Clinton kicks off 3-day visit to India

Meets with rich, poor on education and healthcare

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton embraced a member of the Self Employed Women’s Association yesterday during a visit to the group’s Mumbai, India, offices. She became aware of the association during a visit to India in 1995. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton embraced a member of the Self Employed Women’s Association yesterday during a visit to the group’s Mumbai, India, offices. She became aware of the association during a visit to India in 1995. (Arko Datta/ Reuters)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post / July 19, 2009
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MUMBAI, India - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reached out to the full spectrum of Indian society yesterday, 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 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 166 victims of a three-day terrorist siege in the country 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 was seeking 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 making a stop in Pakistan, India’s antagonist and longtime US ally. Her predecessors almost always balanced a visit to New Delhi with a stop in Islamabad, but the Obama administration wants to demonstrate 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 the capital New Delhi, sent a message. Clinton is spending two nights at the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers hotel, 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. One of the attendees was Karambir Kang, the Taj general manager 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 elbow last month, was lively and animated, even during the education event in which she sounded more like a secretary of education. She 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, including Mukesh Ambani, head of Reliance Holdings, one of the world’s richest men. Clinton and the business executives discussed education, healthcare, micro credit, and cooperation between Indian and US universities.

The meeting with the rural women, affiliated with the 1.1 million-member Self Employed Women’s Association, was a reunion of sorts for Clinton. She first 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 the secretary of state with a deep-red, hand-broidered decorative runner that her mother had spent 10 years weaving for her wedding trousseau.

The association organizes poor weavers, farmers, and craftsmen throughout South Asia, convincing them to save as little as a dime a month, pooled together to build up capital, and providing 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.’’