July 05, 2020
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At The Hollow Observatory

Reliance’s first foray into the media, in the late ’80s, fizzled out in a decade

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At The Hollow Observatory

Back in the mid-to-late 1980s, a series of exposes in Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express on the Reliance empire rocked the country. The investigations, coming on the heels of sustained reportage in Business Standard, not only revealed a deep corporate-political nexus but also showed how Dhirubhai Ambani’s company exploited and benefited from the policies framed by Indira Gandhi—some apparently tailored to benefit the business house.

Among journalists, the provocation for Express’s ballistic attack on RIL under the helmsmanship of Arun Shourie is in the realm of legend. Ambani, it is said, had apparently gloated to Goenka in a weak moment that there was a price for all journalists, including those of his paper. Miffed, Goenka went out all guns blazing. Or so they say.

It was a combination of the negative press that RIL was getting at the time and a desire to enter the media space when industrialist-peers like the Singhanias, Dalmias and Thapars were testing the waters (the Birlas already had Hindustan Times), that saw Reliance acquiring the weekly magazine Commerce and turning it into a broadsheet newspaper called the Business and Political Observer (BPO).

Result: while the P.V. Narasimha Rao government was ushering in pathbreaking reforms, some of India’s best business journalists were bringing out trial issues of BPO, which took over a year to see the light of day. (The Sunday Observer, owned by Jaico publishing, was bought by RIL and appended to the group to complete the weekly offering.)

Prem Shankar Jha, Commerce’s editor who left to join V.P. Singh as media advisor, says the risk of BPO being branded as a RIL mouthpiece “was always there”. “I told Dhirubhai and Anil Ambani to set up a board of trustees to protect the paper’s integrity and give it the necessary credibility. They agreed in principle but did nothing,” he says.

The paper, says Jha, was part of a long-term plan of Anil Ambani to create a media empire on the lines of the Pearson Group in the UK. The paper attracted bright journalists who were also paid handsomely those days, but the RIL tag never left the paper. At the time of its closure, BPO boasted of an editorial board chaired by R.K. Mishra, editor of The Patriot, who later captained the ‘Track-2’ diplomacy with Pakistan on the Iran pipeline that had RIL at its centre. The Ambanis’ media venture did not last to see the turn of the millennium.

S. Gurumurthy, the Chennai-based chartered accountant and co-author of the Express investigation into Reliance, says, “The paper was not able to match the quality of newspapers around. If RIL has now entered the media, it only shows the decline in the media. The Jindals, Birlas all have made their forays and this is because the media’s credibility is so low that anyone can enter. The media as a whole has faced a huge blow to its credibility in the last 20 years.”

But for all of Dhirubhai’s proximity to the Congress, his paper’s pages were populated by the likes of Pritish Nandy, Chandan Mitra, Balbir Punj and Sudheendra Kulkarni. Equally, for all of Goenka’s rage at the time, Arun Shourie delivered a eulogy at Dhirubhai’s passing, lending weight to the cliche that in politics there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, especially if you are a businessman. Or a journalist.

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