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An Open Letter to Shashi Tharoor

Dear Dr. Shashi Tharoor,

I first got interested in diplomacy and the United Nations as a teenager, around the same time you emerged as a strong contender for the post of UN Secretary-General. Regardless of that result, I was fascinated by your career as the most successful Indian in the field. My fascination soon turned into fandom as I was inspired by watching your interviews and speeches. I memorised your TEDtalk, I aspired for the Tufts MALD program, I rattled off your remarkable achievements in casual conversations ; so much so, that my friends started referring to me whenever they heard or read your name. You were my idol.

And then you decided to enter Indian politics. That decision gave millions of people, like me, hope that our rotting political system can change. You were our ideal MP – highly educated global thinker, eloquent speaker and a seasoned politician; a combination of competency, experience and integrity rarely seen before in Indian politics. Regardless of which party’s ticket you ran with, people would have voted for you in 2009 – as evidenced by your thumping margin of victory despite being an outsider to Thiruvananthapuram politics.

But 2014 is a whole new ballgame.

The mood of the country has changed, hopefully irrevocably. Over the last few years, the UPA and most state governments, across party lines, have engaged in open and blatant abuse of power. Corruption, nepotism, misgovernance and votebank politics have become alarmingly routine. But, more importantly, the emergence of a strong media determined to showcase stunning exposés and the mass awakening against corruption, led by Anna Hazare, has led to dizzying levels of political awareness in India. People want change. We will oppose identity politics, we will reject dynastic politics, and most of all, we will punish brazen corruption. You, of all Parliamentarians, should recognise this trend and join us in eliminating these archaic and immoral practices.

But, these days, the more I listen to your interviews, hear your speeches and read your tweets, the more it seems you have lost your once fiercely independent voice. Before you joined Indian politics, you have openly criticised the Congress Party, its “true dynastic tradition”1 and its corrupt core. In your book, From Midnight to Millennium, while recollecting Rajiv Gandhi’s term you wrote that after a promising campaign, “the rot set in…Compromise followed sellout as New Delhi returned to business as usual” [1] as this government too was charged with massive corruption. Do you honestly believe that Sonia Gandhi, the woman you are so loyal to now, and the other Congress stalwarts who continue to rule today, were not involved in what you yourself call, the “sellout”? Yet, just last month, despite the deluge of corruption scandals over the last few years, you unambiguously defended the UPA’s term harping on outdated phrases and a spasm of extravagant statistic-listing in The Indian Express [2]. You call India a “thriving, entrepreneurial and globalised economy”, when inflation, investment levels, balance of payments, the Rupee’s value and other key economic indicators have all worsened exponentially. You declare that the UPA is responsible for substantial employment generation, despite The Economic and Political Weekly and even a government study terming these numbers grossly exaggerated [3] [4]. You even go so far as to state that “the UPA governance has changed the face of our society”. Yes, Dr. Tharoor, it has. And the face of our society is mutilated beyond recognition.

Please realise that every day you continue to endorse and defend the Congress Party, you lose your own moral high ground and become part of the herd of mindless politicians this country has unfortunately elected. It is, quite frankly, insulting to see educated ministers not having the courage and honesty to admit obvious lapses in governance and then absolve the UPA government of all corruption cases without trial. It is, quite frankly, embarrassing to see experienced parliamentarians, including yourself, acting like court sycophants, falling over each other to praise ‘Rahul baba’, a man with no notable experience or achievement [5]. Let the other obsequious partymen sacrifice their self-respect and dignity at the altar of the Nehru-Gandhi family. You, Sir, deserve more. You have accomplishments of your own throughout your glittering career as a diplomat. You deserve respect from common people like me. And we need educated, independent and sensible voices in Parliament. Please do not sacrifice our hopes of change by succumbing to the Congress disease of sycophancy and dynastic politics.

