Social media and its influence in international relations: Catalan independence referendum and Russia

Prologue

Hello there! It has been very long since I posted on this blog! The following is a part of an article I wrote recently about social media and how it is used as a weapon in international relations. The content is fairly academic and may be long (2.6k words) and boring for many. If you are into reading stuff about international relations, soft power, social media, Catalonia or Russia, please do read and let me know what you think about this piece. I am an amateur at academic writing, do not hold this up to graduate student standards, this is one of my first attempts at writing an academic article. Have fun!

Introduction

Since the advent of the Internet in the late twentieth century, the number of people worldwide with Internet access has grown significantly, especially in developed countries. According to the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) 2011 report, in 1995, just 0.7% of the world’s population was connected online.1 By 2000, that number had jumped to 6.4%, increasing five-fold over the course of the next decade. By 2010, nearly 30% of the world’s population had internet access, with the rich countries of Europe, USA, South Korea accounting for over 60% of global internet users.2 Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has seen surging number of sign-ups from developing nations such as Turkey, Brazil, India and Indonesia.3 It is clear that the internet and the tools of Web 2.0 have had and is having a great impact on international relations. With the rise of social media and other integrated communication technologies, the idea that the nation is the sole proprietor of information dissemination has been challenged to a great extent. The discipline of international relations has delved into the implications of emerging technologies over the past couple of decades and has built on the works of scholars from the 20th century. There has been evidence in the work of some scholars and in traditional media that social media specifically has been a major tool for political mobilisation across the world.4 This paper will try to understand why the Catalonian independence referendum is a good example of the effect of social media used as a tool to make a mark on the world order.

Theoretical framework

Before we go into the case study it is important that we look into the effects that social media has had on traditional international relations theory. Over the past two decades, realism and even neo-realism have had a tough time trying to explain the effects social media has had on the increasing influence of soft power. Morgenthau in his “Politics among Nations, says that the components of national power include its geography, natural resources, military preparedness, population, national character and morale and its quality of diplomacy.5 Despite Hans Morgenthau acknowledging the challenge of transportation and communication technologies, he couldn’t explain technology’s capacity to spread ideas globally and influence state’s power. Kenneth Waltz in his 1995 essay “Realist Thought and Neorealist Theory” argues that units in the international system are distinct yet interconnected.6 Despite acknowledging that units in the system are interconnected, he failed to acknowledge the growing importance of communication technologies on international relations even in 1995 when these technologies were more mature than in Morgenthau’s era. Neorealism also fails to recognise the rise in influence of soft power as a foreign policy tool which is aided by new communication technologies and its reach. John Mearsheimer in his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics from 2001 also ignores soft power in the form of ideas, despite his acknowledgement of latent powers of the state which include socioeconomic powers 7.

Keohane and Nye were pioneers in the late 20th century when it came to opposing neorealism and came up with their own theory called, “Complex Interdependence”. They in their work, Power and Interdependence in the Information Age, clearly define soft power as “the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion.” 8 J.S. Nye says that “Information is power, and modern information technology is spreading information more widely than ever before in history.” 9 What realism and neorealists couldn’t explain was explained by neo liberalists Keohane and Nye when it comes to integrated communication technologies and how it influences international relations. We can apply what is discussed here, to the present context of the Catalonian Independence movement in 2017.

Catalan independence referendum 2017

The Catalan independence movement has been a long fight for independence that emerged after the death of fascist ruler Francisco Franco and after Spain transitioned to democracy. The movement was subdued until the 2010 European debt crisis when the Catalan citizens felt that they were being taxed very high and unfairly treated. After a long legal battle, Spanish constitutional courts in 2010 struck down some of the amendments from a 2006 referendum, mainly the one that would enable Catalonia to declare itself a nation. In October 2017, a new referendum was announced that sought to declare Catalonia an independent nation and secede from Spain. This new referendum was declared illegal and unconstitutional as the Spanish constitution affirmed Spain an indivisible nation and that Catalonia despite being an autonomous region, it is an integral region of Spain. The referendum in 2017 saw backlash from Spain and over 800 people were injured during the closing down of voting stations in various parts of Catalonia 6. What makes this a truly international conflict is the arguable involvement of Russia in the events that preceded the referendum and the events after.

