Thursday, 28 February 2013

Arvind Kejriwal - A Socialist? How?

An honest submission: I am a confirmed capitalist. Socialism holds no allure for me; it is a recipe for certain disaster. Let me spell it out right at the start, lest readers jump to the conclusion that I am a socialist sympathiser from the rest of the article. For that is my precise submission: Arvind Kejriwal's policies are nowhere near being socialist. In fact, the entire brouhaha around his policies points to a rather unfortunate selfishness of the Urban Indian Citizen. This article may hurt many readers of my blog, and perhaps drive some away; but I have always called it like I see it. 

It is time for a reality check on our so-called tremendous growth from 1991. And one figure - only one figure is all I require to make my point. The per capita income of the bottom 20% of India's population has not changed (as a percentage share) since 1978. That means, the bottom 20% of our population has not benefited at all from our economic boom. This means rising inequality and skewed income patterns. From a society point of view, this reality is a sure recipe for disaster. You cannot have such a large section of the population being left out and hope to reach developed status. The trickle down effect does not seem to be working! This is also confirmed by consumption patterns: with the consumption by the bottom 20% of the population being static @ between 0 - 1%. While in the 1990s, India's Gini Coefficient was 0.32, it has now gone up to 0.38. The top 10% now make 12 time the bottom 10% - as opposed to 6 times in the 1990s. 

The above is a cause of some serious concern. The development we have experienced so far has, by-and-large, left the underprivileged sections of our society by the wayside. This has serious long-term repercussions both on the economic side as well as on the social side. It points out that our development model is unsustainable, and not long-term. Unless we can get the entire population to benefit from development, we can never reach our goal of being a developed country. Not only that, the current situation will also, over the long term, lead to serious social unrest. This is not a price that we can afford to pay. 

Another very serious cause of concern is our record on Human Development: we are ranked among the bottom in the list of HDI - 137. On most parameters like Life Expectancy, Infant Mortality,   Education, Gender Inequality we lag behind even stalwarts like Sri Lanka. In an earlier article on my blog about an year ago, I had argued (Brazil - Russia - China... Vs India) : "What nonsense are we talking about? Gender Equality, Primary Schooling, Life Expectancy, Infant Mortality, Literacy are all basic indices that indicate quality of life and governance. And in each, B/R/C are ahead. We compare ourselves with China in terms of Freedom of Expression... good, that we should. But then we should also compare all the other parameters of pertinence. And why aren't we benchmarking ourselves against Brazil - a country similar in size and challenges? Even Sri Lanka is ahead of us

We look at economic indices and worry... perhaps it is high time that we looked at these basic indices - for the very simple economic reason that a healthy, literate, Well-schooled and taken care of population will be more productive. Dont believe me? Well, Per Capita Income of these countries is Russia 14561, Brazil 10162, China 7476, India 3468, and Sri Lanka 4943!

What is the quality of governance that we are giving our people? More to the point, how sustainable is our model of growth if the basic needs of the majority of the population are not addressed? This is indicative of a deeper problem within us: unless the changes initiated in the past 20 years are not drilled till the grass-roots levels, the figures are not going to be very different. We are creating an urban rural divide within us wherein the rural population will lag behind. And unless literacy levels go up & mortality goes down you cannot expect productivity to significantly improve"

If you look at Arvind Kejriwal's policies, it can be readily seen that this is the precise area that he is addressing. How does that make him a socialist? Has anyone else shown the foresight and the courage to come out with a plan to address this, the most important challenge that is facing India? Furthermore - considering that Arvind Kejriwal's support base is largely Urban, this is a bold move - one that shows his commitment to development. He is consciously abandoning his existing support base among the Urban youth of India by addressing this serious problem facing India.

The numbers show one thing with startling clarity: the fact that governance has totally failed to deliver in India. We have been unable to ensure even the most basic of facilities and supports to a very large segment of our population. It is high time someone tackled this reality head-on. How does empowering Gram Sabhas etc make him a socialist? That is being a hard-core democrat! Yes, some of policies need toning down - I have myself stated that in my analysis. But rejecting his policies outright as socialist is being excessively negative. Again, as I had observed last year, Let us take an example: farm productivity. It is among the lowest even in the developing world. Dont you think that an educated farmer will be more amenable to and willing to accept the advances in agriculture? Will he not be better aware? Will that not translate into a better output? We are talking about infrastructure... to my mind, these basic indices are equally important for development and need to tackled on a war footing. The evidence that they impact development is omnipresent. What is required is our will and effort.

The alternative is continue on the current road map. We are doing fairly well... 7  -9 % (now 5-6%) GDP growth isn't bad. But this top-heavy model of development will increase the Rich-Poor and Urban-Rural divide and create further wedges in our socio - economic fabric. Unless the advantages of growth trickle to all levels, the full benefits will not be realised. In short, it is simply not sustainable. For it to be sustainable, most critically, each strata of society should be in a position to take advantage of it.

This is not a communist viewpoint- I am talking pure economic sense. Unless basic indices are in place, the people will not benefit fully from any development simply because their awareness levels will not enable them to grab the opportunities that come. And, if they lag, the effects of their backwardness on the economic productivity of the nation are too worrisome to contemplate... at no point does Arvind Kejriwal advocate Government Ownership of productive assets. In fact, he advocates private enterprise; all he does - or is trying to do - is ensure that the people from whom the land is taken participate in development. He is increasing the bargaining power of the poorer sections of society. Why does that notion disturb us? It is a matter of documented record that the economically weaker sections are no better of today than in 1991 - if you consider any of the numbers above! The figures of BPL alone are not the only index to judge the well-being of a nation. Are we saying that if a person is not in BPL list, then he has participated in growth? What about these other factors pointed out above? Can we ignore them? High time Urban India wakes up to the ground realities. 

Wake Up, India. We are not doing nearly as well as we think we are.... we need to get out act together. 

In closing, I would like to re-iterate my earlier observation from my blog @Reflections

"Had real change been around the corner, the seriousness would have shown up in the educated classes, who currently rise only when it impacts them. It would have been evident in increased civic consciousness in society, in more number of proactive steps taken to tackle the issues. The continued absence of a national dialogue on all the major issues of importance on even social media, let alone the national news, is a cause of concern. It is leading me to wonder: Young / Educated India: A Myth or Reality? I wonder...'