I do not ask you to jump into the Modi camp either. It doesn’t need extensive research to know that you are ideologically against what the BJP stands for. I am no fan of the BJP; I believe the BJP has been a grossly irresponsible opposition party guilty of insulting Parliament through regular disruptions and corruption at the state-level on countless occasions. As a Bangalorean, I was thrilled when the BJP lost the Karnataka elections last year. Because it proved to me, as it did to you, that Indian voters were ready to punish, in your own words, “flagrant financial malfeasance…charges of nepotism and crony capitalism, real-estate and mining scandals, policy paralysis” [6]. But in your Project Syndicate article, you took that premise and somehow managed to come to the conclusion that it bodes well for the Congress. You are far too experienced a politician for me to expect that you do not recognise the massive failures of the UPA government, or the current political climate against the UPA. The Congress-led central government is guilty of everything the BJP-led Karnataka government was, but on a larger, more devastating scale.

I do not discount your significant contributions as Member of Parliament, Foreign Minister and Human Resource Minister. But as a well-wisher and a patriot, this is my plea: please, leave the Congress Party.

Contest as an independent and voice your independent opinion in parliament. Continue all the good work you have been doing in your constituency [7]. I have heard first-hand that Thiruvananthapuram has changed for the better since 2009 because of your active and sensible leadership. Continue raising India’s international profile using your invaluable experience as a former UN diplomat. Your proactivity and sensitivity as Foreign Minister was instrumental in nurturing important diplomatic relationships with states across the world as evidenced by numerous testimonies [8]. Continue contributing to our policymaking in Parliamentary committees. Your initiatives have found support across party lines primarily because your reasoning is backed by a career of political and developmental expertise. And finally, continue giving us hope that capable and honest individuals can exist in Parliament. In fact, beyond setting an example, you could lead the charge and promote the idea to other qualified, educated, and most importantly, honest people across the country.

I have faith, Sir. I have faith in you and in our country. Millions of my peers do to. Please do not disappoint us.

Yours Sincerely,
A well-wisher, desperate for change in India.

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Back to the Basics: The Game of Elections

The election is a game for the politicians. It is a competition for them which they have to win. But lets not get mistaken, it is a game for us too: We have to use our one vote to ensure the best possible outcome according to our perspective. This responsibility does not end at choosing who you want the winner to be and voting for him, but requires you to generate a ranking of the candidates in order of preference and calculate who your vote should go to backwards.

Those familiar with economics will recognize my attempt at explaining the basics of Game Theory. But to understand the need for this we must first understand how elections take place in India and what are the implications.

I am sure all of us are aware of the absolute basics: The country is divided into 543 constituencies which are suppose to be roughly equal in terms of their population. Each of these constituencies elects a representative. This representative need not even achieve a simple majority (i.e. 50%); as long as he has more votes than any other single candidate he will be given the seat in the Parliament. For example, if there are 3 people running from a constituency and the vote share is divided in the ratio 25%, 35% and 40%, the candidate with 40% will be declared the winner. This is called First-past-the-post voting (FPTP).

What does such a mechanism imply? It can result in skewed representation. For example in the 2012 UP state elections SP (Samajwadi Party) received 29.3% of vote share and were allocated 226 seats in the assembly out of 403, where as BSP (Bahujan Samay Party), who received 25.9% of the vote share were allocated only 80 seats. This happened because the SP won several seats against the BSP over a very small margin. Thus while BSP received considerable votes overall, they were thwarted in individual battles and thus annihilated in the war in the world of FPTP.

This may seem like an unfair mechanism, specially when compared to the proportional representation method. But that is a debate for another blog post. What I would like to discuss is what the voter should do.

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Let us imagine that the people who voted for BJP would rather have BSP if their only other option was SP. Their strategy should be obvious: Instead of voting for BJP, who anyway did not have a chance of coming to power, they should have voted for their next best choice which was BSP. If we assume that in each constituencies the vote share was identical to the state level data, then with the transfer of BJPs 15% to BSP, the party would be propelled to number one status with almost 41% of the vote share. Thus the BJP supporters might not get their first choice, but at least they would not be stuck with their 3rd or 4th one.

This example is obviously simplified using several assumptions, but the principle remains the same. At the central election level this effect can be observed with Modi being portrayed as the PM candidate for BJP. While Congress’ abysmal performance has lost them support, voters who fear Modi more will fall back to Congress which is the only credible force to stop BJP. The same applies to people who fear another five-year reign of Congress: Recognizing this possibility they will leave their regional parties and flock to Modi (also discussed in Back to the Basics: Polarising Mr Modi).

