Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Select a bus, burn it and make sure the media knows"

A new leak, this time from the tapped phones of Shiv Sena leaders Milind Narvekar and Neelam Gorhe, provides insight into the political strategising of this well-known political party. Planning a demonstration that took place in Pune last Monday, Narvekar told Gorhe:

“200 to 300 people should be deployed. Buses should be destroyed at Shivajinagar bus stand and Swargate bus stand. Destroy five State transport buses. That way traffic will be disturbed. Block the Mumbai Pune express way. Put two buses and two trucks on fire. In Shivajinagar, select a bus, burn it and make sure the media knows about it. But none of this should look orchestrated.”

In common with previous more publicised phone leaks, this does not qualitatively change what is generally known about the people involved, but does give a clearer picture of the callous attitude of our politicians towards public property and public welfare.

It's fairly obvious that the phone conversation was captured and leaked at the behest of the Nationalist Congress Party, which in terms of public behaviour often acts as Shiv Sena's alter ego (their friends the Sambhaji Brigade famously ransacked the Oriental Institute in Pune in 2004 and destroyed priceless manuscripts). The tussle between the Sena and the NCP, hard to follow in its minute details for anyone not clued in to Maharashtrian caste politics, has to do with the relative importance given to Brahmins and Marathas. It's perfectly possible that were the equations reversed and the Sena in power, the NCP or its friends would orchestrate the very same kind of activity described in the quote above. They would however be much more careful about getting caught -- the NCP head Sharad Pawar is a national leader of considerable clout, way ahead of his rivals in the Sena leadership.

What always baffles me is that politicians are able to get away labelling others "anti-national". What could be more anti-national than plotting the deliberate destruction of public property, inevitably involving  the lives of citizens as collateral damage? What, after all, do terrorists do?

On the other side we have Dr Binayak Sen, not accused of having harmed a fly (and widely known to have treated huge numbers of tribals in need of medical aid) sentenced to life imprisonment for carrying letters. While I'm pretty sure a higher court will reduce or eliminate the harsh penalty on Dr Sen, I'm not so sure any court will impose any significant deterrent on the anti-national bus-burners.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ding Dong Dell

I've had a Dell laptop for a while and I really like it a lot. So when planning for a new desktop at home, I thought of going in for a Dell. They now offer an all-in-one desktop (like the one made famous by Mac) where the CPU is contained in the screen in a single unit, and from the website it seems both powerful and pretty. The 23-inch version, the Inspiron 2310, has an Intel i5 processor and seems to be just what I want.

The Dell India website lists prices for all their products except the all-in-ones, for which it advises the client to call the Dell India toll-free number. Which I did yesterday, and that's when my troubles started. First I got a gent who interrogated me sternly (name? serial number? last three years' tax returns? OK maybe I made up that last bit, but that was the tone of it). Then he asked me to hold, there was a brief spell of bad music and a sultry female voice whispered in my ear "Hello Sunil! This is Meena!!". I'm not making this up. I resisted the temptation to ask her when exactly we got on first-name terms, and got to my point. She didn't note the model number of the PC I was interested in, but simply promised to email me the price list for all Dell laptops and desktops.

When it arrived, the mail did not contain any information about the 2310. So I wrote back to gently point this out. I also gave her the link of the Dell India website where the model is described. This was her reply:

To view the desktops available in india, you need to log on to the website Also the models available with us are mentioned in the excel file.


In other words, she was claiming the machine I was trying to buy did not exist in India! I phoned her and gave her a piece of my mind: my colleague recently bought one of these from Dell India, the website I was consulting was indeed that of Dell India etc. In response to which I got this mail:

Can you please resend the mail containing the desktop details as due to some error in the system, the mail was automatically deleted.

At this point I called Dell again, to ask if I could talk to anyone except Meena. Ended up with a similar interrogation guy who patiently heard my complaint ("I'm trying to buy your product but your employee says it doesn't exist!) and said he would transfer me. Thereafter I got a recorded message saying "Extension 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0" after which it hung up on me. Back to square one.

