hours and days fly by. How is it possible that you have messed up every clock in the house without ever touching them?

I ask you this question every now and then. Sometimes you give me beautiful responses that could make the merriest koel jealous, and there are other days when you look at me and just move on to the next toy. And I would sit there thinking that today will be a memory soon but I will remember it as a wonderfully happy day when I held you and kissed you again and again, smiled at your smiles and laughed with you. I know that today will never come again, but I would be happy that I was there.

With much love

 


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Urban arrogance in India’s elections

Elections seem to bring some of the worst in us as a society, and there is quite a bit that keep us irritated every election season.  There were those ridiculous statements about rape, among others in the US presidential elections season.  There are quite a few by candidates and their supporters in India that have made me grind my teeth over the last few months. More than the candidates though, what has been driving me nuts is the arrogance that many urban residents have towards rural India that comes to the fore in an election season unlike any other time. The underlying refrain has been that the “uneducated” and the “unaware” get to vote, whereas the enlightened middle class does not. In a few talk shows, experts opined that all the resources in India are being spent on rural areas (an incredible claim!), and that urban voters should turn this this around by turning up to vote. They also claimed that the rural voters being naive and an educated, the resources are ultimately being used for corrupt purposes, as if resources in urban areas will be put to just and efficient use. In a recent talk show, an urban activist in Maharashtra argued that there is a conspiracy to delete the names of “thinking voters” so that they could not exercise their franchise. The clear subtext of her presentation was that IT engineers and other urban educated were not finding the names of the voters list, whereas people even in slums are able to exercise their franchise. It has even become the subtext of mobile phone advertisements such as one by the company Idea, in which a youngster claims that he cannot be fooled just because he is from a village. While the ad does not directly claim that villagers are fools, it would be impossible to frame this without that background understanding. Think for a moment what the chances are that they would shoot an ad at Harvartd or MIT with a student who claims, ‘do not think we are fools just because we are from Harvard and MIT!’.  Such an advertisement will work only with social groups that are accepted to be foolish by the intended viewers, and in it lies its racist-like character. The idea of the urban population being taken for a ride by the rural poor – or with the help of rural poor – has been reiterated again and again in so many forums this season, in a way that I have never heard before. It is particularly irritating considering that many of the urban middle-class people that I have met have very little political understanding, and that the savviest discussions I have had have been in rural areas, where people participate and engage in political discussions and activities a lot more. The arrogant and often nonsensical statements that I hear again and again makes me wonder if there is some kind of a new and aggressive antipathy of the upper middle class urban citizens of India against the poor and the rural citizens.  In the context of growing inequalities, such an animosity is only bound to make India’s democracy worse, and to drive it to a point where a large-scale conflict over the vision for the nation is inevitable.

To a ‘Pepsi’ I loved

Just learned that one of the first to welcome me to the US is now gone. Pepsi, the adorable lab, with all her energy and love was a constant companion during my first five years in this country. There is so much to remember about Pepsi. Our long walks. Her “let’s play” look, and how she mistook me for my cousin– or should I say, her ‘dad’ – once.

I will remember for a long time how I had to open the bedroom door when it was time to sleep and race to bed before Pepsi could occupy the whole bed with little space for me. All too often, she won and I had to push the gentle giant with all my might to create some space for me. And there were the mornings when she would be hovering over me patiently waiting for the slightest movement that would kick start a storm of licks over my face and her not so subtle gestures that it’s time for food and poop.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to visit my cousin’s family without her around; what is for sure Pepsi, is that we will talk about you – a lot. I am sure that Ravi, Viji, Nila and Arun gave you their best in your last days, as they have over the years, and I hope that you are now resting in peace.  I think of you often and will miss you every time I visit New York.


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You’ve got my nod

As an active listener, I often nod my head as I listen to people.  Turns out that I do it a little more vigorously than most other people – and this has become a trademark.  During a visit to a very remote village in Rajasthan, all the children of the village followed me for a whole day.  They would ask me questions and when I nodded in agreement every one of them nodded with squeals of laughter.

My nodding also has its South Indian touch to it, and so I nod slightly differently when I answer in the affirmative or negative.  My advisor at Syracuse once had a long discussion with me and as an afterthought he asked, “Do you agree”.  When I said a straightforward NO, he was shocked and he asked, “But you were nodding all the time that I was talking”!  Active listening can get taken to be a sign of agreement at times!

My friends at Syracuse made a video mocking my nodding in a video that you can see here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VA6KRSKb22M

AFTER that, you SHOULD try this video with my 5 month old

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHo7pTNk4bw