30th JANUARY 2019

A) Stress and strain: on Congress-JD(S) alliance in Karnataka

In Politically Charged Karnataka, Words Gather The Power To Unsettle Those In Authority

No relationship is free of tense moments and conflicting emotions. But the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance in Karnataka seems to have more than its share of stress and strain. The pressures on the post-poll tie-up are from multiple points: the Opposition BJP that believes it wasrobbed of its mandate, and is looking to win over some of the MLAs of the Congress to topple the government; Congress members, especially those owing allegiance to former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who argue that the chief ministership should not have been handed over to the junior partner, the JD(S); and the leadership of the JD(S) that tries to assert itself within the alliance and expand the party’s base at the Congress’s expense. With the Lok Sabha election approaching, the stakes are high for all. The JD(S) wants to ensure it gets a good share of the seats as part of the alliance; the Congress realises it will have to concede ground to the JD(S) to keep the BJP out of the political turf, and the BJP knows the importance of being in power at the time of polls. After days of high drama, when the BJP and the Congress herded their MLAs in resorts to protect them from poaching, the pressure point on the government is from Siddaramaiah loyalists. Congress MLA S.T. Somashekar, on being appointed as the chairperson of the Bangalore Development Authority, claimed the city had not seen any development under thecoalition government. Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy promptly offered to quit if his style of functioning was found to be unacceptable, forcing a rattled Congress leadership to rush to makeamends. While Mr. Siddaramaiah signalled to his supporters and the party leadership he was not manoeuvring to be Chief Minister again, Mr. Somashekar apologised after KPCC president Dinesh Gundu Rao said he was at fault.

That a statement by one MLA can create such a storm speaks to the structural instability of the arrangement. The Congress and the JD(S) came together in a marriage of convenience; the JD(S) was allowed to head the government to prevent it from entering into a deal with the BJP. The only thing the Congress could offer the JD(S) that the BJP could not was the chief ministership. This was no gesture of magnanimity; only pragmatic deal-making. As negotiations on seat-sharing for the Lok Sabha polls begin, the strain is beginning to show. In these trying circumstances, the level of political discourse is also falling. While Union Minister Anantkumar Hegde made personal, derogatory comments about Mr. Rao, Mr. Siddaramaiah shouted at a party worker and grabbed the mike from her when she complained about the failure of officials to redress the grievances of her townspeople. In the surcharged atmosphere now, a remark is often enough of a spark to set off a ravaging fire.

B) Clearer TV: on TRAI’s order on broadcasting, cable services

New TRAI Order Provides For Greater Choice And Transparency On Pricing Of Channels

The tariff order on broadcasting and cable services issued by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is set to become effective on February 1, giving the consumer the option to pay only for those channels she wants to watch. Under the scheme, there is also a maximum price for pay channelsdeclared by the broadcaster, which is reported to TRAI, bringing about greater transparency. Each channel will be available on an a la carte basis. The effect is that the consumer’s subscription cost on a base package of 100 standard definition television channels is fixed in the form of a network capacity fee. And even within this group, there is freedom to choose channels, with a provision for appropriate revision for any pay channels. This is a welcome departure from aregime where combinations of free and pay channels were decided by distributors and broadcasters as bouquets that did not reflect actual demand for individual channels. Efforts to introduce a la carte choice were thwarted by pricing individual channels almost as high as the bouquets they were part of. Bouquets are enabled in the new scheme, but with the stipulationthat at least 85% of the total price of all channels that form part of a bouquet be charged, removing the incentive to distort prices. Distributors including cable and DTH platforms, and advertisers, should welcome the order, which strengthens price discovery and eliminates inflated claims of the subscriber base.

Television in the conventional sense has changed in the era of the Internet, with the emergence of new distribution possibilities. Many broadcasters, including popular news channels, provide their content free on platforms such as YouTube and through mobile phone applications, reaching global audiences. Global Over the Top (OTT) providers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have opened a new front and are competing for viewers who get advertisement-free programmingstreamed on subscription. TRAI has made clear that since broadcast licensing does not apply to such new technology platforms, these do not come under price regulation. In the fast-changing competitive landscape of home entertainment, conventional TV must now compete on the strength of transparent pricing and better programming for subscription revenue growth and viewer time that attracts advertising. Industry data show that there are about 197 million homes in India with a TV set, and 100 million more homes without one represent scope for growth. This can be achieved through regulatory schemes that empower broadcasters and subscribers alike. TRAI has done well to put up a calculator on its website to help consumers calculate bills under the new regime before signing up for a package with the operator. The broadcast industry must welcome a new era that promises to remove distribution bottlenecks and empower consumers with choice.