The state of dysfunction in the Indian Congress Party

A series of news items appeared recently in relation to the Congress party of India. While the news reporting went largely without comment (or with usual snark from their political opponents), to me, they brought to sharp focus the extent of dysfunction and rot within the party.

First, leading up to a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting, some senior party members wrote to the “interim” Congress President, Sonia Gandhi. (Remember, she became interim President after her son, Rahul Gandhi, resigned from the post. Before Rahul, the very same Sonia was President.) Here is the gist of the demands in the letter, including the following:

It calls for a “full time and effective leadership” which is both “visible” and “active” in the field; elections to the CWC; and the urgent establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” to “collectively” guide the party’s revival.

OK, so this is in effect a serious criticism, from senior members of the party, that some changes are required going forward. So, what happened next? Rahul Gandhi’s response was to criticize the timing of the letter, since this is a time of weakness for Congress and his mother was in hospital:

Early in the Congress Working Committee meeting that went on for seven hours, Rahul Gandhi questioned why the 23 top leaders had written a letter attacking the Congress when it was at its weakest, when it was battling crises in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and when the Congress president (his mother Sonia Gandhi) was in hospital.

If you’re wondering about the seriousness of this critique, it was serious enough for the conversation to completely pivot:

The veteran leader [senior Congress member Ghulam Nabi Azad], a Rajya Sabha member, said he had called and checked with Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary twice before sending the letter. “I was told that she is in hospital for a routine check-up. Still, we waited till she was back home before sending the letter,” Mr Azad told NDTV.

Sonia Gandhi, who was admitted to hospital late last month, was discharged in the beginning of August.

He [Azad] said the Congress chief called a few days later and said she could not respond to the letter because of her poor health.

I told Soniaji, your health is paramount, all else can wait,” said Mr Azad. He claimed that Rahul Gandhi heard him out and was “satisfied” with the response.

Two things. First, is Rahul suggesting that Sonia is too ill to discharge her duties as President? Then why is she still holding the post?! This is a professional organization, where office-holders have duties and responsibilities… such as dealing with grievances of senior members of the organization! Second, if Sonia’s illness was a temporary matter, why is there not a chain of command in place?! It is perfectly natural for any single individual to occasionally be “off-duty”, so to say, due to either illness, or personal commitments, or vacations, or myriad other reasons. Any coherent organization should have a command structure where such absences are planned for! If Sonia is ill and unavailable, that should NOT mean that normal operations cease; it should only mean that someone else accepts the letter and follows an established protocol.

Next, at the CWC meeting itself, this was quoted to Sonia Gandhi regarding the ‘dissenters’:

Sonia Gandhi reportedly said in her closing remarks that she held “no ill-will” towards anyone in the party, a remark intended at the dissent-letter writers. “I am hurt but they are my colleagues, bygones are bygones, let us work together,” she said, ending the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on a note of conciliation.

Does this seem to come from an organization of equals? Or does this seem to originate from a king/queen ruling over his/her subjects? How does it matter if Sonia Gandhi holds ill-will for the letter? Why does it matter? Again, this is a professional organization, where senior members are suggesting changes going forward for what they think is the benefit of the party. Why is Sonia Gandhi “hurt”? Because she was criticized? Does she consider herself above criticism? “Let us work together? Bygones are bygones?” YOU, Sonia Gandhi, and your son, are the ones throwing a tantrum! Your senior members were the reasonable adults coming to you with proposed changes going forward that might benefit the party!

You know what I think the problem was? Maybe Sonia and Rahul were not entirely convinced that ‘benefit of the party’ and ‘benefit of the power dynamics of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’ were well aligned. At the CWC, it was decided that elections for the next “full time” president would be held within six months. Remember that the last president, Rahul Gandhi, resigned after the last election where their political opponents basically humiliated them. Already, quotes like this:

The Congress” Assam unit on Monday said that it wants senior leader Rahul Gandhi as the party”s national president as soon as the interim chief Sonia Gandhi demits the office.

and this:

[I]t is imperative that the party should be led by Gandhi family. I humbly request you to continue as the President of All India Congress Committee, and if you feel that your health may not permit for full-fledged dedication, I urge you to convince Shri Rahul Gandhi to take up the position.

have started to appear. Would you take a bet on Rahul Gandhi not being the next Congress President, again? I wouldn’t.

