Bubba's Triumphant Return to Bombay

Bill Clinton is getting the royal treatment on his second visit to the subcontinent. Will the lovefest backfire on the ruling party?

By Manjeet Kripalani

In the U.S., he may be a political pariah. But in India, former President Bill Clinton has returned to the subcontinent with all the excitement and flair of the Second Coming. Actually, it is his second coming -- the first was March, 2000, when he made the first Presidential visit to India since Jimmy Carter. He left a lasting impression then on Indians -- and they on him (see BW Online, 3/24/00, "The President's Trip: A Triumph for Indian-Americans").

You'd never know Clinton was the ex-President: India has rolled out a red carpet for him, with lavish meals and private soirees hosted by the likes of the superwealthy Ambani family of petrochem giant Reliance Industries. Clinton is traveling courtesy of the 1 million-strong Indian-American community based in the U.S. Ever since his last visit here, Clinton has grown quite chummy with the prosperous Indo-Americans.

The American Indian Foundation -- which is sponsoring the visit -- has raised funds to rebuild Gujarat, the northern Indian state devastated by an earthquake in January. The group, funded by heavies such as McKinsey & Co. chief Rajat Gupta and Citicorp honcho Victor Menezes, both of whom are Indian, sent Clinton here with a check for $50 million, which he gave to the Gujarat's chief minister.


  Nice work for a former President if you can get it: Handing out checks written by others and getting some friendly press coverage for yourself. Truth is, the trip looks to be a launching pad for Clinton in a new career as informal U.S. ambassador-at-large. But some Indians fear the trip could backfire on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, already tottering because of a series of recent political scandals. Some think the BJP could alienate the new Bush Administration if it treats Clinton too royally.

When news leaked out a few days ago that Prime Minister Vajpayee planned a state dinner for Clinton, policy mavens and analysts in India waved their arms in despair, declaring it a bad idea. India had to start building bridges of friendship with the new Bush Administration, these critics feared. The surest way of offending Republicans was to entertain Clinton like an honored guest. Result: Talk of a banquet was quickly squelched.

Another rumor that set tongues wagging: Clinton might be offered a seat on the corporate board of the Ambani-run, $11 billion Reliance group, but the company denies it. Still, the rumor is intriguing. One of India's largest companies, Reliance has global ambitions. Its largest oil refinery in Jamnagar is not far from the India-Pakistan western border in the Gujarat state. That makes the company sensitive to international geopolitical maneuvers. A Reliance spokeman says the Ambanis don't take sides, and are friendly with the Bush Administration already -- as evidenced by Anil Ambani's attendance of Dubya's January Inauguration in Washington.


  And the Indo-American community keeps a close eye on Reliance. But again: Does Reliance want to risk alienating a Republican Administration in Washington by being so chummy with Clinton?

Clinton's trip isn't all high-pressure maneuvering, though. Shekhar Suman, India's most popular talk-show host and the country's answer to Jay Leno, has booked the saxophone-playing ex-Prez for his show, when Bubba arrives in Bombay on Apr. 5. Remember: Before the Presidential pardon flap splattered the ex-President with new mud, many Americans thought Clinton would emerge as a TV star in his own right after leaving the White House. What better place to start than in India? Here, they really do love him.

Kripalani is BusinessWeek's Indian bureau chief based in New Delhi

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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