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Author: Nikhila Natarajan

Tamil Nadu after Jayalalithaa: Power remains firmly in Poes Garden, for now

Tamil Nadu after Jayalalithaa: Power remains firmly in Poes Garden, for now


J Jayalalithaa is dead and her party cadre is jostling to dive before Jaya’s aide V K Sasikala and touch her feet. What does this mean for party politics and does it matter all that much when the real test looms – elections? As political parties circle overhead, Sasikala rules from Poes Garden and O Panneerselvam does what he does best – keeping the peace and turning down the volume. The circumstances surrounding Jaya’s death remain shrouded in mystery, her super-fans are livid and the final word on the

Sasikala Natarajan rules from Poes Garden / PTISasikala Natarajan rules from Poes Garden / PTI

Sasikala Natarajan rules from Poes Garden / PTI

disproportionate assets case – the one in which Jaya and Sasikala were jailed – is still to come. Narayan Lakshman of The Hindu and Nikhila Natarajan catch up for a chat barely 500 mts from where Jayalalithaa lies buried, in a casket that’s been locked many times over with gold plated keys.

First Published On : Dec 16, 2016 17:00 IST

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Uri attack: Who coined ‘Ivy League of terrorism’ and how India found language of rebuttal against Pakistan in UN

Who wrote the ‘Ivy League of terrorism’ rebuttal that demolished Pakistan’s anti-India rant at the UNGA?

A “brainstrust” of 5 senior staffers sitting around Syed Akbaruddin’s desk on the 4th floor of India’s permanent mission to the US in New York’s East 43rd St put their heads together to write up the 513 word stinger that has broken free from the trap of knotty officialese while Pakistan errs on the other extreme with cuckoo outbursts at its annual whine fest in New York City.

All in a day's work - scripting the India pushback from Akbaruddin's office in NYCAll in a day's work - scripting the India pushback from Akbaruddin's office in NYC

All in a day’s work – scripting the India pushback from Akbaruddin’s office in NYC

Syed Akbaruddin, a 1985 batch IFS officer, is India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations – the boss in the New York outpost.

The applause for India’s strident tone, content and the brevity of the rebuttal on September 21 has been stirring.

Word cloud for People Like Us

“Deception”, “deceit”, “lies”, “terrorism”, “toxic curriculum”, “sermons”, “preaching” – the word cloud from India’s rap taps into the collective loathing Indians feel about Pakistan’s web of lies. No wonder then that the Eenam Gambhir slam dunk is taking a dizzy ride on social media platforms.

Commoners’ lingo

The way politics is practised is changing everywhere – where turth and evidence are of secondary importance and popular trust in established institutions has crashed. By slamming Pakistan’s baloney so hard on the world stage, India is responding to the change in how audiences consume foreign policy and meeting them where they are, in language that is evocative yet blunt, something that appeals to outliers who are shunning elitism in droves.

Short attention spans have been fully factored in – a 500 worder for a Pakistan pushback is as good as it gets.

Four hours from start to finish

“It took 4 and a half hours from start to finish, after Nawaz Sharif spoke,” a top official at India’s UN mission told Firstpost in a detailed off the record conversation.

They’re not telling who came up with the coolest line of the one pager – “Ivy League of terrorism”. “We don’t want to go into that but when we did come up with it, we knew we had a winner.”

These five people are drawn from the inner circle at the mission here and “of course, we consulted Capital ( New Delhi)” while the draft got polished to a sparkle.

Who chose Eenam Gambhir?

What about the choice of Eenam Gambhir? Who took that call? The same person who played big daddy for the theme of the stern rejoinder settled on Gambhir as a natural choice.

“That decision (of Gambhir speaking) was taken well before we finished writing this. We wanted to make a few things very clear. Whoever speaks for us speaks for India. There’s no question of seniority here. So we chose our youngest officer and anyway, she has been working on this. It’s her area.”

But the Gambhir read-out is not the starter piece for this new hauteur. That happened in July when Syed Akbaruddin took a meat cleaver to tear into Pakistan’s misuse of the UN forum — “…Pakistan; a country that covets the territory of others; a country that uses terrorism as state policy towards that misguided end; a country that extols the virtues of terrorists and that provides sanctuary to UN-designated terrorists.”

The approach has been consistent now at least for the last few months – Akbaruddin pitched tent in New York early this year.

New style sheet

A top diplomat who oversaw the latest India offensive to the last detail admits there is a deliberate change in style. “Diplomacy has to reach audiences spead across wide swathes of the world, not just Indians in a limited sphere of operation,” he said.

That approach is now being hard wired into the content creation at the mission – “sharper statements, smaller sentences, not long winded”.

Incidentally, media and communication as an academic discipline are not new for Syed Akbaruddin – his father headed the journalism department at Osmania University for many years and later the research wing at FTII Pune too. Akbaruddin inks every official communication from the mission and so too for India’s reply at UNGA.

That there is very little traction for Pakistan adds to India’s confidence in these recent maneovers.

“If they want to come to the United Nations and talk about India, we will do what we have to do. Our default position is that this has to be sorted out bilaterally, however if you (Pakistan) bring this to the UN, we have a counter narrative ready which is stronger,” says the official.

Every paragaph of the India counter has at least one mention of the word terrorism — This was a consensus among the group of five.

Girl power

“In 5 minutes of time, you can’t put in too much. It’s not a general debate statement. If we had too many themes, it would lose its bite, so we were clear that we keep it short and everything we did with the rebuttal was a conscious choice.”

That includes the language, target audience, end game, closure and the choice of a woman to speak for India.

Apart from being chosen for being the youngest, Gambhir as the woman factor was strategy, not randomness.

“They (Pakistan) talked about women and all that bluster, we said chalo, we’ll send a woman in reply. The optics are not lost on us. We got it right. The whole world could see that the bullies were watching while Gambhir spoke.”

“It wasn’t like – achcha bhai, kisi ko bhi bhej do. “We know exactly what our messaging was and how to deliver it for maximum effect. This is the voice a much more confident India, the official said.

That Pakistan uses the UN forum time and again to spin a tangled web of falsities does not impress the folks at India’s mission to the UN.

“That they can come up with speeches like this and we all know that it finds no resonance – it means there’s something terribly wrong with their diplomacy,” the official said.

Like others, India’s top officials at the mission here know that Pakistan’s wacko stance at UNGA is a reflection of the state of domestic politics. “They have a town with two sheriffs, so the way they turn out at world forums mirrors the contradictions within.”

To fittingly answer politicians messing around in a global sandbox with assertions that have no basis in fact, India may have just found a new currency of rebuke – emotion, in short form.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is likely to raise the terror attacks in Uri and Pathankot in her speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) most likely on September 26.

That’s up next.

Techie’s murder in Chennai: Corrupt police service, rapid urbanisation behind rise in crime

A madman packed a sickle in his backpack and slashed a young woman to death at 6:45 am in Nungambakkam railway station, Chennai.

He murdered and fled in the morning rush hour, dropping the bloodstained billhook, checking his hands for injuries as he ran. He is still on the loose, a CCTV camera from a neighbouring building that miraculously captured this butcher, the only grainy link to what he looks like.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Another madman walked into a nightclub and shot 50 people dead in Orlando a week ago.

In America, it’s a gun; here, an aruvaal, elsewhere, bombs in airport check-in counters.

Alongwith their boiling rage — these crazies all carry mobile phones — most likely smartphones.

S Swathi is the fifth person to be murdered in June in Chennai. Swathi was a techie at Infosys, the others were three advocates and an RTI activist. Personal animosity is a common thread in the murders before Swathi’s, the digital rectangles of mobile telephony leaving no space for silences where an argument may find room to pause.

“Chennai, where I worked and lived for more than four decades, is fast losing the earlier image of a safe city, especially for women,” writes Former CBI director and current chairman of SIT, Gujarat RK Raghavan in The Times of India.

“If we have not seen enough evidence of police-citizen partnership in India, it is the fault on both sides. The craving for despicable publicity of a number of senior police officers without tightening protective measures and the lack of sustained commitment by citizen groups are twin factors which account for galloping levels of fear of crime in our urban centres,” says Raghavan.

