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Personal Reflections

Why I voted for Congress in Delhi Elections 2013

My newsfeed on Facebook and Twitter is filled today with millenials, like me, who voted in an Indian election for the first time posting pictures of their fingers marked with indelible ink. Without any concrete demographic information, but based on what I saw anecdotally, the eventual 66% voter turnout probably comprised a significant portion of millenials.

Delhi elections 2013 inked finger

For me, it feels weird that the first time I’ve ever voted in elections was in the UK, not these Delhi Elections. I’d have taken my phone along to take pictures, had I known it was allowed. I saw many people at my polling station with phones, although I’ve heard other reports that people had to leave their phones outside. (The Election Commission of India’s website, unfortunately, has no FAQ for voters. For some reason, they also keep two designs for the website live.)

The process was surprisingly painless. I only had to wait for fifteen minutes before I got my turn to vote, with the usual procedure of checking electoral rolls and inking of my finger. And it was at that point I headed to an electronic voting machine, behind a bewildered old couple who’d never seen the contraption, and cast my vote for Congress.

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Ever since I’ve been back in Delhi, I’ve been trying to decide which party to vote for. I’m not particularly in touch with Indian politics these days (I don’t even read newspapers here) but it’s hard to escape the constant cacophony of various parties conducting rallies and advertisements everywhere.

Every day on my daily run, I would hear at least one ad on the radio from BJP, with an annoying jingle about how they will reduce prices of vegetables and remove corruption. There are hoardings at bus stops talking about prices of onions and the number of rapes in Delhi. While both are sad in their own right, I can’t see myself supporting a political party which bases its entire campaign on ad hominem attacks trying to play on the anti-incumbency factor. Reducing the debate to prices of vegetables is a joke, given that it’s a lot to do with inflation in the Indian and global economy at large, rather than a local factor. More importantly, it isn’t as if BJP is particularly spotless when it comes to a track record in combating corruption.

But perhaps my biggest reason for not supporting a Hindu fundamentalist, right-wing party like the BJP is because of its prime ministerial candidate for the general elections next year: Narendra Modi, who features prominently in their advertising campaigns across Delhi. I believe it’s a matter of national shame for India that a person who sat by and watched as one of the worst communal riots happened in India got off scot-free, and is in the running for the Prime Minister of India. For his face

Perhaps the same argument could be lobbed towards Congress politicians for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. My grandfather himself sheltered Sikh families in his house when those riots took place and risked his life to turn away mobs who were going house-to-house looking to murder people. Yet, as far as I know, none of those perpetrators are running for the post of running the entire country, even though they may or may not have been convicted.

I don’t care for argument that go along the lines of “Gujarat has advanced a lot under Narendra Modi”. That sounds just like the argument supported Adolf Hilter’s rise to power in Nazi Germany. I cannot support a politician who is so morally bankrupt and who has never apologised for the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Aam Aadmi Party

My second choice was the Aam Aadmi Party. Started by political activist Arvind Kejriwal, the party has built its credentials on an anti-corruption platform. When I first saw their logo (on a McDonald’s TV screen, no less), I actually thought “Aam Aadmi Party” was a tagline Congress was using, because of AAP’s use of tricolours in their logo.

AAP certainly has been loud and vocal about what they want to do, and because of the pedigree of their leader, I wanted to check out their manifesto (summary in English, entire manifesto in Hindi). They make quite a few lofty promises: reducing electricity bills, 700 litres of free water per day, schools and hospitals in every neighbourhood, et al. All very noble goals, but nowhere does their manifesto do they mention where they will find the money to do all of their stated goals. Higher taxes? Surely that’s not going to be better for the “common man”.

Water consumption per household in Indian cities

For instance, take their promise of providing 700 litres of free water per day, per household. According to a paper published in 2008, the average daily household consumption of water in most Indian cities is 400 litres, so 700 litres is vastly generous. But why should this be provided for free? Access to clean water is a right worth fighting for and there are many parts of Delhi which go without it, and eliminating a revenue source completely (because it’s unlikely most households would ever exceed their free quota) isn’t generate revenue to expand water coverage across Delhi households.

