Don't make me put it up on eBay

by sidin in

What better way to start a blogpost than with a disclaimer. Yes, it has been MONTHS since I posted anything. Yes, I should be ashamed of how I am neglecting this blog. And no it is not because all this book-writing and column-copy-pasting business is going to my head. No. Not at all. I am sorry you feel that way. But no. The stentorian silence here is because there is really only so many words I have inside me on a weekly basis. Professional commitments tend to use up most of them. And I don't want to publish some rubbish for the heck of it. We are all about quality over quantity here at Whatay. Mostly.

And also where is the time after all the Twittering and cooking and posting photos of food?

But here I am. Here you are. *Platonic hugs for the men.* *Platonic pecks on the cheek for the ladies.*

We are all good again.

Also, no. This is not about the second Dork book. I have been very tardy with the promotion of that masterpiece. But then sales are not bad at all. And I am not complaining. So we shall do the shameless marketing later.

Today, instead, I would like to talk about some politics. Now as you may know India should be going to the polls to elect the next Lok Sabha latest by 2014. Some people, who have much greater granular knowledge of such things, tell me that depending on how the UP state elections turn out the UPA may be forced to seek a fresh mandate even before that. Which is very well. Anything, I say, to get rid of the putrid, paralysed, populist panjandrums currently running things into the ground.

But what bothers me is this: what next? What happens when the country goes to polls again? Who do you vote for? Who do I vote for? Why do I vote for them?

Ever since I've been old enough to vote in elections I've voted in a combined total of three panchayat, state and national polls. This is not for want of trying. But in most cases the legacy NRI status, the constant movement between cities every few years, and a variety of permutations and combinations of the name 'Sidin Sunny Vadukut' has left me with a trail of horrible documentation. As some of you may know my passport, school certificate, taxation records, bank account, PGDM diploma all have different versions of that name. Which is why, to make things simple and for international tax purposes, I write books as both Sidin Vadukut and Haruki Murakami.

Most recently, when it looked like I was finally going to get my name included in the Delhi electoral rolls, I moved to London. (Oddly enough, thanks to a ridiculously simple process and some colonial hangover, I am now registered to be a bonafide voter in the UK. And I have already voted in one referendum. Bizarre.)

Each time I have voted in India I have done so from my ancestral home in Kerala. Back home we are a family of medium-strength Congress supporters with the odd godless Marxist uncle who people crib about secretly. That is not to say that we don't vote for independents or even Left candidates. We do. We have. Or that we vote along religious, caste or even wealth lines. Mostly, we don't. In fact I always find it amusing to see how the family gets together post-election day and everyone tries to avoid talking about who they voted for. I think they do this sincerely and because while the elders try to pass some sort of family whip, not everyone listens.

I haven't been back home in my village during election season in some time. But my memories are always of a healthy, rational atmosphere. There is a lot of the usual alcohol, cash and illegal megaphone usage. And rare bouts of brutal violence. But by and large the process is… sincere. Candidates are evaluated not only for their party affiliations but also for who they are and their track records. Representatives are accessible not just before elections, but after it as well. It is, to put it briefly, not the hackneyed, hopeless process that people tend to generalise elections as. Maybe it has changed now. But those are the feelings I am left with.

Growing up, sporadically, in this politically charged, fairly well-informed environment means that I like to think before voting.

And the more I think about the next Lok Sabha polls the more… I am left thinking.

On the one hand there is the UPA. I was one of those people who thought that the last mandate in 2009 meant that UPA2 could now shrug off coalition politics and get things done. I can still remember that evening in the newsroom when the numbers all came in. Overall, there was optimism. (Note: I conducted a blind-blind survey in the office that evening. Around 60% had voted for the BJP. Just in case you were wondering with your chormedia hat on.)  As you may be aware, things did not turn out well. So far it has been a terribly disappointing government that has not only robbed of us years of progress, but also of years of hope and optimism.

On the other hand there is the BJP. The party has produced moments of brilliance during Parliamentary debates. But I think there is much more to being a meaningful opposition. Personally, with my limited understanding of how these things work, I have found the opposition wanting. It has a crucial role to play in government. A role that cannot be reduced to a simple choice between 'well-prepared speech' and 'walking out'. Time and time again the BJP, I thought, had a chance to step up and make its presence felt. In most cases I thought the opposition let politics rather than policy get the better of them. And in other cases they seemed outmanoeuvred with little effort.