Social media platforms are raging with questions on the police, policing, railway police, local police, state government. Rival politicians are rushing to pin blame.

But the Indian Police Service itself is well past its expiry date, says Deepak Sinha, a specialist in strategic studies from Madras University.

“Suggestions for transforming policing will never emerge from within the establishment, as the status quo suits all stake-holders, other than the public, which bears the brunt of its inability to provide a civilised society based on the rule of law,” says Sinha.

“The Indian Police Service (IPS) is broken down. It is eviscerated and wholly corrupt, barring a few, and acts as the hand-maiden of the criminal-business-politician nexus that values power and pelf above everything else,” says Sinha.

That’s one view. The other, more palpable one is this: Megacities are experiencing massive and rapid urbanisation, fueled by the inflow of immigrants and rural youth. Fifty-four percent of the world’s population lives in cities, and that number is expected to rise to 80 percent in the developing world by 2030. Under the pressures of such dramatic societal shifts, administrating megacities is an increasingly demanding task for local governments.

“While technological advances can improve the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies, the latest surge of attacks in public spaces suggests a need for heightened vigilance among the citizenry and a citizen-friendly police force to ensure effectiveness,” says Bharat Gopalaswamy of Atlantic Council, one of America’s top think tanks.

Three days after Swathi’s murder, the police is still rather clueless — clutching at two pieces of CCTV footage and a latest photo sent by an eye witness in which the killer’s face is not visible.

Decode that and map it to what today’s megacities look like — Chennai alone is home to more than 8 million people so that’s about 26,000 people per square kilometre.

The killer is one of them, his aruvaal is with us, we search for him among the 26,000, with a picture that will now go to a forensic lab in Hyderabad so we can see his face more clearly.

Where will he be by then?

In another city, maybe?

Where will you be at 6:40 am in your city?

At the train station? At the bus stop?


You are Swathi. Me too.

Has Chennai changed? Yes, it has more people in the same space, jampacked, sweaty, more angry, more connected, more rural in urban, aruvaals in backpacks.

But that’s not Chennai alone, it’s the dark side of the most wooed market in the world — 1.3 billion plus.

Facebook Live: Will Mark Zuckerberg rule BCCI broadcast rights?

New York: Let’s say you’re a Facebook user, you’re at an Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket match and you begin streaming live on your smartphone as play begins. Facebook users in 60 coutries can log in and watch the entire match free of cost.

Can traditional broadcasters ask fans not to broadcast live from their phones or will sports officialdom clamp down new rules to limit live streaming from smartphones? What if Facebook wants to bid for the rights?

Last season, a company which makes incense sticks and another which makes cement bought the bid documents, so Facebook or Twitter are not a long shot.

Would you rather see Sachin and Dhoni on linear TV or Facebook Live?Would you rather see Sachin and Dhoni on linear TV or Facebook Live?

Would you rather see Sachin and Dhoni on linear TV or Facebook Live?

Harsha Bhogle is out of IPL 2016. So what?

Before we go further on that, let’s talk Harsha Bhogle. BCCI has brought Bhogle’s IPL 2016 commentary contract to a screeching halt. Twitter has erupted, we’ve certainly not heard the last word on this one.

Harsha Bhogle has more than 500,000 likes on his Facebook page, more than 3 million follows on Twitter. What does it take for Harsha Bhogle to seamlessly begin his own live stream on Facebook – nothing except a tripod, a decent microphone and he’s ready to roll.

Bhogle is an independent powerhouse in cricket commentary, so BCCI cannot stop any live stream on his personal Facebook page. The views Bhogle will get will be phenomenal, just going by what we know about how Facebook Live operates.

Now let’s come to companies.

Facebook and a potential IPL bid

Are there pre-conditions that may stop social media powerhouses from bidding for IPL rights? Yes, but there are obvious workarounds too.

Media reports say BCCI will begin the bid process for the next tranche of IPL rights in May 2016. The 2015-2017 rights are held by Sony.

The most recent bid document for the IPL seasons 2015-2017 defines bidders by their “experience” in broadcasting cricket and other sporting events:

“The bid objective contemplates that eligible bidders shall have “extensive experience” in broadcasting live’cricket and other premium sporting events.

Strictly speaking, the case against a social media empire that has not bid for or broadcast cricket can be lack of “experience” but what if / when Facebook joins hands with an existing sports channel to bid for rights?

Social media and sport broadcasting in the US/ UK

In the US, Fox Sports and ESPN are already using Facebook Live generously to supplement their sports coverage.

In the UK, BBC and Sky have enjoyed big successes with Facebook Live.

BBC Sport was the first brand outside the US to use Live especially those under 24 who form more than half of their viewers. If all Facebook needs is a legitimacy crutch in the garb of a sports broadcaster with domain experience, the market has plenty.

What if you’re so done with the limited menu of commentators and you find a Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid commenting live on the match on their Facebook pages? Would you mute the TV volume, watch the visuals there and engage with Sachin or Rahul instead?

In the US, Facebook and Twitter have begun bidding for sport broadcasting rights. Twitter, in recent weeks, bagged the rights to live-stream 10 NFL games next season.

What does the IPL bid document say?

As of now, the 2015-17 bid documents for IPL cricket in India defines television sets to includes “portable/hand held devices such as tablets, smartphones, other devices with screens that may receive content via internet delivery.” Given that Facebook is already the world’s largest population of smartphone users, does Facebook qualify to bid basis definition of receiving platform?

What happens if every Facebook user in the stadium goes live during the match?

Facebook currently allows a 90 minute live feed at a time. When that finishes, you can start up a new one.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network and comes to users free of cost. To that extent, a Facebook live stream of a sport blowout will reach more masses of people and create more engagement than linear TV.

Simple tweaks in Facebook’s mighty algorithm ensure that live streams appear higher up on users’ news feeds.

Going by what we know already, the average viewing duration of live videos on Facebook are three times longer when it’s live.

If some of the people broadcasting live are celebrities with large networks, it’s rich potential for engagement. The star’s live feed will pop up on others’ news feeds, they can interact, post comments, pretty much do everything you do on a Snapchat video and all of which linear television does not offer. Even after the live broadcast is done, the interactions with audience will pop up in the same order they were posted on that video.

In January, Facebook hit 100 million hours of video watched on its site per day. It now says users are 10 times more likely to comment on a live video and share which means advertisers are also more likely to pay up and place ads alongside a video.

From being just a social media platform to major event broadcaster, it’s a short hop for Facebook if it chooses to go that way, now that its audacious live stream is official in over 60 countries

Facebook’s head of global sport sponsorships has gone on record saying “Live offers them (broadcasters) huge engagement with their audiences than a more linear broadcast format like TV does and the more progressive broadcasters are seeing that they can use it to offer content that would be hard to squeeze into a traditional TV broadcast.”

So far, digital social media platforms have not bitten into live sport on television but Facebook has made inroads into sports broadcasting over the years and is now set to hasten that push.

Closer home, What does all this mean for us in India?

What does it mean for broadcast rights of wham bam cricket – a goldmine for all parties involved.

Given what we know from the bid document for the 2015 -2017 season and the possibilities that Facebook Live represents, we raise questions that criss cross technology and present day regulation. If this is your kind of thing, join the conversation and tell us what you think on on our Twitter and Facebook pages.

– Will Facebook live stream be a game changer for cricket broadcast rights?

– Will Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat be allowed to bid for big ticket sport events in India?

– Will “prior” experience in broadcasting remain a hurdle for digital powerhouses who want to bid?

— Will cricket officials suggest that fans don’t stream live from the stadium since TV rights are already sold?

— Many of the clarifications in the IPL bid document itself may be upended by the sheer leap in technology.

— The definition of ‘television sets’ for the purpose of the broadcast rights bid “includes portable/hand held devices such as tablets, smartphones, other devices with screens etc.that may receive content via internet delivery.”

– Given that Facebook is already the world’s largest population of smartphone users, does Facebook qualify to bid basis definition of receiving platform?

