In India, it is difficult to escape the Ambanis and their brand name, Reliance. Whether you’re shopping at a Reliance supermarket, fueling up at a Reliance petrol station, buying a Reliance mobile phone plan, watching a news channel owned by Mukesh Ambani, or reading up on news about his younger brother Anil, the Ambanis are everywhere.
The way each brother deals with the media is emblematic of the trends sweeping across the Indian media industry.
“India is passing through its gilded age…[In] 2017, we saw that almost 57 percent of GDP was generated by one percentage of the Indian population,” explains investigative journalist Josy Joseph, author of A Feast of Vultures.
“A concentration of wealth in the hands of few Indians is unprecedented. And at the commanding heights of that skewed Indian development sits the Ambani brothers. Between them, they are the most powerful businessmen in this country.”
Mukesh Ambani moved into the media sector about a decade ago. In 2008, he invested over $655m into ETV – a major regional media player. A year later, he loaned more than $80m to NDTV, one of India’s most influential national broadcasters. Then, in 2012, in his biggest media deal, he bought out Network 18, one of the largest media houses in India for almost three-quarters of a billion dollars. It took Ambani less than five years to become an Indian media mogul without equal.
Contrast Mukesh Ambani’s public profile to that of his brother, Anil. For the past year, Anil’s been making headlines as a key player in a corruption scandal involving the Indian government, a multibillion-dollar deal for French fighter jets and a suspicious contract handed to his own company to execute the deal.
Outlets reporting on this story have faced a slew of lawsuits from Anil Ambani’s companies alleging defamation and misreporting.
For Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, “every rupee that you waste on an Anil Ambani case, is an hour and a rupee that could be spent on journalism, could be spent on analysing what Anil Ambani’s companies are up to.”
The twin threats – the first of litigation, the second of the power and prestige of the family name – are not the only weapons in the Ambani brothers’ arsenal. Their businesses spend a lot of money on advertising and the ad dollars the brothers pump into India’s media market, which is ultra-competitive, provide them with some serious leverage.
“There’s nothing strategic on the face of it, but it’s always there to be used when necessary,” says Sevanti Ninan, founding editor at The Hoot. “So if the time comes that you need to counter something in some state, then you have the channel for that and obviously if you own the biggest business TV network, they’re not going to exactly delve into your doings.”
Together, the Ambani brothers represent two main ways in which corporations exert power over the Indian media.