Once more, with feeling: Hillary Clinton visits Chennai

July 20, 2011


Chennai’s shiny new Anna Centenary Library auditorium was packed. We assembled early, from noon onwards, for Secretary of State Clinton’s speech. The speech was scheduled for 3 p.m. but we were told 2:30 p.m. And so we filed in with small purses, no water—the high and might, rich and famous, bold and beautiful, and students of Chennai and some of us besides—and lunch becoming a past-life memory, and waited.

I know why I was willing to wait. It was my way of showing appreciation to a politician who has put in her time on issues of real concern and who may well be remembered for placing gender justice on the State Department agenda with a minimum of opportunism attached.

And so when she came in at exactly 3, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. The very brief welcome by the Librarian was much nicer than the usual ceremonial welcome with soporific speeches. And Ms. Clinton led the applause when the Librarian said this was Asia’s largest public library. Since most of us haven’t been inside yet, we joined more sceptically.

Ms. Clinton’s speech was very much in the same mode as President Obama’s Parliament speech (see my post on this). As she checked off her hat-tips and tut-tuts, I could have sworn the speech had the same structure—which is not really an issue. Diplomatic speeches are not cutting-edge policy statements. So what were these?

She opened with a “vanakkam” which got her a round of appreciative applause. Then she talked about how happy she was to come to Tamil Nadu and Chennai, and said nice things about culture and history and contemporary American connections to this town (which in the past includes the Ice House and the fortune that founded the Secretary of State’s alma mater).

Why was India so important to the US? Because the Obama administration believes that much of the history of the 21st century would be written in Asia, she said. And then elucidating “how to inject content” into the Indo-US relationship, she tipped her hat to democracy, pluralism, opportunity and innovation as “bedrock beliefs” that the two countries share.

Reiterating the US’ support for India becoming a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council in a reformed UN system (whatever that means, whenever that happens!), the Secretary of State said that the US welcomed India assuming a global leadership role. But she asked: What does global leadership mean and what does it mean for Indo-US relations? In that moment, I thought we were back in November 2010, listening to President Obama.

And after a little while, came the little nudge about Burma. Yes, India has interests and investments in Burma, so the US was happy to see the Foreign Secretary meet Aung San Suu Kyi. The words left unspoken: But really you can do more if you decide to, and if you want to assert your position as a leader, you should. If this annoys Indians because it sounds like a lecture, it is also not untrue—power comes at a price. President Obama reminded Indians of this in several ways through his visit but never as explicitly as in his Parliamentary address. And both he and Secretary of State Clinton subtly pointed out that US support for India’s claim to such leadership would depend on India’s willingness to shoulder its costs and responsibilities.

Of course, this nasty medicine was served with plenty of sugar: India had so much to offer in support of the democratic transitions in West Asia; Ms. Clinton described India’s Election Commission as the ‘gold standard.’ Apart from democracy, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and sustainable development (especially agriculture in arid areas) were three areas where India had something to offer, in her view.

The Secretary of State identified the Asia-Pacific and South and Central Asia as two regions where the US and India could work together. Chennai, she suggested, was a very good location from which to speak about these, since it was a reminder of India’s old connections to this region and its maritime history. The main point to this cooperation was trade; open markets and freer trade would make everyone prosperous. But the language of Ms. Clinton’s speech was colourful and evocative; she recalled the Silk Road and called for the creation of a web of Silk Roads that an entrepreneur in Chennai might use to get her products to a customer in Central Asia.

In this part of her speech, Ms. Clinton said Tamil Nadu was an example of what was possible when everyone enjoyed equal rights in a society, and then used that as a way to introduce Sri Lanka into her speech. When she said, every citizen deserved the same hope, there was a buzz of approval. But this was also the one place where she made a very strong statement that peace is not possible when the peace process ignores women’s rights and minority rights. But in spite of the passion with which she spoke these words, the audience in Chennai did not really react. It must have been as disappointing to the speaker as it was to this blogger.

