Data Plans

How government decisions are helping Reliance Jio monopolise the telecom sector

01 February 2019
shailesh andrade / reuters
shailesh andrade / reuters

WERE IT NOT FOR THE SUITS, sombre faces and plush chairs, the launch of Digital India would have had the aura of a pop concert. It was the first day of July in 2015, and thousands of people had filled the arena of the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in Delhi. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi entered, the crowd erupted with cheers. Before the presentations began in earnest, jumbotrons played a digital animation accompanied by heavy electronic music. Light—sometimes blue, sometimes yellow—bathed the stage. Modi himself sat at the centre of the onstage dais, flanked by the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, the electronics and information technology minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, and a supporting cast of other officials.

Behind and just to the right of Modi, in the middle of a mostly out-of-view back row of businessmen, sat Mukesh Ambani. When it came time for these men to speak, Ambani—the richest man in India and the chairman of Reliance Industries Limited, India’s largest private company—went first. Referring to the event as “a momentous occasion in the history of modern India,” Ambani praised India’s leader. “India is fortunate to have a prime minister who not only paints a compelling and comprehensive vision but has the personal leadership and drive to convert his vision to reality,” he said. Modi, wearing a white button-down jacket, stared forward blankly. “Normally, industry moves faster than government, but with Digital India it is different,” Ambani said. “I have no hesitation in saying that government has moved faster.”

On 1 July 2015, Narendra Modi, flanked by Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, launched Digital India, aimed at the “digital empowerment of citizens.”. ajay aggarwal / hindustan times / getty images On 1 July 2015, Narendra Modi, flanked by Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, launched Digital India, aimed at the “digital empowerment of citizens.”. ajay aggarwal / hindustan times / getty images
On 1 July 2015, Narendra Modi, flanked by Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, launched Digital India, aimed at the “digital empowerment of citizens.”
ajay aggarwal / hindustan times / getty images

Ambani then spoke of his own company’s ambition, and how it aligned with Digital India. Reliance Jio, RIL’s telecom subsidiary, had not yet launched. Nevertheless, Ambani promised to partner with the government and invest over Rs 250,000 crore, or $39.29 billion, in its projects. He pledged to lay out a next-generation wireless network across all Indian states, create a nationwide cellular distribution network involving 150,000 retailers, encourage phone manufacturers to set up shop in the country, and help small start-ups. “I estimate that Reliance’s Digital India investments will create employment for over five lakh people,” he said.

Digital India is an amalgamation of various projects, aimed at increasing connectivity in the country. Promoted by government officials as an attempt to bridge the divide between “digital haves and have-nots,” the initiative has been pitched as an ambitious modernising measure. According to the Digital India website, its various projects, including the controversial Aadhaar, are all unified by a three-part vision: making online infrastructure available to every Indian, providing government services on demand and the “digital empowerment of citizens.”

Daniel Block is an editor with Washington Monthly. He was formerly a Luce scholar working for The Caravan from 2017 to 2018.

Keywords: Reliance Jio Monopoly Narendra Modi Mukesh Ambani Digital India RIL Vodafone-Idea
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