Tuesday, May 17, 2011


They were disciplined, moved in neat ranks, and had a mean bite. They were everywhere, all over my Kolkata childhood.
They would bust you for necking at dark parks, playing the Sex Pistols too loud, coming back home buzzed at midnight, or not enlisting for their students’ wing even before filling out the college enrolment form. They would intervene if you had an altercation with an autorickshaw driver, dumped a girl, kicked a football through a neighbour’s glass panes or screamed at your tenant.
I have seen a 70-something landlord being tied to an electric pole and beaten up by party ‘cadre’ for asking the tenant for rent. Teenagers would be stripped to their underwear and made to do sit-ups in full view of neighbours for dating a girl whom a member of the ‘cadre’ fancied.
It is, therefore, difficult to believe that the red ants have left our collective pants after 34 years. It is a sudden hollowness of being, a pleasant bereavement, a feeling of which Nick Hornby would say, “There are these gaps in speech where you just have to put a ‘f**k’.”
Left’s arithmetical rout to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool falls far short of accurately expressing the extent of psychological rout it suffered on Friday. Trinamool voters did not materialise out of the state’s river-wet air. CPI(M)’s own mighty numbers have voted against it.
Ironically, many who could have safely been bullies of local clubs and office unions for another 34 years have set themselves free of the grim power of control. If they do not demand similar powers in exchange of loyalty to the new regime, it would take us down a baffling road of human motive: Why did they vote against a regime they seemed to be comfortably ensconced in?
Usually, journeys of powerful regimes come to a halt slowly, brakes screeching across many years of decay, like a train. The Left rule in West Bengal has been an exception. In four short years from the Nandigram bloodbath, it got trounced at least thrice. It did not need a new generation to come and change things. In fact, people like me who left the state to do well elsewhere did not go back to avenge their exile. The very people who stayed back voted the Left out.
This election showed up limitations of CPI(M)’s land-based politics (since land itself is finite) when done over decades. The party had little to offer beyond vague rhetoric and a sense of power to its cadre; neither land, nor jobs in industry. Politics of land got them at best contracts in the construction sector or auto-rickshaw permits.
The exception being the state secretariat, which has a huge excess staff of Class IV employees, peons and orderlies chosen from the cadre (Writers' Building also has, apart from five cooperative-run canteens, 22 authorised food-stalls across its corridors, despite the massive fire hazard they pose, as noted in an official audit).
What the red ants did instead was to turn vast areas of Kolkata and many towns into “bridhyashram”, or old age homes, by driving away youngsters in search of jobs.
Migration started with the best intellectual talent leaving the state, followed by unskilled labourers, zari workers, diamond cutters, cooks, waiters and even sex workers.
The Economic And Political Weekly says, “The proportion of urban-to-urban male lifetime outmigrants has not only remained the largest in West Bengal among all major states during 1981-1991, it increased to nearly 47 per cent (as against the all-India figure of about 32 per cent) in the 1991 Census.”
Even village-to-city migration from West Bengal was around 50 per cent in 1981-1991, a big majority going to other states.
So brazen and nonchalant the Left Front government had become about urban brain drain that in 2001, a train was launched between Howrah and Bangalore called the ‘Exam Special’.
It ferried hapless students with large tiffin-carriers stuffed with machher jhol, who appeared for exams to Karnataka’s numerous private engineering colleges. For a so-called intellectual state like West Bengal, this was open surrender of academic high ground.
That Exam Special train symbolised the exile of the state’s young and educated by an unspoken decree of an arrogant, rotting regime. Boys and girls over the years have boarded trains from Howrah station or taken flights from Dumdum airport with red ants all over their childhood and young adulthood.
It is as if somebody has finally sprayed a full can of hope on the anthill.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


The Times Of India has a small but prominent promo on its front page: Anna Hazare will be its guest editor today. Nothing unusual at first glance...a lot of newspapers have celebrities coming over as guest editors. They are given a list of stories to choose from, are allowed to pontificate for a while, and then the paper's real editor thankfully brings out the paper exactly how he or she dweems fit.

The celebrity gets a puff job, and the paper gets endorsed, and sells some ads that day at a premium.

Being a guest editor is pure and simple brand endorsement. It is also a tacit pact with the paper that you are its friend; very different from giving the paper's reporter a quote or two or writing an opinion piece for its edit page.

And that begs the question: is Indian 'revolution's' uncompromising poster-boy in a hurry to endorse brands, or cosy up to friendly media? Have we burdened Anna Hazare with greatness far above his weight? Has the spotlight been so beyond his expectation that he is in the danger of becoming mere flotsam in its tide?

What next? Detergent ads saying "Desh ki safedi ka raaz, Anna Hazare aur Rin", or "gandhey kapdo pe kranti, Anna aur Surf ke saath"?

