If you are cursing Arvind Kejriwal for throwing away a golden opportunity, you are wrong

The Aam Aadmi Party has done the impossible. One month ago, the Facebook class of India loved them for showing what Indian politics really needs. Now they hate them for doing things that we won’t expect even corrupt politicians to do.

To understand this schizophrenia that the AAP has created among the educated middle class of India, we need to look at our own expectations. The success of Kejriwal in the Delhi elections, we thought, was the result of our disgust of the current political class. We hate those politicians who go after vote banks only so that they can fill up their own pockets with bribes. We wanted someone who could clean the muck and put worthy leaders in charge. Like Obama, he was the beacon of hope in a mess that had been decaying for decades.

As soon as he took up his place as Delhi’s chief minister, we expected Kejriwal to behave like a model chief minister—honest, sober and efficient. We wanted him to get things done. But unlike Obama who crushed the American dream after being re-elected, Kejriwal’s party members seem to be on track to crush our dreams within months of being in the government.

The law minister Somnath Bharti was accused of taking law into his own hands. The resident poet Kumar Vishwas was caught on camera making racial comments. And the leader Kejriwal was blamed to act un-statesmanlike when he resorted to protesting against his state’s police—something no chief minister had ever done before .

And yet, we must realise that Kejriwal is smart to know that pandering to our desires is impossible in the few months he has before national elections. He is partly right to blame the media for creating a hate campaign, for whom he has been a bonus. With Kejriwal, the media has one more top politician to poke beyond Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

Kejriwal’s best strategy for the national elections is going to be the same strategy he had going into Delhi elections—try to get enough seats so that AAP can be a trouble-making opposition. And for achieving that goal, it would be best to stick to the principles that won him Delhi. Something that even the Congress and the BJP have admitted to learn lessons from. The principles were to provide the people an alternative to the current crop of filthy politicians.

Of course, national elections are going to be a whole different game. Delhi’s population is all urban, but India remains largely rural.

In the Delhi elections, AAP got 30% of the votes, slightly behind BJP’s 33% and slightly ahead Congress’s 25%. He won not because of the few votes from the Facebook class, but mostly because of the votes from the poor—the rickshaw drivers, the slum-dwellers and lower middle class (which can afford mobile phones but has no use for the internet).

He succeeded because he acted as he had done for many years before—like a revolutionary. While it would be foolish think that he does not enjoy the power of being a chief minister, I would like to believe him when he says that he does not want that power if he has to compromise on his ideals. The Congress can pull remove their unconditional support and he won’t be chief minister anymore.

At this point I should disclose that I do not support Kejriwal’s economic policies, at least the ones he has shown so far. But I’m willing to experiment with having a clean politician who improves the functioning of the government and exposes its predecessor’s wrongdoings, even if the immediate effect on people’s lives will not be beneficial.

Rise of the muffler man


I like Vir Sanghvi’s clarity of thoughts. That is why when he said, “Kejriwal has become no more than a media-blaming, vote-bank politician”, I entertained his well-laid arguments seriously. Sadly, the conclusion drawn is only partly right.

Yes Kejriwal blames the media, but he is no vote-bank politician. Sanghvi’s analysis fails because he is being short-sighted. He claims that giving free water and cutting electricity prices in Delhi will get Kejriwal votes at the national level.

Kejriwal got into politics to play the long game. He recognises that what few votes he can get at the national level will come from exposing the tainted politicians, offering a good alternative and listening to the vast majority of people. He is moving the debate away from pitting personalities against each other to talking about values and ideas.

Like in Delhi, there is no way that AAP can form a majority government at the national level this year. It would be lucky if it even played a small part in forming the government. Instead, the AAP is aiming for the election of 2019. In five years, the party will have matured and the country will have grown tired of Modi. That would be the time when AAP will be a serious alternative—something Indians have been wanting for decades.

