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Backstory: How Gautam Adani Became ‘the Story’ for the Media

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

Watching Gautam Adani seated on the witness box during Rajat Sharma’s ‘Aap ki Adalat’ on January 7 was to immediately recall a similar performance, in a similar setting, staged by his political benefactor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, nine years earlier on April 12, 2014.

Set amidst fawning, cheering, clapping audiences, both televised extravaganzas were in their different ways branding exercises. In the Modi instance, it was literally the crowning of a prime ministerial aspirant as prime minister, even before the country had voted. In the Adani case, it was anointing a business man with a personal net worth of $150 billion (according to Forbes data) as the country’s very own Midas.

Taken together they represent the confluence of money, political power and media presence, where each contributes to reinforcing the reach of the other. What is your hidden formula, Rajat Sharma asked Adani. His reply was delivered with a straight face, “Mehnat, mehnat, mehnat (hard work, hard work, hard work).”

As one Twitter user put it, the answer should rightly have been “Modi, Modi, Modi,” because the Modi years in power have seen Adani’s wealth rise by over 15 times. In fact, if this arrangement was to be given a name, it should rightly be termed media-infused crony capitalism.

Some years ago, communications professor and author Robert McChesney, along with his colleague John Nichols, came up with a word to characterise the political economy of the US: ‘Dollarocracy’ – “the rule of money rather than the rule of people”. The time has come it seems for us to recognise India as a ‘Rupeeocracy’, where you have democracy in form but not in substance; where you have an impressive line of media institutions but no journalism; where a phenomenon that could be termed ‘Ambdani’ – or media captured by two of the richest corporate houses in the country – looks set to drain out the media pond, modest though it has always been.

Political thinker, Jairus Banaji, in a recent piece titled ‘Indian Big Business’ makes an interesting classification of Indian businesses today: Large Business Houses (of the traditional type); First wave post-1947 entities; those who consolidated themselves in the 1950s-70s; and finally a group he terms as ‘New Capitalists’.

The last category, Banaji posits, are the “most fervent supporters of Prime Minister Modi”, and include the Ambanis, Adani, Sunil Mittal (Airtel), Anil Agarwal (Vedanta), the Hindujas, and Sudhir Mehta of the Torrent Group, as well as some smaller ones like the businesses of media tycoon Subhash Chandra. The connection includes political funding through electoral bonds. This group has seen their total debt level jump five times over the last half decade to account for 13% of all bank loans in the country.

In fact, “all banks appear to have high exposure to the same few groups.” What this constitutes, Banaji observes, is a political economy that allows some capitalists to move far ahead of the others by leveraging their influence with decision-makers.

File photo of Narendra Modi with Mukesh and Nita Ambani. Credit: PTI

It is precisely here that media holdings by such corporates can play an invaluable role. They help to amplify and aggregate presence and influence policy.

In 2014, Mukesh Ambani discovered this when he was formally anointed a media mogul after acquiring Raghav Bahl’s Network 18 Media and Investments Ltd for Rs 4,000-crore. In 2022, Gautam Adani followed, coming to own three national channels by virtue of having acquired a 64.72% stake in NDTV.

As Ravish Kumar, former senior executive editor of NDTV India, who resigned from his post soon after the Adani acquisition move was made public, sees this as the coming together of the ‘godi media’ (media perched on the lap of power wielders) and the ‘godi seth’ (corporates close to the government).

Also read: Adani Threatens Media With Defamation Suits but Is Now Giving Lecture on Press Freedom: Ravish Kumar

So how does a man, the world’s coal king, view his recent acquisition of NDTV? In his interview with India Today Television, Adani swore that he will not interfere with its operations: “On editorial independence, NDTV will be a credible, independent, global network with a lakshman rekha between the management and editorial.” He then went on to counsel patience on the part of sceptics. Give us some time, he said, because the “proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

It did not take long before the pudding revealed its true ingredients. The timeline is telling. The India Today piece was written on December 27. By December 30, Adani Group announced its majority stake in NDTV. On January 7, as noted earlier, you had the ‘Aap Ki Adalat’ session.

Before long, NDTV was putting out Adani’s thoughts that had been broadcasted on that very programme as important news. Extremely conspicuous among the excerpts highlighted was a ringing exoneration of Modi’s manner of working: “I want to tell you that you can never get any personal help from Modiji. You can speak to him about policies in the national interest, but when a policy is framed, it is for all, not only for the Adani Group.”

