Bold initiatives characterize India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who famously lives in a 27-story building in Mumbai, a city where most people languish in slums. Last month, his company, Reliance Industries Ltd., sought to prevent circulation of a new book which claims that Reliance successfully pressured the previous Indian government to double the price of natural gas. Amazon received a cease and desist notice, as did even an individual who had merely forwarded an e-mail invitation to the book’s launch. And Thursday, Ambani moved to buy a whole swath of the Indian media: Bloomberg News reports that Reliance, which has already invested $11 billion in a high-speed cellular network, will now spend $678 million for majority stakes in two major media companies, Network18 Media & Investments Ltd. and TV18 Broadcast Ltd.
The news was preceded by a series of high-level departures from these companies, which have tie-ups with, among others, CNN, CNBC, Viacom, A&E Networks and Forbes. Two of India’s most prominent anchors in English, Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose, both at CNN-IBN, are reportedly also on their way out.
What’s striking is that Reliance already controlled the two companies through a uniquely Indian system of surrogate ownership. As a long investigative story in the magazine The Caravan revealed last year, it had also enforced the transformation of major news channels and websites into propaganda outlets for Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.
Here is what happened when Vivian Fernandes, a journalist employed by CNBC, was sent to Gujarat to interview Modi:
A person involved with the production of the interview recalled that Fernandes asked Modi a difficult question about water conservation in Gujarat. Modi’s organisers had asked to see the questions before the interview, and demanded the water conservation question’s removal. When Fernandes sprung it on him anyway, Modi broke away from the camera and glared at a public relations executive in the room. “Why is he talking like this?” the person recalled Modi saying. “Are we not paying for this interview?” The production crew realised that the interview was part of a promotion for Modi.
In February, amid reports that she was being pressured to tone down her criticism of Modi, Ghose tweeted, "There is an evil out there, an evil which is stamping out all free speech and silencing independent journalists: journalists unite!" The anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal says that his attacks on Ambani led the media to abruptly mute its coverage of him.
Whatever the truth of these specific claims, the campaign by India’s corporate-owned media to promote Modi clearly worked. The tainted chief minister of Gujarat with a record of showering favors on big businessmen has emerged, within a few hectic months, as India’s messiah.
Conspiracy theorists can only marvel at the fact that Gautam Adani, one of Modi’s stalwart corporate supporters, has tripled his wealth, according to Bloomberg, since September 2013, when Modi's party anointed him as its prime ministerial candidate. Ambani gained $800 million in a single day after exit polls earlier this month declared Modi the winner. Indeed, both Ambani and Adani graced Modi’s recent swearing-in ceremony in Delhi. Modi himself hinted at a more emboldened and enlarged crony capitalist regime when he was flown from Gujarat to the ceremony -- presented by an ardent media as a coronation -- on a private corporate jet emblazoned with the name of Adani.
Of course, the margin of his victory makes irrelevant the fact that in the run-up to the elections Modi received more than seven times more coverage on prime-time television than his closest rival, the hapless Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party. But there is no denying that the future of media freedom in India looks even bleaker than ever after Ambani’s Silvio Berlusconi-style domination of both news and entertainment content and delivery mechanisms. At the very least, such violation of the rules of the free market should be exposed to intense public scrutiny, even criticism, of the kind the deal between Comcast and Time Warner has provoked in the U.S.
But a near-total silence from politicians and the mainstream media greeted, as I've noted above, the extraordinary doubling of gas prices in India. When Reliance attempted to throttle the book about it, those columnists who had denounced Penguin for agreeing to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s "The Hindus: An Alternative History" went oddly quiet. And given the "toadification" of large parts of the Indian media, to paraphrase Salman Rushdie, it may even croak out some malicious joy as more independent-minded journalists depart what does look increasingly like a toad-breeding swamp.
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