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Modi, Mukesh and a Moment in Time

It is unclear if Reliance will cripple Airtel, Idea and Vodafone by its audacious moves.

On 2 September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s photograph was splashed across an advertisement on the front pages of major newspapers. That in itself was hardly unusual. What was out of the ordinary was that the advertisement was not placed by the government or the Bharatiya Janata Party but by India’s largest private corporate entity, Reliance Industries Limited, headed by the country’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, announcing the launch of an ambitious new mobile voice and data services venture, Reliance Jio (RJio). It was averred that Reliance was furthering Modi’s vision of a Digital India, that it was one of those rare “life-changing movements” in the “journey of time.” While questions about the legality of the use of the Prime Minister’s picture to promote a private company’s service are probably misplaced, doubts about the propriety of the move remain. The question to be asked is why it suits both—Reliance and Modi—to be seen as sharing a vision and what implications this has for RJio’s future. Another question that is bound to arise is whether the RJio offering is truly as “revolutionary” as is being claimed or another instance of the kind of brilliant sales pitch that both the Ambanis and Modi are known for.

To those familiar with the trajectory of the Reliance Group, the couching of the RJio project in rhetoric that evokes the quest for the greater good of the public will come as no surprise. The group’s first major foray into a consumer business, in the form of the textiles brand Vimal, was pitched as a bid to clothe every Indian. Its entry into the oil and gas sector was portrayed as part of the national effort to gain energy self-sufficiency. Its maiden telecom venture over a decade ago was sold as making telephony as affordable for all Indians as a postcard. It is totally in character, therefore, that Ambani should say that “Reliance is not about blindly chasing profit.” Many are sceptical of such pious pronouncements.

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