— Clause 2.3 of ITT ( intention to tender) says a bidder would be considered an internet operator if it had a number of individual websites which taken together but not individually satisfied the criteria as to average monthly page impressions and net advertising revenues. If monthly page impressions and net advertising are the baseline, does that make Twitter and Facebook fair game?

“We built this big technology platform so we can go and support whatever the most personal and emotional and raw and visceral ways people want to communicate are,” Mark Zuckerberg said on while launching Facebook Live.

He repeated “raw” more than once and for good reason – video editors across the world will agree. Even if you work at top speed, it takes no less than an hour to juice a decent broadcast quality video of 2 minutes from raw footage. That game’s over now, it comes with the official stamp from the ruler of the world’s largest population online.

The story goes that Mark Zuckerberg whipped out Facebook after a girlfriend dumped him. He was 19. His most audacious venture – live streaming — has come after the world’s largest democracy India dumped his offer of free access to a few limited websites.

Zuckerberg has answered with the biggest business bet of the century.

(Follow us on @firstpost and on our Facebook Page. Join us for Facebook live on cricket broadcast rights Sunday night 9pm IST or you can always catch up later same place.
Nikhila Natarajan is Senior Editor, Firstpost and based in New York. Twitter | @byniknat)

#CaliforniaTextbooks: ‘Editing out India is bizarre! We must fight back because this concerns all Indians, not just Hindus’

New York: Led by hundreds of high school students, teachers, parents of Indian kids in American schools and “outraged” grandpas and grandmas, more than 20,000 people have signed off on a stinging letter protesting the recommended changes to California state textbooks from Grade 6 – 10 that could eliminate crucial historical references to India.

Don't distort the idea of India, says Juluri/ ReutersDon't distort the idea of India, says Juluri/ Reuters

Don’t distort the idea of India, says Juluri/ Reuters

Calling this the “largest civil rights movement of Indian Americans in the last 40 years” Dr. Vamsee Juluri, who teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco, says the struggle here is for all Indian Americans who represent the “last remaining legally and professionally sanctioned victims of racism.”

Getting diasporans to lobby for national interests is usually hard but here is a case where the next army of of millennial voters is speaking out in an country with a swiftly changing demographic. Asians and Latinos are the two fastest growing ethnic groups in the US where the share of white voters is going down year on year.

India’s diaspora, which the government thinks is about 25m strong, has traditioanlly been a means of projecting soft power and burnishing the country’s image. Now, that cohort is stepping on the gas.

Petitioning the California Board of Education, Juluri writes: “You seem to have been taken for a ride! You cannot seriously expect California’s educational system to be respected anywhere in the world if you go ahead with your recent decision to delete all references to “India” in middle school history lessons and replace this word with the geo-politically motivated  Cold War era relic of a phrase “South Asia.” Would you presume to deny the reality of India’s existence and history, and its deep significance to Indian American students in California, simply because a few misinformed professors of “South Asia Studies” wrote you a letter recommending you re-educate California’s children in this bizarre manner?”

Links: Full text of online petition

South Asia faculty’s 12 pager on suggested edits to curriculum framework

California textbook tamasha and the study of India, by Yvette Rosser

Another 22-pager on curriculum review

This is not simply about Hindusim, it’s about world history textbooks and what we are teaching our 6th graders, Juluri clarifies.

The suggested changes to the framework could appear in sixth-to-tenth grade textbooks in California beginning in 2017 but the war cry is already getting heard and the education board is showing signs of backing off, says Juluri.

“Shocking”, “absurd”, “Let India be India, just like you are not changing America’s name” are the theme of thousands of responses on the online petition.

Indians on America’s west coast have long been wrangling with such “distortions” but what makes the #CaliforniaTextbooks fight stand out is that it is the first time students are leading the charge for the Indian communtiy’s representaion in American public life and discourse.

Many parts of California – especially Silicon Valley, the 50-mile stretch between San Francisco and San Jose, are expressions of iconolastic freedom and phenomenal productivity. Now, with a student-led momement on behalf of the Indian diaspora, Indian Americans may well have new brag tag in the West – civil rights.

Nikhila Natarajan of Firstpost, New York, spoke with Dr. Vamsee Juluri in San Francisco. Below is the full text of the interview, answers in italics.

Politically, where is this coming from?

The entire argument of the South Asia faculty has been that whatever they’re doing is progressive and intellectually rigorous and is for a liberal South Asian ideal. They have been assuming this mantle and portraying all Hindu parents and students and community groups as Hindutva and extremist and revisionist. So that’s the weird thing. Politically, one would think we should be on the side of the faculty because they’re for the good stuff and the other side are fanatics. But in practice the South Asia faculty action is very distorted and inadvertently even.

So, how do you differentiate, what is the defense against the ‘fanatics’ tag?

Dr Vamsee Juluri/ Screenshot from Facebook pageDr Vamsee Juluri/ Screenshot from Facebook page

Dr Vamsee Juluri/ Screenshot from Facebook page

I’ve been following this for 10 years and been looking very closely at what people are asking for and it is very very clear that this is a huge popular uprising. This is the Indian American civil rights movement – the California textbooks. After 40 years of Indians being in America, they’ve not participated in any big Indian American civic process – everybody comes settles down, gets a job and builds temples. But this (California textbooks) is a huge engagement with American civic life. The community is getting this act together – when it started out, there were a few small religious groups but it’s gotten a lot better in the last few years although not fully there yet. You cannot cannot describe the chages they are asking for as fundamentalist because they are rational and reasonable. On the other side, the South Asia faculty have gone from a position of a questionable nature to complete absurdity. They have made a lot of changes that are self contradictory and extreme.

Their report goes into 12 pages, would you say some recommendations are more “extreme” than others?

When you say there was no India (before 1947), you are erasing an entire generation’s ability to identify with their heritage. Now, when you erase Hinduism and say there was never such a thing as Hindusim and at the same time you retain references to Hinduism and India when it comes to caste oppression, it’s bizarre, you’re crushing people into silence. So what kind of a political agenda does erasing India serve? Let me put it like this – Long term, if the the legitimacy of the existence of India is denied like this…if you say that India started to exist only from 1947, I think it serves some very nefarious agendas.

Nefarious agendas…could you offer a specific example?

There was a line in the 7th grade curriculum about how just before European colonialism, India and the Muslim world experienced great prosperity. The South Asia faculty got that line changed to this – the Islamic civilization as a whole stretching from Mediterranean sea to the Indian Ocean region experienced prosperity. So what have they done? They have made it seem that before the British came, India was just a part of the Islamic civilization. They have not acknowledged the Vijayanagara empire here or the fact that India was both Hindu and Mulsim at this time. So it serves a revisionist agenda where geopolitically, in 10-15 years, if this kind of thing continues, and it’s already happening, if it starts brainwashing 6th grade kids like this, people are going to start thinking there was never an India, and it also starts to revive weird partition-era arguments questioning the legitimacy of India’s independence and existence except as a “possession” of the Mughals and the British.

What is this South Asia faculty? Who are these people suggesting edits?

These are not unknown professors. They teach South Asian history or literature, post colonial studies. There are about 15 professors who have signed off on the recommended changes and the first letter was submitted under the lead name of Kamala Visveswaran – all well known scholars. Unfortunately, they are not realising that whatever their positions are in the field can and should be debated in conferences and graduate level courses and scholarly papers but to rush them into the minds of 6th grade children without considering the situation on the ground is not right – they are dismissing all pushback as fundamentalism. This is a debate that should have taken place on the sidelines of the school process well in time to have evolved into appropriate school-level recommendations.

South Asia itself is a cold war formulation – are the “scholars” confused between the geographical scope of area studies and the historical realities of large powers like ‘India’ or ‘Hindustan’?

That’s right. The term South Asia was coined out of geo political considerations in the cold war period by the State department. In Universities, South Asia became a way of organising an inter disciplinary order for faculty in different departments working on that region. But this way of imposing South Asia and taking it back 5000 years is bizarre. Even within South Asia studies, there will be, say, a China center but nobody wants to erase their own identity – is any scholar of Chinese history going to send letters saying let’s remove the mention of China and say just East Asia?

