NEW DELHI — Gautam Adani, the richest man in Asia and a close ally of prime minister Narendra Modi, owns some of India’s busiest airports and seaports, coal mines and power plants. This week, Adani made a foray into a new field — television — in a move that could reshape India’s media landscape.
The billionaire on Tuesday announced the acquisition of a 29 percent stake in New Delhi Television (NDTV) and a proposal to buy an additional 26 percent from public shareholders, signaling his intent to control one of the few remaining television networks in India that are seen as independent. It is even boldly critical, by today’s standards, of Modi and his governing party.
It is not clear when Adani, who overtook Warren Buffett this year to become the world’s fourth-richest man, would amass a majority stake in NDTV and take control. But the move by a business mogul who famously lent his private jet to the prime minister-elect after Modi’s 2014 election triumph stunned India’s liberal elite, threw the broadcaster’s staff into upheaval and surprised even NDTV’s founders.
In a statement, NDTV said that Adani acquired his stake via a third party without informing the company’s founders, former journalist Radhika Roy and her economist husband Prannoy Roy, and that the deal was done “without discussion, consent or notice.” “NDTV has never compromised on the heart of its operations: its journalism,” the company said pointedly. “We continue to proudly stand by that journalism.”
While a struggle for NDTV could be lengthy, observers said it is only a matter of time before the Roys, who still hold a 32 percent stake, relinquish control to a businessman with starkly different politics. Since the 2000s, Adani has supported Modi, and the Gujarati billionaire’s business fortunes have mirrored the rise of the Gujarati politician.
“Their political proximity is well known,” said Deepak Shenoy, the chief executive of Capitalmind, an investment research firm in Bangalore. NDTV was attractive to Adani not because of its profit margin, which is thin, but because of its ability to shape national discourse, Shenoy said. “It is less economically motivated and more something that is done for overarching influence,” he said.
Executives from Adani Media Networks, a subsidiary of the mogul, called the deal a “significant milestone” in its mission to become a major player in media. Earlier this year, Adani purchased a stake in the online news site Quint, adding to a sprawling business empire that also includes energy and drone manufacturing.
“With its leading position in news and its strong and diverse reach across genres and geographies, NDTV is the most suitable broadcast and digital platform to deliver on our vision,” said Sanjay Pugalia, the head of Adani’s media arm.
Indian media companies, which rely heavily on advertising revenue, have long been susceptible to pressure from the government and private corporations. But media observers say that broadcasters have hewed especially closely to the official line of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party since its election victory in 2014, a testament to its influence over the news media.
In that environment, NDTV has stood out, giving extensive coverage to the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide farmers’ protests. That posture has led to clashes with government officials, who have ordered a blackout on NDTV because of coverage the government deemed harmful to national security.
“All mainstream news channels have the same script, same formula, like they have been handed a memo from the powers that be,” said Manisha Pande, a media critic and the executive editor of the Newslaundry website. “NDTV would question the administration, creating a bit of deterrence. With that resistance gone, there will be no shame.”
Pande said NDTV losing its editorial independence would affect Indian society profoundly. “Democracy is elections but also credible information reaching the public,” she said. “If you rig” the media, “you can effectively rig democracy.”
The Roys launched NDTV in 1988 and first attracted Indian viewers in droves with their wall-to-wall live elections coverage and on-the-ground reports from correspondents around the country. But by the late 2000s, the Roys were saddled with ballooning debt. Facing a margin call during the global financial crisis, the couple took out a loan of $50 million in exchange for stock warrants that could be converted into NDTV shares. This week, Adani acquired those shares from a holding company.
In recent years, the company’s channels have lost viewers and money, a dramatic reversal from the early 2000s when star anchors were chauffeured to the office and were served croissants by waiters in white gloves, said Krishn Kaushik, a former journalist for Caravan Magazine who reported on the inner workings of NDTV.
“They were not going after the sensationalism, the loud performative debates where you have people shouting at each other, the Hindu-Muslim issues that other channels were doing for eyeballs,” Kaushik said. “They were doing everything right, but that does not bring in money. That is not what the market wanted.”
Although the company’s market share has waned, its legal perils have grown under the Modi government. In 2017, federal investigators raided NDTV offices and the Roys’ residence to probe their past borrowing. In 2019, the couple was barred from leaving the country because of the ongoing financial probe. The network is also being investigated for suspected money laundering.
NDTV employees were caught by surprise Tuesday as word about the Adani deal spread. In the company’s South Delhi office tower, employees first thought the news was fake. By Tuesday night, the mood had turned into apprehension about job security and the channel’s editorial independence.
“No one had any idea. There was a sense of disbelief,” said a newsroom employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to comment. “It is still sinking in.”
By Wednesday morning, the deal was front-page news in Indian newspapers. On social media, users circulated a meme that NDTV would now stand for Narendra Damodardas Television, a reference to the prime minister’s name.
On the Indian right wing, many gleefully predicted who might be the first high-profile journalist to be forced out after an Adani takeover. They settled on Ravish Kumar, an award-winning anchor who frequently criticizes the Modi government.
A defiant Kumar took to Twitter to address speculation about his possible exit. “The talk about my resignation,” he said wryly, “is just like the rumor that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has agreed to give me an interview.”