In the fall of 2016, Cyrus Mistry, then chairman of India’s biggest conglomerate, Tata Group, flew to China for a crucial meeting with Joe Tsai, Alibaba’s co-founder and executive vice chairman, according to two people with direct knowledge of the visit. Alibaba had been courting Tata, hoping an alliance would jump-start its business in India. The previously unreported meeting was a success: Tsai and Mistry signed a preliminary agreement to pursue a partnership. It looked like Alibaba was about to gain a powerful ally.
Instead, days after the meeting, Mistry was fired as part of a surprise boardroom coup at Tata. With Tata in turmoil, the Alibaba talks fell apart, dealing a blow to the Chinese internet giant’s India plans. Alibaba later courted other Indian conglomerates, including through a previously unreported 2017 meeting between Alibaba’s president and Mukesh Ambani, the politically influential chairman of Reliance Industries. None of those efforts led anywhere.