What I wrote in my post on India’s Independence Day, in criticism of the current government of India, applies equally well to the party in government opposition. If, instead of performing their duty of providing strong, thoughtful rebuttal of the government’s policies, the main opposition is worried about controlling their internal power dynamics, and especially about keeping power within a dynastic family, then that bodes terribly for the country as a whole.

Where are the Congress’ ideas for India? For all that we criticize the Indian government, if an election were to be held today, who is providing an alternative narrative that citizens can latch on to and organize around? What does Congress think India should do in the next 10, or 20, or 50 years? Does it have any opinion as an organization? The current Indian government came to power on the heels of 10 years of Congress led government— after massive corruption and malfeasance, but also with BJP fanning the flames of criticism, and equally importantly, providing an alternative vision and path forward. (This was, of course, in 2014. The 2019 campaign was a different matter.)

It seems to me like Congress today is missing vision, missing organization— and perhaps even missing a pulse. It seems to me like the senior Congress members are very, very right.


India’s Independence Day

Happy Independence Day, India. In addition to celebrating, maybe it’s time for some introspection too! Let’s not forget where we came from, but let’s focus on where we want to be going.

We are a relatively young democracy, still in our growing years. As such, let’s not allow the selfish, petulant adolescents amongst us to dictate our lives and our future. If we let the misguided and sinister make our decisions, we risk letting them destabilize a fine balance.

I am choosing to do X because some people I dislike did Y some time ago, and X will hurt those people” is middle school mentality, and should not be the basis for a government’s decision making. The answer to “why are we doing this?” has to be “this is how it helps us in the next 30 years”, not “this is what our opponents did in the last 30 years”. (Yes, people outside the government will engage in all manner of shenanigans. That’s the privilege of not being in power.)

It is petulant, selfish behavior to pursue short term gratification at the cost of harm to self and others, even more so in times of a pandemic. It cannot be acceptable for the leader of the central and a state government to ignore social distancing and in fact hold an event with people all around. If that’s the example they set, what message do they send to their constituents looking for leadership? This is callous and outrageous.

It is also outrageous for the head of a government to participate in any religious ceremony in their official capacity. Of course, if they want to take a day off, and pursue their religion as private citizens, that is agreeable, whatever religion they want to pursue. As official government representatives, they can and should attend all manner of ceremonies, from all communities, not just their own.

Patriotism Comic

Comic by @SanitaryPanels.

We are as yet a young democracy. It hasn’t been long enough for us as a country to forget what it took to gain independence. It hasn’t been long enough for us to forget, or worse—ignore, the principles and ideas on which India was founded. We are a unique, complex, multi-cultural, blended pool of humanity, requiring active effort to build and keep harmony. If we are to be united, we have to refrain from being communal, we have to resist our entrenched judgments of our neighbors, we have to rise up in support of those who cannot speak for themselves.

Usually, we are supposed to look to our government, as our representatives, to uphold these values, and hold us together as a nation. If — when — they fail to do so, it is up to us to unite, resist, and rise up against the government too.


☛ Indian banks contemplate ‘face reading’ to spot doubtful loan seekers

From the Times of India:

Private banks in the western coastal state [Gujarat] have approached the Gujarat Forensics Science University to prepare a facial micro-expressions manual, to train its employees in recognising doubtful high net-worth customers like fugitive liquor baron Vijay Mallya demanding loans.

This is straight out of the American TV series Lie to Me (IMDB Link):

In the show, Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) and his colleagues in The Lightman Group accept assignments from third parties (commonly local and federal law enforcement), and assist in investigations, reaching the truth through applied psychology: interpreting microexpressions, through the Facial Action Coding System, and body language.