Catalans called upon EU for aid but the EU denied aid and said that if Catalonia was to declare independence, it would require waiting in line to obtain an EU membership, which could take many years, maybe even decades.

In the events of October 1st, social media saw a lot of content being posted most of it related to the independence movement and mainly the protests that succeeded it. There were many videos and photographs that were posted on YouTube and Facebook by pro-independence parties that showed violence, brutality and usage of aggressive tactics by the Spanish Civil Guard. The acts committed by the police were condemned by various countries 7. The exchange of opinions on social media websites mirrored the hostility on the streets and between the two parties. The two parties also differed in the content that they posted online, Catalonia talking about police brutality and Spain saying otherwise. Spanish authorities posted content online that showed a police officer lending a helping hand to a child and her father while they were trying to get away from the protests and violence. Such intense coverage of the events on that day and the narrative behind suffering Catalans forced various agents from around the world to respond to the scenario and take notice.

One of the elements of social media that led to the referendum was the pro-independence content that was being circulated and the use of social media to reach out and escalate the movement. The last time a referendum was held, was in 2006 and the protests in 2010 were a result of the global recession and the constitutional court’s response to the referendum and the European debt crisis, escalating the citizens’ response to the court’s orders. In 2017, there is no ostensible reason behind the referendum and protests and a sudden spike in engagement within the independence movement, both offline and online.

In the weeks preceding the referendum and the movement in 2017, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been using his Twitter account to villainise the Spanish government and support the Catalan Independence movement. Interestingly, Sputnik, one of the most active media agencies when it comes to propagating the same line of thought, comes from Russia and mirrors Assange’s tweets in their reportage. The media outlet published over 220 news articles regarding the movement between September 11 and 27. According to American think-tank, Atlantic Council, the articles contained misleading headlines and a pro-independence bias. As of September 30, 2017, “Catalan” was the third highest trending hashtag among Twitter accounts that are known to be influenced by Russian operations 9. The Atlantic Council reported that many of Assange’s tweets regarding the issue came from automated accounts on Twitter. Mark Kramer of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies believes that WikiLeaks allegedly managed by Julian Assange has become “a convenient propaganda tool for the Russian government” 9

These online activities can be seen as a tool used to instil doubt about the European Union’s democratic processes in a time when the relations between the EU, NATO and Russia are strained. Atlantic Council’s Ben Nimmo, senior fellow for information defence said, “We’re seeing foreign actors gain more of a voice in elections that are important to their interests, but it’s not just state actors. More and more people are realizing that they can have an influence through social media.” During an interview with Russian state-backed news outlet, Sputnik, Yuri Korchagin, said that Russia is in no way connected with the events of the referendum process and it has no interest being connected to the processes. 10

Russia’s use of soft power to alter the contemporary world order

Russia has been accused of using cyber tools and influencing the media to establish itself once again on top of the contemporary world order. Russia’s alleged involvement in the DNC hack in 2016 and its alleged involvement in the Catalan independence referendum among many other incidents are indicative of how Russia chooses to use its media. Russia as a nation has moved from wielding soviet-style hard power in the form of nuclear weapons, submarines and rockets to the control of media and dissemination of information. “As a former KGB officer and head of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, Putin knows the value of information. His concept of the media, however, is a far cry from the First Amendment. For him, it’s a simple transactional equation: Whoever owns the media controls what it says.” 11 This quote from Jill Dougherty’s article on how Vladimir Putin uses shows us how Russia tries to secure a spot in the contemporary world order.

“Kremlin has made it a priority to invest in the media realm, seeing that a stranglehold over the information space was one of the smartest strategies to ensure its role in the Near Abroad. Molding information also includes measures of retaliation, such as cyber attacks (with the most famous cases having targeted Estonia).” 12 Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia and its specialised agency Rossotrudnichestvo which work on the foreign policy of the Near Abroad or in other words, the nations in geographical proximity to Russia, use precise terminology in their policies towards them such as “Shared information space” or “compatriots”. The concept of “Russian World” (which is the relation people living outside Russia consider they have with the nation due to similar heritage or culture), is given little emphasis and is used only in overarching statements. In this context, when the ministry uses these particular words, the concept of Russian World is nothing but Russia’s sphere of influence, the nations and their matters that Russia considers it has a say in. This policy of influence is based on memories from a shared past with nations like Estonia and Kazakhstan or military involvement in Afghanistan or is based on media wars.