How long has this been going on?

I first heard about this in 2005. A lot of the South Asia faculty were saying that Hindu extremists are trying to rewrite history in Sacramento. I initially took it at face value, even the Wall Street Journal was writing about it, I thought maybe these Hindu groups were talking about teaching California students that ancient India invented pushpak vimanas stuff. On closer study, I realised that they were not. It was actually the textbooks that were full of myths and old colonial fantasies full of mistakes and racist condesension towards India and Hindusim. The Hindu groups were for the most part were being respectful and asking for common sense things. Many communities face this kind of thing but they are able to cobble together strong community led movements and get it corrected.

I’m quoting from a letter you’ve appended to the petition…”Meetings were contentious, heated, outside parties jumped in and lawsuits were filed…” Who are these outside parties?

I think Bajpai and Arumuganathaswami have done the maximum work on this but they’ve been branded as right wing. In 2005, when the Hindu parents told the Department of Education that there were problems, they were initially sympathetic and happy to let Bajpai correct these things. The Board pretty much agreed to whatever Prof Bajpai recommended but at the last minute, a Harvard Sanskrit professor rebranded the whole thing as Hindutva extremists saffronising history. I am told that a lot of people were flown in to destroy Bajpai’s case.

Again, my first question…so what’s driving this?

Since I am located here within academia and I am familiar with the work of a lot of these scholars, I think their intentions are genuine and they really think that they on the side of minorities but the changes they are asking for are contradictory to their stated goals. The bigger problem is that what has happened in America as far as we Indians are concered is that you have these far left academicians who are Marxist and sub altern studies kind of people who have been co-opted by extreme rightwing forces from other politico-religious formations. So you have left wing South Asian academics doing things which serve the interests of certain other groups advancing intolerant (they think no other religion but theirs should exist) and imperialist (they think their nation’s destiny is to restore their great religion-based world empire) agendas. Otherwise, there’s no real principle or precedence to what they are doing. Nobody’s changing the name of Greece or Rome or China so why India?

Is that because we don’t push back hard enough?

Americans in general have to have some factual understanding of Indians.
Other minority communities have invested intellectually, economically, politically in changing the old colonial misrepresentaions of them. You’ll find people on mainstream TV fighting Islamophobia, a lot of studies have been done on how Arabs are portrayed in the movies, anti-Semitism. But the academicians who study India rarely do that because they think India and Hinduism are the problem. They don’t see a need to speak for India or Hindus, as a whole, as if Indians and Hindus don’t include the poor and marginalized communities in them too. If America does not understand India correctly, the last bastion standing against some violent and intolerant extremist forces that are sweeping worldwide will fall…then we’ll know how progressive South Asia studies can be!

So, what after the petition?

Two days ago, there was a meeting of the Instructional Quality Commission and what they did was to kind of acknowledge some of these changes have really upset people and they reviewed a lot of things. Several of the suggestions of replacing India with South Asia were rejected. So now, they’re going ahead with the somewhat weird situation where they’re going to use the word India but use the word South Asia in brackets next to it. So the struggle continues.The board of education has to stop getting pushed by one group of academics like this and realize that this is basically a disputed position in academia. Denying that India and Hinduism exist may be a fashionable fancy and even an aggressively dominant view in academia but then there is a growing movement consisting of other scholars who are batting for facts and commonsense here and demonstrating how self-contradictory, baseless, and far-fetched some of these majoritarian views are.

Are you saying you are in the minority?

Of course, today if we stand up and say India and Hinduism existed before 1947, people in academia shun you for it. The good thing is that in 10-20 years, it may change… it is becoming increasingly clear to many in the scholarly community that the currently dominant “South Asia studies canon” is just a rehashed version of 19th century German Indology that distorted the entire history of India and came up with this formula that Germans and Indians sort of had the same ancestry called the Aryans. The whole edifice of South Asia studies resistance to questioning Aryan stuff in Indian history lessons is just that. The South Asia studies dogma thinks Hinduism as it exists is Hindu nationalism/extremism! But the real question for scholars to explore now is: is South Asia studies as it exists now really just a reinvented form of colonial orientalism?

How palpable is Indophobia?

Indophobia is a systematic intellectual distortion in history books and in the media, I don’t mean it at a personal level. It’s not open like anti-black racism in the 50’s or even something seen palpably in everyday life perhaps in most parts of the United States. But it is real, and it will have consequences if left unaddressed for India and for the world. So one of the course corrections I am trying to do for the textbooks movement is in making it engage with not just Hinduphobia but Indophobia too, for this is something that concerns all Indians and not just Hindus. The textbook movement started out with a religion-focus I think not necessarily because Hindus spearheading it wanted to exclude others, but simply because of the perceived way in which American society responds to minority/immigrant identities better if it is framed as “religion” rather than as nationality perhaps. But one thing should be clear to everyone following this, and perhaps getting misled by all the old news stories they may find about “religious extremism” and such. This is not a religion studies curriculum we are talking about, but world history, and India’s place in it. It concerns all Indians and Indian-origin people around the world now. I request your readers to please consider signing the petition and sharing it widely so the department of education understands how important your identity is to you.

‘I wrote Thevar Magan, that movie is a Sivaji-Kamal love story’: The best of Kamal Haasan’s 90 minutes with die-hard fans in New York

New York: Award winning Indian actor Kamal Haasan’s next movie will be a comedy shot almost entirely in the US, he’s going to start an acting school at a scale “much bigger than you think”, he will “definitely” make a Youtube movie and there’s a secret ingredient to the Thevar Magan chemistry between Kamal and Sivaji – a love story.

Kamal Haasan opened up a treasure box of experiences and anecdotes to a room packed with fans at the New York Metropolitan museum, one of the city’s great cultural landmarks toasting Indian art and artists this spring.

Kamal Haasan in New York/ Pic by Nikhila NatarajanKamal Haasan in New York/ Pic by Nikhila Natarajan

Kamal Haasan in New York/ Pic by Nikhila Natarajan

Kamal Haasan flew in to the US on a recce trip for his next movie and stopped by to speak at Wharton before landing in New York.

Dressed in a black silk kurta/ patiala salwar ensemble and an off-white Nehru jacket, Kamal Haasan charmed a packed hall with his spot-on wit, anecdotes, raw emotion and loads of dope on some of his best movies.

Sree Sreenivasan, the Met’s chief digital officer kicked off the session introducing Kamal to an eclectic New York audience and soon threw the floor open for questions.

For Kamal fans all over the world who can’t get enough of the Sivaji – Kamal chemistry in Thevar Magan, one of the wow moments of the evening came when Kamal let us in on how Sivaji allowed Kamal to “become Sivaji” in the film.

Thevar Magan, Uttama Villain, Saagara Sangamam, Viswaroopam, Sadma – Kamal Haasan spoke on many of his favorite movies, his mentor K Balachander and his craft.

Kamal also spoke to Firstpost on how the Indian government has handled recent storms like the JNU Row: “If your manifesto is weak, you manifest hallucinations for people. When you have a strong goal and tenacity of purpose, any squabble can be settled,” he said.

“Democracy is a vague word, it’s a lot like love. We have to keep raising our voice. We have seen other governments. Have they been saner?”

Below are the best moments from Kamal’s 90 minute session, starting with movies, finishing off with politics.

“I wrote Thevar Magan…It’s a Sivaji-Kamal love story”

I wrote Thevar Magan (stunned silence…and then ringing applause). Some of those sequences in the film where you feel we have rehearsed…yes Sivaji Saab and I have practised those scenes for years and years. I have spoken to him, spoken back to him…including about my marriage. When I invited him to my marriage, he asked me if i was informing him or inviting him. He was hurt and I could see that hurt. He said your father is not attending your marriage and you expect me to! Then I said yes, I am informing you. But then he loved me and you will see those moments in the film. So, yes, we did rehearse over many years in real life for Thevar Magan. As a writer, when I showed him the lines, he smiled at me…he knew where I was coming from. Thevar Magan is a love story about Sivaji and me. I wanted to become him and he allowed me to become him and for that I am grateful. A lot of circles likes these have been completed in my life, in my film – his son accepted me as his own elder brother. KB saab (K Balachander) acting in my film, in my script…in Uttama Villain. I learnt everything I know from him. Lots of love went into making Uttama Villain, I am glad I got KB saab into the movie just in time. During the movie, he often asked me “What will you do if I die?” I told him he’s taught me enough tricks, I can manage.

