US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s India sojourn went much as expected. There was an emphasis on increasing US-India engagement in numerous spheres, talk of a greater role for India on the world stage, a clear noting of the fact that both countries are natural allies, and also public recognition that their common interests and values outshine the differences between the two countries.
But there were two particularly interesting things about Clinton’s stay. First was how this round of US-India engagement has been so dominated by women. Clinton met with Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaramand Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, while India’s ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar, has played an active role in arranging the visit.
The second interesting point is that the only other placeClinton visited aside from New Delhi was Chennai. Clinton’s key engagements included a lecture at the Anna Centenary Library, where she lauded Tamil Nadu for its commendable progress, especially in the realm of education and industrialisation. She also spoke about broader issues, such as the Indo-US partnership, the situation in neighbouring Sri Lanka and the role India can play in stabilising South Asia.
Interestingly, while talking about a larger role for India in the Asia-Pacific region, Clinton invoked Chennai’s geographical location and Tamil Nadu’s historical links with Southeast Asia.
‘There is no better place to speak about Asia-Pacific than Chennai, which looks out onto the Bay of Bengal. Indian traders have sailed these waters for thousands of years and their influence can still be seen across the region – in the Tamil influences in the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia and in the Ganesha gods that guard homes in Indonesia,’ she said.
So why is the Chennai visit noteworthy? For a start, it recognises a new dynamic in India’s foreign policy, namely the increasing role of provinces in India’s conduct of foreign policy. While once it would have seemed odd for a foreign dignitary to discuss bilateral relations with a third nation with the chief minister of a state, Clinton did precisely this when she discussed the Sri Lankan issue with Jayalalitha.
Second, Clinton’s visit to southern India clearly underscores the increasing clout the region has, both economically and politically. No longer is there a sense that foreign policy is framed exclusively through a north Indian way of thinking.
Finally, Clinton’s visit was also a reminder of the challenges of tackling the increasing friction between the United States and Pakistan, a reality that’s bound to have an impact on the soon to be held foreign minister level talks between India and Pakistan. The arrest of Ghulam Nabi Fai, head of the Kashmiri American Council, by the FBI has only exacerbated the tensions between Washington and Islamabad. This comes on top of Pakistani anger after the US halted $800 million of military aid to Pakistan.
India certainly therefore has its task cut out to ensure that tits cosying up to Washington doesn’t impact it’s engagement with Pakistan, progress on which is imperative for stability in the region. Achieving this will likely mean that Indian decision makers will have to rely more on instinct than conventional intelligence.
As Otto von Bismarck once stated:
‘The best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, get hold of the hem of his cloak, and walk with him a few steps of the way’.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi