One wishes that in matters of terrorist strikes and diplomatic provocations of the kind that the Devyani Khobragade affair represents, the Indian government had the wit and long discovered the merit of reacting instantly and in tit-for-tat manner. Thus, the 26/11 and, earlier the attack on Parliament, should have been answered within 20 minutes of the onset of the attacks with Indian Air Force sorties out of Udhampur to decimate Lashkar-e-Taiba training sites, concentration areas, and supply depots in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the co-ordinates for which targets are readily available. And once the atrocious treatment of the Indian deputy consul general (DCG) at the hands of the US Marshals became known, an immediate counter ought to have been the public arrest of one of the American DCGs posted in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Kolkata and a proper “cavity search” by rough-hewn local cops. This option is unavailable to India now as it will appear calculated, not reflexive.
Instead, in each instance New Delhi’s seemingly incurable habit of inaction kicked in. 26/11 was responded to with mere threats, the attack on Parliament by time-consuming “mobilisation for general war” that achieved nothing, and the outrage against the Indian DCG by tarrying, with the urgency and value of immediate like-action being lost as the external affairs minister Salman Khurshid sought “dialogue” with Washington. Procrastination reduced India’s honour to a trifle-able commodity and the principle of parity of treatment of diplomats a joke.
The more the situation unfolded the clearer it became that this was a larger drama contrived between the self-promoting and ambitious Preet Bharara, the ex-Chandigarh NRI and US attorney for Manhattan (2nd District), and the Bureau for Diplomatic Security (BDS) within the US state department responsible for the security of foreign diplomats displaying sheer incompetence or, alternatively, seeking to stir up momentary excitement. Bharara knew perfectly well how this action would burnish his reputation in US circles and play out in India. The BDS apparently deliberately ignored the informal understanding Washington has with a bunch of European and Third World nations, including India, regarding domestic help brought into the US by diplomats on A-3 or G-5 visas who earn wages that are sub-par only by the US standard. This year, some 2,200 such visas were issued by the US state department. But it was Bharara’s call to home in only on Khobragade that BDS acquiesced in.
True to its nature, the slack-willed Manmohan Singh government stuck to its by now well-known script by doing little beyond ending the system of unilateral benefits the US embassy and consulates and US-origin staff have enjoyed from the ’60s onwards their Indian counterparts stationed in America can only dream of. Absent a reciprocal agreement relating to terms and conditions of work, and the slate of rights, privileges, exemptions, and immunities the diplomats of the two nations will henceforth enjoy, Washington should be warned that the US diplomats and US-origin consular staff, who are paid a handsome sum as “hardship-posting” allowance in India, will start earning it. Absolute parity of treatment down to the minutest detail will obtain decorum and balance so far missing in the bilateral relations.
Sadly, India subsided in the face of US secretary of state John Kerry’s merely expressing “regrets” and undersecretary Wendy Sherman “remorse” which, considering the perverse behaviour of the US Marshals against Khobragade, amounted to salting the wound. New Delhi is even wavering in its demand for an unambiguous apology combined with closure of the case against the DCG in New York—the minimum needed in the circumstances. How the US government manages that is its business. New Delhi need only insist it will be satisfied with nothing less.
This disruptive episode in India-US relations points to two very dissimilar trends—one regarding the conduct of Indian foreign policy, the other concerning subterranean forces busily at work to undermine India strategically, with the former assisting the latter. The fact is harsh actions at the ground or tactical level are in no way antithetical to strategically burgeoning bilateral ties as long as the two streams are not mixed up. Practising an almost amateurish brand of diplomacy, New Delhi seems unable to pull it off. The Indian government expects that mutually beneficial ties must result in benignity all-round and that, as in this case, a friendly US had no business dealing in an unfriendly manner with an Indian envoy. This is to ignore the bureaucratic politics constantly buffeting policies in large countries.
In Washington, there is a powerful lobby within the state department that is unconvinced that getting close to India will benefit the US much. An equally strong lobby in the US department of defence, motivated by emerging Asian geopolitics, a declining military budget and capacity for projecting power, is persuaded that without India drawing China’s attention away from the East Sea and the western Pacific, the US may have its hands fuller than it would wish. The reason for the outrage Khobragade experienced—attributed by some to the Obama administration’s supposedly growing “indifference” to India—doesn’t make sense, because from the US perspective too much is at stake for the “strategic partnership” to be so casually imperiled, particularly as strong Indo-US security links are deemed prudent and necessary by both countries.
What then is the best riposte, albeit belated, to the evidence of an unacceptable US attitude? India has just the leverage—an analog of the A-3 visa conundrum faced by the ministry of external affairs when posting diplomats to the US, where hiring native domestic help is unaffordable but taking Indian servants along risks Indian diplomats to arbitrary invocation by the US authorities of legally-enforceable standards of minimum wage. It can require that the large horde of Indians employed by the US embassy and consulates be paid salaries at the US-level, which will raise the wage-bill manifold. And, besides imposing curbs on US diplomats, several multi-billion dollar arms deals in the pipeline should be frozen. It will quickly bring Washington to its senses.
Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com