Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to India and her meetings with Mamata Banerjee and Sonia Gandhi has been hyped in the media as close encounters between some of the most powerful women in the world. The implication is that something historic may result from their parleys. All this would have been only slightly amusing had not the headlines added the information that the US secretary of state is carrying a suggestion that might help resolve the Teesta River water-sharing dispute between India and Bangladesh. This ‘disclosure’ was more than enough to raise proverbial eyebrows and heckles of self-respecting Indians. To make matters worse, we were told that the powerful US envoy also had much to discuss with the powerful chief minister of West Bengal regarding partnering the state to accelerate its development.
To say the least, sudden US interest in a problematic state led by an absolutely unpredictable totalitarian intolerant leader masquerading as a charismatic personality is curious. Teesta water discord is a matter between two sovereign states and there is absolutely no scope for external uninvited interference. True, US specialises in jumping where angels fear to tread and is usually oblivious of the adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but we feel that there is more to the matter than meets the eye.
It’s quite possible that Hillary has chipped in her bit to help out a loyal ally — the Indian prime minister — in his moment of distress at his request. It’s well known that Mamata has proved herself an unmanageable ally. Her tantrums have destabilised the UPA II more than once and brought it to the brink. She has mastered the not-so-fine art of blackmailing the Centre to extract much more than her pound of flesh. Appeasement has yielded place to abject surrender. The other lady resident of 10 Janpath who figures in the same list has proved powerless in this context. The Congress president leaves it grandly to Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee to handle the problem. In any case, after her illness and electoral debacles suffered in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Goa, the limits of her power have been woefully exposed. Hillary’s meeting with Sonia obviously was merely token — nothing more than diplomatic ‘protocol’ performed to keep official Indian feathers unruffled. Matters of substance were disposed of at 7 RCR in talks with the prime minister and the national security adviser. But we digress.
The cause for serious apprehensions is the issue of US interference in Indian foreign policy domain. Before proceeding further, we must return to the matter of the meeting between some of the most powerful women in the world.
Some popular Western magazines have been regularly publishing lists of ‘most powerful men and women’ in the world. These evoke passing interest in India. Page Three Indian celebrities predictably find a place — much lower down in this list than in the ‘richest persons in the world’ list. Some ‘qualify’ due to real life influence; others are included to give international flavour to this enterprise. Now it seems that the exercise serves a dubious political purpose as well.
Serious questions remain unanswered. Is this just part of gender discourse in contemporary international relations? Or, does Hillary’s Bharat Yatra provide us with sign of things to come? Will we see in near future more friends and strategic partners leaning on our shoulders, showing us the way how to settle outstanding differences with neighbours like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan? Has the age of fractured foreign policy pursuing fragmented national interest dawned on us? There is that lady from Tamil Nadu who too loves to flaunt her power in context of federal democracy. Will the US display similar interest in partnering her state — and elsewhere — for development in interest of ‘reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka or/and restoration of peace in Maoist strife-stricken regions?
We have a lurking suspicion that focusing on Mamata was a smokescreen. As Indians predictably got upset and vocal about what did or didn’t transpire between these two ladies, our attention was diverted from the arm-twisting that was taking place in Delhi. India has been bluntly told that come June, it can face sanctions if it doesn’t stop oil imports from Iran. We have been gratuitously reminded that ‘there are other sources of oil in the world’. Few are aware that India is the largest single importer of Iranian oil and these imports comprise 9 per cent of our requirements. The US has been trying its best to mortgage our energy security. It’s the US that has led Manmohan Singh chase the nuclear mirage and successfully sabotaged the vision of the oil-gas pipeline running from Azerbaijan-Iran through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. Not only could this grand project provided energy security, it could well have laid firm foundations of lasting peace in this volatile region by forging shared vital interests.
;The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own.