At the next attempt I got someone who transferred me to Reena. Who transferred me to Shruti. Shruti told me the 2310 is not marketed directly by Dell but only by Dell retailers. When I started to hyperventilate, she passed me on to Deepa. "Deepa" I shrieked on the phone "do you have brains? Because I can't deal with one more Dell Dodo today. Please." Only, I didn't say any of this out loud.

Turned out, not only does Deepa have brains but she knows everything about the Dell 2310 including the rather arcane fact that it is "same thing as Dell 123 only". And that a consignment came in yesterday from Malaysia and I absolutely must buy one as soon as possible. It will be delivered in 5 days (I still remember the last time I heard that one from Dell India).

While I was musing over this conversation, Deepa called back. "I just want to know what you will use it for". I said I use it for music and video editing, music playback, stuff like that. She was relieved. "You're not going to resell it, are you?". I assured her I would not.

But on second thoughts, maybe I should. Wouldn't you pay double the price just to avoid dealing with Meena, Reena, Shruti, Deepa and three nameless male Nazis?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Niira Radia finds judiciary's corruption shocking

Of late I find that the mainstream press very selectively decides what the rest of us find out or notice, and most people are simply too busy or lazy to fight that. Probably this has always been the case but with the Niira Radia tapes having tainted established journalists, the press is fighting back in a big way by suppressing everything about the tapes.

So if you, like me, receive the Hindustan Times or similar mindless mainstream publication, you might not have recently heard of retired Justice Vijender Jain. His appointment as Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2006 was controversial, with the then President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam returning the appointment file after expressing reservations (prompted by dissenting views of other judges). He also brought this case to the attention of the Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh. Nevertheless the Collegium responsible for this appointment, comprising Chief Justice Y. K. Sabharwal, Justice K. G. Balakrishnan, and Justice B. N. Agrawal, returned the file reiterating their strong support for Justice Jain's appointment. The President was then constitutionally obliged to sign it.  A nice clear article (The Hindu, December 2006) on the course of events can be found here.

All that was in 2006. Cut to the present, and visit this page in the current (December 27 2010) issue of Outlook magazine. The article features a partial transcript of a conversation between Niira Radia and Sunil Arora, the latter being a former Chairman of Air India and a serving bureaucrat. There is also a link to an mp3 file of the entire conversation, that you can download and hear with your morning tea instead of wasting your time on television. The key moment of the conversation is the statement by Mr Arora " I mean this litigant had paid Rs 9 crore to that high court judge in Delhi", followed at a later point by the revelation of the judge's identity: "Vijender Jain, naam bhi bataa deta hoon" (Vijender Jain, I'll even tell you the name).

Of course this is only Mr Arora's opinion so far, and the country is yet to find out whether the shocking accusation  is true or not. But I personally find Ms Radia's own candid reactions to this revelation fascinating. To the first line she responds "Good God!". Later she says "My God!" (what a religious lady she must be..). But finally on being told the name, she lamely says "Haan, I know".

So for India's most prominent fixer, corruption in the higher judiciary is shocking even though the name of the (allegedly) corrupt judge is no surprise. For me, that says a lot.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

For a scientist or other academician, minor ethical misconduct is as easy to stumble into as running a red light while driving (go on, pretend you never did that). If you have a collaborator, how can you ever be sure he/she hasn't plagiarised something (maybe just a figure) in the part of the paper that he/she wrote? If you summarise previously published work, as all of us need to do, are you sure you're on the right side of the guidelines on appropriate paraphrasing? And for most people, the hardest of all is to avoid copying their own words from a previous paper. I believe many people don't even try to avoid that, but since copying one's previous paper in toto is illegal, I assume there's some limit to what fraction of it you can copy verbatim.

Now in the course of a few investigations into academic ethics, I've usually found that the initial offence was indeed some form of "minor ethical misconduct". But what was true in almost every case was the response of the person when the misconduct was brought to their notice: cover-up. The end result was that a relatively small offence blew up into a huge one.

