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The Opposition's silence, a new-look IOU

August 18, 2003

If he'd stuck to psephology instead of venturing into television, NDTV chief Prannoy Roy's real worry today wouldn't be Rupert Murdoch's attempts to get into the Indian market, it would be what's happening to the Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) concept that he pioneered in the '80s.

When the Butler model to predict what voters would do in an election was created for Britain, it was based on a steady two-party system, so how was this to be modified for a country that had over a dozen fairly strong parties?

That's when Prannoy introduced the concept of the IOU in the Butler model -- in the extreme case where the Opposition was completely united in a state (that is, the IOU was equal to 1), the model would work in exactly the manner it would work in the United Kingdom.

Where the Opposition was disunited, the IOU was suitably calculated, and then used to modify the results of the opinion poll.

Yet, with the principal opposition party, the Congress, almost toeing the government line on most major initiatives in the recent past, the concept of the Index of Opposition Unity seems to have taken on an altogether new dimension!

It would be interesting to know how Prannoy would tweak his model to reflect this new reality if he was practicing his psephology today.

When elections were held in Gujarat last year, for all the Congress' condemnation of Narendra Modi's in-your-face Hindutva line, the fact is the party also chose to fight its campaign along what's been described as 'soft-Hindutva' lines -- in private, national leaders chose to justify this as being the decision of the local leadership, since the democratic Sonia Gandhi didn't want to impose her line on the party.

While some could still have bought the line then, it is interesting to note that when the Best Bakery accused were let off, you didn't see any major protest from the Congress in New Delhi -- sure there were statements from top leaders, but the fact is the Congress chose to bring in a no-confidence motion against the government on George Fernandes' alleged improprieties, it didn't launch any all-India anti-BJP campaign on Best Bakery.

When it comes to protesting against the government's moves on vital economic matters, the Congress' record is even more pathetic.

Take the Electricity Bill, for instance. The new clauses introduced by the ministry of power, this column has highlighted in the past (April 21, 2003), were designed to prevent/delay the introduction of genuine competition in the sector.

Yet, it was only a few Congress MPs (Members of Parliament) who chose to bring in amendments to the Bill, almost unsupported by the party high command.

Indeed, journalists were told the Congress was in favour of passing the Bill since it didn't want to be seen as a party constantly opposing important pieces of legislation!

In the event, the deal struck was that the Bill (in the anti-competitive form originally envisaged by the government) was passed in the last session of Parliament, on the understanding that the government would bring in some sort of legislation during the current session to incorporate some of the Congress MPs' suggestions.

(In most cases, like in the case of the Insurance Bill, when major changes are demanded by the Opposition, the Bill gets modified first, and then is passed in Parliament).

The government's intentions, however, don't look so honourable, as the ministry of power has just issued guidelines for fixing power tariffs that will allow power producers to charge exorbitant prices from consumers.

It doesn't help that the Bill seeks to take away any meaningful tariff-setting powers from the independent regulators who were supposed to be in charge of the sector. And yet, not a peep from the Congress on the matter.

To cite another instance, two years ago, it was the Congress party's Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi who grabbed the headlines when he alleged the government had given huge benefits running into thousands of crores of (billions) rupees by not charging entry fees from WiLL-mobile firms like Reliance Infocomm and Tata Tele, though the same had been charged from the cellular licence holders.

Today, when the telecom regulator is seeking to regularise the WiLL-mobile licence through a unified licence, and the move has been pilloried at length in the media, and even the telecom dispute settlement tribunal (TDSAT) has ruled against all-India roaming WiLL-mobile services, the Congress is completely silent on the issue.

Or take the case of changes recommended by the government on land-use in Delhi, changes that will allow commercial usage of residential land, as well as the proposals to regularise various illegal colonies from time to time.

These changes, the anguished cries of Tourism Minister Jagmohan make it amply clear, will reduce the capital to a complete mess (one has to only see south Delhi colonies like Lajpat Nagar, and now South Extension, to understand just how a colony begins to choke, and then dies when residential land is converted to shops and offices with gay abandon).

Again, you're confronted with the silence of the grave from the country's principal Opposition party.

Forget the issue of exposing the government's favouritism, it would appear the Congress isn't interested in scoring even political points anymore, that is apart from some tokenisms on Ayodhya and Gujarat.

However terrible that might be for Prannoy Roy's Index of Opposition Unity, the impact on India's democracy is certain to be a lot greater.

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