Calcutta, Nov. 3: Since he created history by secretly flying to Beijing on a Pakistani jet in July 1971, Henry Kissinger has known communist China and its leaders as few westerners have done.
It was perhaps natural that, on his first-ever visit to communist Bengal, he would look for Chinese parallels. And he found the most important one in Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who “reminded him of Deng Xiaoping”, he confided to a source.
The two met only for 45 minutes but that seemed to have been enough to convince the former US secretary of state, who had pioneered America’s diplomatic engagement with the communist world, that Bengal’s chief minister was a reformer in the mould of the man behind China’s economic success story.
Before he met Bhattacharjee at Writers’ Buildings, Kissinger had told a meeting, organised by the CII’s eastern region, that he had been keen to come to Bengal “which has a communist government committed to investments and development”.
Old barriers have obviously broken --- even in Bengal, where the Leftists once found in Kissinger the “archetypal American imperialist” whose tenure at the National Security Council and the State Department saw controversial roles for the US in Chile, Angola, East Timor and during Bangladesh’s liberation war. That the chief minister met Kissinger, now a private citizen, was a sign of the changing times in Bengal.
“We talked about life in general” was all Bhattacharjee told the media after the meeting. But there are no prizes for guessing why the meeting took place. Kissinger may not be holding any public office now, but he is too important a business connection in America for any investment-friendly government to ignore. He was in India on a US business delegation like Frank Wisner, another old India hand.
It would have been a very negative signal for investors, especially from abroad, if Bhattacharjee had avoided meeting Kissinger. That scenario would have confirmed the old saying that communists, like leopards, do not change their spots. A meeting between the two would have been Bhattacharjee’s answer to sceptics.
Kissinger’s visit itself, coming within days of those by Henry Paulson, US secretary of treasury, and Dick Parsons, chairman of the AOL Time Warner group, was a strong enough signal, as former president of CII’s eastern region, Sanjay Budhia, told the former, that things were changing in communist Bengal. Calcutta hasn’t had such back-to-back high-profile visits for as long as one could remember.
The positive signal from the chief minister was all the more necessary because there are sceptics of another kind in his own party, the CPM, and in his government. Only yesterday, when reporters drew the attention of CPM general secretary Prakash Karat to Kissinger’s remark, during an interview to The Telegraph, that US and communists could do business together, the latter shrugged it off, saying: “He’s a private citizen. I don’t want to react to his remarks.”
Today, although the chief minister found time to meet Kissinger, almost none of the ministers and bureaucrats invited to the CII session, cared to attend it. CII sources confirmed that all senior bureaucrats and several ministers, including commerce and industry minister Nirupam Sen, had been invited to the session, at which Kissinger spoke on “The 21st century: where will India be”.
“It’s nothing to do with anti-Americanism,” said a prominent city businessman, requesting anonymity, “all that’s gone, except for some ritualistic shows (like the Anti-Imperialism Day observed on September 1 every year). It (the absence of the government’s representatives) shows the old indifference to trade and business which has been the bane of Bengal.”
Kissinger had some words of advice for Indian planners and strategists, which could have been meant for Karat and the CPM as well. India’s growing relationship with the US, he said at the CII session, would benefit both countries because, unlike in the past, the two countries now share “common concerns” such as Islamist radicalism. “Fundamental shifts” are taking place in global affairs, according to him, with the countries in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean regions, such as India, China, Japan and the US, taking the centrestage. The days of the old-style foreign policy, centred around the Atlantic and Europe, are over.
But he didn’t see the US foreign policy about China the way many even in the US --- and India --- saw it: as a “threat” and a conflict waiting to happen. He would like India to maintain and develop relations with both the US and China. And, that would leave someone like Karat high and dry with his thesis that the US is interested in expanding and deepening ties with India in order to “encircle” or contain China.
For Kissinger, the “scope” of Indo-US ties today is much wider than the nuclear deal or any other specific agreement. In his view, the deal is good for both countries. “The deal would be settled one way or the other in a few months. But even if it falls through, that won’t be the end of Indo-US relations.”