On the final day of a visit to India that is fast becoming a PR nightmare, Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon will create one million more jobs in the Asian country by 2025.
The chief executive, who also owns the Washington Post and is ranked by Forbes and Bloomberg as the richest person in the world, has this week been meeting Indian small business owners and rubbing shoulders with Bollywood royalty at corporate events.
Dressed mostly in traditional Indian clothing, he has flown kites with children, laid a wreath at the Gandhi memorial in Delhi and taken a selfie on stage during his keynote speech at a major business summit.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
But his three-day trip has been overshadowed by loud anti-Amazon protests organised by a federation of bricks-and-mortar business owners, as well as critical comments by senior members of Narendra Modi’s ruling party and the launch of a probe into Amazon’s business model by the competition authority.
Friday’s statement from Mr Bezos said the job creation would be achieved through investments in infrastructure, technology and logistics. A 2018 regulation means Amazon can no longer sell its own brand products in India and must instead provide a marketplace for local manufacturers and producers.
Mr Bezos said the company was “excited about what lies ahead” and has been gushing in his praise of India throughout the trip, at one point saying that “the 21st century is going to be an Indian century” and describing cooperation between the US and India as “the most important alliance in the 21st century”.
India, it seems, is not so enamoured with him. A Reuters report said Mr Modi had rebuffed repeated requests from Amazon to meet Mr Bezos during his visit for a prime ministerial photo opportunity.
On Thursday, while the CEO took part in a chummy interaction with the actor Shah Rukh Khan at a Mumbai event promoting Amazon’s Prime Video, most media focused instead on the scathing comments of India’s trade minister Piyush Goyal at a security conference in Delhi.
Dismissing Amazon’s announcement of $1bn investment in India, made at the start of Bezos’s trip, Mr Goyal told the audience that “it’s not as if they are doing a great favour to India”. He said Amazon had been operating at a loss of around that much over the last year, so “if they make a loss of a billion dollars every year then they jolly well have to finance that billion dollars”.
On Friday, another senior politician – Vijay Chauthaiwale, the chief of the ruling BJP’s foreign affairs department – took a swipe at Mr Bezos’s Washington Post for its coverage of India, which he called “highly biased and agenda driven”.
Without giving any examples, Mr Chauthaiwale said there were “a lot of problems” with the Post’s reporting. “I am not opposing Amazon as a company, in fact I am a regular customer… Jeff Bezos should go home tell Washington Post what is his impression about India,” he said.
But it is the vocal protest movement against Amazon that is likely to have hurt Mr Bezos the most, with placard-waving demonstrators attending outside the business summit he addressed.
Rallies were organised in 300 cities across the country by powerful retail lobbying group the Confederation of All India Traders, which claims to speak for the up to 25 per cent of the population dependent on small businesses.
The group argues that Amazon is putting people out of business with predatory pricing and other “malpractices”. Its national secretary, Sumit Agarwal, called Mr Bezos an “economic terrorist”.
And on Monday, the Competition Commission of India ordered an investigation into whether Amazon and the mostly Walmart-owned e-commerce site Flipkart use “exclusionary tactic[s] to foreclose competition”.
Amazon said it was “confident in our compliance” with marketplace regulations and would “welcome the opportunity to address allegations made about Amazon”.
India’s shopkeepers have represented a core constituency for the BJP since the early days of the party, and the comments of Mr Goyal and Mr Chauthaiwale have been widely shared by the party’s vociferous supporters online.
But industry executives warned that it was a risky manoeuvre that would likely put off international investment, at a time when the country’s economic growth is already projected to fall to a 11-year low this year. One unnamed leader at an American company operating in India told Reuters that Mr Goyal’s remark in particular was “clearly unbecoming, and it will hurt how the world views India as a destination”.