The NDTV website carried the story, under the title ‘We Do Business In 22 States, Not All Are With BJP: Gautam Adani’, with a small disclaimer at the end: New Delhi Television is a subsidiary of AMG Media Networks Limited, an Adani Group Company.”

For years Adani had preferred to act against journalists rather than reveal his mind to them. His major dealings with the media in an earlier era constituted filing SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suits against media houses who dared to report negatively on his many businesses, both to punish them individually as well as to send out a message to others nursing similar ambitions to desist or come to grief.

But the recent shower of publicity on a man that anchors often refer to with faux intimacy as “Gautam bhai”, does have its own logic. As one wise person observed, publicity is like a drug – you need larger and larger doses to get any kick out of it.

The Adani Group (@adanionline) now put out tidbits of information to build up his public persona. One recent one said: “Our chairman @gautam_adani addressed the student of Palanpur Vidyamandir in Banaskantha, Gujarat. He shared his childhood memories and spoke about his journey, his days of struggle and learnings. His vision inspired them to dream big and make India proud.” His regret that he quit formal schooling at 16 is now deemed by news outlets as of great national import.

Taking a leaf from the prime minister’s book, he now talks of Indian exceptionalism and his role in creating the nation. “No one can stop India,” he revealed to the ‘Aap ki Adalat’ audience, drawing wild applause. Building the nation is far more important to me than anything else, he told Raj Chengappa of the India Today Group.

In other words, the country’s richest man is now slated to be the country’s most patriotic as well through image creation. NDTV branding will add efficiency to this process and possibly take him to new heights.

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Nipping the source in the bud

Sources are literally the source of journalism. Some of the most important stories that the media have broken across the ages is on the principle that news is something that someone, somewhere does not want published. What usually happens in such cases is that that someone is usually a person of great influence and power, with the capacity to perpetrate great damage to those who actually put out the information in the public sphere.

It’s here we come to the crux of why confidentiality of sources is intrinsic to great journalism. Some of the most important news breaks across the world, whether it was Watergate in the US or Bofors, closer home, began as information supplied by anonymous sources.

The political establishment has always attempted to curtail, even cut, the journalist’s link with her or his source. Over two decades ago, the Vajpayee government promulgated the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance which later became an Act. One of its sections allowed “anyone who possesses information relevant to the possible commission of terrorist acts, but ‘fails’ to disclose it”, could be arrested.

Journalists who interview those deemed as “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathisers” were thus compelled to pro-actively reveal their sources or face imprisonment with the police duly empowered to extract such information. POTO/POTA was withdrawn once the UPA came to power but not before some of its worst features were safely transferred to the now notorious Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

As things stand there is no clear law that protects journalists’ right to source confidentiality. It is this gap that the police exploit when they harass the media into revealing the sources of their stories. A recent example of this was the manner in which the Bengaluru Police are threatening G. Mahantesh, founder editor of The File, with police action for doing a story that made use of an alleged leaked file noting.

The journalist community is outraged by this attempt to stop genuine investigative stories. Mahantesh touched upon the nub of the matter in a public statement: “This is being done in an attempt to threaten whistle-blower officers inside the system and harass journalists at the same time.”

Earlier, leak of only those documents that fit the definition of an official secret could be criminalised, but now, with more and more departments becoming paperless, any leaked document is being asked for through the misuse of cybercrime laws.

It’s time the average Indian understands the dangerous implications of such attempts to control information flows.

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Readers write back…

Good wishes for The Wire

Jayaram from Bengaluru: “Hope the dust of The Wire’s recent troubles is settling by now. I merely wish to say this: Having for donkeys’ years been a copy-editor at fast-paced news agency desks as well as having been a fact-checker, proofreader, reporter/foreign correspondent, translator (which included/s painstaking fact-checking too), writer … and continuing to be intermittently active in many of these roles, while writing books and articles for journals … I know that mistakes slip in. Even the tiniest ones spark much, much anguish. I therefore I stand in full solidarity with The Wire. Best Wishes and a Happy New Year!”

My response: Thank you for this thought and good wishes to you as well. I do hope the new year will see great journalism emerge from The Wire stable, with support from readers like you!