UPDATE: from

"But looking at contemporary India from another angle, one could equally tell the following—more critical and more censorious—story: “The progress of living standards for common people, as opposed to a favoured minority, has been dreadfully slow—so slow that India’s social indicators are still abysmal.” For instance, according to World Bank data, only five countries outside Africa (Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Yemen) have a lower “youth female literacy rate” than India (World Development Indicators 2011, online). To take some other examples, only four countries (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Myanmar and Pakistan) do worse than India in child mortality rate; only three have lower levels of “access to improved sanitation” (Bolivia, Cambodia and Haiti); and none (anywhere—not even in Africa) have a higher proportion of underweight children. Almost any composite index of these and related indicators of health, education and nutrition would place India very close to the bottom in a ranking of all countries outside Africa."\

***** End Update*****

Aapas mein ghum baante jo ham phir naa rahe aise sitam kehane ko insaan hain woh insaniyat kahaan hai 

Par Humnein Baatnaa seekhaa hi nahi... yeh numbers padh kar toh yehi lagtaa hai. Maaf karnaa agar baat buri lage... 

Jaago Sonewaalon.........

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Book Review: Swaraj By Arvind Kejriwal (Part-2)


In the first part of the review, I had given the outline of the book, and the overall approach. As I stated earlier, the book focuses on core issues of governance: giving people a say in the running of government in areas that directly impact them; control over governmental money, as well as the total lack of accountability in the cadres of the government servants in the state and central government. This is a hard fact; I am reminded of a news article of today wherein the police refused to take action against a person because he was a senior Mantralaya official - and in fact took action against a teenage girl over a matter of a football! This is the kind of environment we live in; each one of us can readily think up of several such cases. As another example: I still haven't got my Marraige Certificate; I dont know whom  to approach to get it done - as I wont pay a bribe. There can be countless such experiences when a normal citizen feels totally helpless. And this is the area that Mr Kejriwal is attempting to solve.

But before that: let us be clear on one thing: The book Swaraj is about rural India. There is almost no focus on urban India. It is primarily about the villages of India, and how to provide better governance such that the lot of the people improves. Urban India has been looked at, but only in passing. That is what perhaps accounts for a lot of misunderstanding regarding Mr Kejriwal's policies. As I shall elucidate later on, the solution proffered is eminently practical and result-oriented; a decided improvement on the current state of affairs. As regards rural India, it is obvious that if the lot of the rural sections of society improves, the economy is bound to improve, as with improving governance standards - health, and education levels will go up. the entire spectrum of economic activity will go up in rural India. That is a no-brainer, and full marks to Mr Kejriwal for taking the bull by the horns. Inequality of income is indeed a major source of worry in the current economic structure. The other focus of the book is on the disenfranchised sections of society; the focus, the primary focus is on improving delivery of governance to the sections of society who genuinely need it, If anyone can actually deliver it without playing around too much with current economic policies, that is perhaps precisely what India needs. What we need from Mr Kejriwal is a clear manifesto on other matters that concern us as well; that should settle the butterflies that can currently be seen in a good many people regarding the Aam Aadmi Party.

Control over the Government
The central point here is that someone far removed from the reality in the villages of India makes senseless policies; frequently, these have nothing to do with what the villages really require. This is not a tall claim; there are several practical examples of largesse and needless expense that have been given. Furthermore, the current system is such that if the people providing basic services - health, anganwadi, PHC, schools etc dont do their job, or indulge in corruption, or simply dont work at all - there is very  little that the people can do about it to bring about a positive change.

The suggested solution is a devolution of power to the Gram Sabhas. For example, the Gram Sabha should have the power to penalise the errant school teacher who never turns up to teach, or the doctor who does not attend hospital (or PHC) and runs his own clinic instead. The Gram Sabha can, in such cases, reprimand or even give instructions to stop the salary of the concerned official. This is an interesting solution, and merits a closer look. The Gram Sabha is a meeting of the entire village; quite simply, if the majority of the people feel or state that a teacher, or a doctor (for example) is not giving proper service, or not attending: then that official can have his salary stopped or some other disciplinary action contemplated.

This seemingly outrageous concept is on deeper thought, a stroke of genius; it makes the government officials the servants of the people - instead of a bureaucracy. It will enable a much greater focus on job performance and implementation of governmental programmes. The officials will then - albeit out of necessity and fear - start serving the people and taking care to attend to their duties. This is undeniable; and is very, very practical. This merits a deeper study and analysis beyond a shade of doubt.

He goes on to state that the power of appointment of officials located in villages should also be vested with the Gram Sabhas. This is one area where my views diverge; I have serious doubts as to its applicability. There are several questions that come to mind: what if there are simply no qualified local candidates? Wont it impact performance and implementation? And what about the city and town appointments? What about organisational growth? Employee growth and management? One way out of this could be - this is a suggestion from my side - could be the identification of jobs where the above objections will not be a factor; for example primary school teachers, anganwadi workers, gram sevaks etc. In these functions, a local person will actually be far more effective. With this caveat, I wholeheartedly concede the point made by Mr Kejriwal.

The book suggests a functional structure of Gram Sabhas going upto district and block level structures in simple language; if the suggestions are not upto the mark, they can be tweaked and made suitable. But the basic concept of power to the people with an objective of giving them greater control over their own destinies is laudable - and the basic concept is eminently doable. A defined set of rules, identifying precise roles and jobs that are directly under Gram Sabha control can be created. Salaries can be linked to Gram Sabha feedback; specified jobs can be filled by Gram Sabhas; all this is practical and welcome. It has the added advantage of giving village folk reason to stay in the villages, create employment opportunities, and prevent or limit the migration to towns and cities. It will engender positive change in the villages, bringing about a decided betterment.

