Hillary Clinton (left) and Sonia Gandhi at Mother Teresas funeral in Calcutta in 1997
New Delhi, July 18: The Indian government has scuttled a plan by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to visit Calcutta for a day after the Indo-US strategic dialogue here tomorrow.
Clinton will spend Wednesday in Chennai as announced by the US state department on July 8 because her Indian interlocutors feared that allowing her to visit Calcutta so soon after a communist rout in Bengal would send the wrong political message, not only within the country but abroad as well.
The Obama administration had sent the state departments point man for South Asia, Robert Blake, to Bengal exactly a month ago to look at Calcutta as the preferred choice of the one Indian city which Clinton would go to after the second round of strategic dialogue in New Delhi.
Blake held extensive meetings in Calcutta to get a feel of the change after the defeat of the communists in the recent elections. But he discussed the possibility of a Clinton visit with no more than a handful of people in Calcutta because it was strictly under wraps.
According to sources intimately familiar with the process of finalising the secretary of states itinerary, Blake returned to Washington and reported to Clinton that conditions were extremely favourable for a high-level US visit. But when the Americans subsequently sounded out New Delhi about their interest in Calcutta, the Indian government strongly disapproved of the idea on the ground that a headlong rush by someone who is fourth in the line of succession to Americas presidency to a recently fallen Red bastion was bound to be misunderstood.
The Indian embassy in Washington told the US administration that Clintons visit would send the wrong political message across India and the Americans — howsoever unintentionally — would be seen as becoming a party to Indias domestic politics.
When the US continued to press for Calcutta, the Indians said that given Americas messianic opposition to communism, a visit by Clinton to Calcutta at this point would be like the presence of a top US official in Benghazi, the stronghold of the rebels opposed to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, according to those who have seen diplomatic cable traffic within the US state department on this subject.
American sources said Clinton made up her mind not to include Calcutta in her itinerary after she saw the cables detailing Indias objections.
Clintons advisers then picked Amritsar in the hope that the gesture would mollify Americas Sikh community whose members are still mortified that President Barack Obama dropped their holy city from his travel plans in India last year after making all preparations for a visit. But there is not much enthusiasm in Amritsar now for Clinton as there was for Obama during his state visit last year.
When Chennai was finally chosen as the second Indian stop during Clintons tour this week, it was done hastily and was a surprise for US diplomatic personnel in India. The US consul-general in Chennai, Andrew Simkin, was not even consulted and had no idea of the decision. Simkin was in Thiruvananthapuram when it was announced in Washington that Clinton would go to Chennai.
He immediately cut short his stay in Kerala and returned to his post to begin preparations to receive the secretary of state.
For many years now, even when the Left Front was ruling Bengal, both the Bush and Obama administrations have looked at the state as the next frontier for an expansion of American interests, especially commercial interests, in India.
Bush aides tried their best to get Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, when he was the chief minister, to visit Washington. The Americans once got the Left Fronts industries minister Nirupam Sen to agree to speak at a high-profile corporate conference on India, but he chickened out of the commitment at the last minute.
Clintons visit, it was felt within the Obama administration, would have provided a high-profile opportunity to underscore continued US interest in Bengal.
Ron Somers, president of the US-India Business Council, believes that Calcutta is important to American companies as resurgent Indias gateway to the rest of Asia.
Indeed, part of the reason why Clinton was keen on Calcutta was that she will be going from India to Bali, Hong Kong and Shenzhen in China. Calcutta, as Indias gateway to Asia, would have provided psychological continuity for Clintons travels in the region.
Somers believes that Americas interest in Calcutta will continue because of opportunities for US companies in the city with its relatively low real estate prices, human resources and location.