“I wanted to be a film technician”

However reluctant an actor I may have been, all actors have a price. As the price kept increasing, my reluctance kept decreasing. I woke up in this film industry when I was 3 and a half. When I later joined the industry as a technician at 16, I realised the engine was controlled by the backroom and I dreamed of becoming one.

“I see something special in you”, Balachander said

My mentor and visionary K Balachander who promoted me from a bit role actor to an actor with 4-5 scenes per film…he asked me what I wanted to become and by then it was clear he liked me. I told him I want to be a director like you. So you want to come to the studios in a autorickshaw? he asked me. “But you come in a car,” I said. Then Balachander said I could do better than that…I see something in you, he told me…you’re training for it. Just make yourself a home, buy yourself a car and then think about it. You have it in you, any amount of training will not take that away from you, he told me. But I was very reluctant…I was a bit careless…I so hated the repetitive work, I ran away to Kerala to do more meaningful work.

“I am so touched by the love I get”

The films that I thought were the best in my career were outdone by masters who came up with better films.

In Telugu – Maro Charitra, In Hindi – Ek duje ke liye and then Sagara Sangamam…These are also my favourite films because when we were doing the films, we enjoyed it so much that we never thought about what will come out of it. Today, so many years later, when I see the love and affection in my fans’ eyes, I am so touched by how grateful they are…I was doing a job and getting paid for it ( laughs). There are other films which were celebrated a bit belatedly – like Balachander’s Avargal. It was in anger that he made Maro Charitra. Balu Mahendra’s Kokila which did very well in Kannada, and Moondrampirai. Sadma did not do well at all. This new boy from South India who dances well in one movie is doing Sanjeev Kumar stuff in Sanam Teri Kasam…some of that did not work.

“The bigger you become, the more complacent you can become”

People who rely on GPS…all of you! Without a director, you can’t move ahead. The director is the first mirror you see…that’s where he comes in…The bigger you become the more complacent you can become…that’s why we need a director, that’s why you need co actors, technicians – everyone. We navigate with the help of each other.

When will we see a Rajini – Kamal movie?

We’ve been talking about it…some business expert will have to work out how to make a movie with Rajini and me after we have collected our fee!

“I get offended when…”

I’m doing a Hindi film now but I get offended when they ask is there also someone from the Hindi film industry….I get offended when I get dissected and separated like this. This happens in the industry – not the creative folks.

“I used to dance 7 hours a day”

I needed one more excuse to get out of school ( laughs). It (dance) started as a whim but I got sucked in. I was the audience when my sister was learning Bharatanatyam. I was drawn to it. My teacher was looking for a place to stay with his wife and small daughter and we had a room upstairs. His dance classes shifted there. He was a nice teacher and thought I should learn all forms of dance. I was 12,13,14….and it was 7 hours of practice every day. I wanted to become like Uday Shankar saab. I found that there were no backers for that. I was so upset, I threw my ghungroo into the sea and said I won’t go back to that. I was ready to do anything, even mazdoori. But I got a job only because of my dance – as a dance assistant. At 18, I started co writing with RC Sakthi, at 19 I acted in a film I wrote. Many years later, we brought all that back with Birju Maharaj in Viswaroopam. For that movie, we trained with him for 2 months. He touched my head and said I see a young Birju in you. I said your style is not easy Sir, I have been watching you for 40 years. That is the depth of my love for that art.

Do film budgets force actors to do song sequences that are not necessary?

Absolutely, it’s such a bare truth that we are trying to hide.

“When you crash with comedy, it’s dead”

“Comedy is equally difficult. The accidents that can happen are far worse than what happens in action sequences. When comedy falls flat, it’s dead. My training with Balachander he was capable of making a Bama Vijayam or an Arangetram. For me doing Mahanadi and Panchatantram is equally difficult. When I watch Mahanadi, when he reclaims his daughter, I cry. I become you and that is the success of the whole team.

“I owe my kids the freedom I had”

I was a very late child, I was suddenly a little toy who appeared out of nowhere. My eldest brother is 24 years older than me, the second brother Chandra Haasan who’s my partner in my company is 18 years older – so everyone experimented with me. My father was 51 when I was born, I should have been named Oops Haasan. By 13, I was talking rationalism and did not participate in any of the religious things my father did. They allowed me to do that after a deep discussion. Now, when I give my kids freedom and they ask me why and I say I owe it.

“Our ambitions are oversized, skills training is limited”

The world requirement for engineers per annum is a million. We produce 900,000 of them every year. We have a situation where engineers are ready to become chauffers. What we need are skilled workers of international quality. I have thought about it very selfishly…we need to step up the quality. I am a worker myself…and it’s not easy to learn skills in India. I was very fortunate to find kind gurus who paid me and taught me. Everyone wants to become an actor or director. Our ambitions are oversized. Straightaway we land up and want it all. We are recognising prior skills and listing them out in existing industries and enhance it with training. Now we aspire to have master carpenters, for example. Within the media and entertainment field itself the verticals are mind boggling. Within make up for example, you can have so many types of make up; within music production, there are so many specialities and we need well trained, world class people. The government is putting in some money – but remember that dole will not work. The industry has not yet invested money only time. Eventually, the indsutry will have to spend money, and not just sit back and complain. We are complacent that we have a captive market at home.

“Democracy is a vague word, it’s like love”

I think we’ll have to be on constant vigil. Freedom of speech is not like money in the bank. There’s always some government, some institution trying to silence you. Allowing you to use expletives in cinema is not freedom. We are trying to reform the censor certification system – all that with clear understanding that nowhere will freedom of speech be troubled. If your manifesto is weak, you manifest hallucinations for people. When you have a strong goal and tenacity of purpose, any squabble can be settled. Yes, people are getting upset…you call yourself a nation but there’s always a dictator lurking, there’s always fascism lurking, there’s always a left wing trying to prove that they’re the only answer to all the woes of the world. We are now in a buffet system where there are all kind of political systems available. We have to pick and choose our political diet very carefully. I have never been comfortable with politics in India so why should I be now? Democracy is a vague word, it’s like love. We have to keep raising our voice. We have seen other governments. Have they been saner? India has great responsibility towards itself in the world. We cannot bring in caste and religion. Religion will not and must not come in the way of the ascent of man.

True lies: One month of #KanhaiyaKumar #JNURow wildfire, unbearable risks of digital ‘misinformation’

New York: A month ago, on 9 February, what happened in JNU? What did JNU student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar say, why was he arrested, why the sedition tag, why has he been let off with a lesson on thoughts that corrupt, what’s the sanctity to a six month bail?

All we have are question marks, the whole ruckus is now “sub judice.”

Kanhaiya Kumar - from sedition poster boy to political rock star/ PTIKanhaiya Kumar - from sedition poster boy to political rock star/ PTI

Kanhaiya Kumar – from sedition poster boy to political rock star/ PTI

Here’s what we know for sure: BJP’s self styled hard hats have announced “prize money” of Rs 5 lakh to anyone who cuts off Kanhaiya Kumar’s tongue” and double that – Rs 11 lakh to kill him.

Reporting on how the “Narendra Modi government seeks to define patriotism and then own it”, Economist says “ the damage to India’s image is painful.”

“Faith in the police and other institutions has been undermined. Vigilante violence has seemed to win official backing. …This is not the outward-looking, investor-friendly image India hopes to project. And it threatens its liberal traditions of free speech.”

Meanwhile, Kanhaiya Kumar has been propelled into speedy stardom, delivering fiery speeches fuelled by the gall of persecution. The “fake tweet” that provoked the Indian government into saying “anti-national” and the doctored video which trapped Kanhaiya Kumar were swept away in a twister. Echo chambers parroting spittle spattered rhetoric took over, Kanhaiya Kumar got beaten up, thrown behind bars.

