Saturday, March 29, 2014

Aam Admi Prime Minister: Scope and chances

by D. Dhanuraj

A few days are left before the first batch of voters to go to the polling booths to select their representatives of 16th Lok Sabha.  This time, unlike in the recent past, the most ferociously fought election with a multi cornered fight in many of them may go hay wire in the days to come.

If exit polls could be believed, Narendra Modi is marching ahead with meticulous strategies and belle- belle oratories. Modi camp had started preparations a few years ago for this most spectacular poll showing but the emergence of Aravind Kejriwal and his group had added a new dimension to the arithmetic of the final outcome. Even though many pollsters are confident of BJP crossing 190 of its own and winning over the alliance parties in the process, others are skeptical about this and BJPcrossing the threshold. Their prime concern is about the outreach of BJP at national level and how many of these States could be the best bet for them to march into Raisina Hills.

Apparently, BJPs plans are in the lines of gain maximum from the States like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajastan, Gujarat and Bihar. Altogether these States account for 287 seats.  Out of these States, they don’t expect to win more than 50 % from Maharashtra and Karnataka (together total 76 seats) and in UP, they trying their best to cross 55. In Bihar, it is going to be triangular contests in many and BJP-LJP may top the list with 18 to 20 seats. In other States, one can expect a decent show of around 80% of the seats go in the BJP way.  Thus it is going to be make or break situation for BJP in this round to reach the threshold of 190 to gain upper hand in the race.

This situation opens up the scenario for the every other political party leaders to dream high.

What are the possibilities if Modi couldn’t make it to the PM post?

Tantrums of Amma and Didi have been based on their ambitions. But the question is in the race for PM post,  how much they will dare to lose their control in their own states by giving way to another leader from their party by handing over Chief Ministership.  Furthermore,  they are shrewd politicians thinking aloud and are better in the bargaining and trade offs than climbing to lousy and clumsy deal to become PM of this country. I think they know their limitations and livability of their tenure with the support from within and outside the coalition. The only exception would be if Modi himself abstains from the race and propose these leaders to the post. Even then how long BJP will continue supporting them and how wishful Modi will be  thinking to prolong their innings are the muted questions here.

Other possibility is that of Alternate (Third front) coming to the power. It will be again Amma  or Didi as first choices. Though Left parties had a bizzare experience this time from the hands of Amma, they would be ready to support her but not Didi as it would be another political blunter they could commit. But the fact that Amma ceding powers to Paneer Selvam or Thampi Durai for sometime and returning to State from the post of PM to CM will be fall in grace especially for her. I don’t expect her to jump into the game unless she foresees some credible inclinations.

If Amma and Didi are ruled out, what are the other options; Netaji Mulayam will be stopped by Bahanji and vice versa for the obvious reasons. Then the next choice could be Sharad Pawar, a long time aspirant for the PM post. His maneuvers and skills would ideally suit him for the win over the others. Moreover, NCP has not followed any national principles to be a part of the alliances; with UPA in Delhi and with LDF in Kerala.  But it all depends on how many seats NCP is going to win in Maharashtra this time. Who else there to don the alternative if not Pawar?

Here comes the logic of seeing Aravind Kejriwal in PM post. Many polls predict AAP may cross 10 to 15 seats at the national level. In the case of There Is No Alternative (TINA) for the front of alternatives, Kejriwal could be the black horse in the race. By this time, everyone agrees that he could be the major challenge for Modi in his race and not Rahul Gandhi. Though I am not still sure about whose vote Kejriwal is going to eat in the coming days and who is going to benefit out of it, I am sure he has made a very impressive debut for the General Elections. He is a strategist and a man of improbabilities. From zero, he has made it to the CM of Delhi in less than `18 months. I am not surprised if Congress extends its support to Kejriwal without any hesitation.

If AAP wins more than ten seats and the Alternate front forms the Government, who is going to oppose Kejriwal to build consensus among fighting regional satraps. I too believe that such a Government may not last longer, but who cares for the stability in the pledge to keep the communal forces out of power. If such an uncanny situation arises, Aam Aadmi PM will rule this country for some time atleast. Who knows, whether Kejriwal can become the first ever person in Indian history to promote from CM to PM in the shortest span of time or not.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Trouble Pursuing Academic Research in India


I always had the feeling that academic research in a reputable institution in India would provide us with the most democratic space to exchange thoughts and work freely. However, what is troubling, even after assuming that all these are available, is the question of sustaining this research activity. The pity is that what surrounds this seemingly democratic academic space is the hostile giant bureaucratic institutions like the University Grants Commission (UGC). UGC as far as I understand is a mess of activities with no transparency in what is being done. The simple story is this. The support that is offered by this regulatory institutions reaches the intended beneficiaries very late. When I say beneficiaries, I have in mind only the ‘sustenance researcher’ who has the ‘academic willingness’ but no ‘financial ability’ to work. There are many living realities amongst us who fall in this categories.  

Researchers fall under definite categories: starting with the actively enthusiastic ones at one end of the spectrum and those who consider research as the never ending ladder of educational progress in the country. For the latter category, it is nothing but another step in the educational ladder which we ought to take. It stops with a job or marriage or probably with tiredness and boredom over constantly pondering over a single hypothesis for a very long time. It is not surprising that some research works in social sciences endlessly stretch to more than two decades. And ultimately you will be doubly surprised at the results. There is a parallel cottage industry of conferences and paper presentations which too thrive in the country. Now a day’s books and journal articles also have been trivialized from its past glory to things which can be achieved through the right contacts. It is thus a dense black sea of research activities going on in the country; a black sea, unfathomable not because it is deep but because it is dark.

