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On July 18 in Mumbai, Hillary Rodham Clinton's private, cosy tete-a-tete with 10 of India Inc's most sought-after billionaires, was a power breakfast the likes of which the city's corporate czars had not seen in a long time.
It was her first port of call and it was steeped in symbolism.
At 7:30 am in Mumbai on July 18, Hillary Rodham Clinton's private, cosy tete-a-tete with 10 of India Inc's most sought-after billionaires, was a power breakfast the likes of which the city's corporate czars had not seen in a long time. The meeting was anything but cozy, with participants hungry to take in every morsel.
The agenda was clear. Clinton wanted to break bread with India's think-tank and confabulate with talented men and women who had built businesses and had a commitment to life beyond the bottom line.
In India for the first time after assuming charge as the US Secretary of State in the Obama administration early this year, Clinton apologized for not shaking hands with the select crowd due to her recent shoulder surgery.
Even still, she brought considerable star power to the awestruck group at the iconic Taj Hotel, the same location that bore the brunt of a terror attack in November 2008 (see related blog post).
CEOs and chieftans, normally engaged in boardroom battles, were content to be mute observers at the meeting. No ordinary mortals these, all of them are iconic figures in their own right. Chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries Mukesh Ambani, with an estimated net worth of $19.5 billion, and host Ratan Tata, who heads India's premier conglomerate, the Tata group, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion, were just two of the noteworthy names on the guest list.
Swati Piramal, vice chairperson of Piramal Life Sciences, who was also part of the select gathering, said Clinton wowed the crowd. Not just with her strawberry-pink suit, but with the “sheer essence and honesty of her words.”
The closed-door meeting was an amalgamation of ideas. From health to telecom to banking and higher education: the veritable variety of topics being discussed won hands down over the delectable fare laid out with such precision on the breakfast table.
Host Ratan Tata spoke about setting up another cancer hospital on the lines of Mumbai's famed Tata Memorial Hospital, and said he was looking for partnerships with places like the Sloan-Kettering institute and the MD Anderson Cancer Centre at the University of Texas.
To which, Clinton immediately remarked: “I could pick up the phone right now and speak to them,” referring to the fact that she was well-versed with the subject, as she had headed the Health Reform Committee as a senator when her husband, Bill Clinton, was in office. “Only the time difference would pose a problem,'' she chuckled, adding that she would look into it once back home in the US.
The Clintons have been known to keep their word, and Swati Piramal vouches for it. When then US President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000, he was informed about the sheer inexperience of patenting officers in India; a major reason for the 25,000-plus patent cases pending in the courts. Bill Clinton went back to the US and promptly sent across a team of expert trainers to educate India's patent examiners. Due to his generosity, the backlog of patent cases has been brought down to the current 4000.
On being thanked for the quick response, Hillary Clinton said she was aware of the episode. At that time, Bill Clinton had met industry stalwarts at a roundtable in Cafe Royal in Colaba and had started many successful initiatives after the meeting.
Clinton said her husband was “so impressed with India's pharmaceutical industry and overawed by her generic potential,” that he continued to praise India's efforts in drug discovery at several fora. “India has only grown since then, discovering new drugs on its own mettle. No doubt, there would soon be many new drug launches from India,'' she told the dumb-struck group.
She also suggested that the Ambani group's Corporate Social Responsibility division could help out in feeding hungry minds, by taking up the social cause of educating the poor.
Aiming to deepen the cooperation between the two countries, Clinton said she wanted to take some of the lessons back with her to the US. She spoke about placing neglected diseases on the fast-track and said she was clear that Indo-US Cooperation needed to go a notch higher in the area of life-saving drugs and in the area of regulatory affairs. This was a clear reference to the Clinton Foundation's charitable venture to address global issues of health security.
From its inception, the Clinton Foundation has relied heavily on importing generic AIDS drugs from India for supply to Africa. It is now looking at cancer drugs, and the first feelers are on their way.
Before her meeting with the business leaders, Clinton attended a commemorative event in the memory of the Mumbai 26/11 victims at the hotel. She had checked in the previous day as a mark of solidarity with the victims of terror and said her visit offered her a platform to speak out against the coordinated terrorist attacks as well as on issues close to her heart - health reforms and education.
For the 10 participants at the breakfast meeting, the burgeoning trade ties between the two countries would prove to be more than a shot in the arm for India's relatively strong growth of 6% and its resilient economy.