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.

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”.