Why don't people simply say sorry when caught? Not sure, but I suspect this is a particularly Indian "virtue", and it does have an explanation of a sort. In India, if you admit to a mistake it is seen as a sign of weakness. People simply assume your misdemeanour must be the tip of an iceberg. Admit you unthinkingly ended up with a hundred rupees that someone else deserved, and you'll promptly be accused of swindling a thousand. Or ten thousand. In any case, no one will forgive you after your confession. On the other hand if you issue stout denials for long enough then people start to give up on your case, and if you additionally have a powerful backer who defends you in public then you're more than likely to get away. Except in those rare situations when a serious investigation takes place.

The above point amplifies something I blogged about earlier, in this post. And of course it is widespread far beyond the ambit of academic ethics. Look at Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. Neither said "I accept a journalist should not be a conduit for the affairs of a political party. While I'm within my rights to like a particular party, acting like a party member - as I did - amounts to conflict of interest and is journalistic malpractice. I apologise."

Either of them is free to take the above draft apology from my blog (with due attribution!) and sign it. But they've instead taken the brazen route, like the politicians and industrialists before them. As Elton John put it so well: "It's a sad, sad situation. And it's getting more and more absurd."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Taking away my toys

When little children quarrel, things often end with one or both of them picking up their toys and going away. The friends of each little squabbler will leave along with him/her, loyalty being less of a principle than their desire to have continued access to the toys.

In what seems to me a new low in international diplomacy, a major Asian country whose name I won't reveal here (hint: it executes more people per year than the rest of the world combined, as per Amartya Sen) has decided to walk out of the forthcoming Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, referring to the rival gang of kids as "clowns". It has taken with itself most of its friends -- who realise clearly that if they don't go along, they may never get to play with those wonderful toys again.

The list of friends is amusing to browse: Russia, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Serbia, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, the Philippines, Egypt, Sudan, Ukraine, Cuba and Morocco. How can the poor Norwegians run a credible peace prize ceremony in the absence of so many respected supporters of human rights, freedom and dignity!

For once I felt a patriotic thrill on reading Nobel Committee secretary Mr Lundestad's statement that " `important' countries such as India, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia" would attend. All of these countries do have their own human rights issues, but given their constitutions, history and present leaders they can play a key constructive role in the struggle for human rights, a defining struggle of the 21st century.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I wish I had written that

Once in a while one reads an article and feels "Oh, I wish I had written that". Well here's a nice example. Browsing the blogosphere for articles by/about P. Sainath, the very respected commentator on India's social problems, I found:

"P Sainath and Arundhati Roy – Why Is One The Nation’s Conscience, The Other The Bane?"

This article answers the question to my satisfaction. I'm glad that's out of the way, for me at least.

P.S.  Rahul Siddharthan has written about Ms Roy on similar lines in this posting.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

NDTV Bad Times

For the last couple of weeks I've been rather busy finishing a longish review article on String Theory. Anyway I don't watch much TV, but when I do it's usually NDTV 24x7. And I read a newspaper, but only the one that gets delivered to my house which, thanks to some coupon scheme that I accepted without thinking, is the Hindustan Times.

Given that these were my main news sources it's no wonder that I recently ended up on Mars, sort of. The Wikileaks revelations went on day and night, as I learned from NDTV, HT and occasional glances at Yahoo! News, and I even found a few minutes to surf the net and blog about this topic over the last couple of days. But NDTV and HT simply did not do a complete story on the ongoing Indian Leak Mela.

I kept coming across mentions of a certain Niira Radia, but I didn't find time to sit down and figure out what exactly was going on with her. Then I learned that Ratan Tata had filed a case against the release of some tapes, which made me realise there must be some tapes. Next, I read Vir Sanghvi in last Sunday's HT ineptly defending himself against something. But what? Then yesterday Barkha Dutt on NDTV, while talking about Wikileaks, kept grinning foolishly and saying "ask me what it's like!!" What on earth did she mean?