Have the Indian bankers in question seriously been watching too much TV reruns? In the show, the protagonists use micro expressions to evaluate suspects and their testimony to solve crimes. That’s slightly different from the real world case of deciding whether to give out large loans, no? (For context, India has had a slew of recent large loan frauds.)

I am completely bewildered by this. If there have been some large loan frauds, shouldn’t the most important step be a complete overhaul and re-evaluation of how credit-worthiness of prospective clients is determined? In a financial sense? In a risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis sense? In an available collateral sense? Especially given that investigations have been called for on bank employees, it has been alleged that a bank CEO “failed to initiate steps” to prevent the fraud after there were red-flags, and bank officials have been charged?

Do the bankers really believe that there is nothing to improve on their financial evaluations side and in their employee honesty side? Or is this a case of putting their head in the sand and going ‘la-la-la’? Are the bankers too entrenched in their current practices and workflows, don’t want to go through the trouble — and the expense — of actually re-evaluating their own businesses, and are looking for guises to exculpate themselves?

I mean, seriously, if the banks want to go for next generation methods, artificial intelligence and machine learning would be an actual avenue to explore. Examples to be found here and here. There are even courses and available computer code(here and here) to get people started!

Come now, bankers in question: get real and find real solutions to your real problems, and stop with the hand waving TV-show inspirations.


☛ Indian Railways decides to enforce baggage limits

The Times of India reports:

As a result of numerous complaints regarding excess baggage being towed into train compartments, the Indian Railways has decided to strictly enforce its over-three-decades-old baggage allowance rules, which will see passengers paying up to six times the stipulated amount as penalty, if caught travelling with overweight luggage, an official said today.

I never even knew that these baggage rules existed. All these years, I’ve simply assumed that there were no formal baggage limits; that space constraints and being reasonable to fellow passengers is all that stops people from carrying waaay too much stuff with them on to trains. Unfortunately, people often do carry too much stuff with them, and to the level of straining and breaking limits of reason.

Which is why the rule enforcement itself, to me, is entirely justified. Even in the little travel that I have done via Indian Railways in the recent past, people carrying way too much luggage, both in quantity and physical size, is way too common for comfort.

The important question, though, is how much luggage is allowed? After all, the railways is used in a vast majority by people for whom expense is a major factor.

According to the prescribed norms, a sleeper class and a second class passenger can carry luggage weighing 40 kg and 35 kg respectively without paying any extra money and a maximum of 80 kg and 70 kg respectively by paying for the excess luggage at the parcel office. The excess luggage would have to be put in the luggage van.

[…]

For example, if a passenger is travelling 500 km with luggage weighing 80 kg in the sleeper class, he can book his excess baggage of 40 kg for Rs 109 in the luggage van.

[…]

Similarly, an AC first class passenger can carry 70 kg of luggage for free and a maximum of 150 kg, after paying a fee for the excess 80 kg.

An AC two-tier passenger can carry 50 kg of luggage for free and a maximum of 100 kg by paying a fee for the excess 50 kg.

Only 35-40kg for the second class passenger? That seems a little on the lower side. Barely a couple of suitcases, perhaps? In our international travel to and from the USA we’re allowed 46kg in two checked in suitcases, along with additional cabin baggage; surely a railway compartment should be able to accommodate more per passenger? The limits for the AC classes seem a little more reasonable, but still low considering that fewer passengers occupy the same compartment area.

The cost for extra baggage doesn’t seem too bad either. About Rs. 100 for essentially doubling the baggage allowance is hopefully okay, considering prices of other commodities, although I hope the baggage charges increase with the class of tickets. The cheapest tickets should really also have the cheapest excess baggage charges, considering the budget conscious traveler.

I’m most concerned, though, with two things. One, the excess luggage is to be placed in a separate luggage van. (Come to think of it, I’ve always known these luggage vans exist on trains. I always assumed they were for freight or oversized luggage. Huh.) I’m guessing the luggage van is perfectly safe with no fear of theft, but I’m also certain many, many passengers will take a long time to be comfortable with the idea of their bags not being right next to them. (Although, side benefit: if the bags aren’t just lying around in the compartment, they’re safer from theft.)

