Hillary Clinton takes an Indian
diversion By Siddharth
NEW DELHI - United States
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in India.
Given the growing strategic and business depth in
the relations between the two countries, the visit
is not a surprise.
Clinton's visit could
have passed off as another by an important
American dignitary doing the rounds of the
seemingly all-powerful Delhi durbar. The
usual statements would have probably revolved
around the importance of stifling Iran's energy
sector, future and ongoing defense and nuclear
power deals, taking on terrorism and checking
What has raised
eyebrows, though, is Clinton's stopover in Kolkata
for a meeting with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata
Banerjee, whose party
the Trinamool Congress is the all important
coalition partner in Delhi on whose support Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh's government survives.
Clinton's meeting with Banerjee is surely
a well thought out plan. It reflects the changing
political landscape in India, wherein regional
political leaders have a big say in the way
national policies move. As things stand,
Banerjee's influence and power span far beyond her
state. There is reason that Time magazine has
named her as an influential global leader.
The all-powerful Congress Party supreme
leader Sonia Gandhi has long exercised the real
power, with her writ running large on the Manmohan
government. Today, there is another lady who pulls
the strings on the duo.
federal government has been in a state of policy
freeze due to Banerjee, who has opposed economic
reforms such as opening multi-brand retail to
foreign investors, ensured a roll-back of rail
fares and stymied efforts to build bridges with
neighboring state Bangladesh, including the
sharing of waters. There seem to be no particular
rationality to the mercurial Banerjee's
opposition, except buttressing her image as a
messiah of the poor.
Years of being an
opposition leader has perhaps honed Banerjee's
skills of defiance and protest. She has to realize
that as chief minister she needs to be decisive
about changes that uplift the people of her state.
But, that is easier said than done due to tendency
of warped vote bank politics in India.
Raising the cost of rail travel was to
ensure funds for safety upgrades, an essential
investment given India's accident prone rail
network. Banerjee is a former rail minister and
surely knows about the significance of such a
move. There is near unanimity that overseas retail
investors are crucial to lift the farm sector by
offering better prices for produce and advanced
cold storage facilities to prevent wastage.
However, it is also true that the Congress
has not handled her well. The communication lines
that Washington seems to be keen to establish have
not been ironed out. If New Delhi needs Banerjee
to push through important policy reforms that
require parliament's approval, it better keep her
happy. America seems to have realized the same.
Predictably, on Monday the US Embassy said
that Clinton "discussed the issues on increasing
US investment in West Bengal, including in the
retail sector with Banerjee", that obviously
interests American business.
mandarins sitting in Washington have clearly
understood India's evolving political paradigm
wherein no party can have its absolute way.
Building bridges with regional leaderships will
add much needed depth to dealing with India, today
and in future.
Or else, Walmart cannot set
up base in India unless Banerjee says so; GE
cannot hope to sign deals to set up nuclear power
plants unless state governments of Maharashtra or
Tamil Nadu give atomic energy the go ahead as a
safe source of electricity.
have denied Gujarat Chief Minister Narender Modi a
visa due to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. But,
American investors have hailed him for creating a
business environment that make could turn Gujarat
into the first developed state of India.
Coincidentally or not, a 56-member Iranian
delegation is in India at the same time as
Clinton. The US is keen to persuade India to
reduce its oil dependence on Iran. India buys
about US$11 billion worth of oil yearly from Iran
- its second-largest supplier after Saudi Arabia.
India's political landscape has changed.
Neither national party, the Congress nor the
opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), enjoy
majority numbers in parliament. They are unlikely
to form governments on their own steam in the
foreseeable future. National policies will be
framed by the national parties along with alliance
parties or the regional outfits forming a Third
Front that precludes both the Congress and the
Reforms and change will need to be
acceptable to at least a few political entities
with separate or conflicting regional bases and a
clutch of regional satraps (Banerjee and other
chief ministers such as J Jayalalithaa in Tamil
Nadu, Prithviraj Chavan in Maharashtra, and Nitish
Kumar in Bihar) will surely have some say in the
direction that Indian policy making takes.
There is clear purpose behind Clinton's
stopover in Kolkata. The US has understood the
emerging regional dynamics in Indian politics. The
lame duck Manmohan government needs to take a leaf
out of Washington's handling and understanding of
the Indian polity. New Delhi needs to work on its
coalition partners. They have the upper hand.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New
Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at
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