In one of the conversations in the infamous Niira Radia tapes, Radia is speaking to journalist MK Venu. It is a conversation from July 2009 when Venu used to be with The Economic Times. Radia is apparently in possession of an explosive letter from the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and seeks advice from Venu on who she should leak it to. Towards the end of the conversation (22:08), on a completely unrelated note, Venu asks Radia if Manoj Modi, one of Mukesh Ambani’s most trusted aides, is in Delhi. Radia answers in the positive and also tells Venu about Modi’s schedule: “We [Manoj and Radia] are meeting Prannoy today…we need to support Prannoy, you know… we feel it needs to be supported,” she says. The two then go on to discuss NDTV’s credibility among the political class.
Radia (who counted Ambani as one her many high-flying clients then), it seems, was dead serious when she said that.
A series of transactions that begin with Reliance Industries Limited (whose chairman is one of India’s 25 greatest global living legends as ranked by NDTV) and end with Radhika Roy Prannoy Roy Private Limited (RRPR), which owns 29 per cent stakes in NDTV, suggests that Network 18 is not the only network that Mukesh Ambani and Reliance bailed out.
How the money flowed
In 2009 – the same year as the meeting Radia mentions between Modi and Roy – Reliance Ventures Limited, a fully-owned subsidiary of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) extended an unsecured loan of Rs 403.85 crore to Shinano Retail Private Limited, which is effectively fully owned by Reliance Industrial Investments and Holdings Limited (RIIHL). RIIHL is part of RIL.
In the same financial year, Shinano Retail Private Limited extended a loan of exactly the same amount to a company called Vishvapradhan Commercial Private Limited.
Curiously, Vishvapradhan Commercial Private Limited shared the same address (2nd Floor, Chitrakoot, Shreeram Mills Premises, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Worli, Mumbai) as Shinano Retail Private Limited when the transaction took place. Both their addresses have changed since.
During the period when the transaction took place, the directors of the company were Ashwin Khasgiwala and Kalpana Srinivasan. According to Khasgiwala’s Linkedin profile, he is Chief Financial Officer, Reliance Retails and Vice President – Finance & Accounts, RIL. He has held the latter position since February, 1998. Srinivasan’s Linkedin profile says that she is currently a Company Secretary at RIL.
All of the aforementioned financial information has been accessed through public documents that are available with the Registry of Companies, Ministry of Corporate Affairs.
Another public document available on the Registry of Companies website makes for an interesting read in the same context: RRPR’s 2009-10 balance sheet.
Radhika Roy Prannoy Roy Private Limited’s balance sheet for the same year, which Newslaundry has examined, mentions an unsecured loan that the company had received during the 2009-10 fiscal year. There is, however, no remark whatsoever on the source of the loan: the loan is again worth Rs 403.85 crore. The amount, to the last zero, is precisely the same as what Reliance Ventures had extended to Shinano Retail Private Limited who then lent it to another company.
Coincidence? Well, not really.
Newslaundry has examined documents that reveal that the Income Tax department, in a written submission to the Delhi High Court in an unrelated case in December, 2014, has contended that the “department has complete trail of transactions between promoters of the company [NDTV] and ‘benami’ person”. The document refers to a letter written by the Deputy Director Income Tax (Investigations), Unit – II, New Delhi in 2011, which “intimated that M/s. RRPR Holding Pvt Ltd has taken loan of Rs 403 crore approx. from M/s Visvapradhan Commercial Pvt Ltd, which had taken loan from M/s Shinano Retail Pvt Ltd and M/s Shinano Retail Pvt Ltd had taken loan from Reliance group of companies”.
Media on loan
While RIL’s takeover of Network 18 was widely reported and talked about, it seems Reliance’s interest in the media extends beyond Network 18.
The money trail described above and the observations of the Income Tax department make it more than clear that Reliance has considerable interest in NDTV through RRPR. What makes the loan curious is the way it was extended through multiple intermediaries rather than a straightforward loan from one company to another (Shinano Retail Private Limited was used as one of the front companies in the Network 18 takeover by RIL too).
Also, the loan, it seems, was strangely interest free as is evident from the latest audit report of RRPR, which Newslaundry has accessed. According to the 2014 audit report of the company, an unsecured loan liability of Rs 403.85 crore still remains.
As for NDTV, the “trust” that it prides itself on seems to be have been built on rather shaky foundations of opaque transactions. In an age of transparency it is difficult to argue how the fourth pillar of democracy can hold itself to a different standard. Especially when those being reported on in stories that impact the nation are supporting the very organisations, which report on them.
We have sent the following questions to RIL, NDTV and RRPR.
NDTV and RRPR
Tushar Pania, spokesman at Reliance Industries Limited, responded to Newslaundry with the following: “RIL does not have any direct or indirect interest in NDTV.”
NDTV and RRPR haven’t responded to Newslaundry’s queries at the time of uploading this story. The story will be updated if and when they do.
Meanwhile, the current revelations do raise an important question about media regulations in India. Most of the discourse pertaining to media regulations have been content-specific and does very little to address the growing concerns of cross-ownership.
If the Radia tapes hurt Indian media’s credibility, NDTV’s holding company raising funds through questionable channels marks a new low in terms of independent news media.