Kolkata: After a handshake and a namaste were exchanged, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee met one on one for over an hour at the Writers' Building in Kolkata this morning. Later, Ms Banerjee said Ms Clinton praised her "passion for work" and promised investment for West Bengal at the meeting, which the Bengal Chief Minister described as "constructive, creative and concrete." The chief minister also said that Foreign Direct Investment or FDI in retail were not discussed. "We are part of the world, where we think if we need foreign investment, we will allow it," the chief minister said.
Before the meeting, Ms Clinton made it clear that reforms in retail - vehemently opposed by Ms Banerjee- remain a priority for the US as it looks for business opportunities in India. At a town-hall session this morning, 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 relationship with small producers. The benefits may not be immediately perceived." But she added, "I also understand politics and how these decisions can be difficult. "
Ms Banerjee was responsible for the government's suspension 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.
Both Ms Clinton and Ms Banerjee figure on Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people. "When I meet a woman who has broken through barriers... whatever her background or political beliefs... we share a common bond having gone through the electoral fire in politics," the Secretary of State said.
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, happy with her work in Bengal, said she saw many opportunities in the state and promised all help on development.
Explaining her decision to stop in Kolkata before heading to Delhi, Ms Clinton shared,
"Coming from China to Bangladesh... seemed very appropriate to stop right here in Kolkata. Economic potential of East India is so great... but also its geo-political significance is being increasingly recognised. US wants to be partner with the entire country. This is my way of demonstrating our commitment to this part of the country."
There was unprecedented security at the West Bengal state secretariat, where ministers and employees had to enter through a side gate with special passes today. The media, except cameramen, were barred from the premises. The FBI inspected the whole building at least three times with the Kolkata Police, paying special attention to stairs and corridors through which the American entourage passed for the meeting with Ms Banerjee. (Read: Kolkata fortified for Hillary Clinton visit)
The Chief Minister said she had presented Ms Clinton with a scarf made in Shanti Niketan and a copy of the Gitanjali Rabindranath Tagore. 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."
Civil nuclear cooperation, regional security and Iran are among the key issues that she is expected to discuss with External Affairs Minister SM Krishna during their meeting tomorrow.
During her stay in the national capital, she is also expected to call on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during which they will review progress made in their countries' strategic partnership ahead of the India-US strategic dialogue to be held in Washington on June 13.