Why Jeff Bezos was given a cold shoulder by Modi

In India, proprietors make sure their editors toe the line. A single phone call is enough to rein in errant TV anchors and newspaper reporters. No bear hug for Jeff Bezos till he does that

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Mala Jay

Gita Gopinanath, chief economist of the IMF, was asked a question about Piyush Goyal's extraordinary put-down of Jeff Bezos's offer to invest one billion dollars in India. She said: "India needs investments", thereby cryptically conveying where she stands on the bizarre episode.

What bizarre episode? Well, Jeff Bozos came to India recently on a three-day visit but his best friend refused to meet him. Bezos turned on the charm, saying ‘I Love You, India’ and wearing Nehru jackets and embroidered kurtas but his best friend didn't even acknowledge his presence.

Puzzled, Jeff Bezos played his trump card. He announced plans to invest a billion dollars and generate a million jobs in India. But instead of giving him a big bear hug, his best friend instructed his subordinates to call him a 'predator' and say 'You're not doing us any favours'. Truly bizarre.

But who is this Jeff Bezos and why is his best friend giving him such short shrift?

How does one even begin to describe who Jeff Bezos is? Let’s see. He is the richest man on Earth. He isn't just a billionaire but a centi-billionaire, meaning he's got a hundred of them.

So what does he do with all that money? He runs a company called Blue Origin that will soon make joyriding in space as easy as ride-sharing in a Uber cab. Incidentally, he's a big shareholder in the Uber parent company. He also has plans to enter the global oil refinery business in a big way.

Isn't he the founder of Amazon? Yes, he is also the owner of ‘The Washington Post’, one of the world’s most respected newspapers.

Okay, but what does all this have to do with India? Well, to start with a nugget of information, he is the proud owner of a swanky new Amazon office building in Hyderabad that has 49 high-speed elevators and provides zumba classes for its 15,000 Indian employees.

But isn't Amazon just a website that sells books? Why does it need so many elevators and so many employees?

Are you living in the stone age or what? Amazon isn’t only a booksite anymore. It's into video-streaming music, films and has launched Prime Video to outdo Netflix.

It has expanded to consumer goods too and has become the largest online shopping retailer in the world. Bezos wants to capture the consumer goods market in India, with its one billion population. If he has his way, nobody will have to go to the local kirana store anymore, they can buy whatever they want with a click. That’s why he came to India – to sell his big idea, which will make India an online shopping paradise.

He expected red-carpet treatment. With the Indian economy in such bad shape, he thought the money was planning to invest and the jobs he is promising to generate would ensure a hero’s welcome, complete with elephants and trumpets. He expected a bear hug from his best friend and a rousing acclamation on live television extolling him as the eleventh Avatar who will rescue India from the nadir of economic despond.

Now who is this best friend who insists on saying ‘katti’ all the time and is not tempted by the Bezos ‘batti’ that is on offer?

Howdy Modi of course. Who else? No introductions needed. Very well-known in Silicon Valley and on hugging terms with Zuckerberg, Gates and Bezos.

Then why is being so mean to Jeff Bezos? No appointment, no meeting. Worse, asking his subordinates to rebuke him publically and call him a “predator” and to say he was “not doing any favour” by investing his billions? Being told by a ruling party functionary nobody has even heard of to “go back and tell your employees in Washington Post” to stop criticising the India.

That is the heart of matter. Bezos is refusing to rein in the editors of the newspaper he owns. The Washington Post has been writing very negative articles on the clampdown in Kashmir, the crackdown on student protests, the controversial new citizenship law and other sensitive issues. It says there’s no democracy left under Modi Raj.

Jeff Bezos is refusing to order his newspaper’s employees to stop saying that Modi is an authoritarian leader with no regard for human rights. He’s claiming that in America, they believe in something called press freedom. That’s nonsense. In India, proprietors make sure their editors toe the line. A single phone call is enough to rein in errant TV anchors and newspaper reporters. No bear hug for Jeff Bezos till he does that.

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