In fact, after her ‘vanakkam,’ the only real response Ms. Clinton got came when she quoted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wish that he should be able to travel so freely across the subcontinent that he could eat breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Interesting, when you consider how much criticism he currently receives. The applause was so great that she paused to say, applause is not enough.

Anyway, having spoken about Sri Lanka in Chennai—acknowledging the city’s interest in that country’s affairs—she made sure to talk about India’s assistance to the Maldives and the need for a regional solution to flooding problems in Bangladesh.

The end of Ms. Clinton’s speech was written to be rousing and inspiring but the audience remained cold.

Anti-Americanism comes very easily to Indian audiences, but I want to ask those gathered in that room why they were there. They were never going to hobnob with the Secretary of State; so that cannot be the motivation. They were not moved by the content and seemed largely disinterested in it. They were just not there; and as I have written this post and reflected on it, the watery applause they gave Ms. Clinton makes me wonder. What brought them to that room? Interactions (even non-interactive ones like this!) are a two-way street and both parties go under the scanner.

So my question to those who planned this event is: what was the point of having so many people—many very busy—gather in a room for so long just to listen to Ms. Clinton breeze in, speak and breeze out? You could have screened this and had a discussion. Or had her take some questions.

What was in this event for Ms. Clinton or the gathered Chennaiites? It’s not so clear at all. She got a tired, somewhat dehydrated and restless audience for a speech that didn’t need them to be there. They got an afternoon away from work (nice for some, including me) and a chance to meet friends they have no time for otherwise, but really this can’t have been the objective of the US Consulate. Might Ms. Clinton have done better to visit another social service organization, working in the area of child rights, perhaps? Would a town-hall in a college which is off the Consulate’s radar otherwise, have opened new connections?

Other notes:

• Ms. Clinton mentioned “Passport to India,” a programme to encourage American undergraduates to study in India in larger numbers and build connections with India.
• She also used the feminine gender everytime she had an example to narrate in the third person singular… very, very nice, and noted with great approval!

Last question for academics: Analyses of speeches like this one either start with a checklist of desirable mentions and omissions and then scan minutely and critically, or like this one, they are readings of style and structure. As a foreign policy scholar, I wonder, does the first miss the woods for the trees, and does the second fail to appreciate the work on each tree in its emphasis on the woods as a whole?

PS: The State Department’s account is here. Full text of the speech is here.

The region that studies together, works together!

August 30, 2010


Exchange programmes, scholarships, collaborative research and of course, a regional university—when academics talk peace, they think first of the classroom.


The South Asian University‘s first academic session was set to begin this month (August 2010) in New Delhi. However, this is not the only education project that has inspired international cooperation. The restoration and revival of Nalanda University is another instance.

S.D.Muni, Nalanda: A Soft Power Project, The Hindu, August 31, 2010.

South Asia’s ancient centres of learning, Takshashila and Nalanda for instance, drew scholars from around the world—both students and teachers. Their memory is a cherished part of regional heritage. The idea of reviving Nalanda was mooted recently and taken forward by a group of governments from across Asia and including New Zealand.

The American and British experience have shown that international student and scholarly exchanges build bridges, create shared vocabularies and most important, personal relationships that survive political vicissitudes. If Asia’s states were to move in this direction, facilitating such exchanges within and across regional groups, the long-term impact on the region’s politics and development could be significant.

Soft power and foreign policy: A link and some thoughts

March 16, 2010


Article reprint in Dawn on Pakistan’s global image, and reflections on the utility of soft power.


Why does Pakistan have such a negative image in the outside world, in contrast with other countries who face the same challenges?

Michael Kugelman, Pakistan’s image problem, Dawn.com, March 15, 2010.

The article revisits the importance of soft power, a theme my posts have touched on in the past.

A different instance: South Korea has a strong presence in this southern Indian city of Chennai. Several South Korean companies have large factories here and South Korean products have a large market. Recently, one of them sponsored a Women’s International Film Festival that showcased—not just Indian or Korean films—films made by and about women from around the world. The festival was organized by a cultural centre, set up three years ago in Chennai to promote language learning and cultural exchange.

