Devyani and the Indo-US relationship

One hopes that the crisis doesn’t come in the way



As the new year begins, both India and the US must begin to think long and hard over how the crude attempt at punishing an Indian diplomat over her alleged misdemeanours relating to visa fraud and underpaying her domestic staff has blown into a full-fledged quarrel between the two countries.
So much has been written about the Devyani Khobragade affair that it seems there isn’t much left to say. What is clear so far is that the Diplomatic Security Bureau of the US State Department gave the green signal for Manhattan’s district attorney to arrest India’s deputy consul-general in New York. What followed has created such a diplomatic storm in the bilateral relationship that one hopes both countries don’t return to reaping the whirlwind.
The question that remains, in the middle of all this sound and fury, is whether the India-US relationship is so thin that it cannot survive a diplomatic disagreement, why the US behaved so callously with a special and strategic partner in the first place and if the Indian government over-reacted to the slight/insight/humiliation.
A little bit of history is in order to explain the background of the relationship so far. The crowning glory, at least in recent times, must be given to the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal which both governments fought with their respective establishments to bring to fruition. Prime minister Manmohan Singh threatened to resign if his own party didn’t support him and then US president George Bush simply dismissed all opposition within his system to order that his government use its diplomatic clout with the rest of the world to ensure that the nuclear deal passed muster with the 35-nation Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG). The unspoken concern about China seemed to weigh heavily in the minds of both India and the US.
But when Bush lost the presidency to Obama, the latter’s advisers seemed much more interested in forming a close “condominium” with China, in what came to be called the “G-2”, so as to carve the world into their respective spheres of influence. The Indians were naturally worried and saw it as a ganging up against Delhi. But when the Chinese treated Obama shabbily during his first visit to China, the American pendulum seemed to gently tilt back towards New Delhi. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was very clear that Washington DC and Delhi were partners across the length and breadth of Beijing, Tokyo, Islamabad and Kabul.
So what happened? The short answer is that John Kerry became the new Secretary of State in the new US administration, and he seemed much more interested in extricating the Americans out of a right royal mess in Afghanistan in which both betrayal and double-crossing played equal roles. Moreover, stories like Egypt, Syria, Iran and of course the Palestinian-Israeli Middle East crisis staple, seemed to occupy much of his time.
Nothing wrong with all of the above, of course, especially since large chunks of the American national was at stake at each of these trouble-spots. Especially on the Afghanistan front, the American population has been desperate to get out, wondering why they were fighting someone else’s war and reordering another nation so far away from home. In the new year, the clock for withdrawal from Kabul will start ticking as soon as the presidential election in Afghanistan is held on April 5.
My short point here is that this left very little or no time for the American establishment to think of India and the convulsions it was going through at home. There was irritation that the nuclear deal hadn’t resulted in any big-ticket commercial deals but little or no understanding of the power struggle between the Congress and the BJP. India and the US, “strategic allies” since former BJP prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee described them as such as long ago as 2000, grew further and further apart.
The Devyani Khobragade affair was waiting to happen. Certainly, Devyani isn’t the first Indian diplomat who has underpaid her staff in the US, but in the past the Americans had agreed to warn their Indian counterparts and the offending diplomat was either withdrawn or was asked to shape up. What seems to have angered the Indians in this case is that a lowly functionary in the Diplomatic Security Bureau of the US State Department, which is expected to handle sensitive matters such as these, gave District Attorney Preet Bharara the go-ahead to arrest Devyani, after which all those absurd standard operating procedures such as “cavity searches” kicked in.
My point is that if the India-US relationship had remained warm and fuzzy as it was some years ago and both sides didn’t seem distracted and distant, the lowly functionary of the US State Department would have thought twice before giving the go-ahead to arrest Devyani or at least consult with a senior diplomat with more sense.
One hopes that the new year makes for cooler heads in both countries so that the crisis doesn’t come in the way of what can be one of the most important relationships of our time.

Lastupdate on : Thu, 2 Jan 2014 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Thu, 2 Jan 2014 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Fri, 3 Jan 2014 00:00:00 IST

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