Silly me. Yesterday I finished writing my article and this evening landed back from Mars and went on the internet to find out what was going on. In the process I snooped on several conversations that were intended to be private. You can snoop too, and I think you actually should. If you are worried about journalistic ethics, there's this article by Manu Joseph and this article by Hartosh Singh Bal, both on the website of Open Magazine, that argue eloquently why (i) these conversations deserve to be heard, and (ii) the Indian press has shamed itself by mostly suppressing the story. If you're convinced you have the moral right, and the bandwidth, then click on the audio links, or better move to Outlook Magazine's page on the 2G tapes which seems faster to me and offers mp3 files to download.

What emerges, for me, are two main points: (i) there was intense negotiation and lobbying between the Congress and the DMK after the 2009 elections, mostly about the latter party's desire for cabinet posts and ministerships, one of which involved a certain A. Raja becoming (again) the minister for telecommunications, (ii) some of the negotiations were conducted through Barkha Dutt (NDTV) and Vir Sanghvi (Hindustan Times). Point (ii) seems to explain why my main media outlets censored the whole story and I effectively remained on Mars all these days.

Now point (i) emerges as slightly unremarkable. Obviously there were negotiations, but what do we learn from snooping on them? To paraphrase something I quoted in my recent blog posting Leak Soup:

Karunanidhi is deaf! Alagiri is domineering! Kanimozhi is soft-spoken but persuasive! A. Raja was desperate to get telecom! The powerful lobbyist Niira Radia, employed by Tatas, Ambanis and DMK alike, is well-connected, pushy and slightly crude!

Big deal. No news here, I believe.

On the other hand two people whom I feel I know, Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, stand exposed. I don't feel very sorry for Sanghvi, whose writing I always found quite superficial and self-gratifying. But I was an admirer of Barkha and I'm frankly shocked by what I heard. For me hearing is believing -- and it's reasonably apparent to me that the tapes are not doctored, that Barkha and Vir said everything they said and did everything they said they did.

The two journalists come out with some very damning quotes. Barkha to Niira Radia: "Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?" (referring to what the DMK, through Radia, wants Barkha to tell the Congress party leadership). Later Barkha says "everybody I know in the Congress was at the swearing in, so I haven’t been able to speak with the top guys, and now I just finished and I am going to make my set of calls.". So despite appearing to be an objective, unbiased journalist whom we all see on TV, she was actually behaving like a Congress party member. If the Hindutva brigade is after her now, she has only herself to blame.

Vir Sanghvi comes off worse. He appears in two sets of conversations, one about the tussle between Mukesh and Anil Ambani over natural gas, and the other inevitably about A. Raja. About Mukesh Ambani, Sanghvi says to Radia: "What kind of story do you want? Because this will go as Counterpoint, so it will be like most-most read, but it can’t seem too slanted, yet it is an ideal opportunity to get all the points across." About an interview that Ms Radia wants him to do of Mr Ambani, Sanghvi agrees that "it has to be fully scripted. I have to come in and do a run through with him before." And at some point Ms Radia tells him "I mean you’ll have to attack the judge here because the judge has, what he’s done, he’s given preference to an MoU." On the Congress-DMK matter Sanghvi indicates he "was supposed to meet Sonia today, but I’ve been stuck here. So, now it’s becoming tomorrow."

Mr Sanghvi's claim that he was saying all this just to extract information and that he never intended to write about the Ambani issue as he was being told to, or pass on requests from the DMK to the Congress leadership, is hogwash. To be convinced of that you do need to listen to the audio and not just read the transcript. You can also read Hartosh Singh Bal's article to which I linked above. It carefully analyses Sanghvi's Counterpoint column that appeared just after he promised Ms Radia what he would write, and correlates the two things. The final nail in the coffin is a taped conversation between Ms Radia and her colleague where they celebrate that Mr Sanghvi wrote exactly what they had told him to.

