09 March 2000

Clinton's arriving, as bully or cheerleader?

9 March 2000
The Times of India

Clinton's arriving, as bully or cheerleader?

By Siddharth Varadarajan and Manoj Joshi
The Times of India News Service

NEW DELHI: With 10 days to go before Bill Clinton arrives in India,
the Vajpayee government doesn't seem to have decided which of his
personas it would rather deal with. Bill the bully -- whose
pressure on Kashmir and nuclear matters will have to be fended off
and diverted on to Pakistan -- or Clinton the cheerleader, the
rakish vacationer whose presence might be used to boost the image of
India abroad.

Above all, there are two questions which nobody has really answered.
What do we want from Clinton's visit? And, what do we think he can
actually deliver?

Try as it might, the government just cannot get away from a naive
fascination with grand strategy. Even though it was a foregone
conclusion, the US President's decision to stop in Islamabad has
also upped the stakes. One typically ham-handed sarkari response
being considered: The release of a White Paper on ISI activities to
coincide with Clinton's presence in the Capital.

As if he will read the headlines over breakfast and promptly declare
Pakistan a terrorist state. But once he is embroiled in regional
problems, it will be difficult to stop him from proffering his
advice on other issues. The danger, then, is that in trying to go
for minor and symbolic gains -- predicated on the US notion of South
Asia as a dangerous zone of conflict -- the Vajpayee government
could rack up real losses.

But if the government wishes to steer Clinton away from politics,
does it have the savvy to shepherd him into other, more profitable,
areas? Or should professional event managers be stepping in? The
Indian corporate sector is plagued by fears of how Clinton will vibe
with Vajpayee and other politicians.

The question on their minds: Will Clinton get the sanity check
Americans usually look for when they arrive in a strange country --
that crucial can of Coke for their soul -- or will he be overwhelmed
by ennui? That is why the guest-list for President Narayanan's
banquet has become a hotly-debated issue in political and financial
circles, with the latter of the view that CEOs and actresses would
go down better as dining companions for Clinton than the usual
dhobi-list of netas and babus.

Just as the government is guilty of exaggerating the political
significance of the visit, however, industry also runs the risk of
falling victim to over-blown expectations. Most financial analysts
believe Clinton's arrival will give a tremendous boost to their
brand equity, and bulls are already putting their money where they
think his mouth will be.

`New economy' firms are hoping the sight of Clinton having a good
time -- a sight that will duly be relayed back by the legion of
foreign journalists descending on the country -- will help to spread
the good word about India as a country the West can do business

The irony, of course, is that journalists who parachute in are more
likely to do the obvious stories -- the `shocking contrast' stories
about slums co-existing with mansions, the `exotic India' stories
about elephants, mahouts and snake-charmers -- than panegyrics to
Indian dotcoms.

The average reader in Peoria wants sadhus and snakes; if at all,
Narayan Murthy and Azim Premji will be packaged for him as new
signposts of the exotic. It will take much more than a lame-duck
presidential visit to change his perception about India. For, as
any IT engineer worth his ESOPs will testify, chip sets are much
easier to change than mindsets.

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