Image credit: Kumar Vishwas (not original source)

My worst days as a kid gave me the most valuable productivity hack

Radiolab, one of my favourite things on the internet, ran an episode on morality a few years ago. The main question they asked was whether our sense of morality is something we are born with or something we learn. If it is the latter, then how? The one-hour story is worth your time, but there is one aspect of the three-part story that I want to discuss.

In the first part, they observed chimps to find that even among our primate cousins there exists a rudimentary system of morality. Their example comes from how these chimps share the food that is given to a group. Some neuroscientists and philosophers argue that each one of us has this rudimentary level of morality that we have inherited through millions of years of evolution—this is the “inner chimp” hypothesis as one scientist puts it.

In humans this inner chimp starts acting when we are two or three years old. And then we refine it as we go through the experience of life. Most of this refinement, not surprisingly, happens when we are kids, as we see in the second part in the episode, which involved an example from the school life of Amy O’Leary, now a New York Times reporter.

In grade four, one of Amy’s teacher got the kids to play a game that would help them learn some history. The game was called Homestead and it was something like Monopoly where each student received certain resources and had to play by simple rules to win. The main rule of the game was: “Do what you think is right.”

Amy cheated. She looted some of her classmates who wanted to be part of an in-group and even flooded the market with fake money. The teacher who ran the game realised what was happening and called a meeting of those who were involved. He asked Amy, who had become a leader by now, “What are you going to do?”

When she said “nothing”, the teacher used it as one of those “teachable” moments and showed his disappointment in her without directly intervening in the game. That look on her teacher’s face has stuck with Amy for all her life.

Just as she finished telling the story, I was flooded with memories of the many guilty moments that have left such moral lessons in my life.

These moments are painful. Most of them involve a scene at the end where my mum is tired of reprimanding me, or my dad is about to get angry, which happened on rare occasions and terrified the hell out of me. Some are absolutely clear, as if the expressions on people’s faces were recorded on a photographic plate in my head. Others are vague, with the characteristic fog that blurs the details leaving only a strong sense of shame.

This I’m sure has happened to many of us. I asked a few of my friends and all seemed to share anecdotes of times they remember when they did something wrong, but only realised that it in hindsight. A painful lesson was learnt and they carried it for all their life.

One such lesson that I have etched into me has helped me tremendously. It involves mischief and feedback.

Beat me to it

As a naughty child I may have done wrong things, but mostly I did annoying things. Of course, in my head, I was only having fun and that was no crime. But people around me seemed to have low tolerance, and I was told off too many times. I hated it. Mostly because I wasn’t given a proper reason for why my actions were annoying. Of course, if I didn’t know why what I did was wrong, I wasn’t going to learn to do the right thing.

That is why the annual school open day was the worst day of the year. It gave the teachers an opportunity to complain to my parents and get the guilt off their chest. They did this in a polite manner, which I always thought was wrong. Wouldn’t it have been better to talk to me in a polite manner in the first place?

All that admonishment left scars. It might have taught me something about morality, but more importantly it gave me a really useful hack.

In hindsight, I realise that I didn’t understand the reason for stopping me because my natural empathy levels were low. I had that realisation partly because even as an adult I sometimes struggle with it. And to counter my lack of empathy, I developed a system of wanting a constant stream of feedback. I want to know as often and as early as possible if I’m going wrong somewhere.

But I also needed to develop a thick skin. When you are open to feedback, some would be constructive and much hurtful. This is the reason, as the thinker Seth Godin puts it, adults don’t seek feedback as often as they should.

When you can get this system to work, however, it’s absolutely fantastic. It is the best productivity hack I know for becoming better at something quickly: ride the cycle of practice and feedback. It has been a painful but useful lesson.

Image credit: Zen

Most don’t understand the English passive, but they are ready to criticise it anyway

Geoffrey Pullum, professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, has published a wonderful paper titled Fear and Loathing of the English Passive. His main claim, which he demonstrates easily with many examples, is that most people, including professionals writers, journalists and authors of usage guides, don’t understand the English passive enough to criticise it properly.

Pullum is a regular blogger and his 23-page academic paper is quite readable. But I’m pulling out a few examples here that make it easy to understand Pullum’s frustration. First one from a respected book of English usage, The Elements of Style by William Strunk:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:
I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

This is much better than
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise.