And sorry, but there is a difference between ruling India and ruling Gujarat. I have had a chance to live in Ahmedabad for a couple of years. And the city and state is easily in my top 3 places to live in. Modi has done some remarkable things. But giving BJP the credit for Gujarat is akin to giving BCCI the credit for Tendulkar. I am not convinced of that argument at all. And I am not convinced of that man. (Please try to not spout hatred in the comments.)

Then there is the third front. That has seldom gone well for us.

I am still thinking of all these things. And right now the only reason I have to vote is if the LS candidate in my constituency is a worthy man/woman. From a national perspective I see little clarity.

But if I had to make a decision, I am going to do it on the basis of a wishlist. So here I am going to put out a list of things I'd like to see the next government do. Some of them may be impossible due to constitutional process. And some of them may seem irrelevant to the vast majority of readers. But it is my wishlist. And these are issues that I care about. I am pretty sure not one politician will read this blogpost. But at least the process of writing it down will help me as we get closer to the ballot box. It will help me take a call.

The Whatay Wishlist:

1. I'd like to see the next government write into law that the Prime Minister has to be a member of the Lok Sabha.

2. I'd like to see the Lok Sabha implement a Prime Minister's Question system akin to the one in the House of Commons. The post of PM is not a ceremonial one but an executive one. The current prime minister has shown a revulsion for saying anything that is not delivered from a pulpit or behind closed doors. This has only compounded the feeling that nobody is in charge. I find this utterly ridiculous.

3. The next government must pledge to implement reform in the judiciary and police systems. It is not enough to parrot out year after year that millions of cases are pending in Indian courts or that "police reforms are very important". It is incredulous to hear the law minister to say that "something must be done". Too many discussions I have with people on issues ends with the lament: "but who wants to go to court??". Again I fail to understand how, in a system that has crores of pending cases, nobody questions the system of vacations for courts. The last time I raised that someone reminded me that the American have vacations too. Fine, but they also have 104 judges per million people. We have 12.4. Much more such depressing data in this PRS data sheet (PDF).

4. The next government must take up the case of Indian NRIs all over the world. The average NRI is not the guy who sashays in on Pravasi Bharatiya Nautanki Divas and delivers a speech with one mouth and an MOU with the other. Thousands of them live in abject conditions, in countries that treat them like second-class citizens. While consulate services have improved from the horror it was when I grew up in the Gulf, they are still far from being adequate to handle the sheer numbers of people working abroad. For instance 12,000 Indian prisoners, according to one estimate, are held in UAE jails. Forget giving these people votes. Give them adequate consular support and welfare services. I could bring up consular services served up by other countries. But baby steps first.

Excerpt from UAE Embassy site:

The Library is housed in the premises of the Indian Embassy Abu Dhabi. It has a well stocked collection and comprises books on Indian History, Culture, Arts, Politics, and Literature. We are in the process of adding content to the library. It is currently not open to the public, however in near future it will be made available to the public.

5. I would like to see the government pledge to a certain benchmark target of work done, hours of business achieved and member attendance in the Lok Sabha. This is meaningless without the opposition signing up too. But one party doing it could force the others.

6. DO. SOMETHING. ABOUT. SCIENCE AND TECH! The growth in broadband in laughably slow. These recent dabblings in low-cost computing are well-intentioned at best, and perhaps a scam at worst. Vilasrao Deshmukh is the Minister for Science And Technology. Kapil Sibal is that for Communications and Information Technology.

We will carry on when you're done laughing. Done? Ok.

So is it me, or is there a fundamental problem in the way these ministries are set up? There are some sub-optimalities I see. The Ministry of IT is sitting on a policy mess post-Raja. Solving the mess, increasing the breadth and depth of connectivity, and building a national broadband network are not technology issues as much as policy ones. Let one guy do that full-time. Why is the same chap worried about giving school kids tablet computers? Because he has too much free time?

Next, the Min of S&T's key mandates includes things such as:

  • Co-ordination of areas of Science & Technology in which a number of Institutions & Departments have interests and capabilities
  • Support to basic and applied research in National Institutions

Then why in Mark Knopfler's name is it de-linked from the department of higher education?

I can hazard an uneducated guess for the legacy behind this disconnect.

We keep moaning about the lack of science research and output and that our young people don't care for careers in science. One simple chart should explain the problem. This is from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's website:


The website never really explains what this Zionist conspiracy chart is supposed to mean. But I suppose it means that the CSIR coordinates laboratories which are somehow connected with these departments. (Oh look, there is a Dept. of S&T AND a Dept. of Scientific and Industrial Research. Puke.) But the pertinent thing to note is this: the department of higher education figures nowhere in this equation.