Two, they say they will “enforce” the law by random checks. This is bad, especially in India, where: (a) this situation is ripe with bribing opportunities, and (b) random checking introduces the concept of fairness between travelers who got caught and who didn’t. I really hope they figure out a more robust way of executing this.

In concept, the baggage allowance idea seems reasonable, but I hope they do a good job of the current idea, and I really hope they revisit the current ideas and update them based on feedback and usage data. The Indian Railways is a lifeline in India, and things like this can have a major effect either way.


Adios Cassini

A couple of months ago, 15 September to be precise, marked the end of an era in the human exploration of our solar system. The Cassini spacecraft was programmed to crash into Saturn’s upper atmosphere and burn up, thus ending an almost two-decade journey and exploration of Saturn and its moons. I was in middle school when this mission launched in 1997, and at that point, even reaching Saturn in 2004 seemed eons away. Twenty years later, perhaps it’s time to look back at some of the amazing insights we’ve gained.

Cassini is actually a shortened name for the Cassini-Huygens mission, and comprises the main spacecraft — Cassini — designed to travel as a satellite in the Saturn planetary system, and a small lander — Huygens — designed to actually land on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Giovanni Cassini was an Italian mathematician and astronomer, and discovered four of Saturn’s moons — Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione. The Cassini spacecraft was the first to observe all four of these moons. Christiaan Huygens was, of course, a famous Dutch astronomer and scientist, and discovered — but of course — Titan, then the first known moon of Saturn. (He also invented the pendulum clock, was mentor to Gottfried Leibniz, studied optics and the wave nature of light, and derived the modern formula for centripetal force.)

Saturn by Cassini

Saturn by Cassini (via Wikipedia).

Of the many discoveries made by Cassini, I’ll focus on just two stories: those of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, and Saturn’s hexagon. Both of these fascinate me to no end, and I think reflect the best of Cassini’s contributions.

Saturn's Polar Hexagon

Jupiter is famous for its Great Red Spot; Saturn has its own atmospheric phenomenon that’s equally fascinating. Saturn’s Hexagon was first discovered by the Voyager missions, but now Cassini has had the chance to see it from up close.

Technically, the Hexagon is a persisting cloud pattern formed by jet streams around Saturn’s north pole, but its sheer size and perfect symmetry make it unique. Each side of the hexagon is about 13800km long (to compare, Earth’s diameter is about 12700km), and its winds travel at around 300km/h. It’s been there since the Voyager missions in the 1980s, so we know its long-lived.

Saturn - North polar hexagon and vortex as well as rings (April 2, 2014)

Saturn - North polar hexagon and vortex as well as rings (April 2, 2014) (via Wikipedia).

On Earth, our jet streams are forced to bend and move in response to Earth’s surface features such as mountains. Saturn is much larger than Earth (Saturn diameter is about 116000km) but has a rocky core that’s similar in size to Earth, and so its jet streams have no such problems, and can keep flowing in their own orderly and symmetrical fashion.

The hexagon is essentially a quirk of fluid mechanics. Here on Earth, scientists have been able to create (here, and here) such regular shapes by rotating a circular tank of liquid at different speeds at its center and outer edge. Due to the difference in speeds, a turbulent region is created where such regular shapes can be observed. The regular shape is not always a hexagon (shapes with three to eight sides, i.e. from a triangle to an octagon, are produced) but a hexagon is the most commonly occurring. However, the phenomenon only occurs when the speed differential and fluid properties fall under certain small margins, and therefore the hexagon phenomenon is not observed everywhere where its possible (such as Jupiter, or even the south pole of Saturn).

At the center of the Hexagon, right at the north pole, is a humongous storm, with a definite and easily observed eye wall. The south pole has such a storm as well, although it doesn’t display a Hexagon. In each case, the eye of the storm is about 50 times wider than a hurricane would be on Earth.

