When Amazon’s Jeff Bezos visited India in January, the Indian government gave him an unprecedented snub. One man had at least some part to play in that.
Praveen Khandelwal, founder and general secretary of the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), was instrumental in leading Indian traders in a protest against what they see as Amazon’s unfair trade practices. On Jan. 15, when Bezos decided to be a “surprise guest” at the e-commerce giant’s event for engaging small- and medium entrepreneurs (SMEs), Khandelwal led a traders’ protest right outside the venue in New Delhi.
Posters held by the traders read “Bezos go back”—reminiscent of the British-era protests against the Simon Commission. Khandelwal tells Quartz that the likes of Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart are “exactly like the East India Company.” “We already have a digitisation policy. This $1 billion is nothing but promotional finance,” he added, referring to Bezos’ promised investment to help Indian traders become digital savvy.
The protests may have been a minor irritant for Bezos, given that the SME meeting went on uninterrupted. Yet, it set in motion a series of events that wasn’t the best PR moment for the world’s richest man. Reports had initially suggested that the Amazon founder was to meet prime minister Narendra Modi, which never materialised.
Commerce minister Piyush Goyal, too, was dismissive of Amazon’s $1 billion investment plan. Foreign investors weren’t doing India any favour, he said. Though he later issued a clarification, the damage was already done.
While Bezos was unable to secure an audience with anyone in the Indian government, Khandelwal led a CAIT delegation to Goyal’s office on Jan. 18 to “clear the air” about foreign direct investment (FDI) policy.
This is no minor coup, but it certainly isn’t the first for Khandelwal. And behind it all is his political ties and public relations acumen.
“My family has always had strong political ties, even though trading is in my blood,” says the 58-year-old, seated behind a large desk at his office inside his construction material and hardware store in New Delhi’s Faiz Road. “My time and energy is focused on CAIT. I don’t participate in the day-to-day running of this business,” he says. Khandelwal’s brothers take care of that.
The trader in Khandelwal has always co-existed with the quasi-politician in him. As a student of Ramjas College in Delhi University in the early 1980s, Khandelwal was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He went on to head its media cell in 1983, where he says he began to grow his network.
“But my uncle, Satish Khandelwal, a Delhi Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA and later deputy mayor, was a big influence on me,” says Khandelwal. His uncle was also active in trade politics, engaging with unions and associations and taking their cause to the government. Khandelwal would often accompany him.
During this time in the 1990s, he met Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP stalwart who would later become India’s prime minister. “Atal ji heard my concerns for the traders, but he asked me, ‘Who will listen to you? Is there an all India association for traders?’” That question, Khandelwal says, birthed CAIT.
He started calling trade associations across the country, asking them to join his new initiative. “I would call traders, tell them to hold on for Mr Khandelwal, and then change my voice and speak to them as myself,” he says. It’s an old hack for young companies who want to give the illusion of an elaborate setup.
Khandelwal, a one-man army at the time, would travel across the country listening to traders’ woes, come back to Delhi, and get press releases typed in Connaught Place. “Then I would translate them in Hindi and get those typed. I would personally take those printed copies to the offices of leading newspapers,” says Khandelwal.
It also helped that he had nifty ways of phrasing CAIT’s comments. For instance, he recently “lambasted” former finance minister P Chidambaram for speaking out against the government’s snub to Bezos. And, he has a comment to offer on everything from the Delhi elections to the union budget.
His biggest motivation at the time was to change the perception that traders were just mere street protestors with no intellectual capital. “I wanted to send out the message that CAIT would be a conduit between the government and traders. And that street protests would be our very last resort,” he explains.
This strategy seems to have helped many traders who feel ignored by the government. “India has 70 million traders who are drivers of the economy… and Khandelwal is able to take them to all political parties and leadership at the national level,” explains Ganesh Ram, a Chennai-based distributor for notebooks, pens, and batteries. And unlike the Confederation of Indian Industry or the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry that are industry-oriented organisations, traders feels CAIT represents their interests better.
Between 1990 and 2000, Khandelwal worked hard to gather forces, and bring under one umbrella 40,000 trade associations of varying sizes. CAIT is now present in 500 districts in India.
CAIT’s first claim to fame came in its opposition of the FDI policy for retail under the Manmohan Singh-led Congress regime in 2011. Traders, led by CAIT, took out mass protests against the government’s stance to increase the cap on FDI in retail, saying that this would hurt their businesses and give foreign players undue advantage.
“Parliament was shut for eight days because of the FDI issue. It was a big win for traders,” Khandelwal says. This was also the time e-commerce was beginning to take shape in India. And Khandelwal found a concrete, long-standing issue to lobby the government on behalf of India’s traders.
During the introduction of the goods & services tax (GST) regime, too, CAIT was able to represent the traders’ concern before the central government. “It was earlier proposed that we would need to file separate GST invoices for each line on the bill. That would’ve been a massive headache for traders. But because of CAIT’s intervention, an ‘offline solution’ was formulated and these bills could be filed collectively,” explains Dhairyashil Patil, an FMCG distributor from Kolhapur, Maharashtra, and national organising secretary of CAIT.
But Khandelwal’s proximity to power hasn’t always worked for CAIT. “While Khandelwal’s political affiliation has helped traders immensely, there are times when it has also stood in the way of bringing real reform,” says Bhupendra Jain, owner of a Bhopal-based advertising agency in India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh.
The same FDI policy that the BJP opposed alongside CAIT was made foreign-investor friendly by the current BJP government under prime minister Narendra Modi. “I have often felt that CAIT has supported central government schemes that hurt the trading community’s interests,” Jain adds. “Modi’s Mudra Loan scheme for small traders, for instance, has had very little impact on the lives of micro traders.”
Khandelwal, though, is firm that his personal political affiliation has no bearing on the workings of CAIT.
As he looks at his Apple Watch for time, his phone rings. He tells the person on the line that he spoke to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman the previous night. There are names of some of India’s leading industrialists that feature in the conversation. But he senses the company in the room and says he’ll call back.
This is a fairly prominent corridor of power in a small shop on Faiz Road.