Control over government money
This is where Mr Kejriwal is in his element - and this section is pretty much irrefutable. The book makes the simple, logical and lucid point that the requirements of each village are different; it is not a case of one size fits all. And this is an argument buttressed by several real-world examples. Add to this the reality that only a small percentage of the money allocated reaches the common man. The net result of the above is the current situation wherein important work remains undone. The solution is simple, and is another stroke of sheer genius. I cannot argue with it - I have read the book twice, and cannot locate a single flaw, or objection, anywhere. The argument laid forward is simply that instead of scheme-wise allocation of funds, the money should simply be allocated in toto to the Gram Sabha, to spend as per the requirements of the people and the local problems in the village. Instead of MNREGA, or Indira Awaas Yojana, the net money of all these schemes for each village is to be handed over the the Gram Sabha. And as proof that this works - you have Kerala, where already 40% of such funds are spent this way. That is an argument anyone will be hard put to negate. A village in need of irrigation can focus on that; a village in need of something else can focus on that. With a proper control process in place, this can work wonders. This has the added advantage of reducing corruption, improving implementation, reduction in funds leakage; and the spending of funds as per genuine need. For, the people will not (most of the time anyway) squander it away, they will put it to genuine use - since the decisions will be in a Gram Sabha. 

Control over resources
Land: The usage of agricultural land for industrial purposes has always been a bone of contention between big business, politicians and the people. One can offhand recall several high-profile cases of this type. The solution - again, Gram Sabha - is spot on. It places the entire power in the hands of the Gram Sabha - it is, after all, their land. Rather than hinder development, the book makes the point that Gram Sabhas can then negotiate with the big industries It empowers the Gram Sabhas to decide whether the project is in favour of the people; and if so - under what conditions. However, I do have a query, or an objection: there may be cases wherein there is a conflict of interest between the local interest and the national interest. What would happen under those circumstances? For example: take the case of a car unit. The displacement of people and the attendant hardships can be ameliorated to some extent by the provision of jobs in the factory. The problem is that there may be a situation, given the educational and skill levels in the hinterland and the villages, when there may no fit for these people in the new unit. Thus, it is my belief that this needs to be accounted for; or that perhaps this step is a bit early. A possible solution could be limiting the power of the Gram Sabhas only to collective negotiation to ensure an amicable solution. Looked at it that way, this could indeed be a positive step forward.

These are the three main positives that I can derive from the book. If implemented, there will be a decided improvement in the human indices of development in rural India. There can be no doubt that this will have a very powerful positive impetus on our economy as a whole, as the spinoffs into various productivity improvements that are entailed by an educated and healthy population are too numerous to recount. Yes, Mr Kejriwal has suggested some aspects which I dont entirely agree with, which I shall briefly touch upon below. These are relatively smaller passages in the book, and hence I am not going into too much detail. My objective here is to engender a thought process, and encourage people to read this book, which enables a deeper understanding of an important public figure. 

My main bone of contention the the section on Mining, Quarrying, Forests and Water Resources. I cannot see how these national treasures can be placed under a Gram Sabha. The book raises the point that all such resources that are small and localised should be totally under the Gram Sabha. How do you define a local forest? Even a small wood would touch several villages. Further the book also states that resources have to be mapped into village, block and district levels as per their size and spread. This sounds feasible and practical, I concede that readily. No issues on that score. However, the difficulties in implementing this will be tremendous; there will be few resources that are clearly localised to a single block or even a district. I do not think that this can be implemented. That apart, there is the section on taxation, which as per me requires a good deal more clarity

As to the rest, the book is fantabulous. The best aspect is that most stated solutions have already been implemented in some part of India; it is only a question of scaling it across the nation. The supportive facts have been given adequate coverage in the book. It also deals with almost all objections I could think of; those objections to which I did not find answers have been mentioned above. It analyses the impact of these steps on various problams facing society from Alchoholism & Corruption to Naxalism. 

To summarise, Arvind Kejriwal has ideas, they are daring, bold and I daresay original. He is focussed on rural India, which is a welcome change from the rhetoric we are used to hearing. In closing - if Mr Kejriwal is reading this - I wish he would not only deal with the questions I have raised, but also pen his thoughts on the Urban part of India in equal detail,as also his thoughts (or his Party's) thoughts on Commerce, Economics, Defence, Foreign Affairs. You, sir, have proven your integrity; through this book you have proven your originality of concept, planning and understanding of the real problems facing India - namely Education, Health etc, that is the basic factors of Human Development. We would love to hear your views on infrastructure - especially infrastructure, since implementing infra improvement will cause friction.... Do revert if you are reading this, Arvindji...

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Book Review: Swaraj by Arvind Kejriwal (Part - 1)

"So it is clear that neither than the MPs and MLAs help solve our daily problems, nor can they help in getting good laws passed. This is the dichotomy of the situation. We elect them, but they act according to the wishes of the party they belong to. And if they dont toe the party line, they are punished and may even have to lose the membership of the house or assembly. So, even if you elect a good and honest person as a MP or MLA from your area, it will neither solve the issues of your area, nor will he or she be able to help pass a good law. Isnt it a queer democracy, where neither the public is heard, nor its representatives?"

The above lines should touch a chord in every Indian hearts. It is difficult to argue with such powerful logic. And that is the central thrust of this book: that the people of India are effectively powerless, and have been emasculated by the current system. This is a feeling that all of us can empathise with, having dealt with it all of our adult lives. Arvind Kejriwal is a man who has worked in the system, and is aware of its many pluses and innumerable minuses. This comes out very well in the book, which makes it worth a read for that alone.

The key issue here is both the diagnosis of the problem, as well as the cure - if any. First, the problem. Mr Kejriwal makes a powerful case for the emasculation of the people and their utter helplessness to do anything about the current situation. This comes out most powerfully in the frank self-appraisal of the Jan Lokpal agitation, wherein the author agrees that it is difficult to imagine a situation in which any political par
ty can bring about a strong Lokpal. The bugbear of corruption is presented as one of the 2 or 3 central problems related to governance in India. The other problem is the total lack of accountability of the public servants in the state, central governments as well as the state and central bureaucracy. The way in which these people tend to serve their master rather than the people is brought out with stunning clarity. It helps you grasp the depth of the problem as well as the basic hindrances in the path of setting things right. 

