Kolkata: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's much-hyped visit to Kolkata yesterday ended with the Americans stating that the issue of US investments in retail sector had come up during her meeting with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, something that she and her government denied.
A statement released by the US said that the two leaders - both on Time's list of the world's 100 most influential people - talked about issues that included "increasing US investment in West Bengal, including in the retail sector" in the meeting that lasted for over an hour at the Writers' Building in Kolkata.
"Touching on issues, ranging from increasing US investment in West Bengal, including in the retail sector, US-India relations, regional affairs and strong people-to- people connections, the Secretary reaffirmed to the chief minister the US desire to work with India and West Bengal to deepen and broaden our partnership," it said.
In fact, Ms Clinton had, before the meeting, also made it clear that she would lobby for Foreign Direct Investment or FDI in retail. At a town-hall session in Kolkata yesterday where she urged the audience to ask her anything they wanted, Ms Clinton had told NDTV's Barkha Dutt, "I will raise the US desire to open market to multi-brand retail. Enormous experience can be brought to India on supply-chain management, on developing relationships with small producers. The benefits may not be immediately perceived." But she had added, "I also understand politics and how these decisions can be difficult."
The state government, however, said that Ms Clinton did not mention FDI-in-retail during her interaction with the chief minister.
"I would like to state on behalf of the West Bengal government that the US Secretary of State did not mention FDI in retail when speaking to the chief minister. There was no further discussion on this specific subject at all," state Finance Minister Amit Mitra said in a communication to the US consul-general in Kolkata Dean Thompson, a copy of which was released to the press last night. "I urge you unequivocally and strongly that the mention of investment in retail sector be avoided in your press statement," Mr Mitra said.
The chief minister had, after her meeting with Ms Clinton, said that the meeting was "positive, constructive, creative and concrete." But she also emphatically denied that reforms in retail were discussed in the session.
"Let me tell you very clearly that Teesta, no. FDI in retail, no. They did not raise them, nor were they discussed. Only development issues were discussed," the chief minister had said, responding to persistent queries from reporters.
In Delhi, Left leader Sitaram Yechury objected to the pitch for reform, describing it as interference by the US on India's internal affairs. In Parliament, he also asked the Centre to explain why a state government has been allowed to hold talks with the US Secretary of State.
Ms Banerjee was responsible for the government's suspension a few months ago of a decision to allow 51% Foreign Direct Investment or FDI in multi-brand retail, which would have allowed super-chains like WalMart to sell directly to Indian consumers. Ms Banerjee, who is a part of the UPA coalition at the Centre, said she had not been consulted about the decision and could not allow it because it will affect the livelihoods of farmers and shopkeepers.
For Ms Banerjee, the meeting was an opportunity for her to showcase her debt-ridden, financially-crippled state to attract much-needed foreign investment. She said Ms Clinton has said West Bengal will be "a partner state. They will invest in West Bengal which was not taking place due to the political situation in the past."
Ms Clinton may not have dented Ms Banerjee's resolve on FDI but she did leave with a kantha-stich scarf made in Santiniketan and four books including Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali. Ms Clinton said earlier that she discovered Mr Tagore's writings in college, and has been a huge fan since. At her town-hall this morning, she quoted him: "Age considers, youth ventures."
Ms Clinton flew to Delhi then and met with the Prime Minister and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Civil nuclear cooperation, regional security and Iran are among the key issues that Ms Clinton is expected to discuss with External Affairs Minister SM Krishna during their meeting today.