Now it’s safe to say that on an average Tamilians and Koreans have little apart from rice and fish in common! But Korean corporates have large corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, run by local managers, that have taken them into the community which buys their products. Well, so do lots of others, what’s interesting is that they have shown a willingness to step beyond traditional charitable and developmental objectives to invest in setting up this cultural centre—along with a Chennai corporate! States could learn a lesson or two from this! Through creative programming, this centre has put South Korea on the cultural map—ergo, cultural and political consciousness—of India in ways that fifty years of state-sponsored diplomacy did not.

The festival closed with a concert featuring music composed and/or performed by women. The performers were from Chennai. The music was European or American. The sponsors were Korean. Now, that’s soft power at work. Sri Lanka does not have a parallel presence in the largest city across the water from its shores, and that’s hardly exceptional. It’s not about resources; it’s about vision. Those who get that, get more value for money in international relations, than those who do not.

Special Report: Feminist Flashpoints in East Asia

November 19, 2009


A cursory review reveals that sexual violence is a common issue that is salient domestically as well as in the international politics of the region. One of the real challenges though appears to be expanding the space for political activism among women.


As President Obama travels through East Asia, he provides South Asian feminist scholars with an opportunity to look east and review those issues that have been contentious for women’s rights activists. Each of the President’s stopovers has its own feminist flashpoints that are either consequences of society’s engagement with the outside world or that have consequences for that engagement.

The movement of people is one of the main sources of concern for Japanese feminists. Women’s immigration from other parts of Asia into Japan when legal is largely in the “entertainment” category, with most immigrants working as bar hostesses, in factories, as commercial sex workers or waitresses. International marriages through brokers are known; along with the old pattern of Japanese wife/ non-Japanese husband now there are also Japanese men who seek non-Japanese but Asian wives either for more control in the marriage or for sham marriages that cover up and facilitate exploitation. (See Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 for more.)

The Japanese also have to confront their status both as perpetrators and victims on the question of wartime sexual exploitation. If the use of “comfort women” during Japan’s mid-20th century occupation of Korea is a history Japan has to live down at minimum and apologize and compensate for at best, then Japan’s own experience with the US presence in Okinawa has been similar. Either way, women have simply been the spoils of militarization, not uniquely in East Asia but here this issue has acquired both feminist and nationalist resonance.

Singaporean women’s organizations have to walk a tightrope, calling attention to social inequities without criticizing the state; placing the blame on culture without blaming religion; being political by virtue of working on political questions, but all the while abjuring politics. Reproductive rights have been one arena of activism, but in insider-for-self-correction mode rather than as dissent or critique of the state’s agenda. Many women from other parts of Asia come to Singapore to undertake jobs as domestic workers. Their status and their rights become political issues in their countries of origin, but in my admittedly cursory search, it was not clear how much their presence registered with the local women’s movement. (Lenore Lyons has written a great deal on the women’s movement in Singapore.)

Shanghai is now one of Asia’s showpiece cities; Beijing is one of its oldest capitals. Through much of the twentieth century, women activists were as focused on nation-building and social modernization issues as their male colleagues. State feminism under the People’s Republic did self-consciously address the institutional and many structural issues relating to the status of women. In the public sphere, gender became irrelevant for both men and women in many ways. Since the 1990s, when China has opened up to the world and western feminist writing has been translated and made available, Chinese feminists are now critiquing this same effacement of gender identity and blaming this for the invisibility of women in many spheres.

From a South Asian perspective, what is most interesting is to look at the impact of how China has opened up and grown, on women’s lives, their decision-making frames and freedoms and finally, gendered expectations that they may now face. Given that China’s political opening is yet to equal its economic changes, it is hard to see what the emerging internal critiques and debates are among Chinese feminists. Whatever they are, they matter for international relations for two reasons. One, there are a lot of aspirants to growth along the Chinese model (or should I say, Shanghai model). For them, this could be an early warning of problems they should anticipate and address. Two, insofar as the Shanghai model is identified elsewhere with the replacement by American-style capitalist economics of socialist development models, its failures will be seen as American failures, exported to Asia. It is in US interests to appear introspective and self-critical with regard to socio-economic issues on the home-front.

