IN THEORY, THE battle for e-commerce in India should be a purely commercial one, in which two of the world’s biggest retailers, Walmart and Amazon, compete with each other and Reliance Industries, a conglomerate that also owns India’s biggest retailer. In reality, there is a fourth force: the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and untold numbers of small merchants that support his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As nationalists, they naturally side with Reliance, which is led by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. That makes the battle visceral, mixing business, politics, xenophobia and billionaires.
Before Reliance Retail, Mr Ambani’s commercial arm, launched its own e-commerce platform last year, Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart were the undisputed lords of online selling in India. They invested heavily in technology, logistics and payments to build market shares of about 35% each in what is still, partly as a result of curbs on their activities by the Modi government, a relatively underexploited e-commerce market. Now, coinciding with a renewed surge in covid-19 cases in India, the risks they face are rising. Lockdowns may favour Reliance Retail, especially given the prominence of its online grocery store, JioMart. And yet more government efforts to hobble the foreign-owned e-merchants may be on the way. As a result, Amazon and Flipkart…
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