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Millennium Post

Uncle Sam comes buddy shopping

Between Mamata Bannerjee’s Pidgin English and Hillary Clinton’s Wellesley twang, what really transpired in the first 40 minutes of their one-on-one meeting at Writers’ Buildings in Kolkata, will remain an enigma wrapped in a mystery. But what was evident was the desire of the official Washington to add sheen to the communist vanquisher for her monumental achievement of defeating a 34-year-old Leftist government. Still, that is only the ideological element of the Hillary Clinton’s visit to West Bengal and India this week.

The other part could have been provided by the logic of commerce. But considering that the US President Barack Obama’s government has gone into a lame duck poll season state, there can’t be any visions of American corporates following the flag into bringing in investments by the sack-full. It didn’t happen with Tamil Nadu when Clinton went calling on chief minister, Jayalalitha, or visited Odisha when Naveen Pattanaik was re-elected. In fact, it is not going to happen to any country, province, or town in the immediate future because the American capital is extremely wary of the Obama government about how it would react to the declining economic fundamentals of the USA. For the first time, possibly, in the history of the country since WW II, America is losing the battle for ideas as its intellectual cupboard looks bare.

Even the talk of war against Iran did not rejuvenate the American capital markets as the money managers must have feared the creation of another security policy mess in the part of the world that is strategic in terms of energy supply. No longer are the drumbeats of war creating foot tapping music for the desk-bound warriors of the American think tanks and the media. Yet, why did Hillary Clinton visit New Delhi just a month before the Indo-US strategic dialogue is slated to begin in Washington? Was she garnering wider support for the impending talks with Iran on the nuclear issue? Or was this also a farewell visit, for she wouldn’t be a member of the Obama Cabinet, if he is reelected? Questions remain.

Questions also remain about the New Delhi elite, which normally gave a fawning reception to any visitor from Washington even a few years ago. The current buzz-word amongst the sarkari intellectuals and retired policy mavens of the Capital is ‘strategic autonomy.’ Their chanting of the mantra, that has regained currency lately, gives an impression that by itself it is empowering.

Of course, how much of autonomy can a country enjoy with 60 per cent of its population surviving on less than two dollars a day. Are they included in the matrix of ‘comprehensive national power’ that is sometimes required to bear down an intractable problem? These are not the days of immediately after 1947, when India was a beacon to the anti-colonial world and had the moral high ground to punch above its weight. When you say this at a gathering of oracles of the ‘bright new dawn’ that hovers over the country, you are usually sought to be shouted down by the latter as they throw some numbers at you. These numbers are called annual economic growth numbers. The problem gets compounded when you ask some more questions.

What is the nature of this growth? Who are the people that are growing? What are the methods and signs of their growth? And, finally, which growth model are we following? With India’s ranking of 79 (2004) on the Gini Index of income inequality, these questions may seem pertinent to you, but who are you to swim against the tide?

The same is the situation arises with this idea of ‘development.’ After all, we are a developing (albeit, advanced!) country, so there must be ‘development.’ The absolutist nature of this ‘development’ idea is so overpowering that you might even forget to ask the questions that needed to be asked. What is this development? Is it economic, cultural or societal or all three together? Who are undertaking these developments? Are they doing it for themselves or are they doing it for others? What will take place after this development? Or is it a continuous process? In the era of coalition politics in the country, this development narrative seems unchanging. Even senior members of the institutional Left like the CPI (M) and its leaders like Buddhadeb Bhattacharya cannot but fall prey to it. The last West Bengal poll results showed that the people of the state were thinking ahead of the leadership and some of these questions had appeared to them.

The West loves these kinds of quandary afflicting the poor sections of the world. Then they can come up with their bag of goodies – ideas mostly, some aid too. The solutions are mostly formulaic, learnt by rote in the cooler climes of Washington or Brussels or Davos. Only, the case of India is different. We have Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Kaushik Basu et al. They have been trained so well in those formerly mentioned locales, that but for the different skin colour, they could pass off as the Western ‘prodigies.’

But this current economic crisis has befuddled them all. No longer is neo-liberalism enjoying the same level of subservience it enjoyed in the decades of 1980s and ‘90s. The whole toxic mix of withdrawal of government regulations, low taxes and easy finance has come under the scanner of the general population. In such uncertain times, Washington is in search of reliable allies on whom it could lean in times of need. India appears to be the primary target for this special attention. But India’s role is complex in this equation. Its primary responsibility under that Washington agenda is to emerge as a hedge against the growth of China as a superpower. This will suit the US as they have to withdraw from the Indian ocean to tackle huge budgetary shortfalls. India is being considered as the replacement power, along with Australia and Japan.

The triumvirate would be dogging the footsteps of the Chinese as it spreads its influence. Many in India have their competitive juices flowing to take on China. The China threat is the red rag that the USA continues to exhibit to get the undivided attention of India and the East and South East Asian nations. Should we help the country maintain its imperious existence?

Pinaki Bhattacharya is a senior journalist.
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