As much as the Hexagon is an atmospheric and scientific phenomenon, explained and replicated under lab conditions, it’s one of our solar system’s most beautiful sights, and something I’ll keep looking for in photos of Saturn, now that I know it’s there.

False color image of storms at Saturn's north pole

False color image of storms at Saturn’s north pole (via JPL/NASA).

Titan

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon, and of special interest to us: Titan is the only known moon with an atmosphere, and the only one other than Earth whose atmosphere is majority nitrogen. Moreover, its atmosphere is denser and more massive than ours, and is opaque at many wavelengths of light. This means that, like Venus, we had no idea of what the surface of Titan looks like until we had a probe that could land on the surface of Titan. Thanks to Cassini and Huygens, we know a lot more today about Titan than we did in 2004.

Titan, we know now, has an active weather system, including wind and liquid rain, just like on Earth. Of course, the liquid that rains is different from Earth: it rains liquid methane on Titan. Nevertheless, its nitrogen atmosphere and presence of liquids means that Titan’s methane cycle is analogous to Earth’s water cycle. Titan’s upper atmosphere is also affected by ultraviolet light from the Sun, whereby atmospheric methane is broken down and reconstituted into a diverse mix of complex hydrocarbons.

We’re not done yet with the comparisons with Earth! Titan has lakes and oceans, comprised of methane, ethane, and dissolved nitrogen; this makes Titan only the second object in the Solar System (after Earth) to have stable liquids present at ambient temperatures. It most likely also has volcanoes, and is affected by tidal effects from Saturn’s massive gravity. Titan’s surface, specifically where Huygens landed, looks uncannily like Earth, with ‘globules’ about 10-15cm in size, made probably of water ice.

Huygens' view of Titan's surface

Huygens’ view of Titan’s surface (via Wikipedia).

It’s almost as if Titan is an analogue of Earth— only much colder. In fact, in very specific ways it’s not even colder by much thanks to Titan’s greenhouse effect and tidal heating from Saturn. Cassini has performed numerous gravity measurements of Titan, which reveal that there is a hidden, internal, ocean of liquid water and ammonia beneath Titan’s surface.

So, to summarize, Titan has: an active weather system, large quantities of complex hydrocarbons (Titan is much, much richer in hydrocarbons than Earth), tidal effects from Saturn, and interaction of its atmospheric methane with ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, and even and underground ocean of liquid water and ammonia. A question is begging to be asked at this point: what are the chances of life (past, present or future) on Titan?

Scientists think Titan definitely has the potential to contain habitable environments. Similar to Earth in its infancy, Titan today has the pieces needed for new life to possibly form. Whether it already has, or the extent of future possibility, can only be understood with even better exploration. Indeed, quite a few ideas for future missions dedicated to Titan have been proposed, but none have really gotten off the ground (pun intended) yet.

The most promising of them all is a design to send a submarine to Titan that can explore the seas of Titan, but even this idea is in relatively early stages.

So Much More...

I’ve really just scratched the surface here of how much the Cassini mission gleaned from the Saturn system. There’s so much more: Saturn’s rings and their composition; the moon Enceladus and its jets of icy particles and subsurface ocean of salty water; the moon Iapetus and its equatorial ridge; the moon Mimas and its crater that gives it the Death Star look… trust me, if you don’t take an interest yet, you will once you start reading.

The Cassini-Huygens mission really gave us glimpses into a planetary system that provides great opportunities for scientific discovery, amazing new and diverse worlds, and even — dare we dream? — possibilities of places that can harbor life.

It’s time to say adios to Cassini, but of course, we humans have a long way to go before we can say we know our own solar system.

Saturn's moon Mimas, with the crater Herschel visible prominently

Saturn’s moon Mimas, with the crater Herschel visible prominently (via Wikipedia).

(This piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Sharod Sombhar, an annual magazine from the Bengali Students’ Association at Virginia Tech.)