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Snub to Bezos boorish

When ministers party men resort to such posturing, foreign investors bound to scurry for cover

By The Editorial Board

  • Published 21.01.20, 2:11 AM
  • Updated 21.01.20, 2:11 AM
Union minister Piyush Goyal.
Union minister Piyush Goyal. PTI

The churlish response of the commerce and industry minister, Piyush Goyal, to the offer of the Amazon chief, Jeff Bezos, to invest $1 billion in India is as surprising as it is boorish, especially at a time when the country is trying desperately hard to attract foreign investors.

Mr Goyal said that Mr Bezos was not doing the country any favour with his big-bucks offer and accused him of trying to palm off an accounting sleight-of-hand as a generous gesture. The charge was that Amazon had indulged in predatory pricing through massive discounts on its e-commerce sales and had run up gaping losses on its books that it now needs to paper over. The minister was clearly trying to signal that the Narendra Modi government was empathetic to the rising concerns of mom-and-pop stores in the country that have virtually crumbled under the onslaught of the e-commerce platforms built by Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart. The howls of protest that followed his crabby remark forced Mr Goyal to quickly backtrack and suggest that he had no axe to grind with Amazon. Mr Bezos’s riposte that the Amazon investment would create one million jobs in the country skilfully exposed the soft underbelly of the Modi government’s under-achievement in the economic sphere.

The cut-and-thrust has continued with Mr Goyal changing tack and suggesting that internal enquiries by his ministry have indicated that the large e-commerce platforms have been violating the laws that govern their operations. This is an ominous statement and takes on some significance in the light of the fact that the Competition Commission of India recently ordered an independent investigation into sharp practices at these e-commerce portals. Strangely, the accusations from the minister and the CCI probe come at a time when India’s largest private conglomerate prepares to launch its own e-commerce platform.

As the controversy over Amazon’s investment offer raged, there was an even more outrageous attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party to muzzle the independence of the venerable Washington Post which has been owned by Mr Bezos since 2013 and has been critical of the Modi administration, especially over the Citizenship Amendment Act. The party’s foreign affairs department chief, Vijay Chauthaiwale, had the gall to suggest that Amazon’s troubles in India and the charm offensive by Mr Bezos would not succeed unless he was able to plug the paper’s trenchant criticism against Indian policymaking. When ministers and party officials adopt such minatory positions, foreign investors are bound to scurry for cover. That is the last thing that the Indian government would want when its finances are in a terrible mess.