| Paulson with Bhattacharjee at Writers’ Buildings. Picture by Amit Datta
Calcutta, Oct. 28: Away from his natural habitat, the big cat of capitalism liked what he saw in the communist.
But Henry Paulson Jr, the US treasury secretary, had one regret, which slipped out soon after he wrapped up more weighty matters such as infrastructure with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
The American, an environment enthusiast and a regular explorer of forests, mentioned to the chief minister that he had never seen a tiger in its natural habitat.
Bhattacharjee then told him of the Sunderbans, where the chance of spotting a Bengal tiger in the wild is the brightest. Playing the perfect host, the chief minister suggested that Paulson make a trip to the Sunderbans during his next visit.
The sidelight captured the mood in the wake of the tour by Paulson, the highest-ranking American government official to visit Bengal to discuss infrastructure and development in the east.
It also reflected the willingness of both sides — the two ends of the ideological spectrum — to keep themselves engaged, the principal reason behind Paulson breaking free of the usual circuit and touching down in Calcutta.
The treasury secretary, who made the trip though ambassador David C. Mulford could not accompany him because of a last-minute cancellation, later said he was “happy with the talks” with the chief minister.
“I have heard very good things about the chief minister and I believe that he is a great economic reformer,” Paulson added.
The theme persisted at lunch where he spoke to industrialist Sanjiv Goenka and commerce and industries secretary Sabyasachi Sen.
“He (Paulson) told us that he was very impressed with the chief minister. It was clear from his comments that he is really positive about opportunities in India, especially Bengal,” Goenka said.
Sen added: “It (the lunch) was an informal meeting, where the treasury secretary spoke about his excitement with India. The fact that the US government is upbeat about our country is the most important thing.”
At the lunch, Paulson met Union minister Pranab Mukherjee, who referred to, among other topics of discussion, the importance of the east.
Infrastructure tops the agenda of Paulson’s tour. The US is keen to satiate India’s hunger for infrastructure, provided some concessions are made.
“The government can do more to encourage private investment (in infrastructure) by establishing more hospitable investment, regulatory and financial regimes,” Paulson had told the council on foreign relations before he left the US.
He seems to have done his homework with Bengal also in mind. “The great Indian poet Tagore wrote that he had become his own version of an optimist. He said, ‘If I can’t make it through one door, I’ll go through another door — or I’ll make a door’. The revolution in Indian economic thinking is ‘making doors’ and invigorating the Indian economy,” he had told the council.
Today, too, at the end of his Bengal visit, Paulson referred to US investments in a formal statement. “We discussed ways to increase investment in Bengal. The US is very interested in increasing such investment.”
Paulson could not address journalists because of a media melee. “If you want me to speak to you, then please keep silent,” Paulson said, putting his forefinger on his lips. But the din did not subside.
Most reporters had only one question — “what about the nuclear deal'” — though Paulson’s visit was related to infrastructure.
In the statement, Paulson said what is expected of any US official. “The chief minister and I discussed the civil nuclear deal. The US believes it will help India meet its energy and environmental objectives. We remain committed to the deal. We respect India’s democratic process and we hope India will decide to implement the agreement as soon as possible.”