Walk the talk
At a meeting last year called in Foggy Bottom, the seat of the state department of the United States of America, to update Hillary Clinton on preparations for her trip to India to conduct the Indo-US strategic dialogue along with her counterpart, S.M. Krishna, one of her aides used a line from Rabindranath Tagore that said “you cannot cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”
That line immediately caught the imagination of the secretary of state because the subject of that meeting was the potential to pool in India’s geography and history with American talent and resources to span the waters of the Bay of Bengal and beyond into the Asia-Pacific with the idea of making their rim a hub of thriving commerce.
Clinton christened the project the “New Silk Route”, with its inevitable historic resonance. The atmosphere at that meeting was heady at times, but optimistic throughout. The biggest setback to communism, with masses of people turning their backs on Marxism-Leninism, since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellite Eastern Europe had just occurred in Bengal.
A bright young American diplomat with experience of India, who has since gone on secondment to work on a similar project to span one of America’s Great Lakes and spread prosperity through commerce, called the change which had just brought the popular and populist Mamata Banerjee to power in Calcutta as the fall of the “Bengal Wall”, a reference to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in the previous big setback to communism. It is a coinage that has stuck in subsequent references to Bengal within the US administration.
The New Silk Route initiative has steamed ahead since Clinton formally unveiled it in Chennai 10 months ago. In doing so, the Americans are applying the lessons they learned from negotiating a civilian nuclear deal with India that took as long as three years from 2005 to 2008.
And because they negotiated the deal badly then from their point of view, the US government and its private sector are still picking up the debris from those negotiations as they watch rivals from France and Russia getting the better of America’s nuclear industry.
Much of the public focus so far on the New Silk Route has been on the economic aspects of the initiative. In the process, it has been lost on most people that the US, unlike during the nuclear deal, has been building a solid coalition of support within India that will ensure that the project progresses without too many hitches even after Clinton has left office or if Barack Obama or Manmohan Singh are no longer leading their respective countries.
Although there is much public noise about Clinton having come to Calcutta now because the communists are out of power in Bengal after three decades, it would be a big mistake to see her just concluded visit purely in that context. Clinton has already built a bridge to the Tamil Nadu chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa, with a visit to Chennai last year that was similar to her trip to Calcutta this week. By all accounts, Clinton’s meeting with the Bengal chief minister went as well as (if not better) her talks with the convent-educated Jayalalithaa in Chennai.
While Clinton tapped both Mamata and Jayalalithaa personally, other Americans in important positions have been reaching out to political leaders across the spectrum and in particular to those in India’s eastern region who are critical to making the New Silk Route a reality.
Clinton recently sent Wendy Sherman, the US under-secretary of state, to Patna, where she met the Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar. On her return to Washington, Sherman, now a diplomat but essentially an experienced legislative aide on Capitol Hill, has been spreading the word that if Nitish Kumar succeeds in his mandate in Bihar, that state could be an example for the world that good governance pays both political and economic dividends.
The Americans already have a good chemistry with the Odisha chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, more because of who he is rather than on account of his state’s record. All the chief ministers or deputy chief ministers from the northeastern states, with the solitary exception of communist-ruled Tripura, have been to the US, not individually, but as a group, with help and coordination from the ministry of overseas Indian affairs at the instance of its minister, Vayalar Ravi, who works very closely with the ministry of development of north-eastern region.
Both the Clintons, husband and wife, have struck deep roots in Mumbai — Hillary through her visits as secretary of state and the former president, Bill Clinton, through the work of his charitable foundation in India. The US government spokesmen may publicly distance themselves from Narendra Modi, but under the radar, Americans have made sure that they have access to the Gujarat chief minister. If he emerges as the front-runner for prime ministership, all that has so far been said about Modi for reasons of political expediency will be bygones, and Washington will find ways to deal with him in the most powerful office in India.
The net result of all this is that the US is better placed now than any other country to deal with a fractured verdict in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in the event of such an outcome. Intense networking has ensured that unlike the time during the nuclear negotiations, Washington has good relations with every political party in India: it is in touch even with Left parties although there may be irreconcilable differences on policy between them. Without exception, the Americans are wooing every potential leader of the next coalition that will hold office in New Delhi after the 2014 elections. Clinton’s dialogue with Mamata is the latest example of this strategy that has been decided at very high levels of the Obama administration. In this respect, the US is way ahead of its competitors for influence in India.
Even though Clinton’s visit may not have produced the kind of attention-grabbing breakthroughs that the public has got used to with the 2005 announcement of the nuclear deal, it has served to produce a buoyancy that was needed in Indo-US relations before America fully slipped into election mode.
Such is the intensity of the Indo-US engagement now that on an average, India receives three official visitors from America every week. Yet an erroneous perception exists that their bilateral relations lack steam. Clinton’s visit, which will be followed by the external affairs minister’s travel to Washington next month with several of his colleagues, will somewhat help negate that perception.
The truth about Indo-US relations is that there are no serious political problems between the two sides that are likely to create a crisis. Not that there are no mutual differences. But there has been a will and there has been a way to skirt around these differences or, at worst, to air them and leave them there.
Even on the much debated issue of India’s purchases of Iranian oil, a half way house that shelters against any escalation of the problem has been found through dialogue. Unfortunately, the sound and fury on Capitol Hill on this issue in an election year, when both Democratic and Republican congressional candidates need funds from the Jewish lobby, gives the impression that a crisis in Indo-US relations is imminent on account of Iran.
It was not surprising that within hours of Clinton leaving Calcutta, there was a spat between the Bengal government and the US consulate general in Calcutta on the issue of whether Clinton and Mamata discussed foreign direct investment in retail at all. Economic issues are going to test Indo-US relations in the coming years much more than political problems.
That is a challenge for which there is no solution as long as the Americans are unable to come to terms with their diminished economic strength and India remains the second fastest growing economy in the world.