The tides here are controlled by the UGC. The first thing on offer for a would-be researcher by the UGC is the NET-JRF (National Eligibility Test- Junior Research Fellowship) scholarship. This also decides your presumed ability to teach. Teaching is a different ball game but the UGC will give you an eligibility certificate to teach without actually teaching (like learning to swim through a postal course). You clear this exam and the UGC shall also provide you with a scholarship to get you through your PhD. Now there are lots of stipulations attached to gain access to this fellowship; you need to show regular progress in your work, you need supporting papers ones you complete your research period of five years, you need to be a teaching assistant and so on. So the number of strings attached are many. At the end of this however, there is no guarantee that you will get your fellowships on time. When I say on time, this can sometimes mean for instance 20 months (in my case), or more in the case of other poor souls.

But I firmly believe that no one cares for any of this and JRFs and SRFs (Senior Research Fellowships) are nothing but huge excuses at limping the average candidate towards his quest to do research. Even without these hugely hollow titles one can do research; but these titles have already been accepted as reflecting quality of the candidate. Now that is where our educational system has lost; by making people blind to quality and promoting only the number of degrees they collect. If you are a JRF/SRF you are looked in awe by the academic community. However, what is often noted is that it is not the bright or the brilliant but the average student who clears it. The bright and the brilliant only find place outside the country. Does the grand then promote the average student? I think it does not. Rather it hampers them in two ways: by delaying payments endlessly and by destroying all hope he has on the system. The quality of assistance he receives from the teaching community is a different question all together; better not addressed. The average student would better opt out of this to lesser activities than academics. 

So what is this UGC promoting? Is there a need to be proud of the UGC titles or should we better move out and question the need for all these restrictions? How many of us are aware of other funding options in research? Formal higher education (especially in social science) in India always comes at an opportunity cost, the cost of taking up a job somewhere during the same period. But the UGC increases this cost by adding an endless list of requirements when you are a part of this giant: from not being allowed to take up a full time job to forcefully listing out requirements that sometimes seem so silly. It seems silly because at times they are bypassed with careless ease and no one bothers to cross check what is submitted on paper.

What we understand by research in India is what this nodal agency has told us. It is more a pursuance of the degree rather than any commitment to pursue knowledge. Knowledge could be built with consultations with experts, travel, discussions at any level, regular reading and analysis of policies and through various other means. Redirecting such efforts only through formal institutions under the state limits our capabilities to acquire knowledge. I feel it is this one challenge - to engage and stand side by side the giant UGC during the course of his/her research- that will stand high between the researcher and his quest for knowledge.

Rahul V Kumar

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Liquor Policy in Kerala

"Midway this way of life,
I woke up to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone."

Dante "The Divine Comedy"

The liquor policy of the state of Kerala is ambiguous. We have access to information in the public domain that our exchequer is benefitting much from the sale of liquor. But the brands which sell more are also those that does not make sense drinking in tropical climates like ours. But of  course one need not make sense of everything he/she sees. However, it is important to raise the question of transparency. Firstly, the logic of higher taxes on liquor has not reduced its consumption as is obvious from the data. If we are bound by the spirits of Article 47 in our constitutions why not ban the sale completely. It seems that the state is bound between two extremes: the need to support a revenue base and promote a jittery consumer sovereignty by providing a difficult access to a product.

Lets just get back to the question of transparency. As we go through the manufacturing units, save for a few none of them has major webpages that give details of the process or contents in their manufactured liquor. So what do we know about the most preferred "Jai Jawan" brand of brandy other than the fact that it is extremely hard for the first timer or that it is highly demanded by the regulars. On an average between the regulars and the first timers, for the midway consumer such brands are consumed needlessly for is affordability. The cost of this affordability however should be a major concern.

Are the consumers limited of options? Consider this hypothetical situation. If a consumer is given an option to choose between a low priced brandy manufactured in some low profile unit in the state and an imported brand with a Bottled at Origin tag highly visible in the foreign market, what would he choose? The answer is not so obvious. But as I mentioned someone between the first timer and the regular, less under constraints between enjoying the first sip and the regular dose would surely want to try something new. But his options are Kerala. Or is it? Need not be: There are high profile bars, secret joints in the hides of Fort Kochi or in household itself where foreign branded liquor is available. But there is a true asymmetry in information. The midway consumer is bereft of such access. These are theoretical secrets (mind it) and practically I would just gasp in strange anxiety if someone were to ask me about the whereabouts of these places.

Now accessibility of foreign liquor is also restricted by discriminatory prices. As I enquired in one of the luxury bars in Kerala, a bottle of Jonnie Walker (Black) could be priced almost six times above its retail price. Taxes are of course used to justify this, but still someone needs to decipher its transparency. Why do a consumer have to go through all this turmoil to access his preferences? Why are states dealing with extremist policies in restricting access which makes the honey sweeter?

                                         A premium outlet in Delhi's Ansal Plaza

Last week I visited Delhi and was roaming around in Ansal Plaza (south Delhi). I came across retail liquor outlets selling branded liquor at the actual retail prices (not sure about the components of this price). I asked for the price list but was not given one. However, I spend considerable time looking at these bottles. And there were obvious ways in which various income levels are targeted. You get different quantities in different volumes. There are sample small bottles, medium ones as well as large ones in which these products are sold. So at the price of a "Jai Jawan", you can indeed try a branded version in limited quantities. This might be experimental but why not bring the same to Kerala. Who is afraid of promoting competition with the local low profile distilleries? What is preventing us from experimenting with understanding the actual choice of the Malayalee between foreign and local brands? Or is there more than what eyes can meet, Is the government policy of protectionism allowing the growth of domestic monopolies. If that is the case then there is word of caution (which one of our professors used to repeat time and again) that rings in my ears: monopoly is a bad, it leads to dead weight losses!