Hillary Clinton’s farewell visit to Delhi: from prickly estrangement to empathetic divergence

By C. Uday Bhaskar
May 7, 2012

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will rank as the most accomplished, poised and successful woman politician in American history. She has pierced many glass ceilings with tenacity and grace. She almost made it to the White House and future sociologists and historians will be able to more objectively assess the misogyny index that still lurks deep within American society and its relevance in the Obama-Clinton Democratic party tussle. The U.S. demonstrated in late 2008 that it had evolved to a point where it could accept a coloured President but not a woman.

However, South Asia with its distinctive dynasty-cum-family political ethos is more at home with strong woman politicians and the top leadership over the decades includes Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the world’s first woman prime minister) and her daughter Chandrika to Sheikh Hasina. Thus, South Asia would provide a natural comfort zone for Hillary Clinton who has just completed a whistle-stop visit that took her from Beijing to Dhaka to Kolkata before she arrived in Delhi for high-level meetings with her Indian counterpart on Tuesday.

Clinton is no stranger to India and has visited many parts of the country — both as the U.S. First Lady and now as the Secretary of State. Paradoxically, even though she was not in the political loop at the time, her husband Bill Clinton (the U.S. President in 1993) castigated India for its nuclear profile and heightened the estrangement between the two democracies.

However, to his credit, the same Bill Clinton led the rapprochement with India in March 2000 and this was given a dramatic fillip in the second term of President George Bush in July 2005. Progressively, the bi-lateral relationship moved from prickly estrangement over the nuclear issue to one of greater dialogue, leading to a nascent partnership. Divergences do exist but they have been handled with empathy — till now.

On what has been billed as her farewell visit to Delhi, one of the more contentious divergences looms large — it is presumed in an unintended manner. An Iranian trade delegation arrived in India on the same day that Clinton touched Kolkata (on Sunday) and the symbolism is stark. The U.S. is encouraging Delhi to reduce its hydrocarbon dependence on Iran — as it has with many other nations – and June 28 is the date when Washington DC will impose a range of strictures and penalties on the defaulting nations.

Given its energy vulnerability, Delhi has conveyed its inability to comply with this U.S.-led diktat and has indicated that while it will respect all U.N. resolutions on the subject, it has a divergent perception about how best to deal with the Iranian nuclear nettle. The Indian position on Iran is more in consonance with that of Russia and China and the issue cannot be reduced to a binary “with us-against us” reminiscent of September 2001.

India’s political constraints are compounded by a technical factor, wherein many Indian refineries have been designed for Iranian crude which has a distinctive chemical composition.

Can India and the U.S. embed their divergences in the larger spectrum of corresponding strategic and security interests? From the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 2008 (where U.S. citizens were also killed) to the future of the Af-Pak region after 2014, the security of the global commons and the management of a ‘rising’ China – the issues are varied and offer a mix of challenges and opportunities.

Clinton’s acumen and patience will be sorely tested on this visit and perhaps the Myanmar model may have some cues on how to deal with the Iran imbroglio. It may be recalled that India and the U.S. had very divergent positions on how best to deal with the military junta in Yangon — and now a modus vivendi has been carefully arrived at.

But irrespective of the outcome of this visit, Hillary Clinton’s contribution to India-U.S. bi-lateral ties warrants appropriate notice and commendation. Notwithstanding the many disappointments and political shenanigans on the Obama watch, she has steadfastly built on the foundation laid by her able predecessor Condoleezza Rice.

Estrangement, it is hoped, has given way to a more abiding empathetic texture in the bi-lateral relationship and it is a rare moment in the diplomatic trajectory of the world’s oldest and largest democracies.

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