The sequence of events remains shadowy at best.

In 30 days Kanhaiya Kumar has made it to the edit page of New York Times and a full pager in The Economist – all this began with a few minutes of doctored visuals broadcast on a private TV channel of Kumar shouting “anti-India slogans.”

Links: #JNURow: Social media tools are snapping back

“‘Pakistan zindabad’ slogan was never there”

Digital wildfires in a hyperconnected world

In a hyperconnected world, one piece of un-vetted, unchecked news sparked a digital forest fire on social media – free, urgent and typically polarising. The etymology and imagery of the wildfire finds its roots in mathematical models of how forest fires erupt, made famous by the Erdos Renyi random graph models.

It is well accepted across social media that the first sign of crisis is when any misinformation makes it into the news – print or TV. So, by the time it gets to Twitter and Facebook, it’s already late. For Kanhaiya Kumar, was it a crisis? At a personal level, certainly. But by then, he was a disempowered citizen against a twister. Nothing says it better than this searing headline of the Delhi Police status report on his bail plea: Kanhaiya Kumar versus State.

Massive digital misinformation a global risk

The #KanhaiyaKumar story is the sort of prototype that informs a remarkable essay by the World Economic Forum on the global risk of “massive digital misinformation that sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks and the failure of global governance.”

The Kanhaiya Kumar case offers a striking parallel narrative to the examples in the WEF report that speaks of “misuse of an open and easily accessible system and the greater danger of misguided attempts to prevent such outcomes.”

Polarised “echo chambers” and “confirmation bias” are two terms that repeat through the study – the result of a many-to-many ecosystem where “everyone can produce or find information consistent with their own belief system.”

Walter Quattrociocchi, Head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science, IMT Lucca who wrote the WEF report, explains an echo chamber and its many dangers:

Echo chambers confirm bias, polarise

“An echo chamber is an isolated space on the web, where the ideas being exchanged essentially just confirm one another. It can be a space of likeminded people sharing similar political views, or a page about a specific conspiracy theory. Once inside one of these spaces, users are sharing information that is all very similar, basically “echoing” each other.”

Once engaged in a conspiracy corpus, a user tends to join the overall conversation, and begins to “jump” from one topic to another. The probability increases with user engagement (number of likes on a single specific topic). Each new like on the same conspiracy topic increases the probability to pass to a new one by 12%.

Highlights in the WEF report include:

— What kind of rumours are spreading?
— What is an echo chamber?
— Methodology in studying global misinformation
— How people react on social regardless of information source detailing or bonafide.
— What can be done to fight misinformation?

Trolls “most fascinating” social dynamic

Calling the sewage pit that is trolling on social by an elegant name – alternative narratives, WEF says it’s a “most fascinating” social dynamic.

There was a time when trolls would just work up a crowd and get happy, now they have “evolved.”

Trolls’ activities range from controversial and satirical content to the fabrication of purely fictitious statements, heavily unrealistic and sarcastic.

“These jokes often end up as evidence in online debates from political activists.”

Over six months of poring over 50 Facebook pages, here’s what the WEF team found, among other patterns: Posts containing unsubstantiated claims, or about political activism, as well as regular news, all had very similar engagement patterns.

An even more detailed report published by the highly regarded National Academy of Sciences of United States and authored by 8 heavyweights inlcuding Walter Quattrociocchi says that algorithmic solutions are not good enough to break the troll and conspiracy mafia creating mistrust and paranoia.

Back from jail, Kanhaiya Kumar fires back

After 23 days in jail, Kanhaiya Kumar stepped out of Tihar to a hero’s welcome and belted out a rock star speech tailor made for social watched by millions – brimming with humour, sarcasm and anger, delivered in a white tee and black jacket, scruffy and honest. This was his echo chamber, the joke was on ‘them’.

Like trolls pump conspiracy theories by reducing the complexity of reality, Kanhaiya Kumar paid it back: “Azaadi, not from India but inside India”, “Har Har Modi”, “Thanks to ‘their’ police”…

This too finds mention in the WEF report – “homophily” – where a user’s engagement in a specific narrative goes hand in hand with the number of network connections having a similar profile.

Considering India’s young population is the world’s largest and smartphone uptake even in Tier 3 cities has been phenomenal, an angry young man’s speech after 23 days in jail was bound to rock it.

As for Kanhaiya’s future in the Left and plans for a “revolution”, Manu Joseph writes in Hindustan Times:  “May I suggest a more popular and contemporary word to comrade Kanhaiya — ‘disruption’.”

Morgan Stanley India telecoms report: Cash is king ahead of spectrum auctions, ‘overweight’ on Jio

New York: How will India’s 5 top telecom market leaders fare after the next round of spectrum auctions this summer tears into their balance sheets?

A sweeping Morgan Stanley India telecoms report for March stays “overweight” on Reliance Jio led by its high potential for savings leveraging existing licenses available with RCom.

The new Reliance Jio logo.The new Reliance Jio logo.

The new Reliance Jio logo.

Reliance Jio is gearing up for commercial launch of its fourth generation (4G) digital communication services in the second half of 2016 – pegged by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria as the “bet of the century” in his marquee Sunday show on foreign policy and global mega trends.

The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that the coming surge in competition and tariff adjustments could ensure a “leaner but healthier industry.”

India has some of the lowest mobile tariffs out of any global telecoms market and competition is likely to become fiercer. Morgan Stanley does a deep dive into how each telecom player’s balance sheet will look after the next round of spectrum auctions and why that matters.


Full text of Mukesh Ambani interview on Fareed Zakaria GPS

The Economic Times on upcoming competition and industry consolidation

RCom and Reliance Jio have signed reciprocal infrastructure agreements to share Rcom’s 43,000 towers, 120,000km of inter-city fibre, and 70,000km intra-city fibre network for the next 17-20 years.

The ripple effect of hefty savings and projected free cash flows that Jio will enjoy riding on exisiting licenses available with RCom is at the heart of the Morgan Stanley Report.

The analysis comes at a time when Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications is moving towards gaining control over close to 20 percent of the total spectrum with private companies in India along with plans for airwaves sharing with Jio in all 22 circles in the 800 MHz band, reports IANS.

Spectrum auctions will “worsen the scenario”

Morgan Stanley says Jio will reap “substantial savings” by leveraging the existing licenses while other operators in the game will be hit hard by mid year. “New spectrum auctions could worsen the scenario,” says Morgan Stanley.

Telecom spectrum auctions are coming up in May 2016 and all the big players except Jio will be hit across the board on revenues as well as free cash flows because of increased interest cost and heavy capex investments, says the report.

Decoding the Morgan Stanley report, this means that if Reliance Jio were to be valued on the basis of net replacement cost – which includes but is not limited to building the assets of a Reliance Jio all over again, setting up the towers plus buying the licenses – that cost will be abundantly higher than the current “discounted” share price.

RCOM owns 11% of the overall spectrum in the country. This is how it slices up:
40% of 800 MHz
3% of 900 MHz
8% of 1800 MHz
14% of 2100 MHz.

Despite this spectrum capability, RCOM rakes in only ~6 % of India’s revenues, “making its spectrum the most underutilized amongst the operators.”

What could make Morgan Stanley “bullish on operators”?

— “Reliance Jio launch at ARMBs ( avg revenue per megabyte) close to the market, rather than expectations of a 30-50% discount
— “Double- digit revenue growth backed by strong data volume growth.”

“Underweight on Bharti, Idea”:

— “We project a lack of free cash flows coupled with RJio launch overhang. However Bharti scores over Idea here.”
— “We stay OW on BHIN, TCOM with a skew toward data growth, and RCOM as an infrastructure play to gain from RJio plus tower monetization.”

For both Bharti Airtel and Idea, the interest and amortization costs of 900 MHz in the 2015 auction have started eating into their P & L, says Morgan Stanley. The burden will reflect more starkly in the fourth quarter of 2016 when these costs are recognized for the full quarter, says the report.

