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Wednesday , July 20 , 2011
 
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- Hillary Clinton’s commitment to India remains undiminished

Hillary Clinton loves to visit India. This is one country where she can be herself. Or at least as much of herself as her job as the most high profile member of an American president’s cabinet will allow her to be. Under the cover of India’s colour and diversity, she can say things here which she cannot say in the United States of America without being misinterpreted or spun by pundits.

There is a saying in the American national capital that “what happens in Washington stays in Washington”. It is an expression which was coined to hide the shenanigans of politicians in Washington from their voters in the states which elected them.

A variation of this for American public figures like Clinton could be that “what happens in India stays in India”. Because of a context in which she says something in India, she can, more likely, get away with it, notwithstanding Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, which is waiting for the smallest slip by any liberal Democrat in office.

When Clinton was in Mumbai two years ago, she gave vent to some of her innermost thoughts, her frustrations and her disappointments. A rare opportunity for the secretary of State to do this was offered not by fellow practitioners of diplomacy or by captains of business whom she had to tap for funds throughout her public life by the nature of the US political system. Not even by the kind of Indian Americans she has got to know, of the New York hotelier, Sant Singh Chatwal, variety of immigrants.

Vegetable vendors and embroidery workers from Gujarat, typically ordinary Indians, made her feel at home in Mumbai, when they unhesitatingly called her “Hillaryben” and reminded her that she was among one of her kind, a woman, wife and working mother, not the most powerful lady in the world, arguably.

It was then that Clinton told the president of the Self Employed Women’s Association, popularly known by its acronym of Sewa, which had brought these Gujarati women to meet the secretary of State, that “you are lucky to have been elected president. I didn’t have the same luck”. She then savoured the words “Madam President” when she addressed Ramilaben Rohit in a formal address.

Breaking the glass ceiling has become an obsession for Hillary Clinton, especially now that she has said that her present job will be her last public office. Clinton often claims to have broken the glass ceiling for herself by reaching closer to the US presidency than any other woman in history. Yet, the big prize eluded her. And partly, at least, that was because she was up against the glass ceiling.

It is not very well-known that when Clinton was Senator from New York and a leading figure in preparations for creating the “Senate Friends of India”, the predecessor to the Senate India Caucus, she was instrumental in getting Mayavati to visit Washington.

Mayavati had become Uttar Pradesh chief minister for the first time breaking a glass ceiling which was thicker, according to Clinton, than the one she faces in America. There were serious apprehensions in Washington, including at the Indian embassy there, about a potentially troublesome visit by the UP chief minister, but New York’s junior senator went all out, batting for Mayavati.

On her current trip to New Delhi, Clinton was keen to visit a second Indian city where a woman politician like her had broken the glass ceiling. Calcutta and Chennai were the obvious choices. In the end, it became Chennai’s turn to host her, the first serving US secretary of State to visit the Tamil Nadu capital.

Clinton’s ongoing visit to India, much to her delight, has a large participation by women, who have either broken the glass ceiling or for whom there has been no such handicap. Clinton was received at the airport on Monday night by two women: the foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, the second woman to head South Block, and Meera Shankar, India’s second woman ambassador in Washington.

In what could be interpreted as a sweetener in this context, Rao added another woman officer to the team that will handle Clinton’s visit. Anju Kumar, who recently returned from the Indian consulate general in New York, has been made the seniormost aide to Jawed Ashraf, South Block’s pointman for dealings with Washington. The America’s division already has L. Savithri, another officer dealing with the US.

At the time of writing, Clinton is scheduled to meet more women: the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, and the chairperson of the ruling coalition, Sonia Gandhi. More such meetings may take place, depending on scheduling and availability.

If Clinton’s visit manages to arrest a downslide in Indo-US consular relations, it will serve as the basis for rescuing the broader strategic relationship from the turbulence of recent months. The ugly public spats between Washington and New Delhi over the Vienna Convention that governs diplomatic and consular interaction between states have cast a shadow on the atmospherics which are normally the highlight of a US visit of the Clinton type.

Even before Clinton arrived in New Delhi, there was fond hope that this was happening. In recent weeks, the two sides have quietly set up a joint working group on consular relations. This JWG is expected to iron out the wrinkles in official day-to-day engagement between the two sides. The group will have its first meeting in Washington on July 25.

This must be a priority for the two governments because work at Indian missions and posts in the US are beginning to be affected by the quarrels over maids and immunity. Recently, when the vacancy of deputy consul-general of India in New York was circulated within the Indian Foreign Service for consideration by the South Block’s board which makes appointments, there was not a single IFS officer who was ready to go to New York. Eventually, a diplomat who was already serving in New York was elevated as the deputy consul-general.

This is a far cry from a time when diplomats exercised their clout to get a posting of that kind to the Big Apple. Similarly, a diplomat of the rank of counsellor who was posted to the Indian embassy in Washington decided not to take up his post after the US embassy in New Delhi refused a visa for the maid who was to have accompanied him.

There have been at least two other instances of women officers who got their postings changed after they were assigned to the US although considerations in both these cases were not necessarily their inability to take along domestic support staff.

The Americans, for their part, bitterly complain about the Union home ministry’s ham-handed implementation of the already draconian measures on Indian visas and related issues for US citizens, including Americans of Indian origin. At the time of writing, the home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, was scheduled to attend the working lunch for Clinton hosted by the external affairs minister, S.M. Krishna, yesterday.

Chidambaram is the only non-member of the plenary team for the strategic dialogue at Hyderabad House who has been invited to the lunch, signifying the importance of consular, visa and passport issues in the bilateral relationship following the recent ugly incidents.

Consular issues apart, a big chunk of the commitments and prospects identified at the time of last year’s strategic dialogue remains unfulfilled on both sides. For that matter, some of the hopes raised during summits between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama also remain unfulfilled notwithstanding that these relate to subjects that are pet ideas of one or other leader.

Clinton is more committed to the relationship with India than any other member of Obama’s cabinet for reasons which are described in her autobiography, Living History. During Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s highly productive visit to Washington in late June, it was Clinton who was the liaison with Obama on Mukherjee’s broad agenda even though the finance minister’s host was his US counterpart, Timothy Geithner.

Clinton spent several hours with Obama, with and without Geithner, before and during Mukherjee’s stay in Washington. And even before the finance minister’s aircraft took off from New York, the secretary of State went back to the White House to discuss what lay ahead on India in the light of everything that Mukherjee had told her.

The first round of the Indo-US strategic dialogue last year saw a very special gesture by Obama driving to the state department to meet those who were part of this exchange. It is less important to look at agreements and concrete outcomes of this round of the dialogue than to see how much of the chemistry between the two sides that was evident last year has survived this round.

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