The FPTP system often has the effect of bringing the war down to two parties. Understanding the system is important or your vote may actually count for nothing.

A Statement of Purpose

A considerable amount has been written about the role social media will play in the 2014 elections, and perhaps the single most cited document has been this report by the Iris Knowledge foundation in conjunction with the Internet and Mobile Association of India. If you have not read about it elsewhere, I will summarize the main conclusion for you here: 160 of the 543 constituencies which will participate in the 2014 elections are ‘High Impact’ by dint of their social media presence. In these ‘High Impact’ constituencies, one of these two criteria are met:

1)    Facebook users constitute more than 10% of the voting population, OR

2)    The number of Facebook users is greater than the margin of victory of the winning candidate in the last Lok Sabha election.

So why ‘High Impact’? What exactly is the perceived impact? Well the term itself is predicated on the idea that Facebook can function as more than just a venue for chit-chat, but as a conduit to persuasive information at other sources. How many of you arrived at this page through a link on Facebook? How many have had an opinion swayed by something you saw here? Thus it is argued that the amount of traction a candidate in a ‘High Impact’ constituency can gain through avenues like Facebook will be a crucial, perhaps decisive, factor in their poll performance. The things conveyed by them, and about them, can transform their reputation, and it is in recognition of this that candidates like Narendra Modi have established firm digital footprints.

The report makes for optimistic reading. It goes on to note that as a result of the Internet age, 2014’s electorate will be have more raw information at their disposal than any electorate in India’s past, and thus will be able to make more considered choices. The logic of more social media equals more information equals better decisions seems almost infallible. Indeed, it is a romantic and empowering thought to believe that the most democratic form of media in existence will decide the largest democratic process in the world. Social media can be a venue, now, for fist-pumping, power-to-the-people electioneering. But there remain skeptics as to how effective this may actually be. Sadanand Dhume’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal throws cold water on any premature fires, and suggests that potential and reality are still bridges apart. He says, “In a country where voting often breaks down by caste or religion, there’s no evidence to suggest that any voter’s primary identity is ‘Facebook user’ or ‘Twitter follower.’ And going by precedent, India’s middle class is more adept at squabbling over politics at a dinner party than actually showing up to vote, much less at organizing and campaigning.” If history were anything to be counted on, Dhume has a point here. The urban middle class, which unsurprisingly accounts for the majority of India’s internet users, has been notoriously apathetic in election times. Earlier this year, when the state of Karnataka voted to elect a new government, overall voter turnout was at 70 percent, but in Bangalore – the country’s technology hub, and one of the most densely connected cities in the world – voter turnout was a little more than 50 percent. This malady is not Bangalore’s alone but every major Indian cities’. There is a marked translation gap between the chai-time opinions of the urban voter, and his appearance at the voting booth. So why should we believe that the netizens of India will be truly ‘High Impact’ in the elections of 2014? To put it differently, why should a blog like this one be optimistic about what it can achieve?

Well, for one thing, the Indian electorate has never been younger. It is predicted that there will be 800 million voting-age Indians in 2014, and a record number will be between the ages of 18-25. And not to say that the internet is a young man’s game, but more than 60 percent of India’s internet users are below the age of 30. Further encouragement comes from the fact that the most prominent youth rallies to be organized in the past year, have used the internet as their preferred mode of gathering support. The anti-rape protests in Delhi show that, if nothing else, social media has caused an awakening to activism in segments that may otherwise have stood still. It galvanizes opinion in a direct, participatory manner that is beyond the reach of traditional forms of media. More than that, it amplifies dissatisfaction and unrest. The question of whether the urban Indian will vote in next year’s election is, in a way, the same as asking how much dissatisfaction is necessary to breed a small amount of action. Rest assured, the Internet will ask that question several times.

Youth voting is habit-forming. Youths that vote once will more than likely do it again, and more than likely insist that their friends and families do it too. This one axiom of Indian politics has seemingly eluded the urban psyche for many years: if you vote in larger numbers, then politicians will take you more seriously. With the amplifier effect of the Internet, perhaps this election will finally buck the trend.