Things have not been right around Anna Hazare since the spirited, hope-giving movement that spawned around him against corruption. Father and son Shanti and Prashant Bhushan both getting into the Lokpal panel and giving politicians unnecessary ammunition to attack Hazare; his friends in the movement Medha Patkar, Mallika Sarabhai and others criticising him for praising Narendra Modi; Baba Ramdev alleging nepotism. It has seemed like the petty, quarrelsome inner world of a local housing society rather than a robust movement. 

In the aftermath of the protests, not a single drive to enlist volunteers or identify other issues has been made. There is still no web presence other than a Facebook account where people across India can post their grouses and get in touch with volunteers. There is no — using a horrendous corporatte term — 'roadmap'. It is as if Lokpal will solve India's problems.

Hazare and his friends have unprecedented popular momentum behind them. It is not often that the country's middle-class comes to the street in support or in protest. They can make changes that define tomorrow's India. Or he can be frivolous, arrogant, authoritarian, prone to favouritism...traits that are sadly poking their ugly little nose right now.     

Monday, April 11, 2011


On July 15, Twitter will complete five years of being open to public. At 65 million tweets a day currently, it produces, taking even a modest 15 words per tweet, wordage for about 2,000 copies of Tolstoy's War And Peace every day.

It is another matter that according to a 2009 US study, 49.8 per cent of that is "pointless babble", self-promotion and spam. 

That babble bit was later refuted by social networking researcher Danah Boyd who respectably called it "social grooming" and "peripheral awareness", or people "want[ing] to know what the people around them are thinking and doing and feeling". And Harvard law professor and Internet expert Jonathan Zittrain has been quoted saying: “The qualities that make Twitter seem inane and half-baked are what makes it so powerful.” 

In spite of the millions of jerks, junkies, weirdos and celebrities hanging out there all day, it would now be impossible to bring out future editions of A Brief History Of Time without a mention of Twitter. Eminent scandals and revolutions have brewed over its glowing charcoals of conversation.

But where is Twitter going? I can only take a few guesses, without attempting a smokey and staggering larger picture.   

Rise of the Evolutionaries: While we celebrate creation of revolutionaries from Tehrir Square to Jantar Mantar by Twitter, there is another phenomenon quietly playing out on the social network. The coming of the Evolutionaries. A number of people, often not prominent figures, are reshaping our morality, taste and general outlook with their fresh and unique perspectives on an issue. They present important counterpoints. They are irreverent. They may not have the most followers, but their views are retweeted more often than others'. These are today's 'ordinary influentials', whom no media other than Twitter could have spawned or given so much space. They could some day, unknown to even themselves, go on to change the face of popular cinema, or put forward accepted versions of adultery or genetically modified food.

From Closet to Open Privacy: One might think social networks make extroverts of us and make us open up our private worlds — breakfast cereal to toilet thoughts — but Twitter is different from a Facebook or Orkut in this. On Twitter, one would discuss in embarrassing detail love or lovemaking, but not one's lover. Usually. On Facebook one posts copious photos of friends or family, but on Twitter, many do not introduce even spouses other than as fellow tweeple. On Twitter, who you are because of your circumstance often stays under the cover of electronic silence, while what you want to be becomes what you are. It is a new, open privacy in which you discuss the abstract in great detail, while the specifics remain abstract.

Danger of Adversements: One of the biggest concerns of the Twitter team has been how to earn without letting advertisements piss off users. Companies and products have not got much space to say good things about themselves, but that may not stop them from saying bad things about rivals. There is a huge possibility that companies will, if not already, plant tweeters to say unflattering stuff about competition, whine, damage reputations using the power and legitimacy of word-of-mouth which Twitter offers, apart from being a breeding ground of bitching and rants. Such subliminal 'adversements' could sometimes work better than ads worth millions of marketing dollars.
Paid DM, Subscribed Tweets:Q While it would be foolish to make the service paid (more than half the users will immediately opt out), nominal pay walls could be introduced to interesting but non-essential parts of Twitter such as direct messages. Even if 100 million users swipe their credit cards for two dollars each a year to send DMs, Twitter's topline would take a leap. Micro-endorsements have started, but these have a serious potential of upsetting users if done without subtlety.    
Twizines and Twapers: Vibrant, riveting and incredibly fast news platforms can be created just out of tweets. People are trying personal dailies, but it wouldn't be long before media uses Twitter's speed and reach on a far grander scale. Those papers will break the news of a coke-puffed sports administrator's rant against a minister faster than television, or flash news of an earthquake while photos on the wall are still swinging.

Gigs, Campaigns, Other Events: Video and audio tweeting would of course bring with them gigs, premieres, curtain-raisers, historic speeches and suchlike. These events will be announced and advertised, and tweeple around the world can log in to attend, participate.