Soft power in this case when described as “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment” 13 can lead to the adoption of hard power. The claim to influence and oversee its neighbours will be legitimate if Russia claims that its sovereignty and security is under threat by a non-conducive environment in the Near Abroad. The exercise of the concept “Russian World” threatens the geopolitical orientations of the Near Abroad.

Russia has invested massively in the information space in the form of media outlets such as Russia Today and Russia Beyond the Headlines which are intended for both Russian-speaking as well as the international community. In an event in London, UK’s prime minister Theresa May said in relation to Russia’s alleged meddling in the DNC hack “We know what you are doing, seeking to weaponise information; deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions”14

Despite the dissolution of USSR in 1990, Russia has managed to somehow hold onto its status of a major power in the world in the face of many setbacks by being an active diplomatic part of many negotiating tables around the world.

Conclusion

While it cannot be easily proven, Russia as a foreign actor seems to be interested in creating instability in Europe. While these acts may benefit Russia in the long run, one thing cannot be mistaken and the above quote by Ben Nimmo explains it best. Social media is becoming less of a tool and more of a weapon when it comes to exercising soft power. Dissemination of misinformation in this yet hypothetical situation has been used as a weapon by Russia to advance its interests and strengthen itself in a new world order.

Neoliberalism went to the extent of terming information as power and in this situation, this theory seems to apply best but in the context of securing one’s interests and increasing the magnitude of one’s national power. It must be noted that Russia’s interference in the referendum process cannot be chalked out in detail with absolute conviction.

The period after the end of the cold war has been marked with controversy as to where the state of Russia, considered the successor of the USSR stands in the world order. Although Russia is not as large or as powerful as how USSR once was, it was an apparent heir to the superpower status of USSR. When Russia’s situation with its alleged media and information infractions is considered in the sense of the contemporary world order, it does seem like Russia is taking large strides with the kind of influence it is able to wield with the stronghold it has on the media and the cultural concept of “Russian World”.

References and Bibliography

  1. “Global Trends 2030 – Citizens in an Interconnected and Polycentric World” European Strategy and Policy Analysis (ESPAS). Paris: Institute for Security Studies European     Union, 27 June 2012. http://europa.eu/espas/pdf/espas_report_ii_01_en.pdf
  2. Ibid p 7.
  3. See A. Reda,   S. Shah, M. Tiwari, A. Lillie, and B. Noble. “Social networking in developing regions” (2012) https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2160686
  4. T. Becker and C. Slaton. The Future of Teledemocracy, Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.; Khondker, “Role of the New Media in the Arab Spring”; K. Dalacoura. “The 2011 uprisings in the Arab Middle East: political change and geopolitical implications”, International Affairs, vol. 88, issue 1 (2012), pp 63-79
  5. H. J. Morgenthau. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, revised by K. W. Thompson and W.D. Clinton, 7th Ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2006, p 122-170
  6. K. N. Waltz, “Realist Thought and Neorealist Theory”, Journal of International Affairs, vol. 44, Issue 1, (1990), pp 21‐37.
  7. J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York; London: W.W. Norton, 2001
  8. Keohane R.O. and Nye J.S. “Power and Interdependence in the Information age” Foreign Affairs, vol. 77 no. 5 (1998), pp 81-94, p85.
  9. J. S. Nye Jr. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York: Public Affairs, 2004, p1.
  10. Aritz, P. and Joseph, W. (2017, October 1) ‘Yes’ side wins Catalonia independence vote marred by chaos; more than 800 injured Associated Press. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-spain-catalonia-referendum-20171001-story.html
  11. Jill, D. (2015, April 21) How the Media Became One of Putin’s Most Powerful Weapons Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/how-the-media-became-putins-most-powerful-weapon/391062/
  12. Heiko Pääbo, “War of Memories: Explaining ‘Memorials War’ in Estonia,” Baltic Security & Defense Review 10 (2008): 5-28.
  13. Joseph Nye, “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, no.1 (2008): 94.
  14. Vidya Ram, (2017, November 14) “Russia’s actions a threat to world order, says British PM” http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/russias-actions-a-threat-to-world-order-says-british-pm/article9960525.ece
  15. James, B. (2017, October 22) Spanish minister: police violence videos against Catalonia referendum supporters are ‘fake news’. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/22/spanish-minister-says-videos-police-violence-fake-news/
  16. Sarah, W.  (2017, October 2) Why part of Spain is trying to secede — and why the Spanish government cracked down on it. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/world/2017/10/2/16393956/catalonia-catalan-independence-crackdown-vote-referendum
  17. Natasha, B. (2017, September 30) Julian Assange is rallying behind Catalan separatists – and Russia has taken notice. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.in/Julian-Assange-is-rallying-behind-Catalan-separatists-and-Russia-has-taken-notice/articleshow/60896535.cms
  18. Mark, S. and Diego, T. (2017, September 29) Catalan referendum stokes fears of Russian influence. Retrieved from https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-catalonia-referendum-fake-news-misinformation/

