West Bengal Chief Minister cancels China visit on petty political grounds

West Bengal Chief Minister cancels China visit on petty political grounds

By Subir Bhoumik/South Asian Monitor

Kolkata, July 1: West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee lived up to her reputation as the enfant terrible of Indian politics when she cancelled her scheduled trip to China at the last moment. Her spokesperson blamed it on the ‘failure to finalisz her appointments’ in China.

But her meetings with the business chambers in China had all been finalised and the Chinese consulate in Calcutta was fairly optimistic about investments flowing into West Bengal. What was yet to be finalised was the level of political leaders who would meet her. Banerjee was keen to meet senior leaders of the Chinese communist party during her stay in Beijing and Shanghai, where she was to participate in several events, including an investors’ meeting in China’s financial capital, during her eight-day trip.

In November 2015, Chinese vice president Li Yuanchao had met her in Calcutta and described her as India’s “most honest politician”. Sources close to her say she was expecting to meet “someone of that level” during her first trip to China.

Now by starting his trip to India from Calcutta and by meeting Mamata, vice president Li Yuanchao had subtlety conveyed China’s warming up to her at a time when Beijing’s relations with the Modi government had undergone much strain over India drawing close to the USA. Delhi did not take that kindly and the ministry of external affairs advised Mamata Banerjee not to visit China last year when she got her first invitation. Mamata reluctantly obliged, knowing the BJP would have otherwise made an issue of it playing on nationalistic sentiments. Already the saffrons were questioning her intentions for rolling out the red carpet to Pakistani envoy Abdul Basit and linked it to her “politics of Muslim appeasement”.

But when she got the invitation this year from the international department of the Chinese Communist Party, the situation had dramatically changed. Prime minister Modi had already met Chinese president Xi Jinping at Xiamen on the sidelines of the BRICS summit and was preparing for the informal summit at Wuhan.

Banerjee has tweeted that she had decided to visit China after external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj recommended in March that she should lead a delegation to China under the exchange program.

The focus of her visit was to attract investment to West Bengal and Banerjee was scheduled to meet potential investors at a business seminar in Shanghai. State finance minister Amit Mitra was to separately meet representatives of Chinese companies in Beijing.

In a letter to the CPC, Banerjee said the visit had been cancelled because meetings at an “appropriate level” could not be arranged.

According to the original program, Banerjee was scheduled to meet the minister of the CPC’s international department. But keeping in mind her stature in Indian politics, the Indian side had sought a meeting with someone from the top Chinese leadership, officials in Beijing have said.

The Indian side requested that a meeting be arranged with someone from the seven-member standing committee of the CPC, at the level of vice-president. Indian officials in Beijing highlighted Banerjee’s position in Indian politics, but failed to convince the Chinese side.

“Everything was going on well but unfortunately the Chinese side could not confirm the political meetings at appropriate level as informed by our Ambassador in China,” said Banerjee’s letter to the CPC, which was released last Friday.

“Therefore, the purpose of my visit with a delegation to China under the Exchange Programme is of no use,” the letter said.

The “non-confirmation of the political meetings” at the last moment had “unfortunately compelled us to cancel the visit”, Banerjee wrote.

It now becomes clear that the political dividends from this visit was more important for Banerjee than economic gains for her state.

If she was met by senior CPC leaders, Banerjee could use this in West Bengal to undermine her bete noire, the Communists. Her supporters were already projecting Banerjee’s China trip as evidence that the Indian communists were no longer getting any importance in China, the world’s biggest Communist power.

Mamata Banerjee has been met by former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and other world leaders but always when they came to Calcutta. The Chinese are very rigid on protocol and would not usually get top CPC leaders to meet regional leaders from other countries, regardless of their importance in national politics. The late Jyoti Basu was met by senior CPC leaders but as a senior Indian Communist leader. For anyone who understand global Communist politics, it is not difficult to see.

But Mamata has her own local priorities and a somewhat exalted sense of importance that may have influenced her cancelling the visit a day before she was to fly out. One only hopes West Bengal does not suffer loss of potential Chinese investments as a result of this rather haughty decision.

China’s consul general in Kolkata, Ma Zhanwu, had earlier told the media that authorities planned to organise several meetings with political leaders, government functionaries, business leaders and industry chambers. Ma had also said some “important MoUs,” or memorandums of understanding, were to be signed during the visit.

Hope that stays on course, though the Chinese investors and the country’s officialdom are not known to be fond of maverick politicians who don’t play by the script.

(The featured image at the top shows West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee greeing Li Yuanchao, Vice President of China, in Kolkata)