Still, however forceful this effect is, however much it may fall short of its potential, there remains an important, symbolic role for social media to play, one that extends far beyond change-mongering. It stems from the fact that, today, an inordinate amount of scrutiny is given to the way Indians exert their freedom of speech, especially online. Suketu Mehta, in his op-ed in the New York Times, details the tenuous status of this most basic civil liberty, and further brings to light the callous distrust the government holds for the average Indian opinionator. Section 66A of the IT act criminalizes “causing annoyance or inconvenience” via online or electronic medium – a wide net, it would seem, certainly one that traps many dissenters on the basis of their targets rather than their actual words. If the curbing of free speech is a sign of an immature democracy, then it stands to reason that it’s in the exercise of free speech that a democracy matures. But is this as straightforward as it sounds? Scroll through the Youtube comments on an India-Pak cricket match, and it is only so long before you stumble upon a death threat against Muslims. These instances, isolated as they are, still provide a strong argument for the policing of the Internet. There is the prevailing global opinion that this is a culture not yet primed to handle the responsibility of free speech. It is here that the opportunity presents itself for social media, independent outlets such as this one, to prove it possible to exercise free speech in a conscientious, diligent manner. By doing so, we are building up credibility for two democracies at once – India and the Internet are both characterized by pockets of infantile behavior, but we should never let this mask the sheer power of their potential. If freedom of speech truly exists in India, it needs to be flexed most at a time when the future of the country is being decided.

As happens every five years, the Indian General Elections of 2014 will renew its record as the largest democratic process the world has ever seen. Through outlets such as this one, you will expose yourself to opinions and ideologies that may be close to home or may be alien to you. You will be exposed to information, more information than an Indian voter has ever had the privilege of. Respect this privilege, especially if you are a first-time voter. What we write here may make you think twice and reconsider your stands, but it’s a responsibility we’ve taken on to give you opinions. Yours, plainly, is the responsibility to decide.

Back to the Basics: Polarising Mr. Modi

The India Today group has been running opinion polls before general elections for several years now and their track record is surprisingly not that shabby.

They conducted the first of such polls for the 2014 General Elections with a dummy variable: Modi as PM candidate. The results were significant but far from surprising.

When Modi was not projected as the PM candidate by BJP the seats allocations were: 179 for BJP; 132 for Congress; and 232 for the 3rd front. On the other hand when Modi was projected as the PM candidate both the number of seats to BJP and Congress increased. The benefit, however, was greater for BJP: 41 more seats to BJP; 23 more seats to Congress; and 64 less seats to the 3rd front.

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The logic behind this is very straightforward: Modi polarises the electorate. Majority muslims fear his rise to power and vote for Congress instead of their local party. Even though they might hate Congress, they are willing to put up with them as long as Modi does not achieve the PM mantel. The others vote for Modi because of his track record in governance and the image he has been able to cultivate for himself as a man of action and not just of words. After UPA IIs deplorable performance, many people yearn for a strong leader which they see in Modi. For this they are willing to neglect their local/regional loyalties and vote of BJP.

Nitish Kumar’s strategy: Back fired?

Nitish Kumar, the current, popular Chief Minister of Bihar, recently broke his alliance with BJP over their insistence of portraying Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate. He had hope that he would be able to blackmail BJP, being its chief ally, into not having Modi as the PM candidate. However, according to the survey, this turned out to be good news for BJP. If JDU (Mr Kumar’s party) were to remain in alliance with BJP, the Bihar votes would remain with them. However, the preference for Modi is so great that the voters will ditch their loyalties to JDU and vote of BJP diminishing JDU’s power considerably.

The fact is: People either hate him or love him. The ones that hate him are willing to settle for anyone but him, and the ones that love him simply will not compromise.

Why Vote For The BJP?

Over three hundred and fifty parties contested the last general election in 2009. Thirty eight parties are currently represented in the 15th Lok Sabha. The next Lok Sabha elections will see many more parties enter an already crowded political spectrum. An average of seven political parties (along with independents) shall contest any given constituency in the country. With so many different options, what separates the BJP from the rest? Why should the party  deserve your vote any more than the rest?

