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Hillary visit has special significance

Hillary visit has special significance
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The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit this week to India has brought West Bengal and its chief minister Mamata Banerjee to focus because she chose to break her journey in Kolkata. The jubilant chief minister had a proper briefing from External affairs minister S M Krishna for her first ever interaction with Hillary Clinton.  Hillary also visited Delhi and met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chief Sonia Gandhi as well as her Indian counterpart S M Krishna to round up her visit.

Is there more to Clinton’s visit than what appears to be? Some foreign policy experts shrug it off as a normal farewell visit as the former First Lady had announced that she was not going to be in Obama’s team in his second term. While some of her core supporters who had worked for her presidential campaign in 2008 feel that she may be lured to contest again in 2016 but it is four years away.  

The other interpretation is that it may give her an opportunity to prepare for next month’s bilateral strategic talks to be held in Washington at the foreign ministers level.  She could avail of the opportunity to talk to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as well as UPA chief Sonia Gandhi about some crucial points for better clarity. The third could be that it was a kind of probing visit whether the Manmohan Singh government is really in a policy paralysis. Some in the US feel that the Manmohan Singh government is not moving fast on any issue particularly in the aftermath of the Indo – US nuclear deal.

South Block mandarins also admit that there are tangible issues including the worries about the commercial implementation of the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement and disappointment with defence contracts. The civil nuclear liability bill is stuck in Parliament. Unless this is passed the American businessman are not in a mood to invest in India. There is the other view in the US that the Singh government is a coalition government and cannot be expected to achieve miracles. The visit would have enabled her to get a first hand report.

Whatever may be the reason the brief visit has produced some excitement in the South Block as well as in Kolkata. Chatting up with the firebrand Bengal chief minister must have been a new experience to Ms Clinton. In fact Hillary was keen to meet Mamata who had dethroned the Left during her last visit but Delhi discouraged her and diverted her to Tamil Nadu.

In the past, top US dignitaries would only visit New Delhi, but now a new pattern of engagement is emerging where they go to Mumbai or Kolkata or Chennai.  Hillary’s Kolkata visit has proved the growing importance of the regional satraps. Washington has realised that the progress of the country is now more driven by the states than the centre.  During her last visit Hillary called on the Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa.

The atmospherics were visible in full swing in Kolkata. Didi had gone to the extent of even decorating the Writers Building with flowers and waited eagerly to receive Ms. Clinton for official talks. Mamata took it as a matter of pride that a US Secretary of State came calling on a Chief Minister in Kolkata for the first time since independence. The fact that she was willing to discuss American investment in Bengal itself showed progress. This must be good news to those who were watching the way the Tatas had to leave West Bengal after the Singur fiasco. If Mamata really believes in the progress of the state she should fulfill the expectations that more investment could come to the state, which could create thousands of jobs. No one expected that one visit of Hillary would make Mamata soft on FDI retail, banking, pension and labor reforms. Mamata has to counter the CPI-M game and oppose much more forcefully than the comrades. It is her political compulsion.

Hillary’s next stop was Delhi and this was where the real business took place. Her top priority this time was not Pakistan or Afghanistan or China but it was Iran.  Her India visit is seen as the larger recognition of India’s potential to play a leader in the region. The US was keen to seek assurance from New Delhi that India will make 'good progress' in easing its dependence on import of Iranian oil. This is where the problem arises. India imports 80 per cent of its requirement from the oil producing countries including Iran and the Indian oil refineries are suited to process the Iran crude. India has become, along with China, one of the largest investors in Iran’s energy sector and one of its largest importers of crude oil.

Therefore no one expected miraculous results on India’s oil import policy. In any case India has to think of its own national interests than going by the American advice. New Delhi has to balance complex, difficult and competing issues. The US too understands this nuance.

On the whole, the visit has created some excitement in Kolkata and some positive forward movement in Delhi for the next month’s strategic dialogue talks. With the Americans involved in the presidential elections and Manmohan Singh government engaged in firefighting exercise to save itself from crisis after crisis foreign policy engagement has taken a back seat these few weeks. This Hillary visit has certainly given an impetus to it, which should be taken forward in Washington next month.
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