Has the Government gone mad?” It was Pertie and it sounded as if he already knew the answer. “How can they issue an ordinance forcing private sports channels to share cricket rights with Doordarshan? Given that these rights were legitimately bought by open bidding it’s tantamount to legalising piracy!”
I could sense Pertie was infuriated. Beyond the exasperation in his voice there was also a clear hint of seething anger.
“Well, the government claims the Indian people have a right to watch their cricket team regardless of whether they can or cannot afford access to cable television.” To my mind this was the kindest explanation possible. “And the ordinance is designed to enforce this right.”
“What right?” Pertie snorted. I could tell he had a significant point to make. “The Indian people may have a desire to watch their team but how can that be called a right? The two are very different and only scoundrels or dim-wits would conflate them.”
Once again I attempted to answer as reasonably as I could. “The government thinks cricket is special. It has unique iconic status — almost like a religion — and the Indian people would feel unjustifiably deprived if they cannot watch their team play. So, in the government’s eyes, the desire is also a right.”
“Really? And do you believe that?” Obviously Pertie did not. But before I could reply he continued. “And what about the right to food, education and healthcare? No one can deny that they are more important than cricket. So, now, is the government going to force restaurants to provide free food, hospitals to admit patients without charge and schools to waive their fees? In terms of the government’s logic that should have happened first!”
“Oh come,” but I said it very gently. Almost sotto voce. “You can make any law look silly by taking it to an extreme. But is that fair?”
“Of course it is. How else do you judge a law or a principle? And, anyway I’m not taking it to an extreme, I’m judging the government’s logic by three examples more important than cricket. But that’s not all. If every Indian has a right to watch cricket what about the hundreds of millions who don’t have television sets? Are they to be denied this right for so slender a reason? Or will the government distribute free TVs as well?”
Frankly, I didn’t know want to say. Pertie was right although I was unwilling to admit it. That would have made him insufferable. But, once again, Pertie didn’t wait for a reply.
“Alright, even if for argument’s sake I accept the nonsense the government is spouting, look at how they’ve developed it. Not only do they want the cricket rights but they want them without ads so that they can run their own. In other words, they’re not simply stealing someone else’s property they’re also determined to make money out of it.”
“But they’re going to hand back 75 per cent to the sports channels and the remaining 25 per cent will be used to encourage other sports. Isn’t that a good thing?” This time I thought my rebuttal was effective. Alas, Pertie did not.
“I’m not sure the 75 per cent will cover what the channels lose as revenue or business development. Chances are they’ll lose far more. And as for the 25 per cent, that’s like Robin Hood — stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It may be acceptable in Sherwood Forest or communist Russia but is that how a government in 21st century India should behave?”
“It’s like the tax system. And, anyway, we’re used to this in India, aren’t we?”
“But have you forgotten what happens when taxes become iniquitous?” Pertie’s voice had risen to a falsetto. Now his anger was obvious. “People vote with their feet. They leave the country and the economy collapses. Eventually the only thing that flourishes is the black market.”
But there was more to come. Pertie had merely paused for breath. “And what message are we sending to the world? At a time when we’re hoping for greater and greater levels of investment here we are throwing in doubt property rights and the rules of free enterprise. Does that make sense? This ordinance could frighten investors and the real loser would be the Indian people.”
The worst part — although, mercifully, Pertie didn’t go so far — is that our cricket team probably won’t win. But at least we’ll all be watching!