Morgan Stanley on future spectrum auctions:

“Will dent balance sheets further, especially for operators needing 2100/2300 MHz. If 700 MHz is put to auction, we expect to see high demand from all the operators.”
Morgan Stanley says Idea and Bharti may not be able to support current share price valuation based on P/B. RCOM’s current P/B is 0.4x F2016 P/B, an absolute all-time low.

While there is projected double digit data volume growth (which will be reflected in revenue growth), margins will come under severe pressure due to rising operating costs and spectrum license outflows.

IANS reports that the Morgan Stanley report says despite double-digit data volume growth, data revenues are now growing in the higher single-digits.

“Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) margins are under pressure, with rising opex. Leverage is up, with companies recognizing spectrum liability,” it said.

Talking about Reliance Jio, the banker said: “Jio is testing 800 MHz in 10 circles and should get spectrum in eight more circles by mid-March as per spectrum trading with RCom (Reliance Communications).”

Jio is testing 800 MHz in 10 circles and should get spectrum in 8 more circles by mid-March as per spectrum trading with RCOM.

Morgan Stanley says said Reliance Jio and RCom are the only operators having an all-India footprint sub 1 GHz. “We expect to see an Reliance Jio pan-India launch in second half of 2016, thus intensifying competition further.”

Abbreviations used in the report:
BHIN: Bharti Infratel
TCOM: Tata Communications
RCOM: Reliance Communications
RJIO: Reliance Jio


(Disclaimer: Firstpost is part of Network18, owned by Reliance Industries Limited.)

The Viagra in ‘no fare hike’ Suresh Prabhu Railway Budget – ‘low for long’ oil prices

You next train trip comes at no extra cost on the world’s cheapest rail transport system. Here’s how.

Low oil prices which are tipped to stay “low for long” put the shine on Railway minister Suresh Prabhu’s Railway Budget speech. India’s rail budget has kept passenger fares and freight rates unchanged at least for now.

A chartered accountant by training, Prabhu’s numbers got a staggering boost from two dramatic global developments – oil prices that have gone down for the first time on incremental supply and OPEC losing muscle over supply.

'Whenever one contemplates a journey, there are two mistakes one can make: not starting and not going all the way,' Prabhu said concluding his speech. PIB'Whenever one contemplates a journey, there are two mistakes one can make: not starting and not going all the way,' Prabhu said concluding his speech. PIB

‘Whenever one contemplates a journey, there are two mistakes one can make: not starting and not going all the way,’ Prabhu said concluding his speech. PIB

For every kilometer you travel on Indian Railways second class, the government makes a measly 13.80 paise and that’s not going to change after the latest Railway Budget, making India’s possibly the cheapest rail transport system in the world.

Indian Railways’ per km revenue per passenger:

— 14.54 paise for suburban trains
— 27.47 paise for second class mail and express trains
— 109.47 paise for upper class

The latest CLSA research data explains how much the government will gain from falling oil prices – a 65 per cent cut in its oil subsidy bill.

In a rare interview just last week, chairman of Reliance Industries, which runs the world’s largest oil refinery, spoke to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on how it’s the first time in the world that oil prices have gone down on incremental supply.

“What it really means is that we have had oil price spikes but never has it been because of more supply than demand. Also because of innovation primarily in the US, we have large quantitues of oil. The US has gone from less than a million barrels per day to 9 million barrels a day and OPEC has lost control of supply,” Ambani said. And exactly that has been passed on to the Indian traveller in Suresh Prabhu’s budget.

Links: Mukesh Ambani on oil prices – full text of interview to Fareed Zakaria GPS

“Taking advantage of the crude oil price fall, the government has deregulated the diesel price and made LPG subsidies more targeted. This should drive a 65% cut in the government’s oil subsidy bill from Rs 710 billion in FY14 to Rs 250 billion in FY16,” says the CLSA report.

How low oil prices benefit India, highlights from CLSA report:

— A 55% fall in the crude price in FY16 vs FY14 will translate into Rs 4.1 tn gross savings in oil consumption

— Net benefit of Rs 3.3 tn to economy after factoring impact on domestic crude production.

— Of this, Indian govt has gained Rs1.3 tn through excise hikes and lower subsidies.

— Consumers have saved Rs 0.3 tn, industry has got a Rs1.3 tn boost.

— Primarily using international prices for mainstay oil products, the price decline should have led to a total saving of Rs 4.1tn for India.

— Even if crude price rises, govt has enough ammunition to limit inflation.

– NDA government has raised excise duty on petrol/diesel by Rs 12/ 14/l. If required, the government can use this buffer to offset a crude price increase of US$25/bbl without driving up inflation from diesel and petrol.

Arvind Padmanabhan of IANS analyses of the Raiway Budget below saying that Indian Railways’ operational efficiency has taken a beating even as concerns remain over raising money for future projects.

This is the crux of Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu’s budget for his ministry presented in the Lok Sabha on Thursday – that shows targets set by him for this fiscal on a host of counts remained to be realised, be it on receipts from passengers and freight, revenue mop-up or efficiency.

The often used parameter for measuring a rail management’s competence is operating ratio, which suggests how much of generated revenue is left after spending on day-to-day operations. Globally, a 75-80 percent or lower operating ratio is seen as a healthy benchmark — the lower the better.

Minister Prabhu, a chartered accountant by profession, targeted to bring it down to 88.5 percent this fiscal — or the lowest in nine years, from an unsustainable level of 93.6 percent in 2013-14 and 91.8 percent for 2014-15. But the revised estimates indicate a much higher figure.

“For 2016-17, we expect an operating ratio of 92 percent after including the immediate impact of the 7th Pay Commission against 90 percent likely to be achieved in the current year,” he said in his 68-minute speech, indicating the ministry was ill-prepared for even a normal matter like a wage hike.

It is against this backdrop that doubts arise on the promise of an almost Rs.21,000-crore hike in the plan size for the railways, that basically covers all the developmental projects, to Rs.1.21 lakh crore for fiscal 2016-17, as also an increase in receipts from both passengers and freight.

Prabhu’s calculations are based on factors like change of mindset and improving economy. “We have managed to break away from average capital expenditure of Rs.48,100 crore over the period 2009-14, and an average growth of only 8 percent per annum, to achieve a quantum jump,” he said.

“This year, our investment would be close to double of the average of previous years — a feat never achieved earlier. For the year 2016-17, the capital plan has been pegged at Rs.1.21 lakh crore,” he added. He also hoped for a 10-percent jump in total revenue.

Spared a fare hike and promised involvement in the private sector better, industry chambers have reasons to cheer. But where will the money come from? Towards this, the minister is relying on sources like revenues and station redevelopment, and says bankable rail projects will be funding.

“LIC (Life Insurance Corp) has agreed to invest Rs.1.5 lakh crore over five years on extremely favourable terms. We’re also looking forward to setting up a fund with multilateral assistance for financing railway projects,” Prabhu said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was all praise for his minister. “While keeping the promises made in the last budget, this one makes an aspirational strategy for future. We’ve been successful to a large extent this year, and this budget has a promise to make it even better.”

A former rail minister himself who went against his party with a passenger fare hike, TMC leader Dinesh trivedi was critical: “Where was the actual budget? Did you hear any figures – what they achieved last year, what is the budget for this year? We are still waiting for the budget.”

The share markets also gave a thumbs down. Disappointment over lack of any big-ticket projects, rail-related stocks fell on Thursday — BEML by 3.29 percent, Siemens by 1.06 percent, ABB by 1.37 percent, Larsen and Toubro by 1.5 percent, and Timken by 2.31 percent. Some, though, rose.

Yet, there were positive outcomes from the budget as well. For long there has been a charge that the network length of the Indian Railways hasn’t expanded commensurately — 0.06 times since 1989-90, even as passenger and freight traffic have increased 3.3 times and 2.2 times, respectively.

Prabhu said his ministry will surpass the target of commissioning 2,500 km broad gauge lines this fiscal — almost 30 percent higher than last year. “In the next year, we plan to commission 2,800 km of track,” he said, promising new tracks at 7 km per day against 4.3 km a day since 2008.

