A billboard advertisement for Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd in Mumbai on January 29, 2020. Photo: AFP/Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto

India’s leading telecom operator Reliance Jio has lodged a complaint with the telecom watchdog, accusing Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea of unethical marketing practices amid the farmers’ protests.

In its complaint to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the Mukesh Ambani promoted company said its rivals were defaming Reliance Jio by depicting it as anti-farmer and projecting themselves as farmer-friendly, “while at the same time intentionally fanning the anti-government protests.”

It accused both players of running an unethical and anti-competitive Mobile Number Portability campaign to capitalize on the ongoing farmer protests.

“They are inciting the public by making preposterous claims that migrating Jio mobile numbers to their networks would be an act of support to farmers’ protests,” the letter stated. These actions are in violation of principles of tariff advertisement and the regulators’ orders, it added.

Bharti Airtel has called the complaint baseless, while Vodafone Idea is yet to react to the allegations. It said in a statement: “Bharti Airtel has operated in the telecom industry for 25 years. During this period, we have competed hard in the market place and striven to serve our customers with excellence. At the same time we take great pride in treating our competitors and partners with respect.”

It said that Reliance Jio’s complaint was in “poor taste and is scurrilous to say the least” and urged the telecom watchdog to dismiss it.

Farmer unions have been protesting against Narendra Modi’s recent changes in agrarian laws for more than a fortnight. They feel the new laws will deprive them of bargaining power for their produce and they will be at the mercy of predatory pricing by agri-business corporations.

Thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states have congregated on the outskirts of New Delhi. They want the laws to be completely repealed and talks with the government have not been fruitful.

Last week they called for a boycott of Reliance products as they perceive the oil-to-retail conglomerate to be one of the major beneficiaries of the new laws. On various social media platforms, netizens have called for junking Reliance Jio mobile phone connections and avoid patronizing Reliance retail outlets.

There have been isolated cases of protests outside such stores. On Twitter, hashtags like #boycottJiosim have been trending.

Interestingly, when Reliance Jio started its services in September 2016, it had caused widespread disruption in the Indian telecommunications sector by offering a slew of freebies for a long period. It was accused by its rivals of predatory pricing and other unethical practices to woo subscribers.

This led to huge pressure on the margins of existing players and some like Tata Teleservices and Uninor had to wind up their operations, while others like Vodafone and Idea Cellular decided to merge to take on the stiff competition.

This shakeout left only three privately-owned firms in the market – Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, and the government-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam.

Market watchers feel that Vodofone Idea’s finances inspire little confidence and soon the country may be left with only two private players. They feel even the state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam may be sold in the future as the Narendra Modi government is keen to sell loss-making units.