It is debatable whether in a few years we will recognise Twitter in its current form, but it is certain that it will help make a lot of stuff around us unrecognisable. No piece of recent technology has been a closer accomplice of history, and at five, Twitter is just getting into primary school.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Growing revolution giraffe's neck in 5 steps

The morning after victory often feels far more hollow than the morning after defeat. There is usually something to do in the morning after a loss; pick yourself up from the smithereens, get guts in order, plan suicide, survival or comeback. But the ornate, empty shell of the winning moment leaves you with very little to do with it the morning after.

After all headlines on TV and the papers have screamed 'Victory' and gone to bed after the government gave in to Anna Hazare's demands and a surprisingly popular citizens' agitation. Now what?

I wrote in my recent piece in Hindustan Times http://bit.ly/hU8nGb that for India to gain from this momentum, it would have to feed the momentum. Every citizen should try and set aside at least an hour a day for the democracy. Three 'I's of involvement, information and implementation could take us from anger to action. The question is: What next?

I can see five immediate things that can be done to involve far more people:

1. Enlisting: There should be a nationwide drive to enlist volunteers for the movement. This could be done through a common website (discussed later). These volunteers can help create technology to connect the movement better, man helplines, raise funds, keep transparent accounts, help fight cases or seek information under RTI and participate in a range of other such things.

2. Technology: A professionally created, designed and run online avatar should supplement the Facebook presence of the movement. On this website, which preferably should account for Hindi and some major regional languages, one should be able to post from anywhere in India, so that there is a growing database of what the nation's real issues are. A strong web presence will give the movement far more accessibility and a certain centre of gravity. There might also be a way to wire up the entire movement through SMS, with a common number that connects to a citizens' helpline.

3. Human resource: Form small citizens' teams across the country with at least 15 people in each team. These teams meet at least once every week, decide issues that should taken up with the local authorities, resolve to get them done. They also help the poor and illiterate connect to the movement through technology (log on and post a grouse on the website, may be). Citizen volunteers should also take turns to man a central helpline.

4. Publicity: The movement has to be kept alive in the media, especially the vernacular media. There ought to be regular interactions with journalists, updating them on every big and small struggle, every victory achieved, every hurdle encountered. It is always good to take the story to the reporter's desk rather than wait for the reporter to come to the story.

5. Be open to criticism, closed to cynicism: When it comes to the India, it is stupid to view an exception of this magnitude cynically. the mere fact that so many people came out of the streets to rage and rage against corruption is heartening. It tells us there's raw material ready to explode. But to be rigid and closed to criticism would be equally stupid, because we will end up evolving systems that weaken democracy. the Jan Lokpal draft, for instance, is ridden with dangerous holes, as many have pointed out through their articles and blogs. You will find some of these voices here: http://bit.ly/hz2Bv8

This once, let us hope the nice, heady feeling of triumph does not last long, and dissolves quickly into the next set of actions.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Time to hijack the IPL

The gathering wave of anger of the politically fickle Indian middle class is set to crash against the wall of the nation's favourite sport entertainment, cricket. Experience tells us that Indian Premier League (IPL) will take over the headlines and popular imagination, and the anti-corruption agitation, Anna Hazare, will quietly slip into the inside pages, or television's 'other headlines'.

However, Che Guevara would have said IPL could not have come at a better time. Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Amilcar Cabral, Surja Sen would agree. If you think guerrilla, India's most high-profile sports event is waiting to be ambushed and hijacked peacefully by those fighting corruption and use it as a showcase of collective anger.

Imagine if thousands of spectators, instead of flashing cards for four or six, enter the stadium carrying protest placards or wearing Anna Hazare caps. At every venue, starting with Chennai today, people can enjoy cricket, as well as turn the multi-crore cricket circus into a daily, high-visibility reminder that a bigger battle is being fought elsewhere. That this rare momentum an otherwise politically inert Middle India has gathered is not to be wasted on an engaging pastime.

Ideally, Indian cricketers should also play the tournament wearing protest badges. Around the world sportspersons have used such events to highlight issues from genocide in Africa to labour trouble in Sheffield. If Indian cricket stars can wear corporate logos from head to toe, why can't they wear a protest batch to express solidarity with millions of Indians whose love and money has made them rich and famous?

But then, one thinks of the man who heads the BCCI and ICC, the world's two biggest and richest cricket bodies, and players taking such a revolutionary road seems unlikely. Apart from that, the sponsors of cricket, to whom Sachin, Dhoni and others are tied with multi-million-dollar leashes, are not the most fervent champions of clean deals. The nation would be pleasantly surprised, however, if even one of our cricket heroes walks in to bat or field with a symbol of protest.

But spectators using IPL to fight corruption is more practical. Let us see Chennai lead the way.

This once, mix cricket with politics, stir well, serve hot. That way, you enjoy the match, and the match enjoys a much higher place in history.