Two important strands to the women’s activism in Korea appear to be improving working conditions for women and of course, the issue of “comfort women.” As elsewhere, sexual violence—its prevention, protection issues and victim support services—is a priority for most organizations. It was hard to find very descriptive accounts from which I could learn more.

Two issues seem to recur in this region. The first relates to democracy and space in the public sphere for social activism at all: in its absence or where it is strained, how likely is it that activists will prioritize women’s rights over civil rights and political reform agendas? Women are likely, yet again, to have to take a number and wait their turn. The other is that although my post scarcely suggests it, sexual violence is an important rallying point. Reading about Japan, I learned that in some cases, what were originally shelters for refugees were also taking in victims of domestic violence. That to me really underscores the continuum of violence in which most women’s lives play out. And violence in the name of the state—during war, to reinforce state rules, to ensure regime survival—is one stretch on this continuum.

States are bound by international convention to do business with other states. What this means is that when any head of state comes calling, s/he must meet and confer with whatever regime is in power. A strident discourse on human rights and democracy usually becomes background noise as a summit plays out—that’s diplomacy. But where then is the space for women’s rights issues to be raised and discussed in the international arena? Will we have seen something new in the course of President Obama’s international excursions this time and in coming months?

New Delhi Notes: Where you stand = what you see

October 11, 2009


Geography determines many things, including the perspective that one holds on international relations. The way Indians from different parts of the country view South Asia has been a good example, although this is changing somewhat.


In the last few days during my meetings with people in Delhi, several people have expressed an interest in knowing what I would say or write on matters related to Pakistan. Only one person actually was interested in talking about Sri Lanka. It’s almost the opposite in Chennai, although Pakistan does hold an enduring fascination everywhere.

India is the only one of South Asia’s states that shares borders, and therefore, communities, languages and culture, with every one of the others. Even the atoll-state of Maldives has something in common with one part of India—Minicoy. Along this long, multicultural frontier, perspective shifts to reflect neighbourly concerns and ethnic kinships. Thus, from the point of view of West Bengal, the view of South Asia begins with Bangladesh. For Punjab, it begins with West Punjab and Pakistan. For Tamil Nadu, it begins with Sri Lanka. A more careful reading would show moreover that within a region, say the Indian east, primary preoccupations vary too. If for someone from Assam, it is immigration from Bangladesh, for a policy-maker in Tripura it could be the easy passage across the porous frontiers of the region of militants and arms.

Similarly, for people on the other side of these frontiers, India begins with their neighbouring/ co-ethnic region and is largely imagined as an extension thereof. For Sri Lankans, therefore, India begins with the state of Tamil Nadu and the ‘60 million’ Tamils that they see as an extension of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. The rest of India is an add-on for many imaginations.

Happily and unhappily, these perspectives are now becoming complex. The advent of the Internet and satellite television carries programming in the region’s languages far from their area of origin. Thus, Chennaiites can now hear Nepali news! People are chatting, commenting on each other’s blogs, networking and tweeting across borders. Travel across the world is providing an opportunity for South Asians to meet and adding nuance to their understanding of each other’s states. This is the ‘happy’ part.

Terrorist attacks are the unhappy part. Because terror groups do not see their issues as local, they strike far from their area of contestation. There is no more striking example than the repeated attacks on Mumbai, especially 26/11. Mumbaikars now think about Pakistan.

