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The one-man star CASt

Aditi Phadnis | September01, 2003

No one knows the politics of two faces better than former Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana.

Although Centre was keen to impose value-added tax on Delhi, he quietly incited traders to oppose VAT because it would go against their interests while publicly maintaining a neutral position (events caught up with him when at a traders' meeting at Ramlila Maidan last year, slogans were raised against him).

No one knows what his private position on the truckers' strike in the capital was, and though he facilitated meetings between the transport minister and the truckers, the latter didn't really get anything out of the strike except assurances, rendering the whole exercise a waste of time and money for the truckers.

Having lost the game, many truckers were holding Khurana and the BJP responsible for the fiasco that was the truckers' strike.

The deferment of the conditional-access system in New Delhi until after the Assembly elections due in November is the latest evidence of the Khurana hand.

The jury is still out on whether watching TV will be more or less expensive after CAS is introduced. No one knows whether CAS will mean deliverance from the cable operators' stranglehold or will result in their deeper entrenchment.

However, Khurana went into the CAS debate with one thing clear in his mind from the word go: CAS would mean a rise in prices and if this was perceived to have been done by BJP government, it would boomerang on him and the BJP in the Assembly elections.

Those in the know say that the decision to defer CAS was taken nearly three days before it was officially announced. Khurana had reportedly called a meeting of cable operators loyal to him and told them not to buy set-top boxes the previous Friday.

The decision was taken on Monday.

The quiet announcement has resulted in a vertical split among cable operators into those who had bought set top boxes and are now stuck with them in their inventory; and those who did not invest in them with the insider knowledge that CAS wasn't going to come about any way.

Politically, this means a set of people will oppose Khurana vehemently; and another will support him vociferously.

There are many in the Delhi unit of the BJP, like Vijay Kumar Malhotra, who privately don't agree with the deferment because minister of information, Ravishankar Prasad, had initiated talks with several channels like Star to fix prices both pre- and post-CAS and had told the prime minister consistently that the customer would not have to pay more than what he was paying because market forces would dictate low prices.

To be fair, the prime minister had consistently raised doubts about this proposition. "I don't know how you are going to do this. But if you think you can do it, go ahead," he reportedly told Ravishankar Prasad at one of the meetings. Prasad took the statement at face value. Khurana detected the note of doubt and played on it.

"Saving Delhi from CAS" as a slogan is unlikely to win Khurana too many political points because its relation with the Assembly election is too blatant and obvious.

What he has done, however, is to make the government of India a plaything in the hands of powerful global broadcasters without cable operations, with the consumer getting little out of it. Whether the Congress latches on to this and makes this an issue remains to be seen.



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