Piyush Goyal, Union minister of railways and commerce and industry, will be leading the Indian delegation to the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) starting Tuesday at Davos. Ahead of his departure, the minister took time off to talk to Mint on the Davos summit and addressed controversies around some of his recent remarks. Edited excerpts:
You are leading the delegation to Davos. This year is the 50th year.
India is also presenting a very strong face there. We have a very strong business delegation accompanying me and we are building upon the buzz that the Prime Minister created when he went in 2018. His speech there really helped create and bring brand India into focus. This time the theme we have picked up is the power of India —the power of democracy, power of demography, power of leadership, power of opportunity and power of talent. We have built upon the fact that India offers you a huge economic opportunity, built upon the talent we have here, the large demographic dividend that we offer, the fact that we are a rules-based democracy so everything is transparent and Prime Minister’s own efforts to recognize India the world over as an honest country. Now they don’t have to worry about scandals and government’s preference to one person or the other. Rules are equal for all and you have to stay within the ambit of the law and enjoy (access to) a good market in India. That is the new India that we are trying to project in Davos.
You go at a time when our economy has slowed down significantly and is facing economic pain. How are you going to explain this to foreign investors?
All these are very seasoned and experienced business persons. I am meeting CEOs of companies, which are multibillion dollar enterprises with worldwide operations. China has shown the slowest growth in 29 years also. The world economy, trade have slowed down. In that they still see India as an oasis because of the 1.3 billion people aspiring for a better quality of life. They can clearly see that India is metamorphosing into an honest economy and that transition always had a short-term pain. To my mind, the basic structural changes that have happened in India will hold India in very good stead. They also see that opportunity, otherwise why would everybody want to meet me during Davos, wanting to explore opportunities to invest in India?
Do you think the Amazon episode that happened two days ago will disturb the optics on FDI?
Not at all. We have thousands of companies operating in India within the ambit of FDI law and rules. They all know that they have to work within the rules of the land, just like Indian companies have to work within the rules of the land when we invest. After all, we have a huge outbound investment also.
There is no episode as such. All that I mentioned was every company will have to stay within the law of the land. I am sure you are aware, that e-commerce in India, which was allowed in 2000, very categorically defines that in e-commerce 100% FDI is allowed only for B2B (business to business); it does not allow business to seller. They are not allowed to own inventory, to have control over inventory… After that of course, in order to encourage e-commerce companies, we brought in the marketplace model, but that did not allow business to consumer interface. This is an agnostic platform.
You believe Amazon is in violation of these rules?
I don’t know if I believe or not, but the Competition Commission of India (CCI) has certainly started investigating their practices. There are a lot of observations of the CCI in their order initiating their investigation. Similarly, we have had a lot of complaints of FDI violations coming in from different quarters in my ministry.
As a responsible government, we are giving them a chance to respond to the concerns. We are engaging in a dialogue with them. Ever since June, when I became the minister and came to this ministry, I have been talking to e-commerce companies to stay within the letter and spirit of the law.
So it is not that you are choosing between domestic trader lobby and FDI?
How can I choose? Domestic retail traders are also my responsibility. The Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade also has to look at internal trade. Internal trade includes retail trade. So while these companies are showcasing the supply side, they are ignoring the fact that there is a huge retail side to it. Millions of jobs are being lost in that as complaints seem to suggest and some of the things are evident. For example, in mobile phones, there is such a dominance of the e-commerce marketplace that small retail is almost wiped out. Have you seen any small retailers any more? They have disappeared.
Didn’t Jeff Bezos seek an appointment with you?
Yes. But there was a scheduling conflict.
Your big message in Davos is going to be that India is open to business?
It has always been so and will continue to be so. Not a single investor has raised a single concern and I am in touch with them on a regular basis. If anybody has any concerns, I’ll be happy to share with them.
Any chance of meeting with the US President?
No, I am sure I cannot expect to meet the President of the United States.
What about (Pakistan PM) Imran Khan?
No question of my meeting him.
Pretika Khanna contributed to this story.