 

Advertisements

What Development Isn’t

Development economics was a part of my previous semester’s curriculum and to be honest, I do not remember anything from it other than the ‘Big Push Theory’. You see, there is not one definition of development that has completely satisfied my curiosity. Of late, I have been reading up about development and its agencies it employs to further civilization and there are a few things I know for sure and understand that do not define development.

Increasing consumerism

There are many situations in development where more is better, but this isn’t one. Greater consumption doesn’t necessarily mean more development. In the western developed nations, expenditure on consumer goods are increasing by the day. Ironically, increasing expenditure on intoxicants, luxury products does not lead to development.

Not about numbers

There are many phenomena in India that aren’t quantifiable but they very evidently cause or auxiliate development. Sure, numbers like per-capita GDP, purchasing power, literacy rate and all those fancy things may help in making fancy charts but where do phenomena like happiness, freedom, communal harmony fit in? Don’t they too play a major role in a nation’s development? Bhutan is one country that seems to have thought about this. Just because, India’s GDP growth rate is hovering above 7% that doesn’t mean India developing fast. Some hard questions must be asked; Are Indians able to vote freely and fairly? Can the marginalized educate themselves without being discriminated?

Concrete jungles

Just because there are more apartments in Mumbai and Bengaluru than there were 5 years ago does that mean both cities are developing? No. Bengaluru has lost over 60 lakes in just 2 decades. There are more cars and more roads in India, more swanky tech parks and more skyscrapers. Just the mere existence of this infrastructure does not guarantee that the people who reside in cities filled with such buildings are developed. Just for comparison’s sake, the second largest Asian slum, Dharavi is just about 30 minutes from India’s most posh house owned by India’s richest man and people in Dharavi struggle to earn even for basic sustenance.

Catch up

Development is not trying to follow a western construct of capitalism to industrialise. It is not a system where developing nations catch up with their western peers by investing in industries. It is not a system where adopting western ideals and culture defines how far along our civilization has come along. The transition from tradition to modernity has nothing to do with development. In fact, both are very different paradigms. Economically, developing nations have a lot of offer in terms of labour and even in some cases, rich natural resources that may be untapped to their full potential.

Development in the economic sense has been distorted for me. Every definition of development always lacks in some or the other way and that has always been bothering me. It is only a series of what it is not and not exactly what it should be. If someone is able to figure it out, contact me!

TVS Jupiter ZX Long Term Review

TVS Jupiter Long term Review

The Jupiter is one of TVS’ best-sellers and for good reason that too. I’ve been riding the scooter for over a year now, one year and 3 months to be precise and I guess after dealing with the tough riding conditions in Bangalore for exactly 8500 kilometres it is high time for a long term review.

Design and Styling

The design of the Jupiter is contemporary, nothing exciting and almost 4 years after its launch it is starting to look its age. Some touches give it an aggressive and unique look, like the pilot lamps placed in the top corners of the headlamp. When switched on in twilight hours, it looks like a small cute beast trying to look angry, other than that, nothing much really stands out.

