By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009
MUMBAI, India, July 18 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reached out to the full spectrum of Indian society Saturday, sharing petits fours with corporate titans, including a man building a $1 billion home, and later munching nuts with rural women who embroider clothing for just dollars a day.
Clinton, on her first full day of a three-day tour of India, also participated in a nationally televised town hall discussion on education with Bollywood star Aamir Khan and paid tribute to the more than 170 victims of a three-day terrorist siege here last November. In a rarity for a secretary of state, she is not due to meet with any Indian officials until the last day of her visit, when she hopes to announce agreements that could lead to military and nuclear deals.
Before leaving Washington, Clinton gave a speech in which she said the United States seeks to build a "multi-partner world," including contacts with nongovernmental groups and individuals that could make a difference. The trip to India, which she dubbed "a global power," is intended to be a manifestation of that approach.
Clinton, the most senior Obama administration official to visit India, is taking the unusual step of not stopping in Pakistan, India's antagonist and a longtime U.S. ally. Her predecessors almost always balanced a visit to New Delhi with a stop in Islamabad, but the Obama administration wants to demonstrate that the relationship with India stands on its own and is no longer tied to Pakistan. Even so, Indian reporters peppered Clinton with questions about Pakistan.
Even flying first to Mumbai, the financial center of India, rather than to the capital, New Delhi, sent a message. Clinton is spending two nights at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotels, the architectural landmark of Moorish, Oriental and Florentine accents that was one of the targets of the devastating terrorist attack, in what she told an Indian television network was intended as "a rebuke to the terrorists."
Shrugging off security concerns from Mumbai police, Clinton gave a news conference on an outside poolside terrace that was once scattered with bodies. Parts of the hotel are still under reconstruction; Clinton met with the business leaders in a banquet area that had been recently reopened.
Clinton also held a private ceremony with about a dozen staff members from the Taj and another hotel that was attacked, the Oberoi Trident. One of the attendees was Taj General Manager Karambir Kang, who lost his wife and two children during the attack.
"Americans share a solidarity with this city and nation," Clinton wrote in the hotel's memorial book. "Both our people have experienced the senseless and searing effects of violent extremism."
Clinton, making her first overseas trip since she broke her right elbow last month, was lively and animated all day, even during the education event, in which she sounded more like a secretary of education. Clinton tossed off statistics, such as the amount of money teachers spend on school supplies, as several of her top aides dozed in the audience.
The nine business leaders were almost evenly divided between women and men. They included Mukesh Ambani, the head of Reliance Industries, one of the world's richest men; he is building a 27-story, 400,000-square-foot house here. Clinton and the business executives animatedly discussed education, health care, micro credit and cooperation between Indian and American universities.
At one point, Ambani called for setting up joint institutions between the United States and India to develop clean technology. He noted that, with help, India could emerge at the forefront as rapidly as it embraced mobile phones.
"What we have is exactly what happened in the telecommunication revolution," he said. "Because of technology, we are able to leapfrog India to 500 million cellphones in nine years."
Clinton was so delighted with the analogy that she repeated it twice at public events during the day.
The meeting with the rural women, affiliated with the 1.1 million-member Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), was a reunion of sorts for Clinton. She became aware of the group during a trip to India as first lady in 1995. Guuribden Brahman, one of the women Clinton met 14 years ago, presented her with a deep red, hand-embroidered runner, an 80-year-old family heirloom. Brahman had received it from her mother for her wedding trousseau.
SEWA organizes poor weavers, farmers and craftsmen throughout South Asia, persuading them to save as little as a dime a month, which is pooled together to build up capital to provide micro loans for looms and other equipment. Clinton lauded the organization, saying, "We simply will not make progress in our world if we leave women behind."