The second problem is related to the first; lack of effective utilisation of government funds, improper allocation and ineffective controls on the way these funds are spent - leading to the third problem, corruption. This is where Arvind Kejriwal is at his practical best. The focus of the book is on the centralised plannng model, which leads to fund allocation to the states and the districts. Schemes are run - and dictats are issued that this has to be done and this way. The concentration of power in one hand - or a few hands - combined with the lack of proper accountability leads to corruption as funds are misappropriated. The difficulty in seeking information (with regard to legal as well as real-world problems - like threats being issued) regarding funds and implementation completes the circle. 

The net result of all this is the oft-repeated leakages in the system, where very little of the money actually spent reaches the people whom it is meant for. These people have no say whatsoever, and no recourse to rectify this issue. The current avenues are so tedious, so cumbersome, and have so little tangible results to show that people have lost faith in them. As anyone of you can see, this is a hard reality. That is the real power of this book - it goes into the root causes of corruption, lack of proper implementation, various problems ailing India like Land acquisition protests, Naxalism, MNREGA, concentration of power and the attendant lack of responsiveness of the system.  

The utter helpless of the people to do anything has been brought out in an extremely lucid fashion; you will find yourself nodding your head in agreement. The diagnosis of the problems is spot on; not only that - there are no grandiose claims like demographic dividend, GDP growth etc. This is a book about the people of India, written by a common man for the people of India. The beauty of the book is that the solutions - with a few changes (in my opinion, of course) will lead to the realisation of those very same grandiose goals - Gini coefficient, GDP, Per capita income etc! Furthermore, the language and terminology used is very simple. Almost anyone can understand - there is no jargon in any of the 151 pages that comprise the book. It is a fast, fact-filled and fun read that has an excellent presentation and simple language. It is available in both Hindi and English. 

The book also delves into solutions in some detail; this being too complex and too important a topic, I will deal with the solutions part in a separate review - the Part-2 of this book review. Suffice it to say that this is a book that attends to the real problems facing India - Health, Education, Life Expectancy - the core factors that determine how able a population is in taking advantage of the opportunities offered by a growing economy. This is a refreshing approach, and one that merits serious contemplation and study. Yes, there are lacunae, scope forimprovement as well as some criticisms. In a couple of areas, I felt that additional clarifications are needed; one area of the solution threw up questions in my mind as to the downside. But overall, I have to say that it is a much superior approach to the current one. With some details, practical methods and modifications, this could indeed be worth a try... What are the solutions presented? For that, read the Part-2 of this review. Watch this space!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

State Vs Center in the Fight Against Terror... you decide!

"The National Counter Terrorism Centre -  the one stop-shop for generating intelligence, analysing the inputs to connect the dots and carrying out counter-strikes - has been in the deep freezer since last year after states put their foot down. The states were worried it encroached their powers."

The people are dying on the streets... and the best our awesome political masters can do is fight like spoilt brats over turf! Reminds me of my childhood, when I or my siblings would fight like cats and dogs over which cricketer is better, who does the ball-point pen belong to etc! It is simple logic that terror can only be a central subject, given its international links. Yes, there will be procedural hassles that will need ironing out, but the moot point is still that terror is something that crosses state borders, and has central links and support from an enemy nation. These factors place it slam-bang straight in the centre's list of responsibilities.

But no, our centre is too busy appeasing the states - when it should be sending a clear message to every state that it has to toe the line. And an equal no - no state has the vision to recognise that the interest of the people comes ahead of the interests of the political class. No state (barring those who agree to the above, that is) can see that it better to sort this matter out fast - since the people will be the beneficiary. It will cut response times, it will enable faster identification and apprehension of suspects, and provide greater teeth to the terror fighting mechanism of India.

Are our politicians helping us by this frankly horrible and callous display of turf warfare? Is terror a subject when you can and should be screaming "this is my area, yeh meraa ilaakaa hai?" Cant these "people" see that it is in the interests of the public at large if we are able to forge a common and strong front in the face of terror, in place of the divided house that we are currently presenting? Look at the USA: terror is a central response, and it places the interests of the people first. But in India, we are placing the interests of the political class first! And yet, we the people are silent. I am not advocating an uprising, but it is high time we put some serious pressure on our political classes to put up or shut up. We remain silent at our own peril, as Hyderabad has shown once again. The least we can do is voice our utter disgust at the state of affairs publicly - as I am doing.

The need of the hour when your subjects are threatened by danger and loss of life is speed of action; in place of speed, we are moving at the pace of a tortoise. It has been years since most of these solutions have been presented to the political class; no action has been taken. In place of speed, we are just seeing discussions... while people are dying due to terror attacks. High time the centre became tough and took a no-nonsense attitude with the states on this matter. A weak centre is not what is required here! We need a strong and powerful centre, not a waffling indecisive tool of the states

I am disgusted at both the centre as well as the State apparatus that is present today; and would like to request them to place my interest (and that of my fellow Indians) over their idiotic turf warfare. People are paying through their noses - be it loss of GDP, or loss of life, or whatever. The lack of governance displayed by the political leadership in India is worrisome! And, this latest revelation has left me speechless with impotent anger and utter disgust. An anti-terror mechanism did not take off because of turf warfare between the centre and the states! A peaceful people's movement is once again the order of the day  - I repeat, peaceful non-violent presentations to the government of the day. We are not law-breakers. We are law-abiding citizens; but are now seriously worried. Wake up, India...

As I have said so often... Jaago, Sonewaalon...

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Young / Educated India: Myth... or Reality?

Let us carry the reasoning from the previous post forward. I have seen other interactions on the topic of corruption at a personal level, and have seen similar levels of interest. The exact same has been my experience on my blog, when The Krishna Key book review can get me 1000+ hits in a very short time; but corruption analysis get me a fraction of that number. 

Not only that, now recall incidents of the past 2 years when the so-called young people were rising, or all of middle class India was in outrage:

  1. AMRI Fire
  2. India Against Corruption
  3. Janlokpal
  4. Nirbhay / Women Safety
  5. Clean India Green India

All of these now lie forgotten. There is little coverage in Media of this. And to those who say that the Media has been influenced, there is little happening on any issue in terms of public interest and attention even in social media. How many of us has taken the trouble to check if our office building is fire-safe? How many of us have started reporting corruption cases? Do we care what is now happening to the Janlokpal? Forget about these major issues; recall Clean India campaign? How many of us actively look for dustbins? How many of us have started really contributing in keeping India clean? Hardly anyone: and no brickbats, if you dont mind. I have eyes and can observe. 