Performance

My regular commute is relatively traffic free and a medium speed 15 kilometre ride to college. In this scenario, the vehicle performs extremely well. It has adequate power in the low end and picks up speed all the way to 50-55 kmph effortlessly on minimal throttle inputs and the power delivery is linear which results in extreme convenience at city speeds. Beyond the 40 kmph mark, the motor is punchier than other scooters and when you pull the throttle completely open, it pulls and pulls really strong. With such good performance, good brakes are a requisite and the Jupiter does decently well in this segment. Both drums have a fair bit of stopping power, they feel progressive but spongy at the same time, they could do with a bit more bite. Happy to note that new Jupiters can be fitted with a disc in the front which ups safety by a huge margin, only wish I had that option too.

Ride and Handling

The Jupiter with its telescopic shocks upfront and a gas charged rear shock absorber, rides very well, the ride is soft and comfortable. The seat could’ve been a bit softer, rides longer than 90 minutes can get tough solely due to the seat cushioning. The handling too is pretty decent, the shocks and the grippy tyres do deliver a good amount of confidence in the twisties. It feels like TVS has got the perfect balance between ride and handling that many other commuter scooters can’t boast of.

Features

The Jupiter is adequately equipped with all the necessary features. The boot can fit a large full face helmet, or a couple of bags of groceries. It also has an optional phone charging socket, which would’ve been much more useful if it was placed on the front panel instead of the boot. The light pass flasher has been one feature that I have used extensively on the scooter, also something most other scooters don’t have. At most times oncoming traffic would hurriedly sneak back into their lane when I flash the light and that feeling of power on a scooter is just amazing.

tvs-jupiter-pass-light-switch

The headlamps are extremely powerful at night, high beam is so powerful that it has the potential to dazzle drivers a long distance away. The throw sweeps three lanes and reaches at least 150 metres in front on high beam which is very reassuring. Something that non-TVS vehicles don’t have, is the econometer. This is possibly one of the best features on the scooter and it has helped me reach astronomical fuel efficiency results and also has changed my driving pattern to improve efficiency on the whole, more on efficiency later. I really don’t understand why other vehicles don’t have it. The Eco and Power lights do flicker a bit at times because it works solely on throttle inputs and not on vehicle speed.econometer-mobi

The rear fuel filler cap is also extremely convenient, I’ve never gotten out of the vehicle to fill fuel and also since this gives way to a marginally larger boot, it is a great addition.

Build Quality

The vehicle is built very well, feels well put together and nothing rattles or vibrates, but over the past two months the front end parts do rattle a bit on rough surfaces or on potholes but I’m sure a service should sort that out. The switchgear is fairly good quality and feels very easy to use, thanks to the dimples and ridges on them. The Jupiter ZX that I drive has a beige front interior panel and it’s the first of its kind in Indian scooters, it does not get dirty very easily and if it does, wiping with a wet cloth does the job. While most scooters’ black panels fade away in about three years, this is holding up pretty well so far and doesn’t seem like it will fade.

Otherwise, there’s nothing to complain really.

Fuel Efficiency

It is true that your riding style does contribute a great deal to the fuel efficiency of a vehicle and the econometer helps in controlling the way you ride, that is only if you pay attention to it. The past few months I’ve been achieving a steady 50-52 kmpl which is pretty good for a scooter and on some occasions when driving very carefully below 50 kmph all the time and never going into power mode the scooter has returned 57-58 kmpl which is pretty impressive. Which means I need to fill the tank up only once a week, very convenient.

Verdict

TVS Jupiter is a very well equipped, smooth and quick commuter scooter. Ownership costs are low, it is a breeze to drive and gives peace of mind when it comes to reliability and fuel economy. This is what a commuter scooter is all about and TVS seem to have nailed it. The seat could be better cushioning, the brakes could offer better bite and feel, and the vehicle could be better put together to reduce rattle over rough patches of road.

Other than those few niggles, this scooter is pretty good and I am happy to be riding the Jupiter than the Activa, Access 125 or the Dio.

 

Holding governments to ransom?

