What does it mean when the US Secretary of State comes to town and spends more time with NGOs than with state officials?
The Hillary Clinton touchdown in Kolkata was certainly a photo-op moment for Mamata Banerjee. It was the Image of the Day on India Ink, the New York Times India blog. The newspapers in Kolkata carried a sort of blow-by-blow photo gallery of the grand meeting – from Mamata waiting outside her chambers her face furrowed “with anxiety so familiar on the face of a good host” to the final namashkars. Derek O’Brien, Mamata’s man in the Rajya Sabha tweeted “I just told CM of #Bengal: ‘Congratulations, the Hillary Clinton visit went well’. Her response with a smile: ‘This is only the beginning.’”
But the slightly awkward truth remains. Despite all the clicking cameras, and the breathless historicity of the first US Secretary of State to visit Writers Building since Independence, Hillary Clinton’s official visit had little official business.
She watched sex trafficking victims dance. She shopped for handicrafts, rather oddly shipping coals to Newcastle by giving Mamata a scarf with a painting of Rabindranath Tagore she had picked up at an exhibition in Kolkata. She admired paintings by Gaganendranath Tagore. She listened to a closed-door discussion of a group of NGOs on human trafficking. She met the Chief Minister not really for business but because she “really wanted to meet her”, womano y womano.
She addressed no press conference preferring instead to do an exclusive chat with Barkha Dutt at a girls school. There were no reports of her entourage hosting meetings with the Bengal Chamber of Commerce or assorted government bodies or the captains of industry or even culture. The India Ink/ New York Times report of the day focused on “Indian retail and Iranian oil” but Mamata insisted FDI investment was “never raised” in the official conversation. In fact, when the American consulate in its press release mentioned that “retail” was touched upon, West Bengal’s finance minister was quick to shoot off a missive to the US consul-general demanding “unequivocally and strongly” that he avoid any mention of investment in the retail sector in his press statement.
If anybody can claim real mileage from the spotlight cast by the visit it is the NGO sector. “I’m totally your cheerleader,” she told the group of anti-trafficking NGOs she met on Sunday. Clinton’s interest in NGOs is not new. She made the plight of foreign NGOs in Egypt a high-profile issue earlier this year. She presented the first Innovation Award for the Empowerment of Women and Girls in March to three NGOs including an Indian one, Chintan. But the NGO-packed itinerary of her Kolkata trip still raised eyebrows. After all this was her first visit to a state that had just shed one of the world’s longest lasting Communist regimes.
“What does it mean when a world leader spends more time meeting NGOs than government officials on a 24-hour trip to Calcutta?” a political observer told The Telegraph. “Either that her priority lies in strengthening ties with the non-governmental rather than the government sector or that she is making an indirect political comment on the limitations of the state.”
Hillary Clinton had already snubbed the state before she landed in Kolkata. In Dhaka, meeting another woman leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, she had not hesitated to tell her host to “not interfere with the operations of” the Grameen Bank. Its founder, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus had just lost a case about his retirement age and Sheikh Hasina’s government had ousted him as the bank’s managing director. There is little love lost between the two since Yunus had tried to launch his own political party backed by the army. Yunus is Clinton’s personal friend and the Secretary of State met him privately for an hour and went to bat for him publicly. She said the government should treat Yunus as “a national treasure” reported the Daily Star in a report headlined US sides with Grameen Bank.
Many NGOs around the world do exemplary work often labouring outside the limelight. So should one grudge the attention they get when a high-wattage celebrity shines the light on them? After all who else speaks up for the marginalised? But the question being asked in the media is, in this case, does the state end up being the one feeling marginalised?
Or is Hillary Clinton giving us a hint about what she would like to do once she steps down as secretary of state?