The conclusion is inescapable: we are the problem. We are not a part of the problem; we actually are the problem. We, the educated middle class of India - from seventeen to seventy - are the problem. Our pusillanimous and disgusting I-Me-Myself attitude is at the core of the issue. This attitude can be spotted everywhere, and we dont realise it. A sad state of affairs indeed. We get swayed by emotional appeals when it suits us; when the urgency has passed - we are back to our old ways. This is proven by the short-term mass movements in Janlokpal, Nirbhay etc cases. This is proven in the soul searching after the AMRI Fire, and in any number of other issues. I had hoped that this is the spark that can light the flame - but the flame is showing signs of petering out. 

Had real change been around the corner, the seriousness would have shown up in the educated classes, who currently rise only when it impacts them. It would have been evident in increased civic consciousness in society, in more number of proactive steps taken to tackle the issues. The continued absence of a national dialogue on all the major issues of importance on even social media, let alone the national news, is a cause of concern. It is leading me to wonder: Young / Educated India: A Myth or Reality? I wonder...

And we say we care about corruption...

A few days back I carried out a simple experiment: I asked this question on India: How does corruption impact you as a person? Please be specific - how you have had to pay and for what; perhaps despite not wanting to? What could you have done to stop it and not pay?

3 people went to the trouble of penning their experiences - a grand total of 3, from hundreds of viewers. Wow! I apologise for all my anti-corruption spiel: India does not have corruption of any sort. If people cannot even answer anonymously and state that their have paid a bribe to do "x" work, then obviously there is no corruption in India. If people do not even care to acknowledge in a forum that gives a manner of answering that ensures nothing can be traced to yourself, then either the problem does not exist... or the respondents are a part of the problem. There can be no third reason

You can find the time to pen on any number of inconsequential topics, but have nothing to add on this vital topic. What can it mean? Frankly, from where I stand, it means that you dont care. This has nothing to do with the number of followers I have, or indeed even  my reputation. It is a simple question; pen your personal experience. Quora offers anonymity as well; and yet... silence. That can mean only one of two things - either you havent ever encountered any corruption; or that you dont care enough to openly state it.

And then we go to the overt and insincere show-baazi "support anti-corruption" etc. We cant even openly acknowledge it when it comes to a personal individual level- and we talk about eradication? We all scream India mein corruption hai - and go mute when someone asks you to give instances? Well done India! You have just shown your insincerity and attitude towards corruption. I may lose some followers by writing these words - but I call it like it is. If the shoe fits... wear it.

We are the problem; we need to change first of all!

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Lashkar by Mukul Deva - book review » Curious Book Fans

Lashkar by Mukul Deva - book review » Curious Book Fans:

'via Blog this'

Interview with Mukul Deva...

"Mukul Deva: And it will not change the aims of Terror Central. Its a multi-headed hydra and will keep adapting to the changing threat. Also the events outlined by me in BLOWBACK and TANZEEM are already happening. Do note that the LeT is already jostling to take on a leadership role in the jihad and will (with help from its ISI masters) take the smaller groups under its umbrella to enhance its clout and operational capability.

Not far in the future you will see a lot of the remaining events unfold in the manner described in TANZEEM.

Once again, must stress that this is logically the way events would flow UNLESS something really really drastic is done to change things in Pakistan – since that is the epicentre of the global jhad. If things are not taken in hand VERY soon, the Pakistani nukes will fall into the hands of the terror groups.

I don’t think I am crying wolf when I say that the ISI is no different from the LeT or Jaish. These groups are merely the expedient arms of the ISI."

Awesome! Admire your courage, Sir!

Read the interview...

Book Review: Salim Must Die

Completing his education from La Martiniere College, Lucknow, the National Defence Academy, Pune, and the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, Mukul was commissioned in the SIKH LIGHT INFANTRY of the Indian Army in 1981. An eventful Army tenure, which included a decade of operational service in India and overseas, ended in an equally remarkable transition when Mukul turned his attention to the corporate battlefield. The result was MSD SECURITY PVT LTD which, in the ensuing decade, grew into a dynamic, professionally managed company.  Another twist in the tale followed when Mukul turned to his first love - writing. The result was a series of books spanning genres as multi-faceted as his personality.

Salim Must Die - Mukul Deva

This is book 2 in the four-book series...

The Characters

Iqbal: Once a confused man - he is now clear headed - and out for blood. Revenge...
Colonel Anbu: Tough. but humane - as always. And a man who can take tough calls...
Brigadier Salim: Complete Swine...
Mai Hu: Chinese, Bioweapons Expert, and an idiot in love...
Captain Ankita Bhatnagar: Commando Geek!
Captain Mohommed Sami: Only a commando - and a commander...
Captain Manoj Khare: Counterfoil to Ankita; also a commando geek!
Captain Vikram Tiwathia: Commando, and a well-wisher of Iqbal
Tanaaz: Pakistani, but a RAW agent; patiotic to Pakistan - but helps India...

The Plot
Salim Must Die is the story of stunning and brilliant ISI-engineered plot to destabilise America while simultaneously settling the score with India. Told in the backdrop of US meddling in Middle Easter affairs, it foretells the finding of Osama in Pakistan in an ISI safehouse. Stunned by this development, the ISI plans to hit back at the USA, by attacking its worldwide interests and allies. And, as the icing on the cake, the plot also envisages the humbling of India. Caught in the middle, India is the first to react, as its intelligence sources - now under a unitary command of the NIC (again, prescient statement; Mukul Deva foresaw this development) - provide indications of something big being planned. Enter Force-22, in dual role of intel gathering through high-tech spying and as a strike force. While one part of the force tracks the events, a second part is sent deep into Pakistan to take out the principal planner: Brigadier Salim...

The Analysis
This book is both a work of fiction as well as a geo-political lesson. It places the USA in no uncertain terms as the evil mastermind and creator of the scourge of terrorism that is assailing the planet today. The USA has been stripped naked - stark naked. And this is not done through jingoistic or hyperbolic statements; it is achieved through statements of facts, figures and cold reasoning and logic. You find it hard to refute any of the statements made in the book. This series is the first to openly lay the blame where it actually lies: in the great game for Oil that has been played since the 1970s and American meddling. There is no rancour in the narrative: it is all logic throughout the tome. This fact alone elevates this particular book - as well as the series - into the realm of all-time great books and series. And the best part is, it is intended for an Indian audience; I for one cant see the western world liking this unflattering narrative of the USA. 

