Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Don't bash the bhakt...

Of late, I have seen a lot of criticism of Narendra Modi. I think that is a good sign of a healthy democracy. But the trouble is twofold. First, the criticisms often come across as personal attacks rather than as attacks on policy and intention. Second, the personal attack is not only on the PM but also on his supporters and sympathizers. I wouldn't be surprised if what gets Modi votes in the coming elections is not his policies, or his faithful bhakts, but all the anti-Modi and anti-bhakt slandering that is going around these days. When you brand every Modi sympathizer (even fence-sitters) as a bhakt, bash them, and question their wisdom and intellect, you won't get them to slant to your side of the fence, but you will end up encouraging them to jump over to the other side with even more conviction. Now that is the issue of playing it dirty in identity politics. If you ignore Modi and his sympathizers and focus on the real issues and the real alternatives, then, perhaps, Modi will be replaced. If Trumps ascend to the Whitehouse has taught us any lesson, it is that don't shame the supporters. Instead, it might be fruitful to condemn the candidate's policy choices and present viable alternatives, both in terms of candidates and policy prescriptions.

Sunday, April 2, 2017


Back in college, when I tried IQ tests for the first time, I used to clock close to 140 consistently in various tests. Recently, I tested my IQ in an app and it fell below 130 for the first time... I thought the app was not correct. So I tried it again in another online test. That gave a score slightly below 130 too. I was worried if I was becoming less intelligent a I got older. Then I took another test today and I got a 145. Here is the result of that IQ test
It looks like, it has got to do a lot more with familiarity with the tests and patience rather than actual intelligence. Back in College, I was very serious about these tests as I expected employers to test me on these. So I wrote these exams more carefully but when I tried in recently, I wasn't paying too much attention as I was merely checking out the app. Then when I tried it online, I was still figuring out the format. Now, the third time that I tried, I was more careful in my responses and I really was trying to perform well... just to reassure myself... and walah! here is the score. But again, it is just for the sake of reassurance. It doesn't mean anything. I haven't become smarter or dumber over the years, I have been using my intellectual faculties differently, which is not suitable to the IQ tests. So don't worry if you score less on your IQ tests as you near 40 :) Just pay more attention.

Identity politics

The recent landslide win of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh has caught many "secularist" political pundits off guard. In their postmortem analysis, they pin it all on BJP's evil an divisive identity politics. But the truth is, identity politics is a worldwide phenomenon... Not something that has been "misused" by the "evil" BJP. When Obama contested for president of the USA for the first time, he was able to mobilize the African Americans like never before. When Trump contested for president of the USA last year, he was able to mobilize the "high-school educated, low income, whites". Yes, in UP, BJP did play religious politics (appealing to the Hindus) but the BSP and SP have played both Caste politics (identity based on Caste) and religious politics (appealing to Muslims). The Congress lost grounds in most states in the 60s and 70s because they weren't able to appeal to the ethnic fault lines in those states... the regional parties did and they have never left Congress even a sniff of power in local politics. But Congress did turn into a populist party (politics of convenience) but it was too late by then. The only place Congress is successful at the regional level is Kerala, where it has clearly been playing identity politics very conveniently (appealing to Christians in the Kottayam belt, appealing to the Hindus of Malabar and appealing to the Muslims of Malappuram and Kasaragod) and has the support of the Muslim League, which clearly, as the name suggests is appealing to the Muslims… I don’t recall a time when Malappuram voted the Muslim League out of power for poor governance and corruption. This is the unfortunate state of affairs in global politics… identity over ideology. A consolation to this dirty affair that identity politics is that we are in a democracy and there are checks and balances… Even with a negligible presence in the Indian parliament, the Congress is able to filibuster the BJP’s legislation proposals. We are lucky not to be in Saudi Arabia or China, where identity is the only politics. Democratic politics is as Churchill once said, “the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Friday, March 11, 2016