Total household electricity consumption in India projections
Total household electricity consumption in India, projections

Similarly, they claim to have 20% of Delhi’s power needs generated by solar energy in the next ten years. Projections from academic studies as well as the Central Electricity Authority show power demand in Delhi is expected to rise sharply. While it talks of solar energy in ten years’ time, taking the projected demand for next year – 8500 MW – 20% of that figure is 1700 MW, more than the entire capacity generated by Delhi’s current gas-powered power plants. Another policy from the Indian government aims for 20 GW of power generation through solar means by 2020, but that’s a) across India b) energy needs will be at 2x of current levels by then.

Another major point with respect to electricity is the AAP’s skepticism about electric meters, yet electronic meters – of the kind currently in use and future generations of smarter meters – have been shown to help cut down electricity theft, a big problem before the privatisation of Delhi’s electricity supply.

Other parts of their manifesto ring alarm bells too. Although not mentioned in the summary, the main manifesto document say they aim to increase CCTV usage to “cut down on corruption”. Another part of the document aims to make alcohol licenses harder to get, as well as vigilante-justice type local committees to cut down on alcohol consumption. This aversion to alcohol sound very similar to Anand Kejriwal’s former political partner Anna Hazare’s tack of publicly flogging anyone who drank in his “model” village.

Overall, the impression that I get is that while Aam Aadmi Party certainly has many moralistic individuals, they’re either making lofty claims as a sort of checklist, or are dangerously naïve about the economics of what their policies are going to cost. They also are verging on the side of setting up a nanny state that’s always watching, always judging what its citizens are doing. And that, frankly, isn’t the direction India should be heading towards.

Which brings me to Congress. Their manifesto list out achievements they’ve accomplished during their 15 years in power in Delhi; solid facts and figures on how they have changed life for Delhi citizens for the better. I remember a time when we had power cuts stretching to hours, having to fetch water from tankers, smog from pollution that used to blanket this city – which changed after they introduced the world’s largest fleet of CNG-based public transport, the Delhi Metro…the list of achievements go on. It’s for this proven track record, rather than hot air that only surfaces during elections, for which I’ve voted for the Congress. I will support them in the general elections next year, and I supported them in these Delhi elections.

Categories
Personal Reflections

Saying goodbye to gyaan.in

gyaan-placeholder
Placeholder landing page when gyaan.in’s domain was first registered

Back in 2009 when I was on a gap year, I had a conversation with two friends from the quizzing circuit: Rishav Dey and Prateek Vijayavargia. We all felt that, at the time, while there were many resources in the form of quizzing blogs run by university quiz clubs, there wasn’t much in the form of discussion going on. This was back when Orkut, and not Facebook, was popular in India so there wasn’t even a pervasive social forum where these discussions could be held. Through this brainstorming, primarily driven by Rishav, the idea of starting a quizzing forum came about and we decided to call it “gyaan.in“. I registered the domain name on 26th January 2009 (it felt symbolic making the purchase on Republic Day), put up a joke landing page proclaiming “Never tickle a sleeping quizmaster” and that was that.

gyaan final
The logo, designed by Vishesh Kumar, that won popular approval to be chosen as the gyaan.in logo

But there was something about the idea that kept drawing us back to it. Behind-the-scenes, more people came on board as they found this idea fascinating too. A crucial role was played by Vishesh Kumar, who came up with the gyaan.in logo through a process of iteration. With the branding in place, it took many more months to bash out what gyaan.in would be about. This is what the team came up with when we launched gyaan.in on 20th July 2009:

Nothing Official About It At gyaan.in we intend to extend informal interactions between members. For too long in the quizzing circle people have considered each other in a mildly to overtly hostile manner. Informal interactions – members getting to know each other as real people – instead of simply ‘competitors to defeat’ should make a nicer quizzing world.