The story is awesome in its scope and vast in its breadth. It convincingly puts together a tale of intrigue and international politics that destroy nations; the connection between the unfolding events in the Middle East as well as the intersection of US interests with Middle Eastern sensibilities has been very skilfully woven into a chilling tale of terror and counter-strike. The building pressure on Iran, US-Israeli cooperation etc all go towards further deepening the distrust in the Muslim Middle East, setting the stage for massive discontent. 

Furthermore, the story is also very, very plausible. It is almost scary, so real is the planning. The attention to detail in the planning part is the stuff of legend - you can actually visualise each and every part and sub-part of the plot clicking into place. Paradoxically, this slow, laborious buildup does not compromise on the pace; indeed it builds up the tension as you keep wanting to turn the pages to see what happens, but are too engrossed to do so. And, being an Army Major with hands-on experience in precisely this stuff, the action scenes are naturally out of this world. You can practically smell the gunpowder, so intense is the re-creation. The experience shows up in the writing, with statements like "But in battle, that is the way it is. Just as it is true that in no battle do things remain static for very long. Dynamics change, People move. people attack and people defend. In both cases, people die". Best of all is the way the element of chance and good, simple hard word and constant toil are highlighted - all of this makes the story scary, and real!

The second part of the series takes the characterisation of Colonel Anbu forward as he has been fleshed out and is slowly emerging as the hero of the series. The touch of real class is that, unlike other authors (especially western authors) Anbu has not been created as a one-man Army, he has been shown to be part of a system. A vital cog, but a part of the whole nonetheless. He is not a one-man-solves-all; he is the planner, the leader and the facilitator. The others - the PM, other officials, NIC Director, Ankita, Manoj, Sami, Tiwathia are equally important in the overall story - which makes the entire scenario seem life-like and real. It is this reality which takes this series ahead of each and every thriller I have ever read till date - East or West. Most other thrillers feature one superhero; not so in this book. It is a system at work, not a person. An excellent book and an excellent series: in my opinion, for the reasons identified above, the best in class. No doubts about that. 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Indian Fiction: An Explosion Of Talent

I grew up with Enid Blyton, Tintin, Asterix, Phantom and Mandrake... but by the time I reached 9, we had Amar Chitra Katha, which proved to be a trailblazer; Champak and Chacha Chaudhury etc soon became a staple thereafter alongwith ACK. Amar Chitra Katha was the start of my discovery of Indian writing; but somewhere along the line I forgot, and moved back to Robert Ludlum, Alistair Maclean, Erle Stanley Gardner etc - forgetting all about Indian writing. And whenever I was attracted to it, the price tag was prohibitive. It is this very significant change that has altered the scenario to a very great degree. While now the foreign authors are available for 350+, the Indian Authors are available for a much more affordable 120 - 250 max. This is good, and welcome - it gives a much-needed boost to Indian writing.  But the question we need to ask ourselves is whether Indian Authors have reached the same levels displayed by the others? Here is my take on this matter: they are not only equally good, but in some cases have even surpassed the others. This may seem like a tall statement; but I shall connect it up in the concluding section. First, let us take a small profile shot of the top 3 ( in my opinion, of course) of the up-and-coming Indian names.

Mukul Deva

Completing his education from La Martiniere College, Lucknow, the National Defence Academy, Pune, and the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, Mukul was commissioned in the SIKH LIGHT INFANTRY of the Indian Army in 1981. An eventful Army tenure, which included a decade of operational service in India and overseas, ended in an equally remarkable transition when Mukul turned his attention to the corporate battlefield. The result was MSD SECURITY PVT LTD which, in the ensuing decade, grew into a dynamic, professionally managed company.  Another twist in the tale followed when Mukul turned to his first love - writing. The result was a series of books spanning genres as multi-faceted as his personality.

His fiction works are sheer terror - as they grow on you. Some of his books have accurately predicted happenings in our neighbouring country; this just shows his deep knowledge of the topic. This is not a surprise, since as a Major in the Indian Army he actually fought with terrorism. He successfully concocts terrifying scenarios that are too realistic - a tribute to his writing skill as well as imagination. And this is why his books beat every single author I have read (in his genre) hollow; with the notable exception of Alistair Maclean. I would in fact rate Mukul Deva alongside Maclean, Ravi and Gardner as being the authors to write the most precise and correct plots. And in plausibility, he is unsurpassed: all  his plots are genuinely terrifying and real. His action sequences are awesome - and truly in a class of their own. That is something that not a single other fiction writer can recreate as on date!

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

The author is an engineering, IIM-Calcutta Alumnus with several years work experience in Marketing, Advertising and Consulting. She has been previously honoured for her writing by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, South China Morning Post as well as several Indian Publications. She is the author of the bestselling Taj Conspiracy in addition to the Long Walk Home.

Whereas Mukul Deva excels based on his personal experience and expertise, Manreet thrives on her imagination, flair for writing and commitment to exhaustive research. She is a purely Indian Phenomenon, in that her target audience is Indian - judging from the only book I have read. Her plots are based on Historical Fiction, and have an element on terror or crime involved. Her forte is creating magic based on characterisation and wordplay, gentle nuances and character / plot development. Her characters grow on you: and that seems to be her mainstay. Manreet, if you are reading this - we are waiting eagerly for the next in the trilogy, Dont make us wait too long, will you? Her inclusion is basis the only book she has written; Ashwin Sanghi was in close second - and in some ways first. But the first book was itself a cracker; and she is in the top in my list.

Ravi Subramanian

Ravi Subramanian is the award winning author of four bestselling books : If God was a Banker (2007), I Bought the Monks Ferrari (2007), Devil in Pinstripes (2009) and The Incredible Banker (2011). Ravi’s maiden fiction venture, If God Was a Banker was published in 2007, establishing itself as a National Bestseller. The book has sold over 200,000 copies and has been widely appreciated by readers across genres and age groups. The book also won the prestigious Golden Quill Award for Readers Choice in the year 2008. Writing is a passion, which this alumnus of Indian Institute of Management (Bangalore) pursues in his free time. Ravi also writes popular columns for well-known magazines and has his own personal column in the Economic Times.