In other words the system that processes our young people has NOTHING to do with the system that needs scientists. You make your own inferences.

Someone needs to sit and see the writing on the wall: This is a steaming pile of Department of Suckage.

The next government must stop giving lip service to our problem with research. And do something about it. They can start by cleaning up this mammoth mess of stakeholders. Draw up sensible hierarchies. Marry the education and research processes. This might make a great way to mark the 100th session of the Indian Science Congress. For now we can only point at the website for the 99th Congress, and lament at the fact that one of the top links on the home page is for 'Best Poster Awards'.

I would like the next government to commit a workable plan that is revolutionary not evolutionary.

7. I would like the next government to commit to improve the plight of our brethren in the north-east. That part of the country has to stop being a national afterthought. In many ways they are like wretched NRIs. Of course it not all a question of neglect as this interesting article (PDF) seems to show. But there is much that can be done in terms of connectivity, commerce and infrastructure. Don't spout that bullshit about keeping infra poor to prevent Chinese invasion. The People's Army will lay roads, construct bridges, inaugurate airports and conduct an Olympics in Gangtok before your under-secretary is done with his progress report.

8. I would like whoever is in-charge of the entire passport processing system and the Regional Passport Office network to be shot in public once in front of each RPO in the country. And then he should be thrown out for entering the office without having a token. After which he should be fed to 'agents'. Surely this great country is capable of building a passport issuance and renewal system that does not involve obliteration of human dignity and towering incompetence.

The new government must overhaul this system as soon as possible. And while they are at it, they could perhaps overhaul the Foreigners Regional Registration Office network as well. That shit is insane yo. That is borderline hate crime. They don't tell you because then you'll call them racist.

9. Mobile banking is a fantastic idea. And will genuinely bring financial services to the under-banked. But so far the execution has been hampered by the RBI's mortal fear that telcos will try to enter the banking sector through the 'back door'. Now I can understand the RBI's apprehensions. Indian telcos are as trustworthy as a Samsung employee standing outside an Apple design office. But this unspoken impasse will not solve the problem. If this means preparing a special kind of banking license to enable telcos and banks to better work together, then so be it. Solve the problem, unlock the potential to change lives. The next government must show a willingness to do this.

10. I want a Minister for Freedom of Speech and Expression. Or an ombudsman. Or whatever. Anybody who will stand up to this bizarre trend of threatening to ban 'offensive' things. I am afraid many, many people in this country will actually support this kind of ridiculous censorship. Given our propensity to defend the omnipotent, all-powerful and mythological with our mortal little lives, anti-offense will be a popular platform. I want a government who will not only defend our freedoms but also convince critics why this is crucial to our democracy.

11. Yes. We have a problem with our media. However I am not from the school that wants to regulate or shut down all of them. Or think that they need a morality infusion of some kind. The problem, I think, is a combination of immature producers, immature consumers and a market skewed heavily in favour of advertisers as opposed to subscribers. Things will begin to change, I believe, when a media outlet can make money selling high-quality, well-produced content to readers. Someone has to pay. If readers don't, someone else will.

Recently I went to a business school to give a talk. Afterwards I had an informal chat with a couple of dozen students who had strong views on the media. Ok, I said, name two or three newspaper or magazines you think are top notch. Names like The Caravan and The Hindu came up. Very good, I said, now how many of you subscribe to them? If I recall correctly, the number was zero. Not one. They all subscribe to the same old rags they were most critical of. Good media does not run on goodwill. (But this is a post by itself. More later.)

The government should not be overly regulating media. But it can set an example by cleaning up Doordarshan and All India Radio. In some cases, like Lok Sabha Television, the intentions are great and the programming sounds good on paper but looks terrible on TV. There is no dearth of untold stories in India. Start with one world-class program. Blatantly copy something from the BBC. If it works, it works. It will make the private guys sit up and take notice. If it doesn't, it doesn't. We get the media we pay for.

And finally I would like the next government to buy me a Rolex Explorer II 2011 edition. Ahem.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But these are some issues I write and read about every day, and feel very strongly about. I hope, against all hope, that one of the parties will have views on some of these issues.

Otherwise I am going to put my vote up on eBay and leverage some benefit from it.

By the way, I am sure you disagree with my list of critical issues and have a list of your own. Do write a blogpost or something and send me a link. It will be nice to know your thoughts.