The mighty have fallen. Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi will never be the same again for me. On the other hand, as I indicated above, the Congress and even the DMK don't come out particularly damaged. They are doing what political parties always do, it's not pretty and in fact it's quite squalid, but the main point is we always knew that.

Surely you're joking, Mr Flanagan

Tom Flanagan, a senior advisor and strategist to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said yesterday of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange: "I think Assange should be assassinated actually". He went on to say: "we should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something". You can, and should, watch this on YouTube.

Of course he smiled when he said it, so it was probably a joke. But he refused to retract when offered a chance, saying instead "I'm feeling very manly today". Good to know that assassination threats come naturally to men.

I may not be the only one to notice the comparison, but a certain Vikram Buddhi is in a U.S. jail for the last four years for having allegedly issued death threats to George W. Bush (and others) on a website. Because it was a posting and not an interview, we don't know if Buddhi smiled (pun unintended) while writing it. But it's no one's case that he had any intention to cause harm, and the charges appear to be only about the threats.

The question is whether the state of Canada will offer Flanagan accommodation similar to that which the US has provided to Buddhi. Or will Flanagan be pardoned because it was only a joke and he's just a regular (manly) guy....?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leak soup

Recently I began to wonder why I've so drastically reduced my blogging. There seem to be two reasons. One is that many of the events on my mind are related to committees and other activities in which I'm required to observe confidentiality. The second is that a lot of my blogs express frustration about the way society is, but of late I've started to realise that frustration is harmful to one's own peace of mind. This is an issue I want to analyse for a while (why does one feel frustration or anger? what is anger really??).

But back to confidentiality. These are not the best of times for people who want their communications to be kept a secret. Wikileaks has published an extensive collection of cables sent by the US to various countries. According to the website, "Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society's institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations." Sounds good to me! But not, evidently, to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) who wants to shut down the website, nor to Rep. Peter King (N.Y.) who wants it declared a terrorist organization.

Mikkel Fishman writing in The Moderate Voice observes that there hasn't really been any earthshaking revelation from the recent spate of leaked cables, which have merely confirmed what we already know:

"President Sarkozy is thin skinned! PM Berlusconi is vain! The US is worried about Islamism rising in Turkey! Pakistan has a poor handling on its nuclear technology! Iran has been working with North Korea on missile technology! The US actually pressured Canada not to make a fuss about kidnapping and torturing one of its citizens that wasn’t actually a terrorist, and tried to get its CIA agents in another case to be let go! Did you know that the Queen is more respected than Prince Charles?"

This suggests the leaks will not have the claimed effect of damaging diplomatic relations between countries. BTW it is reported that Berlusconi laughed when he read them (but I'm sure Sarkozy didn't!!).

In short, the leaks may be embarrassing but hardly the stuff to bring the world as we know it down. Reading some of them, I feel I'm watching a reality show with Hilary Clinton, the Saudi royal family and Pakistan's ISI in the same house. Which actually brings me to my point: while I don't see much potential for harm in these leaks, I don't see much good coming out of them either. Are they going to make us question our prejudices, or our selfishness, or our futile quests for power (where by "us" I mean the human race)? Not really. Seeing the participants of a reality show clawing at each other physically and verbally hasn't made anyone less prone to similar violence against those who challenge them, as far as I know. The press and free-speech advocates (I count myself among the latter) are, for different reasons, having quite a ball. But just because it's fun doesn't really make it the major social change the world so desperately needs.

All this reminds me of Bertrand Russell's observation:

If we were all given by magic the power to read each other's thoughts, I suppose the first effect would be to dissolve all friendships.

I can't find on the web what Russell went on to say, but I remember reading it in his book long ago. His point is that after the "first effect" of dissolving friendships, the transparency of our thoughts to each other would re-make friendships in a better mould. We could not hide secrets, therefore there would be no mutual suspicion or doubt. Everything would be out there in the open. It would create a different and, he thought, better society.

If as it seems the Wikileaks cables have not damaged diplomatic relations then Russell is already wrong on point one. I would have hoped for him to be right, because then we could have looked forward to his second prediction coming true.