My predictions for the outcome of the Republican Primaries and Caucuses

There is a lot of speculation about who is going to be the republican nominee for president of the United States. Although Donald Trump is clearly the front-runner now, he is hated by the folks in the republican establishment, who would rather see someone like Jeb Bush getting the nomination. Now that none of their favorite candidates are in the race, it boils down to one of the four who are in the race. The second in line right now is Ted Cruz and he is also someone the folks in the GoP establishment love to hate. The other two simply don't have the numbers. The question is why are they still in the race. Marco Rubio is in because he is expected by the GoP establishment to win Florida, a winner takes all state, and deny Trump or Cruz (mostly Trump) a majority needed to ensure automatic nomination. Similarly John Kasich is still in because the GoP establishment hopes that if he wins his home state of Ohio, another winner takes all state, Trump will not be able to gain a majority, denying him an automatic nomination. If all this works, the GoP establishment can field a preferred candidate - someone like Mitt Romney - who will replace Trump, despite not being in the race. But what the pundits at the GoP are not calculating is that Cruz and Trump can broker a deal wherein they could say one of them will get the presidential nomination and the other will be the running mate. It is win-win for them both. Ideally, Trump will become the presidential candidate for the republicans and Cruz will be his designated deputy. Since Ted Cruz is relatively younger he can get a good shot at occupying the White House after Trump's term there - i.e., if Trump gets elected as President. But even if Trump loses the presidential race to the democrats (most likely to Hillary Clinton), it is no big deal, Ted Cruz will still be a favorite candidate for the republications the next time around. So he has a lot to gain by joining hands with Trump. But assuming that doesn't happen and the GoP establishment fields a non-contender as their presidential candidate, this will piss Trump and Cruz off and both may run for president as independents. This will make victory easy for the democrats in this years presidential race. I would not be surprised if Hillary even wins with the highest victory margin in American history if this happens.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

ICICI Bank's Social Responsibility Gimmick

I recently came across a news report on one of ICICI Bank's corporate social responsibility initiative. The title of the report was "ICICI Bank to let women work from home for a year". At first glance it sounds all rosy and kind but ICICI Bank's social responsibility record is abysmal... They sell insurance products as though they are the best investment alternative out there... They hire goons to recover bad debts from the poor and broke... they place unrealistic targets on their sales personnel that many end up choosing unethical means (with their boss's blessings/direction) to meet their insane targets... they don't allow investor's to book their profit, instead they ask them to reinvest in another "scheme"... So I suspected this "women friendly" initiative cannot be as rosy as it is made to sound. Exactly as I suspected, this initiative is biased and is just a publicity gimmick... According to the report, "Women in all roles, except those in direct customer-facing ones, would be eligible for this initiative based on their life stage needs." A majority of women who work in ICICI bank are in "direct customer-facing" roles... So it is pretty much for the upper management and corporate elite... that is a shame!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

HRD Ministry's Priorities

I read a recent report in the Economic Times about an initiative of the HRD ministry to identify institutions that will emerge as world class in teaching and research. I welcome this initiative but I am a bit concerned about the priorities of the HRD ministry. Yes, we need to identify potentially world class institutes and such a ranking process can be very helpful but the priority should be on research not on teaching. Don't get me wrong, teaching is important but the quality of a institute has to be judged by the quality of the research that comes out from there. Right now, there is Indian institutes that can match up to the top schools of the world, or even Asia for that matter, in terms of research productivity. We need to fix the teaching as well but it is important to identify that the priority should be research.
I recently had the opportunity to visit three of the top institutes of management in India and interact with the faculty and grad students in these institutes. I made a few observation there. First, most of the faculty that I met there were motivated to do good research. Of course, there was a bit of self selection here... the ones who are not keen on doing good research would not be interested in spending time with a visitor who was invited there for a talk... also the ones who consider themselves to be good researchers already will not be motivated to spend time with me. Second, the amount of time they spend on teaching was insane... it is simply impossible for someone to spend that much of time on teaching and still find time to do good research. Third, even the super motivated ones who squeeze time for doing research are not trained at their grad schools to publish their work in leading journals in their field... in fact they are strongly motivated against it. They even are trained to believe that international journals are biased against the scholarly work of non-western researchers from non-western schools. This is why they aspire to publish their best work in the Economic and Political Weekly rather than in the American Economic Review or the Quarterly Journal of Economics for instance. Yes, international journals have had their biases in the past but they are much more open these days to non-western scholarship. The Chinese and Koreans have been able to overcome such biases, if any. So why can't we? Mindsets need to change and incentives need  to be aligned. My suggestion is not that we start copying what the Chinese did or the Koreans did, which essentially was blindly copying what our western colleagues did. My suggestion is that we learn to embrace our history, experience and current realities in doing our research. This will allow us pursue research that matters. But the trick is making what matters to us also relevant to the world. This leads to my fourth observation: Grad programs should train grad students to engage in phenomenon motivated, theory rich research, using cutting edge research techniques... Further, Grad students should know that the PhD dissertation is not the end of one's research journey but just the beginning. The role of teaching should be to inspire students to enjoy their research and publish their best work in reputed international journals not in obscure domestic ones (or obscure international ones). Only then will research from India gain visibility and recognition.
So when the HRD ministry ranks the potential of Indian institutes, it should use a rubric that places a greater weightage on research than on teaching... this would mean that an institute that affords more research time for its faculty will be higher up in the ranking.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Some perils of blind patriotism