This guy can write... that is all I can say about him. He is another from the expertise brigade: he writes largely on the banking sector. His knowledge and expertise are beyond question; that also comes through in his plots. Further, given that he is in the most unglamorous vocation (looking at it from the point of view of fiction plots), his imagination is also to be praised and appreciated. The way he crafts convoluted and interesting plots from the banking industry is awesome! Perhaps the biggest point in his favour is that he writes in simple prose - so much so that even the most technical terms of banking are explained in easy terms. He brings out the frailties in the processes and implementation that can happen in banks - and how they can impact a large number of people. That is his forte; his chosen field. And, honestly, he has no competition. Not even close; it just doesnt exist. Not on Earth, not yet - anyway.

These are the top 3 in my book: the fun part is that there are many others of superb talent that are coming up. Some established - Ashwin Sanghi (all of whose books I have read, and who also genuinely deserves an equal mention here; Chetan Bhagat (whom I haven't read) ; Juggi Bhasin; Aroon Raman and Navneet Jagannathan - all of whom show tremendous promise - and many others whom I have not read. This trend is heartening to behold; hope it grows by leaps and bounds!

The best part of it is - barring no one - the authors that are now coming up are decidedly at a par with anything anywhere in the world. And, especially in the case of the top-3 in my list, it is my personal opinion that they beat everyone hands down - the world over. While the other authors are still stuck on spy thrillers,  I-want-to-rule-the-world scenarios, and portrayals of Iraq - Afghanistan - Russia - Iran as evil etc, Indian authors are finding different themes, plots and scenarios to write on. There is a freshness in their approach, a newness that one looks forward to. There is no hint of vulgarity - characters dont jump into bed at the drop of a hat. There are precisely zero expletives. And the clincher - while western authors create supermen and superwomen as central characters, the above 3 create an atmosphere: no one superhero saves the day, or carries the story. It is a combination of several people who take it forward. That makes it believable and fun to read - and covers up any small slackness that may have been left elsewhere.

Yes, they can get better - true. While it is true that there is no absolute best in Fiction, the fact remains that these current 3 (4 incuding Sanghi) are writing stuff that is unique; off the beaten track. There are areas where others might feel that the illustrious western names are much better; I concede those areas. Nevertheless, these 3 outclass everyone basis the uniqueness of the plots, the sheer quality of writing, knowledge and research, chosen niche, plausibility of the story and clean approach. All they have to now show is the consistency of Maclean and Gardner; they have shown the potential.  It is possible that I am saying this as the plots are in geographically familiar areas and based in familiar cultural surroundings; but I dont think so for the reasons identified...

In conclusion - the above rating is my personal opinion, and is from among those authors I have read. It has nothing to do with Book Sales or any other award etc whatsoever. I apologise if I have hurt anyone's sentiments

Book Review: Lashkar

Lashkar - Mukul Deva
Mukul Deva is a retired Army Officer, a man who has spent 15 years in the Indian Army. He retired as a Major, having spent several years in action as well as counter-insurgency operations in India as well as overseas

It is rare that someone who has an inside tack, as well as actual experience in practical operations actually writes a book based on his / her knowledge. Such rare books are to be treasured; they provide authenticity to the story and plot. And this book is this category, like my previous review/s of Ravi Subramanian. And if the Author has a flair for writing... then the book gets elevated to the status of pure class. Again, no complaints on this aspect!

The Characters
Iqbal - Subah Kaa Bhoolaa Shyaam Ko Kabhi-Kabhaar Laut kar Bhi Aataa Hai...
Colonel Rajan Anbu: Humane, but tough. Can take hard decisions - feelings be damned. 
Omar: Misguided... Misled... 
Brigadier Salim: ISI, Complete Swine, Brutal but sadly highly proficient
Maulana Fazlur Rehman: The Head Terrorist... or so he thinks
Captain Mohommed Sami: Indian, Tough, and of Force - 22
Captain Vikram Tawathia: Ditto
Captain Tony Ahalwat: Ditto
Captain Vikram Katoch: Ditto
Lieutenant Commander Chandan Deopa: Ditto
Lieutenant Commander Ranjit Dhankar: Ditto
Captain Manoj Khare: Ditto - and also a geek
Flight Lieutenant Ankita Bhatnagar: Ditto 

The Plot
The plot is in 2 parts: the terrorist attack, and the Indian response. This makes it a very different book than almost any I have read. Each is gone into in detail, which enables a fuller understanding of the scenario. This engenders a deep understanding, as well as adds to the pace of the plot. The ISI, The USA and Pakistan have been ripped apart in this book - a phase which gives pleasure to Indian readers - and extreme discomfiture of any of US citizens who may be so unlucky as to read this book - or its successor. To put it bluntly, both have been carictured as villains - much more so in the sequel to this book. The second part details the Indian response,  as India decides to take revenge and strike back deep into Pakistani Territory. This is vintage stuff - and I make no bones about it: no fiction author (East Or West) has as yet matched Mukul Deva in military planning, strategy and execution  and their presentation. Read it to believe it. 

The Analysis
This is a book on a terror attack and the attendant response by the victim. Intuitively, there can be no scope for romance or needless dilly-dallying of any sort whatsoever. Happily, there is none. Even the best of western authors cannot resist throwing a pointless female character in the midst, and creating frankly idiotic romantic interludes etc. Even The Day Of The Jackal is no exception to this. This is where the book makes a major hit: there is nothing except the terror attack, and the Indian revenge. The plot itself is so interesting and superbly innovative especially in the revenge part that the need for "masala" is not felt at all. Score one for Mr Deva!

