Calcutta, May 6: Plans for Hillary Clinton’s current visit to India began with a roar but ended in much muter tones.
While her plans for this trip may not have entirely fulfilled Clinton’s desires, that should not deflect from the historic nature of a maiden visit by a US secretary of state to Calcutta and the long-term impact that it will inevitably have on America’s engagement of India’s eastern region and beyond.
Clinton had two wishes when she planned her farewell visit to India tagged on her trip to China followed by a day’s stay in Bangladesh, according to sources close to her who spoke on background in order to freely discuss how her trip came about.
One was to meet Bengal governor M.K. Narayanan, whom the Americans consider resourceful enough and count on to untie any Gordian knots if they inadvertently complicate relations between Washington and New Delhi.
The other was to personally thank finance minister Pranab Mukherjee for his long friendship and for his contribution to Indo-US relations in a quarter century if not more.
But Narayanan left before Clinton’s arrival in Calcutta on previously arranged speaking engagements at Stanford University and a few other similar venues in the US.
Mukherjee left for Manila on Thursday to take over the chair of the board of governors of the Asian Development Bank for a year.
He coincidentally arrived in Dhaka last evening for the concluding ceremonies of the Rabindranath Tagore sesquicentennial celebrations while Clinton was still in the city and will return to New Delhi late tonight, but till the time of writing, scheduling conflicts have prevented any attempts to arrange a meeting between the secretary of state and the finance minister.
In New Delhi, serious consideration was given at very high levels to a proposal that Narayanan should reschedule his engagements in the US and perhaps host a banquet for Clinton, but the final decision was taken against it for reasons of protocol and prudence.
First, protocol inputs from the external affairs ministry pointed out that S.M. Krishna, the external affairs minister, was the principal interlocutor for a visiting secretary of state and that extraneous considerations should not cloud Indian judgement in this matter.
Second, it was felt that an eleventh-hour cancellation of Narayanan’s speaking tour, which has been in the making for almost a year, would not sit well with institutions like Stanford: India has been assiduously building up its presence in such centres of learning or research and leaving an indelible footprint in recent years.
The feedback from Indian diplomats in the US that hallowed academic institutions, for whom the secretary of state is just another member of a cabinet, would not easily understand the significance of Clinton’s visit to Calcutta also weighed into the decision that Narayanan should stick to his schedule.
Although the missed appointments with two old friends and colleagues on the Indian side was a disappointment for Clinton, it is clear from her itinerary in India that those misses would be more than compensated by what she hopes to achieve in Calcutta and later lay the ground in New Delhi for next month’s Indo-US Strategic Dialogue to be held in Washington.
US officials said it would be a disservice to Clinton’s landmark visit to downgrade it as a lobbying effort with chief minister Mamata Banerjee to tone down her political positions against foreign direct investment in retail or against the Teesta water accord, although they hazarded a guess that these issues may figure in Monday’s talks in Calcutta.
But these are not central to Clinton’s visit and she is not visiting Bengal on a mission to change the chief minister’s mind. “It is only logical that since the secretary has come here from Dhaka, tensions over water could be a subject of mutual concern,” said one Obama administration official. “Similarly, worries among American businessmen over the general investment climate in India have been on the secretary’s mind for some time now.”
The talks with Mamata will have no structured agenda and neither side will be constrained by rigid talking points.
The pivot around which Clinton’s rationale for travelling to Calcutta has been built is the economic reality that as much as 56 per cent of India’s trade is now with Asia.
Compare this to another economic reality that Europe’s share in America’s total trade has shrunk in recent years and it is no longer necessary to possess any divine powers to figure out why the incumbent US secretary of state has landed in India’s gateway to East Asia where none of her predecessors have ever ventured into.
And it is not as if her knee jerked a few weeks ago and she decided on a whim that she will stop in Calcutta on her way home from China. In July last year, Clinton made a very thoughtful speech in Chennai which, in fact, was a precursor to her wanting to make Calcutta her next logical stop in India.
Addressing a large audience at the Anna Centenary Library, she said: “Looking out at the Bay of Bengal and beyond to the nations of East and Southeast Asia, we are easily reminded of India’s historic role in the wider region. For thousands of years, Indian traders have sailed those waters of Southeast Asia and beyond.… And today, the stretch of sea from the Indian Ocean through to the Pacific contains the world’s most vibrant trade and energy roots linking economies and driving growth.”
It was clear during President Barack Obama’s visit to India in November 2010 that confronted by economic problems, his administration had decided to make business and job creation the central planks in Indo-US relations.
In Chennai, Clinton provided enough ingredients and a year’s time for leaders in India’s seaward outposts like Mamata and J. Jayalalithaa, the Bengal chief minister’s geographical twin in Tamil Nadu, to consider what is possible for the US and India’s coastal states to do together.
“The US is pushing forward on comprehensive trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and our free trade agreement with South Korea. We are also stepping up our commercial diplomacy and pursuing a robust economic agenda at APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation). India, for its part, has concluded or will soon conclude new bilateral economic partnerships with Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and others. The more our countries trade and invest with each other and with other partners, the more central the Asia Pacific region becomes to global commerce and prosperity,” Clinton said then.
What has brought the secretary of state to Calcutta is primarily America’s desire to benefit from this scenario. It is not clear how far Clinton can go in the course of one meeting with Mamata to underline what America sees as an opportunity for Bengal to prosper through such regional co-operation, but when the two leaders meet on Monday, this will be the central focus of their talks.
That, at least, is what Clinton would like at what is probably her most important meeting during this India visit. And that precisely is what South Block has told Mamata is their perception of why Clinton chose to travel to Calcutta at this time.
Whatever Clinton tells Mamata about Teesta will not be new either. Nor would it have been prompted by the chief minister’s opposition to the aborted Teesta water-sharing agreement.
A year ago, Clinton had outlined to her Chennai audience the broad principles of what she may now directly tell Mamata at their meeting. “India also has a great commitment to improving relations with Bangladesh, and that is important because regional solutions will be necessary on energy shortages, water-sharing and the fight against terrorists,” Clinton had said then.
You cannot do things alone. United we stand, divided we all fall, will be her message.