Would that such a broadening of perspective were not due to insecurity and would that it were accompanied by a deepening! I have also had two or three conversations here about the fact that given India’s location and natural interest in its neighbourhood, we do not have the multi-disciplinary programmes or conferences that are seen elsewhere on South Asia. Where a single department might have a political scientist, an agricultural economist and an ethnomusicologist, giving students the opportunity to learn broadly. Where simultaneous panels in a conference might discuss poverty, law, textile and text. There are of course, South Asia programmes in India, but security, strategic studies and politics dominate the agenda, even though we know from historical experience across the world that it is broad-based knowledge that is most useful even in these areas. A depletion of area expertise made US intelligence-gathering on South, Central and West Asia very difficult in very recent memory, for instance.

Indian debates about educational reform, non-governmental and state initiatives and big funding should take a little time to support the creation of such spaces and platforms for research and teaching that will nurture this broad and deep learning about this complex, interconnected neighbourhood. In their absence, in the long run, we will continue to see policy underpinned by shallow understanding from perspectives skewed by narrow expertise. And globalization will carry the consequences of bad policy across continental frontiers.

I Just Called to Say I Love You

June 27, 2009


Reflections on the importance of “soft power” in international relations.


Last night, I was briefly at a concert tribute to Stevie Wonder. The performers with Chennai-ites and one of the organizers was the local US Consulate. The Consul-General reminisced about listening to Wonder’s music as a teenager, and there was a slide-show that looped on special screens that featured Wonder and other prominent US musicians, including the late Michael Jackson. The Consulate had slipped in one photo of Wonder with Barack Obama, and the CG made a point of mentioning that the Obamas’ wedding song was a Wonder composition. A sprinkling of ex-pats (consular officers on evening duty?) sat in a corner of Chennai’s most prestigious performance venue, but the audience was more than 95% Indian.

For one evening, there was no Iraq. No Afghanistan. No Bush. No capitalism. No globalization. No negativity. Indeed, there were barely any nationalities, no cultural translation, no politically correct concessions. Just pleasure in the music and wonder (pun intended) at a marvelous talent!

Those of us with cosmopolitan pretensions understand that when soporific speeches and forest-wasting communiques are forgotten, the taste of a delicious new dish and the haunting refrain of a song are what remain with us. The US therefore invests in setting up American Centre libraries (or whatever they are now called); the British Council system is seriously engaged with education and training. The Alliance Francaise, Goethe and Max Muller Insitutes and Russian Centres promote language learning and partner with local organizations to facilitate cultural interaction. In Asia, many of us are beneficiaries of these institutions in one way or another: library membership, language skills, exposure to global cinema, educational counseling.

India takes its heritage seriously and takes great pride in the variety of its cultural riches. In the 1980s, under the aegis of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Festivals of India were organized around the world showcasing classical and popular arts from this subcontinent-sized state. Twenty years later, this has been overtaken by a growing interest in and fascination for Indian cinema, fashion and food. The Incredible India campaign has begun to restore interest in India as a tourist destination.

For decades, long before the term ‘peace process’ began to be applied to the India-Pakistan context, a ‘piracy process’ kept South Asians in touch with each other. The first signs of thaw in the 1970s brought cricket teams and musicians across borders still being defined. The full flowering of these exchanges began in the 1990s with cultural collaborations, joint hosting of sports events and the forging of a shared popular culture thanks to digital media. This was accompanied by institutional support for multi-track diplomacy and people-to-people contact. As bad as things get, those of us who have been observing India-Pakistan relations for a long time, find it hard to believe that the climate change eased by these small changes is not irreversible.

The same cannot be said of India’s ties with other South Asian states, where cultural exchange and collaboration have not kept pace with trade or even politics. Shared, far less problematic cultural continuities have yet to be built upon outside the universe of ministerial speeches. Can we see Sri Lankan baila artistes on the Indian charts? Or a grand tribute to Kazi Nazrul Islam traveling through Indian cities beyond Kolkata? Can we see student exchanges across South Asian borders? We can advocate, but can we hope to actually see culture, commerce and contact become the primary medium of interaction through South Asia, as it has in so many ways around the world?

This blogger chooses to believe that this will happen, because she knows that the days when letters were intercepted have been replaced by the ability to send text messages and call across borders—yes, just to say, I love you or “just call my name, and I’ll be there”.