The story covers a vast scope - starting from the terror plot planning at the highest levels of the Pakistani Government, moving onto  the political moves by the Indian Government by the Indian Prime Minister and senior Armed Forces officers, and finally into the execution phase. To keep the book fast-paced, characterisation has been kept to a bare minimum. Surprisingly, this does not impede upon your enjoyment of the book. In fact, quite the reverse - as the story becomes nice and lean and concentrates on the action sequences and the content of the dialogues and intrigues portrayed

Perhaps the biggest fun aspect in the book is the portrayal of the Indian side as aggressive and fast-paced, firm and action oriented. This is in marked contrast to the measured, mature and responsible, at times seemingly meek and muted response that is met with derision by most educated Indians in reality. The Indian Government in this book comes across as aggressive, innovative, bold and ultra-quick in decision making. It makes for a fun read, as you really enjoy the clinical dissection of the USA and Pakistan, as well as the bold decisions of the Indian Government. A must read for this alone. A word of advice- if you are a US citizen - dont read either this book or Salim Must Die. You wont enjoy it! 

Lashkar is a strange book - one that challenges conventional wisdom in fiction writing, and goes into uncharted territory. It uses actual existing political realities, and builds up on them. It does not needlessly vilify any nation - and sticks not to jingoism but to cold hard facts. And if those facts paint any nation black, so be it. It comes across as very objective,as opposed to  the jingoistic portrayals of Iraq, Russia etc in most other western spy thrillers. 

And, most critically, it carries a lesson as well: in the story of Iqbal - an engineer from India who goes astray, and wakens up to the reality very late.. too late almost. In his story is hidden the fundamental problem and inadmissibility of terrorism, and the dishonourable nature of terrorism - as well as the fact that they are mere tools in a much larger geo-political landscape.  Overall this is a book I rate at 5 stars out of 5. No contest!

Monday, 4 February 2013

Book Review: The Terrorist

This is a book that delves into the world of pain, of misguided anger, of isolation, of decisions - right and wrong, of guilt, of societal insensitivity, of broken relationships and their impact on children. It will leave you seething with anger - sometimes at society, sometimes at Pakistan, and sometimes at the stupidity of parents and relatives. There are no stereotypes and no role models, no one is a clear hero. A stark and grey world has been created - which all of us can easily identify with. You may be offended at some passages and events, you may be offended by some portrayal of India but for the most part you cannot deny that this is unerringly close to reality...

The Characters

Murad: An Intelligent Idiot with a habit of making the wrong decision - all through life
Captain Suri: Angry Young Man; with a baggage from the past
Ashwini Kapur: A good man; but one who knows that the good sometimes have to be bad...
Brigadier Mir: Wants revenge for Kargil; out for Blood. Indian Blood

The Plot
This is a story of 2 men : one an officer of the special forces of the Indian Army, and the other a terrorist. The officer is a man with a disturbed past; the terrorist is an Indian Muslim who has turned against India at  perceived injustices that he has to face as a result of his religion, That in itself is powerful stuff; I have to admire the author's courage for penning this. While both are victims of circumstances, both react in different fashion; one gets the support of his friend who turns it around for him while the other gets misled into a path of crime and terror; into the hands of the enemy nation. The book traces the lives of both these people, and the circumstances that defined the later part of their lives - and how they turned into what they became - Captain Suri a top-notch special forces commando, who has displayed reckless courage and superb skills; Murad a twisted and misled idiot who destroys his whole life - and of several hundred innocents - on the path to becoming one of the most feared terrorists from Pakistan. Murad is eventually asked to lead a daring attack on India; but things are moving too fast for him - leading to a confrontation with Captain Suri...

The Analysis
From a patriotic perspective, there is plenty in this book that is offensive. Loads of it, in fact.. But before you condemn it, ask yourself one question: examine your own internal attitudes before condemning anything or anyone in the book or the author. The increasing stereotyping and intolerance from both Hindu and Muslim segments of our population is a matter of fact; that is undeniable. The Shah Rukh Khan incident is still fresh in public memory. The book examines this reality of rhetoric in painstaking detail, and its impact on the minority community. This will bring a lump to your throat. However, the book takes this to extremes and frankly creates a scary picture of Indian society that is just not true. Yes, there is a chasm that has come in - but things are not as bad as has been portrayed. Some of the scenes are simply unbelievable. What is more disturbing is that nowhere is this examined as to why this has come about; by doing this, a superb opportunity  to make this book a truly class book has been missed, as opposed to the very good rating that it is getting from me now. 

The book is a fast-paced thriller and proceeds at break-neck speed. It has been put together extremely well, and makes for a fast read. It is not light reading; not by any means, But it is not a heavy and boring read either. The intermingling of emotional content with the terror background, as well as the build-up of the principal characters through their life story is a touch of sheer class: you actually get into the skin of the character and can almost foretell their response. In other words, characterisation is truly top-notch, well defined and precise. Happily, there are no expletives and bad words, which is a major plus - given that several new authors seem to believe that the F word and constant swearing make for good content. 

It proceeds rapidly through the defining events of their respective lives, and traces the character responses of Suri and Murad. You read with distaste and chagrin at the increasing isolation of Murad, and wonder at his weakness and his character flaw that allows him to succumb; you cannot but feel angry at his capitulation to the wiles of the Pakistanis. You feel the rage as the gents from across the border suborn people; you are painted a vivid picture of a confused and angry young man. On the other hand, you get to see the courageous and righteous Captain Suri who will work your way into your hearts with his nature and his fighting spirit; you empathise with him as he struggles to come to terms with his past. Like Murad, he, too, gets hit by circumstances beyond his control and gets victimised; not only that, unlike Murad, Suri has had an unhappy childhood leaving an indelible mark on his mind and his nature. Suri has to fight both the circumstances as well as his own nature and ghosts from his past. 

The second half of the book is about the disentangling of the terror plot, and in this part - it is a work of art. There is no emotional baggage in this section; positions have now been hardened. The issue at hand is now merely the detection and the prevention of a terror plot. It is almost as if there are 2 books that have been merged into one. The changeover has been skilfully achieved, with an effortless and smooth change from character development to a fast-paced and massive detective cum thriller novel. The hero and his team members and bosses and the antogonist hurtle towards the final confrontation as the Indian team tries everything to save India and her citizens from yet another terror plot. Of particular note is the way intrigue, political games and strategy has been used to diffuse the plot; this makes for interesting reading, as what is unfolding is not just bullets and gore, but a well-thought out counter-strategy to this huge threat from across the border... all in all, a book that must be read!