Did Mamata-Hillary talk about foreign investment in retail? (West Bengal Newsletter)

May 13th, 2012 - 4:17 pm ICT by IANS  

Mamata Banerjee Kolkata, May 13 (IANS) The tete-a-tete between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, sweetened by plates of sandesh, the popular local sweet, suddenly threatens to leave a bitter aftertaste over whether the two discussed the entry of foreign retail giants in the Indian market.

A short while after Monday’s talks at the heavily fortified state secretariat Writers’ Buildings, Banerjee categorically said “no” when mediapersons asked whether the issue had been discussed.

But in a twist to the tale, the US consulate came out with a statement the same evening that, on the face of it, contradicted Banerjee.

“Touching on issues ranging from increasing US investment in West Bengal, including 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,” the statement released by the US consulate here said.

More baffling was the stand of the state government, as it seemingly tried to put pressure on the consulate to withdraw the mention of foreign investment in retail.

State Finance Minister Amit Mitra Monday night shot off a letter to the US consul general in Kolkata, Dean Thompson, urging him “unequivocally and strongly that the mention of investment in retail sector be avoided in your press statement”.

Till date, the US has not obliged Mitra, and the release features in the official website of the consulate.

On the other hand, the state government has since then maintained a deafening silence on the issue.

Political and diplomatic circles feel the bone of contention lies in the conflicting political compulsions of the two sides.

For Banerjee, the mention of foreign direct investment (FDI) in multibrand retail is like showing a red flag to the bull. Having played a leading role in forcing the central government to backtrack on opening the doors of multibrand retail to foreign companies, Banerjee is not prepared to give any political leverage to her opponents - the Marxists and the Left as a whole - known for their strong opposition to allowing foreign equity in the sector.

In contrast, a slowdown-hit US is pinning a lot of hope on the opening up of the multibrand retail sector in India - the world’s second largest populated country and Asia’s third largest economy - in terms of generating a huge amount of business for American companies like Wal-Mart. And 2012 being the presidential election year in the US, missing out on the retail issue in an interaction with the Indian leader would not have gone down well back home.

In fact, ahead of her talks with the chief minister, Clinton had made it clear during an interactive session with students and eminent persons of Kolkata that she will “certainly raise the United States’ desire to try to open the market to multibrand retail”.

However, some political circles feel the way the US statement was structured - “Touching on issues…including in the retail sector…the secretary affirmed to chief minister Banerjee” - could also mean that Clinton had just mentioned the matter in passing, and there was no further discussion on it. In that case, both Clinton and Banerjee could be telling the truth.

But whatever be the case, main opposition Left Front is in no mood to let the issue pass.

Left Front chairman Biman Bose has taken a dig at Banerjee for “hiding” the alleged discussions.

“What I have come to know from newspaper reports is that a statement from the US Consulate has said there has been a discussion on FDI in retail. Then surely there has been a discussion. It’s no use hiding it,” said Bose.

(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at s.panth@ians.in)

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