Kolkata: After a handshake and a namaste were exchanged, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, both on Time's list of the world's 100 most influential people, met for over an hour at the Writers' Building in Kolkata. Ms Banerjee said the meeting was "positive, constructive, creative and concrete."
Ms Clinton's assessment could be different - the chief minister emphatically denied that reforms in retail were discussed in the session. She added, "We are part of the world, where we think if we need foreign investment, we will allow it." A statement released by the US said the leaders talked about issues that included "increasing U.S. investment in West Bengal, including in the retail sector."
Before the meeting, Ms Clinton had made it clear that she would lobby for Foreign Direct Investment or FDI in retail. At a town-hall session in Kolkata where she urged the audience to ask her anything they wanted, Ms Clinton 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 added, "I also understand politics and how these decisions can be difficult. "
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, this 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 tomorrow.