Bandhs and strikes are really common in India. It is one of the most popular forms of protest against government decisions in democratic countries but also the very evil that can bring the whole nation to a standstill. Although protests are a tool of democracy, can you hold a government to ransom? Are bandhs the only way of voicing concerns?

There are many cons to having a strike or a bandh. They very rarely (if ever) have been successful. One All-India Strike or Bharat bandh can cost the economy around 8-9 billion dollars at the very least other than just the damage that crazy arsonists and vandalisers cause to vehicles and buildings.

Daily wage labourers in urban areas who barely earn enough to feed their families will lose one more day of work and hence wage. Bandhs on Fridays and Mondays are really convenient for working professionals, a long weekend might be something they were longing for, but at what expense?

I recently stopped using public transport because of the severe inconvenience it was for me, but when there is no public transport due to the strike, how do people travel? Unless, the government is planning to distribute Tata Nanos to everybody, public transport as an essential service cannot stop functioning under any circumstances.

Bandhs and strikes have become more of a means of threatening governments than to get something productive done out of it and solve problems. The violence during bandhs has severely injured and killed many, and also many in need of urgent healthcare are not being treated solely because of unavailability of the same.

The judiciary has tried banning bandhs as a form of protest but in vain. While, it is impossible to place a blanket ban on bandhs or any form of protest, it is possible to make sure that voices are heard in the first place and their concerns addressed when they arise.

It is a pain to see these bandhs every now and then and waste a lot of productive time and money. The only way out is to educate the masses on the problems that bandhs and strikes pose to nation and the common man, let’s hope at least then these bandhs stop.

 

Giving up is easy but I won’t!

Two choices lie in front of me. I don’t know which one to choose. To win or to lose. Both choices lead to adverse results,but this is a choice I have to make and i have to make it now.

For sure, a win again, will arouse suspicion, but a loss will put my family on the streets, I will lose all my money and there would be no option left but to poison ourselves with pesticides. Do I put my family through more agony or do I win and accomplish what I came here, for five lakh  rupees?

Those were the thoughts running in my head moments before I won the game and took home over five followed by five zeroes worth of money. Sorry for breaking it, I should’ve given you a spoiler alert.

My name is Ramkumar Pandian. I was a farmer until about three months ago, when I hit the jackpot. You see, there are many farmers in the present day who are deep in debts (yup, plural) and family worries and what not? I was in financial trouble too when I was a farmer. I owed four men about ₹ 20,000 each, I had to take out loans to buy seeds and supplies, upon that I was already at a loss of over ₹3,00,000. I had a family of four to feed, clothe, provide shelter, two children to educate and an elderly father whose medicines costed me about five thousand rupees a month. These were the least of my problems. Loan sharks used to come to my house, harass me and rip me of my dignity in front of my family and neighbours.

Most people think farmers are facing problems because of water scarcity, crop failure and middlemen issues. The main problem apart from these in the farming world is giant corporations buying our produce at such low prices that we are forced to sell our products at terrible losses while these corporations make a lot of money. That was the issue that plagued my business when I started it too, except it kept getting worse as the years passed on. My losses and debts kept surmounting.

One day, as I was walking back from the pharmacy, I saw a few men sitting on a porch with brandy bottles and beedis. All of them were electricians and plumbers just resting on a Sunday afternoon playing a game of cards. One of the men, I recognized immediately. He was recently on a  local news show. He was the man who had never lost a card game in five years. Must’ve been a genius of some sort or must have had the longest lucky streak ever!

I walked back home thinking about how he could have won all these games. That night as I was lying on the floor next to my 10 year old child, I was wondering if he had a method.I had to find out,this could be the solution to all my problems.

The next day after all my work and as the sun went down, I went to his house. Standing outside his door, wondering how he would react to my questions, I knocked on his door. His wife opened the door and asked me what I wanted and I told her that I wanted to meet her husband. The husband, his name was Mohan Babu, the serial card game winner. He looked at me, smiled and asked me what I wanted. I didn’t beat around the bush and asked him “How do you win every card game?” He was about to shut the door on my face, I guess he was just irritated by everybody asking him that very question all the time. I pressed my hand on the door as he was trying to close it and I begged for help “Please help me, I need money, the only way I can  gamble is if I knew for sure that I would win every game. I am too much in debt to risk it .”

