Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Mistaking Action for Progress

Politicians and bureaucrats the world over have an unfortunate proclivity: they tend to react to an event by announcing some action. No matter that the action makes not even the remotest contribution towards the solution. It is important to appear to be in control by doing something. We have three instances within the last few days.

(a) Post the Headley case embarrassment, the Government had to be seen to do something. So, instead of doing something to prevent terrorists or terror suspects from entering India, they tighten visa norms of multiple-entry visa holders -- stipulating that they cannot return to India within 2 months of leaving India. So if a relative from London flies into India, and takes a 2-day detour to Dubai to meet some other relatives  based there, they cannot enter India -- unless they apply for an exemption from the new 2-month rule. Let us for a moment suppose that these people were actually here in connection with planning a terror attack. How would this new rule prevent them from carrying out their nefarious designs?

(b) Post the attempted bringing down of a plane in Detroit by a person who was on the watch list of the UK, but was yet somehow allowed to board a US-bound aircraft with incendiary material strapped to his leg, the much-vaunted strictness of the security system was exposed in the US. So what do they do? They don't try to see how it was that he was allowed to board the US-bound aircraft.

Instead, the US Department of Homeland Security now have proposed rules that passengers during even a trans-continental flight should not keep anything on their laps during the flight; and that they should not leave their seats in the last one hour of the flight. Flying and air travel are indeed becoming memorable experiences in themselves!

As it is, racial profiling and data mining in the name of security caused even a person so well-known as Shah Rukh Khan to taste the ruthless, intrusive aspect of visiting the country that embodies freedom the most. We now cannot carry a drinking water bottle through airport security even though we are supposed to check in 3 hours before an international flight (could be a liquid bomb, you know!). We have to remove our shoes for inspection to see if there could be shoe bombs secreted in them. And very soon, it is likely that the X-Rays will become clearer and privacy-violative, with operators being able to see how we are beneath our clothes (in silhouette only, we are assured!).

And finally,

(c) The brouhaha over Shashi Tharoor's latest tweets on the visa regulations tweaks. Let me add my penny's worth to this discussion where every person and his father-in-law have expressed opinions.

Methinks it all comes from the acute discomfort of the existing political class from being in the cerebral and overpoweringly articulate and insightful company of someone who narrowly missed being elected to the world's top diplomatic job.  The best way to cut him down to size is to bring him down -- by rubbishing whatever he says or does, and making him out to be undiplomatic!! Nothing to counter what Tharoor actually tweeted --
  • the 26/11 terrorists really did not enter India with visas; 
  • delaying frequent visitors by 2 months is really over the top  and as a solution bears no relation to the problem sought to be addressed;
  • the Government had already announced having gone back on it by the time Tharoor tweeted; and
  • the UK and the US had already formally lodged protests by the time Tharoor tweeted.
What Tharoor did was express a correct personal view, and publicly. He broke no protocol of any kind. In his position, he is not dis-entitled  to do what every Indian is entitled to, viz. speak his mind openly. He did not mention anyone in particular or give away state secrets -- he stated only his stand on a particular proposal that was already in the public domain. If the Government was embarrassed, it was due to the nature of their action, in all probability taken by riding roughshod over Tharoor's objections, or by keeping him out of the loop. The embarrassment cannot be ascribed to Tharoor's tweets.

Bankers' Honesty or Stupidity?


My wife recently wanted to close one of her salary accounts (opened by her former employer and not used after she changed employers). I sent my office assistant to the bank with the relevant letter and authorisation.

There was hardly any money in that savings account, but I was surprised when the assistant told me that the bank had told him to pay Rs.5 being the negative balance. I presumed it must be because of the unused cheque leaves, or some account closing charge that I was not aware of, and promptly forgot about it. But the bank did not -- they actually discovered that there still was Re.1/- in my wife's account and hence sent her a letter signed by some authorised signatory, and accompanied by a multi-city Banker's Cheque signed by no less than two bankers in the sum of Re.1/-.

I do not know whether to laud them for being so punctilious and honest, or to laugh at the system's stupidity.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The newsgathering ways of modern TV channels

Quite some time back, I remember Julia Roberts, playing a Hollywood star in Notting Hill, explaining why she was so worked up at newspaper reporters capturing embarrassing photographs – they never forget; they have dossiers, and every time anything has to be written about her in future, it would come up, or words to that effect anyway.

This article takes the example of one recent story – the confirmation of Supreme Court judge, Sonia Sotomayor, as the first lady Hispanic judge appointed to the Supreme Court, supported by the new Obama administration. All channels ran the same two clips showing her in a bad light, without giving sufficient context, and these clips were 4 and 8 years old – that were fed to all broadcasters by interested groups. The article deals in detail with how this news reached every news channel before the confirmation. Moreover, it dwells at length on the motivations of the person who dug up the clips and circulated them.

They say, no man is a hero to his valet. In similar vein, none of us would be able to stand up to this kind of scrutiny if even balanced (ie, without twisting context) clips about our past lives were to be available, kept ready and shown at the pinnacle of our careers. In the future, then, we will all have our 15 minutes of fame followed by 15 minutes of notoriety, with apologies to Andy Warhol.

This biting cartoon says it all!