Patriotism is a good thing but it should not blind your from reason. There was a time when great freedom fighters in India like Subash Chandra Bose was ousted from the INC for their extremist views. In some fairness, Nethaji did try to forge an alliance with Hitler, one of the most cruel dictators known to us in the past 100 years. Sure now many feel that Nethaji's actions were justified because he was pursuing a patriotic ambition but his patriotism did blind him... he was forging an alliance with an evil man. And sure, in retrospect, Nethaji and Gandhiji could have worked their differences out. In fact, many condemn Gandhiji for not attempting to save some extremist freedom fighters from the gallows when he certainly had the power to intervene in such matters. Gandhiji too, perhaps, was blinded by his version of patriotism.

An ideal way to sort out differences is to have constructive dialogue and for that you need to go beyond blind patriotism. When the Berlin wall came down it re-wrote Europe's history. It wouldn't have been possible if people remained patriotic to their respective sides. The CPI and CPI(M) are legitimate political outfits because Pandit Nehru took the risk of engaging the communists in a constructive democratic dialogue. It was a banned outfit before Indian independence but post-independence Nehru felt that it was necessary to have a healthy dialogue with the communists, however divisive and seemingly unpatriotic their party's ideology might be. And as he expected the communists' strong leftist ideology checked an balanced the ideology and policies of INC by anchoring the INC to the center. Thanks to the push from the communist parties we were able to nationalize banks and bring credit to rural India. But the communists also went out of line in some occasions. For example, during the 1962 war with China, the CPI leadership often aired China's view on the disputed border between Indian and China. In that sense, they could have been branded as anti-nationals and jailed on sedition charges. In fact, many from the CPI leadership were jailed for their pro-China stance. This event even culminated in the split up of the CPI into two separate parties. But it was continued dialogue between the establishment and the communist parties using the electorate as a judge that actually prompted the communists to revise their stance in later years... had the communist not been brought to the mainstream they would have fought from the outside and created havoc... the damage done by the naxals and the maoists are sufficient illustration for my point.

My point is very simple. If a section of the society is unhappy with the status quo it can lead to an uprising... it can even turn unpatriotic in nature. But the way to deal with it is not to condemn their protests with sedition charges. We need to understand what is making them unhappy and identify means that will make them happy without harming the unity and integrity of the nation. Kashmiri youth in India are unhappy with the establishment because they have had a disturbing childhood and they think that the Indian army and the Indian state is to be blamed for their misery... propaganda from Pakistan is only adding fuel to their imaginations... Clearly, they aren't to be blamed. The government should lend its ears to the youth of Kashmir and find out an amicable way to integrate them into mainland India. Encourage the rest of India to welcome our Kashmiri brethren with open arms. Give heavy incentives for Indian corporations to set up manufacturing and service establishments in Kashmir. Invest heavily in infrastructure and education in Kashmir. We need to find a way to ease the mobility of people in and out of Kashmir from and to the rest of India. If this happens in a matter of a few decades the psyche of Kashmir will be fully integrated with the psyche of the rest of India.

Jai Hind!