Most of us who have voted before, have ended up selecting candidates for the WRONG reasons. Many people vote in India without having done any research on the candidate or the party he/she represents.  Over 90% of people in India have absolutely no clue what values, principles, beliefs and legislative agenda the Congress and the BJP represent. People read and see the news, but they rarely understand the implications of it or realise the rationale behind political decisions. The BJP, along with the Congress, accounts for over 45% of the total vote share and almost 60% seat share in the 2009 general election and the 15th Lok Sabha respectively. Both parties are the lead constituents of the two coalition alliances in India. Any government formed next year will surely be lead by one of these two parties. This post hopes to educate people about why the BJP, more than any other party (especially the Congress) is better positioned to lead India forward.

First and foremost, the BJP remains the only major party in India with a clear economic viewpoint on how the country should run. The party has repeatedly stated its beliefs in core economic principles such as free markets, limited government and fiscal conservatism. Unlike the Congress party’s disastrous socialist agenda (which was started by Nehru and continues to this day), the BJPs sensible right of centre economic views have greatly benefited this country and improved the lives of millions. Sensible, conservative right wing economic policies have worked all over the world and there is no reason for it to suddenly fail in India.

Secondly, the BJP has a much better track record when it comes to governance and administration. The average Indian voter may not have been smart enough to realise it, but India truly did shine when Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. BJP and NDA ruled states today perform much better on several parameters (agriculture,education, public health, crime and safety etc) than their congress counterparts. Indeed the India Today “State of the States” surveys over the last few years give a clear indication that NDA administered states ate much better off than UPA ones.

The BJP has always had a much better stance on foreign policy than the Congress. The BJP recognised and spoke about friendship and strategic partnerships with the United States long before the Congress did so. For decades India paid a heavy price for Nehru’s foreign policy blunders. His infamous “Hindi Chini bhai bhai” slogan and subsequent efforts to build ties with China resulted in India suffering a humiliating and crushing defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. After Nehru’s death, the Congress leadership continued with his failed Russian friendship policy which seriously angered the United States to such an extent that Indo-US relations remained hostile for decades. Infact the US saw Pakistan as its natural ally in South Asia! It was only during the Prime Ministership of Vajpayee did the US finally begin to see India as a friend and an ally over Pakistan. President Clinton visited India, the first US President to do so in over two decades, and as they say, the rest is history.

The BJP is perhaps better equipped to deal with internal security matters. Geo politically, we live in a very dangerous neighbourhood. Terrorist have struck at will for years now. To help our law enforcement agencies take on terror groups, not only do we need good intel, we also need stringent laws which ensure that terrorists can be properly prosecuted.  The BJP passed one such law when in power- Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act, 2002. The act provided our law enforcement agencies the necessary teeth to prosecute captured terrorists. However, the act proved unpopular amongst a certain section of the electorate who regularly voted Congress. So one of the first things the Congress led UPA did upon coming to power was to remove POTA and replace it with some toothless inefficient act. The reason given out was that “the act can be misused”. If the Congress party truly believed in what it said, the right thing to do would have been to pass amendments to the existing bill, which would provide necessary safeguards to check that the police do not cross the line. And if they do, exemplary punishment ought to be doled out to the guilty to serve as a deterrent to others. The Congress did no such thing. What it did do was sacrifice national security for cheap political mileage.

The last reason why the BJP deserves your vote is the fact that it is perhaps the only political party in India which is not a family business. Every single party in India is epitomised by dynasty politics. Unlike the Congress, the BJP has no “first family”. It operates in a highly democratic manner and it truly is refreshing to note that this is the only party where emphasis lies on the individual. The party does not care who a person’s father was and they certainly don’t care who his son will be! The only criteria the party holds for promotions and responsibilities is your achievements and contribution to the country and to the party.

The BJP ought to and deserves to return to power at the next general election. The party offers a clear decisive vision on how to run this country and has a proven track record of stable, effective governance in various states across India. While in no way perfect, the party does represent and stand for growth and development in a manner which no other party can claim to do so.  The party’s presumptive Prime Ministerial nominee’s achievements are outstanding and it is clear that Narendra Modi is by far the most suitable candidate to lead this nation into a new era. While may people remain cynical of the political class on Raisina Hill, the coming general election is crucial. Frankly speaking, we cant afford to remain cynical and end up not voting, or worse, vote for the wrong party simply because we “aren’t aware”! The BJP provides a credible alternative to the existing rot and if you are concerned with the direction in which we are moving, perhaps the party deserves your vote.

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