I walked back home with a black eye and a bleeding nose.

The next morning, he came to my place , he stared at my injured face for a good five minutes and said, “This is between you and me, I’ll teach you how to win every game, but you will owe me 20 per cent of whatever you win in every game you play.

 

I was shocked at his offer, I took a step back and said “That’s works for me.” He went on “You cannot gamble here, it’s illegal. You’ll have to gamble  in Goa, you’ll need a suit or something, you have to look rich for this and you’ll have to spend two hours every day learning my methods for a month.”

I nodded sheepishly and said “I don’t have any money to buy a suit or to go to Goa.” Babu muttered that those necessities would be taken care of.

That evening, I met him at a card game session he asked me to come to. He introduced me to all his mates. I dealt the first hand and played the game as instructed by Babu,I obviously lost all of them because Babu won every round. He asked me to meet him every evening at his house where he taught me his methods.This went on for a month, he was happy with my progress, at the end of the month he said I was ready to play by myself.

I played a demo game with his friends, he didn’t play any game that day, because he knew I would win every game.

The next day I was walking back home with my father’s medicines ,Babu popped out of nowhere and gave me his suit, shoes, and a tie. He said as he gave me the suit, “Check the pockets ” and vanished.

I continued my walk back home with the suit in one hand and the bag of medicines in another. As I entered home, my wife asked me what the suit was about and how I got the money to buy it. I ignored her questions, dropped the medicines by my dad’s bedside and took the suit into my room. I checked the pockets and found a couple of tickets, I had never seen an air ticket before in my life, let alone flying. I am a 7th grade dropout, my reading was a little rusty, but I knew the destination.I cannot express the amount of gratitude I felt at that moment.

A couple of days later, Babu came to my house in a car at seven A.M. to drop me at the airport. I packed some food that my wife had made, I lied to her saying that my great aunt of 98 years had passed away and that I was going to her funeral.

The whole flying deal was new to me. The feeling of taking off, the flight attendants, security checks et al. Once at the airport in Goa, I changed into my suit and made my way to a casino I was told to go to by Babu. I went in there and did exactly what Babu had told me to do, I don’t know Hindi or English and all that I knew to speak in English was how to interact with these men at the casino. I got to a table and the games began. Babu had lent me ₹10,000 as seed money. I started at 1 P.M. and at 3 P.M. I was close to winning my five lakhs, a lot of people had  started to surround me, watching me play, guards started to look at me in suspicion and most of the cameras around were directed towards  me.

After my terrible moment of dilemma, I was done. I had all the money I needed, I got up and left for the airport after collecting my money. I was ecstatic.

You see, suicide was not an option, gambling someone else’s money, wearing his suit, tie and shoes and being trained by him seemed like a better option to me than leaving a family without a father. That is cowardice. I didn’t want to be labeled a coward.

As a provider for the family, it is my duty to provide for them and not have them stripped of their rights to live in dignity. To me, my children having a father is important. A father who will support them and not let them go when the going got tough. I know that gambling was not the solution and I will not gamble or cannot afford to gamble anymore. I started a business with my profits, selling supplies for organic farming at marginal profit. I’m happy with my life now. No more debts, loan sharks, humiliation, greedy corporates or anything! Just me, my family, my business and happy customers. I don’t want to see any more of my farmer friends committing suicide. I want to help them, the corporates with their fancy CSR campaigns wont, the people in the urban areas are clueless and the media is misinterpreting our problems. The government couldn’t be doing a better publicity stunt of saving the farmers.

The solution lies with us farmers. It is up to us to save ourselves from the world and provide for them at the same time. The solution lies with us and we need to dig it out.

Disclaimer: This is story is completely fictional and any resemblance to real life situations, characters or people is a coincidence.

Please do contact me if you want to discuss about this story or issue!

 

Control Freaks!

There has been a lot of attention around the new Tesla Model 3 launch and how Indians are reacting to it.

