Monday, January 13, 2014

A ridiculous spat . . . now over?

The Devyani Khobragade incident now appears to be over, hopefully.  But I suspect that there are going to be longer term consequences.  To put what is India's most important bilateral relationship at risk over such an issue shows very little maturity or strategic sense.  Much of the commentary from retired IFS folks (many of whom I know and respect a lot) borders on hysteria and others of the Indian 'strategic' community appear to have joined in, though there was some push back, especially from the Indian Express and its editor Shekhar Gupta.  Meanwhile the Left couldn't seem to figure out whether to go after the American Imperialists or the Indian State, a target rich environment from their perspective.

On the other hand, a very unscientific survey based on the comments sections of essays and news items might suggest that the outrage on TV studios is not entirely shared by the rest of the country (or at least those who write-in such comments).  Though there was some outrage here too, I did find a significant amount of push-back about the ethical issues involved.  But, of course, I reiterate, an extremely unscientific survey.

My take was published in Economic Times as the controversy broke and it is posted below.

Delhi should avoid lasting damages to India-US ties

As the imbroglio over Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade's arrest in New York escalates, it is important that both Washington and New Delhi ensure that this row does not affect the strategic relationship that the two countries hope to build.

Even before this crisis, it was clear that the relationship was in trouble because of what has been perceived as New Delhi's lack of enthusiasm about the partnership. Now, the relationship is facing bigger and completely unnecessary troubles.

Indian diplomats might be angry about the manner in which one of their own was treated and their anger might even be justified. The US State Department was clearly aware that the arrest was to be made because they waited until Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh had finished her official visit to the US, before going ahead with the arrest. If so, it makes little sense for US officials to have conducted the arrest in the manner they did, even assuming that the Indian diplomat had no diplomatic immunity as the US claims.

The US marshals who were reported to have processed the diplomat after her arrest probably had their own procedures to follow but the State Department could have sensitised them on how to go about them. That said, what India's hyperventilating television anchors are missing is that the diplomat does face serious charges. While it might be argued that poorly paid Indian diplomats cannot afford local help and need to bring in cheaper help from India — and the foreign secretary has reportedly already raised with the government the issue of allowances for her officers posted in expensive foreign cities — it also cannot be an excuse to violate local laws, especially where basic human rights are involved.

If Indian diplomats are paid too badly for them to afford local help, that is a problem that New Delhi needs to tackle rather than forcing its diplomats to engage in questionable practices that led to the current problem. These are more than simple "visa irregularities" as these are being characterised, if indeed the charges that the diplomat is facing are correct.

What is more important is that the government in Delhi does not overreact in a manner that will do lasting damage to the US-India strategic partnership even while taking action to illustrate its displeasure at the US action. India is well within its rights to say that it will not extend any special privileges to US consular staff or other US representatives. Indeed, it is not clear why India has been extending any such special privileges to begin with, other than such privileges being an expression of India's own VIP culture. But in taking such action, the government needs to be sure that it does not threaten the security of US installations in the country or of US personnel.

It is equally important to keep our eyes on the ball as far as our larger national interests are concerned. Both South Asia and India's extended neighbourhood are facing serious challenges as the US reduces its security commitment to the region. After the US withdraws from Afghanistan next year, it is quite likely that the fight for that country will intensify. Ensuring Indian interests in Afghanistan may be easier in coordination with Washington than by working at cross-purposes.

The East Asian region is becoming an even bigger concern. China's aggressiveness has unsettled a region that is vitally important to India. It is possible that we might be able to build an Asian counter along with countries like Japan and Vietnam to keep China in check but again it would be a lot easier if Washington is part of this equation.

Thus the outrage over the manner in which the Indian diplomat was treated should be tempered by the realisation that issues of human rights are involved as well as by our larger strategic interests.

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