US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may press the case for India's stalled policy to open its supermarket sector to foreign chains when she meets its most powerful critic: Mamata Banerjee, the fiery chief minister of West Bengal.
The two women are due to meet during Clinton's three-day visit to India that starts on Sunday with a stopover in Bengal. Indian officials said retail reform — an issue of enormous interest to US and other foreign investors — could be discussed but did not elaborate.
US officials declined to comment on the meeting.
Listed in Time Magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people, Banerjee rose from a poor teacher's family to oust the longest-serving communist government from her state. Cheered as a pro-poor leader by her supporters and branded a knee-jerk populist by her detractors, Banerjee has stymied reforms at a time when India's economic growth has slowed and investors have pummelled New Delhi's apparent policy inertia. Despite her alliance with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government, Banerjee has blocked major measures including railway fare increases and letting foreign retailers such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour into the Indian market. Banerjee, who built her political movement championing the cause of the poor, has said New Delhi's proposed reforms were needless attacks on people's livelihoods. "Maybe Clinton will try to use her persuasive powers to try to convince Mamata," said DH Pai Panandiker, the head of the RPG Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank. "Manmohan Singh is not strong enough to convince her on anything." From Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, Clinton will head to New Delhi on Monday, where she will meet Singh. Afghanistan, retail reform and India's controversial proposal for retroactive taxation are likely talking points. Clinton will travel to the South Asian giant after a trip to China this week that was overshadowed by blind dissident Chen Guangcheng escaping house arrest and seeking shelter in the US embassy in Beijing. Affectionately known as "Didi", Banerjee came to power in West Bengal last year, tapping into a groundswell of disaffection with decades of communist rule that have saddled the state with heavy debts. But accusations of heavy-handedness in running her state, combined with her opposition to policies in New Delhi, have sparked a backlash against her. Her supporters say the criticism is driven by her political opponents and a hostile media.