There were also a slew of measures for passengers: 65,000 more berths on trains, over 2,500 water vending machines, 17,000 bio-toilets inside coaches, 1,780 automatic ticketing machines, 120,000 concurrent users for e-ticketing, and e-catering services at 408 stations.

This apart, he said, the quota of lower berths for senior citizens will be hiked by 50 percent to 120 such seats per train, more stations will come under special scheme for old and differently abled passengers, and a new train “Tejas” will be introduced at 130 km per hour.

He also announced WiFi at 100 more stations this year and 400 more stations in the next, fully unreserved trains and double-decker sleeper coaches on high-density routes, 24X7 helpline for women, local art at stations, dignity for porters and better amenities at pilgrimage centres.

As regards ongoing projects, the minister said contracts for all dedicated freight corridors have been awarded, further connectivity has been provided in the north-eastern states, work is on track for rail projects in Kashmir and bids have been finalised for two loco factories.

Prabhu also promised a regulatory authority for railways soon, and sought cooperation from the opposition to make it happen. Perhaps, that’s the reason the fare hikes were kept in abeyance, leaving it to the watchdog to move towards dynamic pricing for such matters.

As per official data, India has the fourth largest railroad network in the world with some 64,460 route km, after the US (224,792), Russia (128,000) and China (112,00). Nearly 21,000 trains ply daily to ferry 23 million passengers and 3 million of freight.

The network spans 29 states and three union territories via some 8,500 stations. It crisscrosses Baramulla in Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu in the south and Ledo in Assam in the east to Naliya in Gujarat in the west.


#JNURow, #KanhaiyaKumar: Social media tools that powered Modi’s poll win are snapping back

New York: On 10 February, I had just logged in and was scouring the wires when when this news agency report came in: “Anti India slogans in JNU, disciplinary enquiry ordered.” It was half past 11 in the morning in New York where I work, 10 pm in India.

“Do we have this?” I asked my colleague in Mumbai. “Nahin, le lo,” he said. We picked it up. The name Kanhaiya Kumar meant nothing.

Vikram Chauhan and Kanhaiya Kumar. PTI and IBNLiveVikram Chauhan and Kanhaiya Kumar. PTI and IBNLive

Vikram Chauhan and Kanhaiya Kumar. PTI and IBNLive

Exactly 10 days later, this young man, who has gone from JNU student to top hashtag, is the emblem of a withering 500 word editorial in The New York Times on who might be responsible for India’s “lynch-mob mentality”.

The same social media tools that powered the Modi government to a historic election win in 2014 are snapping back. With elections coming up in many states this summer, the Indian government has just given young Indians another provocation to move on from campuses to polling stations.

In the US, Donald Trump has mastered Twitter’s power to settle scores, attack and promote his White House run like no one ever has, turning his ‘good, bad, stupid’ brand of social media into his campaign’s mainstay, backing it with money and a ground game that is yet unmatched.

In India, Kanhaiya Kumar came to be the #Sedition poster boy because someone, maybe even unwittingly, got the messaging right on the free, urgent and visceral platforms of television and Twitter. ‘They’ said Kanhaiya chanted “Pakistan Zindabad”. This sits well with at least three of the six accepted rules of “stickiness” on social – simple, unexpected, and emotional. #KanhaiyaKumar has trended beyond India at least 3 times in the last week, with cities like Delhi spending more than 40 minutes on Twitter at a time on this hashtag. Over the last two weeks, Kanhaiya’s name has popped up in the sedition and/or JNU context once every 40-50 seconds on social and there are more positive than negative mentions. While Kanhaiya is in Tihar, his ground game is the grassroots revolt that has spilled out on the streets.

Within days, retired DU professor SAR Geelani was behind bars, again for sedition, lawyers beat up journalists before Kanhaiya Kumar’s court hearing, then they beat up Kanhaiya too. But when the time came for Kanhaiya to be transported to Tihar, perfect law and order prevailed, with Kumar dressed in riot gear and protected by shields – this Indian Express Page One picture nailed it.

Stuff that goes viral on social media is chaotic and not, it’s algorithmic and not, and to get on top of it, it helps to accept both versions and proceed. Trigger communities are different from ‘passion’ communities. From last September on, many such trigger communities and hashtags have boiled over, starting with #DadriLynching and now on to #RohithVemula, #KanhaiyaKumar and #Sedition. Many of the same rules that work in the real world work on social — consistency is one such. Posting regularly and going underground when a crisis is brewing just makes it worse for the government.

Like every word has more than one meaning, every tweet does many things at once, and every such ‘engagement’ powers either a forest fire or a damp squib. Kanhaiya Kumar is a ‘trigger’ event, the national tricolour is a ‘passion’ topic. Announcing a 207 ft tall and 135 kg heavy mast in all varsities during the raging #JNURow will not silence trigger communities which are discrete and unstoppable.

The #JNURow is a trigger event that has come to embody the network dynamics behind what a young man said after the Arab Spring which he sparked off turned on him: “If we want to liberate our society, we must first liberate the internet.”

By 13 February, Kanhaiya Kumar went from regular guy in JNU to “anti-national”, and thrown behind bars for sedition.

By 16 February, when Firstpost put out this video of Kanhaiya Kumar with a full transcript, a lot of folks asked us the simple question – fair enough too – “Why now? What’s this video, what about the other one?”

Which other one?

The answer came yesterday, on 22 February, when a news producer with a private TV channel sent a stinging resignation letter and quit over the way the company handled the “original” video.

In his letter, Vishwa Deepak writes: “Are we the BJP or RSS mouthpieces, for us to do whatever they say? A video which did not even have the slogan of ‘Pakistan zindabad’ was still aired continuously. How did we blindly believe that these voices which came in the dark were of Kanhaiya or his friends? Instead of ‘Bhartiya Court zindabad’, they heard ‘Pakistan zindabad’ and spoilt some peoples career, hopes and led their families to destruction. It would have been good if we would have let the investigating agencies conduct a probe and then waited for the results.”

When the Firstpost video of Kanhaiya Kumar caught fire, the questions “why this video, why now” is a good indication of how chaotic social media conversations are. The video we put out may turn out to be the only video that matters, because the ‘other one – the earlier one’ has reportedly been fixed, from what Vishwa Deepak says.

News is no longer breaking on traditional media, the pyramid has upturned and news often breaks on social and then percolates. News aggregators are somewhere in the middle between social on top and community influencers populating the bottom of the pyramid.

But governments and those in power cannot be seen to be taking decisions based on how social media informs them or how television may report the #JNURow. Social media is not an arbiter of truth.

“I once said that if you want to liberate a society, all you need is the internet. I was wrong,” says Wael Ghonim, who, back in 2011, started an anonymous Facebook page that sparked the Arab revolution. “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventially tore us apart,” Ghonim says in a TED talk that is appended on this page.

Ghonim’s caveat is not just for Egypt, it informs the network effects that have kicked in for every hashtag that’s ever gone viral. #DadriLynching? #JNURow? Of course.

“If I write a one-sided, angry post, I am certain to get more readers,” says Ghonim who talks about how conforming to biases rewards social media users with more follows and readers.

Ghonim argues that this eco-system must be changed to reward and analyse how many people are “changing their minds” after reading a post rather than how many are thrilled about their own biases being mirrored in a tidal wave.

Ted Talks’ introduction of Wael Ghonim resonates with so much of what’s going on in India, and indeed polarised societies everywhere: “…Ghonim helped touch off the Arab Spring in his home of Egypt … by setting up a simple Facebook page. As he reveals, once the revolution spilled onto the streets, it turned from hopeful to messy, then ugly and heartbreaking. And social media followed suit. What was once a place for crowdsourcing, engaging and sharing became a polarized battleground. Ghonim asks: What can we do about online behavior now? How can we use the Internet and social media to create civility and reasoned argument?”

Swedish author and journalist Andreas Ekström takes the same, powerful thread forward and provides the counterweight that society must factor in— that an unbiased search result is an algorithmic and philosophical impossibility.

If an elected government of the world’s largest democracy which is home to the youngest population worldwide informs arrest/s based on social media chatter, a fake tweet or worse, a grainy video with poisoned astons, well, what do you say?

The Farce Awakens?