On November 20 last year, when Captain Amarinder Singh as the Punjab Congress chief announced 50 lakh 4G-enabled smartphones for the state’s youth with one year of free data and calling, many said he was doing a Mukesh Ambani, country’s richest man and head of Reliance Industries, who allowed free data to millions of users on his internet service, Jio, for six months.
But according to sources in the Congress and government, Amarinder was only promising what Ambani already had. Having set up its infrastructure across Punjab, Reliance Jio had “offered” to supply 50 lakh smartphones free or at a nominal cost if the Congress was voted to power.
Amarinder and Ambani have close ties and during his previous stint as the CM (2002-07), Reliance had set up its ambitious farm-to-fork project on several acres of government land. Amarinder accuses the successive Parkash Singh Badal government of “shelving” the project.
The “Captain Smart Connect” scheme that opened twice, for 10 days each, has so far registered nearly 30 lakh youths. Asked if it was not akin to bribing voters, Amarinder had said mobile phones will empower youth and connect them digitally with the world.
While it struggles with the legacy of debt, pending bills and overdraft, one thing the new government is not unduly worried about is how to come good on the promise of free smartphones.
As the data war hots up and mobile giants are merging to take on Jio’s lowest-tariff challenge, industry sources say free phones with one-year data and calling is no big deal for a company like Reliance, and it agrees.
“We already have 40 lakh customers in Punjab circle (including Chandigarh and Panchkula). Many will opt out of Jio after it goes paid. So even if we are able to provide basic models costing Rs 3,000 for free through bulk purchases from China, we can add 50 lakh new customers, including those who opt out. As for oneyear free data and calling, a part of it could be footed by the Punjab government,” a top executive of the company said, refusing to give an official statement. The top models of company’s mobile phones are in the range of Rs 18,000-20,000.
Punjab finance minister Manpreet Badal, however, says they will go through the global tender route.
“There are companies that are interested but in government everything has to be routed through tenders.
“The government will buy the smartphones from the lowest bidder,” he said.
Later, Mukesh Ambani was also wooed by former deputy CM Sukhbir Badal who had visited Mumbai to personally invite the Reliance boss to attend the much-hyped investment summits in Punjab.