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Inherent biases

Mail from a reader who signs off as ‘JS’:  “In an attempt to not get stuck in an echo chamber, I seek out articles and websites that have different viewpoints. As a result I often come to The Wire. But I have to say, day by day, I am getting disappointed. Case in point – your coverage of the Jammu Kashmir terrorist attack reads “Civilians killed”.

When Hindus die in a terrorist attack is equally traumatising as when Muslims die at the hands of a Hindu mob. Yet you call one incidence “civilians dead” and the other incident as “lynching”. Your coverage differs in two ways. First, the coverage of Hindu victims at Muslim hands is as impersonal as possible. Second, you play down the religious nature of the crime. When one man hits another, the real motivation is only known to the criminal. For all the rest, it is a mere guess. If this was a Muslim man dying at the hands of a Hindu, you would be out calling this with emotionally charged words like “lynching” and you would be asking for Modi’s blood. In this case, you don’t mention Islam as much as possible.

Your motivation may be noble, like stopping the right wing from using this to stoke further tensions and protecting Muslim minorities. But it is backfiring. (While you care about protecting Muslims because they are vulnerable minorities, you are perfectly comfortable criticizing Brahmins, who are even minor minorities, without worrying if this would cascade into something serious. But that’s another point)…

When Hindu community experienced serious anxiety during the times of the Kashmir genocide in the 1990s, and the media turned a blind eye to it, the foundation of today’s BJP victory were laid. In today’s biased coverage of attacks against Hindus, you are laying the foundation of something sinister in future.

I am liberal, beef-eating, atheist and I want a society where all religions are equal. I want a discussion on the caste system as a problem with Hinduism and also want discussion on radicalisation of Muslims as a problem with Islam (yes, it is a much more serious problem with Islam. You need to ponder why there are no Hindu terrorists in Pakistan.) I refuse the notion that anyone who wants to point out faults in Islam must have only the intention of sending all Muslims to the gas chamber. By subscribing to that notion, you are acting as enablers to the radicals and doing a grave injustice to moderate Muslims who are most likely future victims of these radicals.

My response:  There is a fair degree of generalisation in JS’s views. The Wire has never called “for Modi’s blood”, so please don’t impute such ugly sentiments to this news portal. I would urge a reading of a recent piece that The Wire carried (‘It Is Time To Move Away From the Absurd Narratives on Violence in J&K’, January 5).

The writer observes that “Instead of asking who was the ‘killer’ and who was ‘killed’, the reality that a person was killed again needs to be recognised and mourned collectively by all the communities of Jammu and Kashmir.” That would in fact be a fair summation of how The Wire would also view such killings. However, thanks are due to JS for the effort at critiquing The Wire’s reportage. We hope our counter-arguments also carry conviction with the writer.

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Rescind the ban on women from attending universities

Dr. Roshmi Goswami, co-chairperson and Dr. P. Saravanamuttu, bureau member of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR): “SAHR vehemently condemns the decision of the Taliban to ban women from attending universities. On December 20, 2022, the Ministry of Higher Education of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan released a statement signed by Sheik Neda Mohammed Nadim, Minister of Higher Education, ordering all public and private universities to immediately suspend women from attending the universities until further notice.

“SAHR has observed the Taliban systematically depriving women and girl children of their rights and freedoms including their right to mobility and right to education since the Taliban took over the governance of Afghanistan in August 2021. The suspension of university attendance is a flagrant violation of a basic right which promotes human beings to achieve their fullest capacity and attain the highest standard of a dignified life. Due to this impudent decision of the Taliban, SAHR is concerned on the irrevocable multifaceted damages that would be inflicted upon the women and girls as well as the whole population of the country in the years to come.”

“The Taliban seem to be retracting their promises and pledges made to the world when they took over the administration of Afghanistan while their legitimacy has still not been recognised at global level. In turn this situation has impacted quite negatively on the people of Afghanistan who are striving to survive while facing multiple crises at many levels.

“Therefore, SAHR firmly urges the Taliban to rescind their ban on women attending the universities immediately and provide the girls with secondary education as well. Islam recognises education as a right and duty of every individual in a Muslim society. Further, Afghanistan is a state party to the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and therefore, it is internationally obliged to preserve rights and freedoms of the people enshrined in the constitution…”

Tweet watch

This tweet by Jayashankar Kenath caught the eye: #GodiMedia need to understand that media will withstand pressure from the ruling dispensation, if they have the will….The Wire is one example.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in.