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The Adani group moves in ways that are both obvious and mysterious. The latest to pique curiosity was its declaration of intent last week to participate in 5G spectrum auctions for “private network solutions" and “enhanced cyber security" across operations that span logistics, seaports, airports, power generation, its delivery and also manufacturing. In a statement, Gautam Adani’s conglomerate spoke of its need for telecom airwaves suited not just for industrial command-and-control, but also its digital ambitions. These include a platform for ‘super apps’ and a big data centre venture, for which it has an alliance with EdgeConneX Inc. By way of policy, the Indian government has said that private companies would soon be given access to bits of bandwidth for captive networks. But firms keen on these were expected to apply for direct allotments and not bid for large chunks alongside telecom players. While Adani has said it has no consumer-facing telecom plans, the big-ticket bidding it’s clearly preparing for has stoked speculation over whether that might only be its current stance.

Consider the context. The Adani group’s emergence has broadly followed Reliance’s on the classic dictum that one must be either the No. 1 or No. 2 player in any field of business to justify investing in it. Reliance Jio took under half a decade to take the top slot in telecom. Adani began with infrastructure. Its Mundra port was an ode to bulk efficiency and the group controls nearly a quarter of India’s port capacity now, with a Colombo project in the bag and airports gaining prominence on its radar. In coal production and electricity, like its recent move to snap up Holcim’s cement factories in India, scale has always loomed large on its map of ambitions. As most Adani firms are closely held and have seen their valuations zoom, Gautam Adani’s net worth rivals that of Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani. Both display a similar appetite for acquisitions, and while Adani’s heavy use of leverage might mean a steeper chase as interest rates rise, few foresee any let-up in the group’s quest for asset enlargement in focal sectors. Shares of Adani Enterprises trade at a far bigger ratio of earnings than those of Reliance, a sign of investor confidence in a far more profitable future. Yet, what gives wind to a budding rivalry of billionaires is their recent overlaps of business interest. Backward integration in power had already taken Adani into gas, but its talks with Aramco after the Saudi’s oil major’s Reliance deal fell through could set the stage for a bigger hydrocarbons play. It’s no secret that Adani has been scouting for petrochem partners. The real theatre of action, though, will be a domain that both consider adjacent: clean energy. Adani’s goal of becoming the world’s largest producer of renewable energy by 2030 was met last year by Reliance’s giga-factory plan that looks bold enough to get there first. And given the matrix of synergies sought by both, the game could plausibly shift to data: Reliance invested in its supply, Adani is eyeing its storage and an edge spied in end-to-end assets may blur their turf. If airwaves can add value, so could an Adani effort to maximize their utility.

That would depend on policy restrictions, of course. Captive networks have been classified apart from the public sort. Still, even on this score, of keeping one’s overall strategy in tune with regulatory conditions, Adani has traced a success curve just as remarkable as Reliance. Which explains why the slightest hint of a move by one in the other’s direction holds us agog.

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