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Rahul Bhonsle

May 8, 2012

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Clinton’s South Asia Visit: Beyond Bonding with Mamata

             When the Secretary of State of the United States comes visiting a region outlined as the fulcrum of two recent State Department policy initiatives, New Silk Road and Asia Pacific swing, it is bound to make the headlines.  When, she is also a former first lady of the US who has personal linkages such as with the former Chairman of the Grameen Bank, Mohamed Yunus the visit carries added significance. The meeting with India’s lady of the moment and Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, Mamata Banerjee perhaps stole the show with two mercurial personalities both female attracting attention in the media even overshadowing the meeting with the Indian top hierarchy in New Delhi or two power ladies of Dhaka, Sheikh Haseena and Kaleda Zia. Looking beyond the chemistry of personalities, however a perspective on the Clinton visit to South Asia is essential.

            From the geopolitical perspective, two factors seem to prompt the visit of Ms Clinton to Bangladesh and India, the Asia Pacific pivot and New Sill Road strategy. In the well articulated Asia Pacific strategic shift outlined in Defence Strategic Guidance of January 2012 as well as various statements by the US President Barack Obama, India and Bangladesh form the western arm of the vast region in the military bounds of US Pacific Command in Hawaii. While the United States has evolved a well knit security architecture with India comprising of number of strategic dialogues, high level visits, joint exercises and arms sales, there was limited engagement with Bangladesh. This deficiency was made up with the first meeting of the U.S.-Bangladesh Dialogue on Security Issues in Dhaka on 24 April which outlined a desire to, “broaden and strengthen bilateral cooperation on a wide range of political-military issues, and enhance partnerships in peacekeeping, joint military exercises and exchanges, counterterrorism, and security cooperation”.

            Ms Clinton’s visit firmed up political commitment to this engagement highlighted in the Joint Statement on U.S.-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue and will add another dimension to the close relations between the two countries with Bangladesh being one of the largest development assistance commitments of the Obama Administration.

            Ms Clinton also outlined the geographical location of Bangladesh as a land bridge for trade between Asia Pacific region and South Asia. In combination with reforms in Myanmar (Burma in US parlance) the US sees this as potential to fructify the New Silk Road Strategy that links the energy rich Central Asian Republics as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan with Bangladesh and South East Asia.

            Clinton also outlined settlement of maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar as well as a prospective one with India providing a clear opportunity for development for resources in the Bay of Bengal. A security architecture was considered necessary. What was left unstated of course was China’s growing foot print in the Bay of Bengal with the Shwe pipeline pumping gas to the South Eastern province of Yunnan well underway.  How the power play between the three main actors, India, China and the United States along with Bangladesh and Myanmar is structured in the years ahead remains to be seen?

            Bangladesh on its part is keen for greater economic and trade relations with United States and has called for in the words of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, “duty-free and quota-free access of our products to the U.S. market and extending of GSB facilities where important. In addition, we raised the issue of Bangladesh’s enrollment in the Millennium Challenge Account, repatriation one – of one of the self-confessed convicted killers of the father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, currently resident in the USA, et cetera”.

            It would be a win win relationship for both the countries, but Hillary Clinton is well aware of political challenges in Bangladesh in perpetual contest between two main parties the Awami League in power and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in opposition. She implored the leaders to resolve their differences, evolve mechanisms to hold free and fair elections and seek improvement in law and order. For the US while a moderate Awami League may be Party of choice, some issues as removal of the Grameen head, Mohamed Yunus was irksome particularly for the Clintons who enjoyed a good rapport with him.

            The Secretary’s next hop to Kolkata possibly lacked the import of a geopolitical message given that Indo US strategic framework has evolved over the years. Even though the US consulate in Kolkata continued to highlight the theme of Silk Road strategy thus, “The secretary expressed the hope that Kolkata would become an important hub in the new Silk Road Strategy to connect the countries of East, South and Central Asia.”

            Yet it was a strong message to a leader who has risen from the grass roots in the harsh world of West Bengal and Indian politics with an incorruptible image but a cranky political style. Hillary with her charm and experience hoped to breach Mamata’s reserve. In her Townterview with NDTV's Barkha Dutt on "We The People" at La Martiniere School for Girls in Kolkata on 7 May, she effusively praised Mamata and identified her personal bond with her political struggle thus, “a woman who’s broken through those barriers, whatever society she’s coming from, whatever her background, and even whatever her political beliefs – because some women in public office I agree with on their policies, other women I have disagreements with – but we share a common bond, if you will, of having gone through the fire of electoral politics in very contentious political systems, which both of our countries have”.

            The outreach to a political leader who had broken the monopoly of power of the Left Front was significant for it clearly indicated relief for the United States singed by the resistance offered by the Left parties in UPA 1 for the Indo US Civil Nuclear agreement.  More over her clout at the centre given the large number of seats she has in parliament and resistance to opening the economy through moves as blocking Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail has made Mamata an important player in the overall power sweep stakes in New Delhi.

            On her part Mamata Banerjee was perhaps for the first time overawed by proximity to power. In her media interaction as reported by the Economic Times she said, "Madam Hillaryji said that there is a lot of scope for employment generation and building of industry in West Bengal. In fact, she said, that they have chosen Bengal as a partner state for investment and development. She also said that it wasn't possible so long to do so due to the political dispensation in this state." Obviously this was a big boost to Mamata’s image just before the first anniversary in power. If US investments start rolling in West Bengal it would be game changer for her personally as well as the Trinamool Congress. But there are immense challenges which she well understands given the syndicates at the grass roots linked to political parties that control implementation of projects and business proposals in the State.

            Compared to her visit to Kolkata, Ms Clinton’s stay at New Delhi may have seemed a bit bland. Iran was possibly the only issue which would have led to some debate with the Prime Minister Dr Man Mohan Singh having reportedly explained India’s challenges given dependence on oil and gas from the Gulf in general and also from Iran. While Ms Clinton did not make any specific commitment, India at least would be hoping for a breakthrough in the forthcoming talks between P 5 + 1 and Iran at Baghdad on 23 May.

            While the visit of the US Secretary of State has gone as per plan, the fall out will be evident in the days to come as the parliament is in session, political parties are unlikely to take her breeze through Kolkata and the corridors of power in South Block with preference for meeting Mamata lightly. The Communist Party of India Marxist raised the issue of Clinton’s reference to the bilateral issue of Teesta Water sharing with Mamata Banerjee as interference in the country’s foreign policy. There are likely to be more protests in the days ahead raising questions of the wisdom of the meeting with the Trinamool Congress leader. How it plays out in Mamata’s own political constituency is also not clear.

            Meanwhile Ms Hillary Clinton will remain an enigma for political leaders in South Asia. A frontrunner for the Presidency in 2008 she choose to take up the job of Secretary of State and supported her erstwhile rival, Barack Obama admirably. In a region where political rivals seldom face off and where even a meeting between allies is leveraged to political advantage, the example of Clinton could do a world of good. Will the begums of Dhaka or the Didi in Kolkata follow Clinton’s trail of constructive compromise remains to be seen?


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