Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at the company's annual Smbhav event in New Delhi on January 15, 2020. Bezos, whose worth has been estimated at more than $110 billion, was officially in India for a meeting of business leaders in New Delhi. Photo: AFP/Sajjad Hussain

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, who was in India for three days last week, received a cold welcome from the Indian government after being denied an appointment with top officials.

This was a rare instance of the National Democratic Alliance government not welcoming a big foreign investor.

During his first visit to India in 2014, Bezos had a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This time Bezos sought meetings with top government officials, but no appointments were made.

Bezos was virtually declared as persona non-grata by the Modi government as the Washington Post has been very critical of the prime minister and his policies in India. Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013.

Several government ministers “advised” Bezos to “reign in” The Washington Posts’ criticism of Modi and his government.

The e-commerce giant entered the Indian market in 2013 and has since invested billions of dollars in building its infrastructure and directly and indirectly generating 700,000 jobs.

However, the trader’s lobby accuses Amazon and its rival Flipkart of killing the businesses of small traders by offering deep discounts. Last Wednesday traders staged protests in New Delhi and other cities where Amazon had organized events.

Barely two days ahead of Bezos’ visit, Indian authorities, following complaints from traders, launched an anti-trust investigation into the e-commerce giant and its rival Flipkart.

During an Amazon event in Delhi, Bezos promised to spend US$1 billion to digitize small and medium-sized Indian businesses. However, these announcements failed to placate the Indian establishment.

Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal said Amazon and Flipkart were “not doing a great favor” by investing billions of dollars in India.

He said the two companies have put in billions of dollars in India, “but if they make a loss, then they jolly well will have to finance those billions of dollars. It’s not as if they are doing a great favor to India by investing a billion dollars here. They have been investing for years here now in warehousing and financing their loss,” he said at an event in New Delhi last Thursday.

The minister later said his comments had been misunderstood and said all investments were welcome “as long as it is within the law.”

A day after this remark, Bezos wrote an open letter to Indian customers on the company website. He wrote: “I’m excited to share that we will invest an incremental US$1 billion to digitize micro and small businesses in cities, towns and villages across India, helping them reach more customers than ever before.”

Bezos also wrote that the “boundless” energy and “grit” of Indian people had inspired him. “Over 5,500,000 small and medium businesses are using the marketplace to offer India’s largest selection of products,” he wrote.

“Karigar and Saheli have enabled over a million artisans and women entrepreneurs to go online. More than 60,000 businesses are exporting ‘Make in India’ products globally, with cumulative exports exceeding US$1 billion,” the letter stated.

In addition to resistance from traders, India last year enforced new stringent rules for foreign investment in e-commerce which forced Amazon to rework its business structures and strained ties between New Delhi and Washington.

Bezos also drew flak for the stand taken by The Washington Post for it vehement criticism of various policies of the Narendra Modi government.

A ruling Bharatiya Janata Party leader became engaged in a Twitter spat with The Washington Post after accusing the publication of “biased coverage” against India. During the Amazon event in Delhi Bezos praised India and remarked that the 21st century will be the Indian century due to its dynamic and energetic democratic setup.

In response, the BJP’s foreign affairs department chief Vijay Chauthaiwale took a swipe and said the Amazon CEO should intimate the same to his “employees in Washington DC” else his charm offensive was likely to be a “waste of time and money.”

The remark was seen as a dig at The Washington Post, which recently published several articles critical of the Modi government on issues such as the scrapping of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir state and the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

In a sharp retort, Eli Lopez, Senior Editor with The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section, said: “Jeff Bezos doesn’t tell Washington Post journalists what to write. Independent journalism is not about charming governments. But there’s no question the work of our correspondents and columnists fits within India’s democratic traditions.”

Bezos, however, was able to interact with the country’s top industrialists at an event later in Mumbai. Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani, Godrej Group Chairman Adi Godrej, Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy and Bharti Airtel chief Sunil Mittal were present.

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