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Hillary non-committal on major issues

Last updated on: July 18, 2009 

Hillary non-committal on major issues

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Perhaps it was jet lag.

Or perhaps it was just that she had nothing to say -- yet.

Consider that United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had only landed in Mumbai around 11 at night on Friday.
When she arrived at the Poolside of the Taj Mahal Hotel at 11.40 am on Saturday for a press conference for which the media had been summoned at 8.45 am, she had not yet had a single meeting of substance with anyone -- her only real interaction till that point had been an informal breakfast discussion with prominent business leaders.

Stands to reason she was in no position to announce any major breakthroughs in bilateral relations, any major policy decisions. It took the aplomb of a career politician to disguise that lack of substance up in a whole lot of words.

The press conference itself was a stage-managed affair. A member of her entourage called for questions from selected media persons; perhaps not coincidentally, all those selected with one exception were from the international media corps that had flown down with her.

Three of the five questions asked at the media conference --  and yes, five was the total number of questions permitted -- had to do with Pakistan.

Did she think Pakistan had done enough about the war on terror?

Would the US compel Pakistan to surrender the terrorists on India's most wanted list?

Did she have a comment to make on the angst now sweeping India over the government's decision to reopen dialogue without the precondition of quantifiable action on 26/11?

Text: Prem Panicker


Image: Hillary Clinton addresses the media
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera
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Rest of it was window dressing

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To all of those, Clinton said pretty much the same thing: India and Pakistan were sovereign nations; it was no part of US foreign policy to play bear leader to the two nations and push them into an embrace. Yes, the US would welcome, even encourage, dialogue -- but what form it should take, and when it should happen, was entirely the business of the two countries concerned.

Yes, she did think Pakistan had over the last six months -- "That is the period I can speak of", she said, pointing at her own tenure as Secretary of State - shown commitment towards rooting out terrorist elements on its soil. She thought there was a new found determination in the government and the military to end the scourge. How effective this commitment would prove to be, time would tell - but, she said, perhaps hinting at some action behind the scenes, she had reason to think the next few days would provide some revelations on this front.

The rest of it was window dressing. The US, she said, had stood in solidarity with India over 26/11 just as India had stood in solidarity with America over 9/11.

Having thus twinned two tragedies separated by time, distance, perpetrator and motivation, she said India and the US, common victims of the scourge of nihilistic extremism of the kind that had manifested itself most lately in Jakarta yesterday, would join forces in a battle to end it. [Earlier, in a brief prepared statement, she spoke of having spent time with the staff of the Taj and the Oberoi, the two hotels hit hardest on 26/11, and of her sympathy for those who had laid down their lives during that terror attack].


Image: Clinton embraces a member of 'Sewa', a women's self employment voluntary organisation
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters
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'US has made some mistakes'

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To a supplementary question on climate change, Clinton responded on lines foreshadowed in her speeches and interactions of the last couple of weeks, as she had laid the spadework for this trip. It was fair to say, Clinton acknowledged, that the developed nations included the US had made mistakes, and that those mistakes had led to the disastrous position of today.

"I can only hope and suggest that India should learn from those mistakes," she said. As a country, she argued, India had shown remarkable ability to leapfrog technological time - as witness the 500 million cell phone user base or the rapidly growing internet penetration. She hoped, therefore, that India will similarly jump ahead of the rest in technologies to reduce carbon emissions, even as it went flat out on the path of economic progress aimed at alleviating poverty.

"There is no inherent contradiction between poverty eradication and moving towards a carbon emission-free regime," Clinton said.

Asked if she expected to be able to sign an End Use Agreement, as sought by American companies keen to engage in nuclear commerce with India, Clinton evaded a direct answer, but even her circumlocution carried hints that two days down the line, when she concludes her visit, her side hopes to be in a position to make some major announcements.

"We are working on several agreements of far-reaching importance," she said, refusing however to get into specifics. "We are optimistic that everything will be worked out in time, before the end of my visit here."


Image: Hillary Clinton addresses the media
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera
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Shortest response to the toughest question

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Arguably the most ticklish question of a very brief -- 10 minutes -- media interaction elicited the shortest response. It was pointed out to her that Reliance was selling oil to Iran. She had just come from a meeting with business heads, in which Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani were among those present. Given the US opposition to Iran and its desire to apply pressure on Teheran to end its presumed nuclear ambitions, would the US use its muscle to get Indian business to back off?

"The subject did not come up," Clinton said. "It may later."

The press conference in its entirety had about it the air of haste, of a duty call rather than a planned opportunity to discuss issues of substance. There was confusion about the venue - thus, the media was asked to report to the Cyrstal Room, where it cooled its collective heels for over an hour and a half, and where a Secret Service operative meticulously lifted up each chair and examined its undersides, before being shepherded poolside where it then cooled its heels for another hour and a half.

In her prepared remarks, Clinton spoke of her projected meetings: with the scientific community on a whole range of initiatives including the stepping up of agricultural production; micro nutrition for India's starving children; scientific and space cooperation et cetera; with Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and others in New Delhi when, she said, she hoped to go over bilateral and multilateral issues ranging from non-proliferation [she did not elaborate whether this meant a push for the signing of the CTBT] to educational, scientific and defense cooperation, to the strengthening of economic bonds, to the joint battle against terrorism and a whole host of others.

"I fully expect to have wide-ranging, far-reaching discussions over the next two days," she said.

Perhaps she will have more to say at the press conference following that -- she could, in any case, hardly say less than she did today.


Image: Clinton with Chairman of Tata Group Ratan Tata
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters
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