Sure, the Tesla is a good car with good intentions of saving the environment, but what is interesting is it comes with the ‘Autopilot’ feature as standard. Which means the car has many sensors around it that can detect road conditions, lane markings, the car ahead of it, obstacles like people, cyclists, animals etc which helps it in steering and controlling speed without any human intervention.

Basically, the car can drive itself!

Now, whether autopilot would work in India is a whole different topic of discussion. Lane markings in India are sparse, Only a few arterial city roads and highways have lane markings and on such roads drivers fail to follow lane markings, so this not only confuses the autopilot system but this confused autopilot system will ask the driver to take over. So, what is the point of having an autonomous car in India? The current generation of autonomous cars use basic infrastructure to help the it maneuver and navigate around town, when this basic infrastructure is lacking it just doesn’t make sense to buy all the Teslas, Mercedes Benzs or even the seemingly far into the future Google car for their autonomous driving capabilities.

What seems more ridiculous is that even if a person bought these cars and wanted to use the autonomous mode, he or she would be breaking the law. No laws on autonomous cars exist in India, but there are laws that state that civilians are not allowed to use any form of radar and all these self-driving systems use radar of some sort.

More problems lie in the path to the future of autonomous automobiles in India. As of now, none of these cars are cheap, in a price sensitive market like India, only cars that prove to be value for money survive. Tesla’s cheapest car, Model 3 (yet to launched) is priced at around 23 lakh rupees  

before import duties, taxes, incentives. Installing a supercharger at home would cost more. So, the price a customer would be looking at, is somewhere in the ballpark of 45 lakh rupees which is not the price tag Indians would be excited about and mind you, this is the cheapest autonomous car you could buy, in the near future. The other semi-autonomous car the Mercedes S500 (which is still illegal to use in India) cost upwards of 1 crore rupees.

Slow Indian legislation is a huge hindrance to this rather fast growing industry which includes the lack of enough incentives for electric cars.

It is a given that autonomous cars will be the norm in mobility within the next 10 years. If India could ever stand a chance to be a world leader in the technology or automotive front, the government needs to act fast and give space for technology to grow at the pace it’s growing in other nations.

There have always been two sides of humanity, one always pushing the boundaries of technology and the other always being skeptical of it.

Most Indians, when it comes to revolutionary technology as this, will be wary of it. Passing your life or assets into the hands of a car can be scary for most people and to others it is just fascinating. Being in control of how a car moves is something that a person may not be willing to give to the hands of an artificially intelligent computer.

This could not be more true in the Indian context, considering Indian conditions.

Photo Credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLeCaONmOo8

Your True Self- Part 2

Now comes the question of who you really are. You are always being yourself, when asked to describe who you really are, it’s simple ‘YOU’. But when you are asked to explain the ‘YOU’….. There starts the trouble. You don’t know who you are, I don’t know who I really am. Nobody does, except a few great thinkers and spiritual leaders. When you try to answer the question of your identity, you are confused. One doesn’t know whether to say “I am a man” or “I am a pilot” or “I am a food-lover”. You can be all of these, yet that does not define you and you know that. As far as you are confused, you are on the right path. If someone comes up to you and says that he or she is sure that they are the person they think they are, then are either lying or a great sadhu (The latter being unlikely).

Confusion is the best thing that can happen to one in life, since you don’t know what you want, you can choose from a huge range of options.

But, it is not like someday you decide that you want to be this person and suddenly you become that person, you simply can’t.  One must question oneself as to who they are and it is a lifelong process, some get to the answer and some don’t. Think about it, haven’t you questioned yourself that and have you ever been satisfied with any of the answers you got? At least, I have not!

You are already someone, you were born as yourself, and there is someone deep within you that is truly you and the multiple layers above that truth, is the result of multiple years of all the people around you telling you what you should be and how they want you to be. If you ignore all these voices and just listen to your inner self, you will realize who you are.

This might sound like, I am advising you and you might think, I know who I really am and I have found the eternal truth. NOPE! You are totally mistaken, I am simply pointing out to you that we know all these things.

We know that we are not our true selves, we always have this thick cloak of camouflage over us and we definitely know the way to search for our true selves, yet, we don’t, we are not able to. Why, you ask? Well, that’s a question for some other day.