PORTRAIT

Mukesh Ambani: The Disruptor

Mukesh Ambani
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In one stroke, Mukesh Ambani declares a telecom war and ups his net worth

WHEN MUKESH AMBANI complains of ‘dadagiri’, a term that conveys anything from benign bullying to oppressive overlordship, it could easily be taken as his sense of humour, the sort of self-parody he once displayed his mastery over while talking gleefully about which parts of Reliance his younger brother Anil got after the empire was split a decade ago. As owner-in-chief of India’s dominant polyester-to-gas-gusher conglomerate, he likes to wear his clout lightly in public. But this time, the elder Ambani is supremely serious, his company is new to the market he is addressing, and the laughter he has evoked is for the wit of what he wants dadagiri overthrown by—‘datagiri’.

By that, Ambani implies an all-out disruption of the country’s telecom sector that his launch of Jio services intends to cause. In offering people free voice calls and cheap access—on low-priced handsets—to all the razzle-dazzle that the internet is exploding with, Reliance Jio expects to win switchovers by the million, reach those who’re still offline, and recast the way money is made in this business. Right now, gigs off the web give the industry in India only a quarter of its revenues. Ambani wants data usage to be 100 per cent of it. Speech, he believes, ought to be free. Literally.

If there’s a sense of déjà vu to this, it’s because it echoes what he’d said when Reliance first got into telecom. This was in 2003, and he’d cited Dhirubhai Ambani’s dream of a cross-country phone call costing less than a 15-paise postcard. Much fanfare had attended that kick-off, with Reliance promising to shake up the sector with its phone-plus-talk-time bonanza. By 2006, though, this operator was part of Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, with Mukesh’s Reliance barred from the arena by a deal with his brother, and by the end of a decade defined by an Apple renaissance (and a spectrum scam), what had begun with a bang was sounding like a whimper.

Whether or not Jio is at threat of a gang-up, his words are acting as a force multiplier: rivals are in a tizzy, people all ears and his millions on the rise

The Ambanis have made up since, and, allowed back in, the elder brother is raring to make up for lost time. With Rs 1.5 lakh crore riding on Jio, he has no option but to go all out. Telecom is a business of link-ups. Older players can, in theory, form a secret cartel to thwart a new operator. This may explain the dramatic warning he has issued ‘incumbents’ Airtel, Vodafone and Idea, which he says have the advantage of “established networks and existing customers”. In just a week, by his claim at Reliance’s AGM, 50 million ‘trial’ calls of Jio to other networks have failed: “The onus is on incumbent operators to not misuse their market power by creating unfair hurdles when it comes to providing points of interconnect between their networks and Jio’s.”

Whether or not Jio is at threat of a gang-up, his words are already acting as a force multiplier. Rival operators are in a tizzy, would-be customers are all ears—dadagiri versus datagiri, after all, has a feisty ring to it—and his net worth has gone up. “My big advantage was to have my father [Dhirubhai Ambani] accept me as first generation,” Mukesh Ambani once said, speaking of himself as an entrepreneur. With Jio, it’s clear what he meant.