Don’t Be Evil An extension of point 1, at gyaan.in we intend to ensure that no sort of politicking kicks in. To maintain sanity (actually, to combat spam) we will have moderators on the forum but we do not intend to have any sort of ‘positions’. You – the user – have your say in matters and the community decides collectively on its future. What we will have, instead, are evangelists / moderators within the community to spread the word. If you’re interested in being more actively involved in organizational matters then please get in touch with us at contact [at] gyaan [dot] in.

Quizzing, But Not For Points We do not intend to have a league table to keep track of who’s getting how many questions right on the gyaan.in forum or events. Partly this is intended to ensure that members who arrive late to the scene aren’t disadvantaged by early adopters who have had a head-start in answering questions. The main reason, however, is that we don’t want it to become Yet Another Place To Look At Other People As Competitors.

IRL Once members get acquainted with each other on the Web, we would like to extend the interaction by holding ‘offline’ meets where you can get to converse with members IRL (‘in real life‘). Some of these meets could be where a small quiz is conducted, others could be simply informal meets.

Quality Content Providing regular, quality content quizzes, articles, news, archives. Giving you a platform where you can share such resources easily – with our dedicated team of gyaan.in moderators providing editorial support. Content would cover oft-ignored topics in quizzing circles too such as technology and contemporary music.

Promote Quizzing In Delhi, Especially In Schools Compared to other cities like Bangalore, Kolkata, Pune, Chennai, Mumbai etc Delhi is often considered to be ‘lagging behind’. While that isn’t entirely true, we do feel that a lot more can be done in encouraging schoolkids to take up quizzing. Our first focus would be to make significant progress on this front in Delhi.

The only equivalent around at the time for discussions were quizzing groups on Yahoo! Groups, many of which are still around (but perhaps not that visited – I haven’t checked for a while). Anyway, the point being that Yahoo! Groups was a clunky forum software, and the communities involved more often than not had a competitive bent to them. The gyaan.in team wanted to avoid that: the idea was to have a “safe place” where quizzers could congregate online and share knowledge just for the fun of it, rather than for competitive reasons. There was palpable excitement in the air, driving even usually stoic Karmanya to claim a revolution had begun.

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Although the idea was to be a forum for any kind of quizzing, perhaps because of the fact that most of the moderators on the website were my friends from high school who’d only recently left school or were still at school, the discussions tended to focus around school quizzes. Over time, gyaan.in became the de facto forum for any kind of school quizzing related discussion in India. I’m not exaggerating here. Take a look at the visitor charts (split over StatCounter and Google Analytics)…

gyaan.in traffic from July 2009 to December 2010
gyaan.in traffic from July 2009 to December 2010
gyaan.in traffic from January 2011 to October 2013
gyaan.in traffic from January 2011 to October 2013

Over its lifetime, gyaan.in had 0ver 100,000 unique visitors and over a one million pageviews from a community of just slightly over 1000 users. I’m not rounding out those figures for the sake of it, but that’s what it has actually worked out to! Since its very inception, gyaan.in’s community was highly engaged with more than a quarter of the community spending five minutes to more than an hour per day (at least 10% of the visitors) – stats any website would die for. So even though the number of registered users was tiny, the number of people who visited the forum was 100x larger and resulted in pageviews far out of proportion to the number of visitors we had.

gyaan tshirts

Over time, gyaan.in held its first (and till date, only) real-life quiz at IIT Delhi, multiple online quizzes conducted on Google Wave and Twitter, an email newsletter, an SMS update channel, official t-shirts, a Facebook fan page…and even an appearance in Antarctica. We never shied away from being available on multiple channels and engaging with the community to spread our name. The upshot was that from 2009 to 2012, any school quiz announcements or archives in India were almost always done on gyaan.in.

