BY THE LATE 1980s, Dhirubhai Ambani wanted a newspaper. In 1986, the Indian Express had published a series of articles alleging that Reliance Industries had, among much else, manipulated its own share price, evaded duties and violated the limits of its licence for producing polyester feedstock—all while government officials looked the other way or made decisions that seemed customised to the corporation’s needs. The government responded with scrutiny and action that subtracted from Reliance’s bottom line, and Dhirubhai scrambled to limit his losses. A shift in the political tide and some deft manoeuvring soon brought him close to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and turned the might of the government against the Indian Express instead. But, by then, other outlets had also started publishing uncomfortable facts about Reliance’s doings.
In The Polyester Prince, his biography of Dhirubhai, the journalist Hamish McDonald writes that the Reliance chairman had “an urge to counter the Indian Express in print,” and “had talked for some years of getting into the media business.” Dhirubhai “had looked at several newspapers that came on the market,” and had earlier secured a controlling stake in The Patriot, “which had made vitriolic attacks on Nusli Wadia”—Dhirubhai’s main business rival, and a close friend of the publisher of the Indian Express—“in response to the Express campaigns.” In late 1988, Dhirubhai’s son-in-law bought Commerce, a Bombay-based weekly that was in financial trouble “but had a useful business and economic research bureau.” The hope was to turn it into a mainstream daily.
Commerce was put under the guidance of a high-profile editor, Prem Shankar Jha, and renamed the Observer of Business and Politics. It began printing in December 1989—just as the Congress administration under Rajiv Gandhi was replaced with a coalition government, under VP Singh, that was not friendly to Reliance. This was a problem for Dhirubhai. Some years earlier, in an interview with India Today, he had been asked, “One reason for your success is your ability to manage the external environment. How do you do this?” Dhirubhai responded, “The most important external environment is the Government of India. You have to sell your ideas to the Government. Selling the idea is the most important thing.”
Jha did not meet Dhirubhai’s requirements. He was well connected, but Dhirubhai was suspicious of his allegiances. He left the paper within months to join VP Singh, in the capacity of media advisor to the prime minister. As Jha’s replacement, Dhirubhai chose a man he could really trust—RK Mishra, the editor-in-chief of The Patriot.
VP Singh’s government failed, and was dissolved within a year. The Observer also failed, but more gradually. It never earned great readership or public clout, and was formally shut down after ten years. Dhirubhai’s hope of a newspaper to manage the “external environment” and sell ideas for Reliance remained unfulfilled. But his endeavour created the Observer Research Foundation—today, perhaps the country’s most prominent think tank.