Pullum says, “Directness, boldness, and concision are not even relevant here, because Strunk’s disrecommended example … cannot be used in any normal kind of context.” And if you think about it, that makes sense. The passive construction is just odd and would never be used in spoken English, let alone written English.

Here’s another one from the BBC News Style Guide:

Compare these examples. The first is in the passive, the second active:

1. There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which
police clashed with stone-throwing youths.

2. Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in
Northern England last night.

The main reason for recommending that passive should not be used is that it tends to obscure or attenuate agency (ie the doer). But, as Pullum writes, “the former is not a passive, and no clear agency or responsibility issue arises (in both versions the youths threw the stones, and in neither version is the instigator of the riots named or implied).”

The best example comes quite early in the essay because of its “strangely ill-chosen metaphor”, where Sherry Roberts writes in 11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business:

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gun-fight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

As the underlined word indicates, and Pullum writes, “Notice that she unthinkingly uses a passive while making the above statements.”

Finally, Pullum nails it with an analysis of Orwell’s own writing. It was Orwell who wrote in his now-famous essay Politics and the English Language: “Never use the passive when you can use the active.”

By my count, about 17% of the transitive verbs (those that require an object) in random prose are likely to be passive, while a careful count of the whole of Orwell’s essay shows that 26% are passive … Orwell uses more than one and a half times as many passives as typical writers.

In writing the paper, Pullum addresses the main criticism that could be levelled against him that may be he is being too prescriptive, that language changes and that people’s definition of passive is broader than he lays it out. But the sheer breadth of examples that his blog readers have brought to his notice makes it clear to him that that isn’t the case.

How and why has this happened?

Oversimplification and overkill by well-meaning advisers may have a lot to do with it. It is right and good, of course, to instruct students and novice writers in how they might improve their writing. But handing them simplistic prescriptions and prohibitions is not doing them any favors. ‘Avoid the passive’ is typical of such virtually useless advice.

As I have always understood it, the use of passive voice should be avoided if it affects clarity. But Pullum argues that, when most people cannot even recognise what is a passive and what is not, this standard teaching about shunning the passive “should be abandoned entirely”.

Even if they managed to follow the advice rigorously (which they can hardly do if it is not clear to them what a passive is), it would usually not improve their writing one whit. It would certainly make them write less like great writers of the past—and more like a little child.

Taking Pullum’s advice seriously, it is important that we understand how to spot a passive. Here’s a short guide from the University of North Carolina’s Writing Centre:

  1. Look for the passive voice: “to be” + a past participle (usually, but not always, ending in “ed”). If you don’t see both components, move on.
  2. Does the sentence describe an action? If so, where is the actor? Is he/she/it in the grammatical subject position (at the front of the sentence) or in the object position (at the end of the sentence, or missing entirely)?
  3. Does the sentence end with “by…”? Many passive sentences include the actor at the end of the sentence in a “by” phrase, like “The ball was hit by the player” or “The shoe was chewed up by the dog.” “By” by itself isn’t a conclusive sign of the passive voice, but it can prompt you to take a closer look.

There are however some problems with such simplistic advice. For example, rule 1 could exclude many types of passives:

  1. Prepositional passives: eg. He was laughed at.
  2. Bare passives: subject+past participle. eg. That said, however, I like girls. One of its ads shows a washed-out manager, arms folded, sitting in a corner.
  3. Get passives: got+past participle. eg. Marie got photographed.
  4. Adjectival passives: eg. The door seemed locked, as far as I could tell
  5. Concealed passives: eg. The situation needs looking into by experts.

Similarly, rule 2 won’t be able to catch an adjectival passive. And rule 3 won’t catch many short passives which exclude a by-phrase (and where one may not be obvious).

All that to say: perhaps the best advice to follow on the debate about passives is that we must worry less about using (or spotting) passives and more about achieving clarity in writing by whatever means possible. This advice, I think, might be less controversial.