Sadly, the party didn’t go on forever. Starting in 2012, gyaan.in started losing traction as Facebook became more popular in India. Social graphs moved on to Facebook, and around the same time they started heavily promoting their groups feature on the website. A lot of quizzing societies and clubs now started their own fan pages and / or Facebook groups, thus giving another outlet for making event announcements, and conducting online quiz discussions.

My initial reaction was to try and jumpstart the community again through more outreach through moderators, but earlier this year I realised that the problem was that most of the moderators on the gyaan.in team had moved on to university – and didn’t have much time to look at the site. Indeed, even I had the same problem! Still, I was convinced by some the existing moderators to give it one last shot.

This was back in early 2013. I then mostly forgot to check on gyaan.in, until Pulkit pinged me and pointed out that it was overrun by spammers selling NFL jerseys and more unsavoury stuff. I took a decision then, along with the gyaan.in team, to finally put the website to a rest after cleaning it up. gyaan.in was officially shut down on 24th September, 2013.

The plan, going forward, is to keep the website alive in an archived state. New sign ups have been disabled and write permissions on discussions have been removed to ensure spammers don’t overrun the forum again.

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Part of what set gyaan.in apart was the technology we used. I built the website that gyaan.in ran on, and since the beginning I felt that to really make it a pleasure to use it would need to feel unlike the “normal” forums built on phpBB. I went with a less-known option called Vanilla Forums, which had an email inbox feel to it in how the forum ran. It also had feature expansion made possible through the use of extensions. More importantly, a lot of the traffic was in spikes, especially close to events when discussions were heavily commented on with question archives from 100s of KBs to dozens of MBs being downloaded. At its peak, gyaan.in would consume around 50 GB of data transfer every month – made possible by GoDaddy’s generous hosting plan limits.

I haven’t been involved with the website design for a long time now and I know it looks quite bad now. We just ran out of capable administrators who had free time to spend developing on the website. Besides that, the Vanilla open source community died down quite a bit ever since they shifted focus to hosted Vanilla Forums. Extension lingered in stasis, updates took ages, and questions went unanswered on community forums. If I were to make the decision today on what forum software to use, I’d probably go for Discourse (from the makers of StackExchange).

In general, gyaan.in was also quite innovative in adopting various online mediums; the moderators on our team were quite tech-savvy. This allowed the team to not hesitate in trying out new ideas, such as shared calendars for events and quizzes conducted in real-time online on Google Wave. Technological innovation in the form of Facebook did ultimately lead to gyaan.in’s death, but at least for a while we were at the forefront.

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None of gyaan.in’s journey would have been possible without the community that sprung up around it, participated in it, and contributed to it. And even more importantly, none of that would have been possible without the moderators who volunteered to be stewards of the community. On that note, I’d like to thank all these people below for making gyaan.in – the “nothing official about it” – Indian quizzing forum a reality…

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On a more personal note, gyaan.in was my first taste of managing communities online. It’s especially hard to do when there are so many volunteers in different timezones with varied commitments which manage the community. I’ll be the first one to admit that beyond its first year, I went hands-off. Yet, what really touched me is how people stepped up to fill in the void left by old community moderators and took on the day-to-day running of the site. I’m still passionate about online communities, in particular working as a community moderator for StackExchange’s Travel question-and-answer website.

gyaan.in’s influence also helped me with 6by9media, an idea that started out as a joke (“What do you get when you multiply six by nine?”) but then evolved into a loose umbrella between me and some other gyaan.in members that went on to conduct city, regional, and national events in quizzing.

Two weeks ago, I went to a quiz at IIT Delhi. Many people I knew there were members of gyaan.in, and I think one of the biggest achievements of the community that we started was that people started to get know their “competitors” from other schools socially. For me, it brought the fun back into quizzing when I got to know and hang out with all of these people I’d only get to meet fleetingly, to actually find out who they were.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I certainly made some really good friends through gyaan.in. Here’s hoping the same spirit lives on through other venues.