The recent arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat by U.S. marshals has severely strained relations between the two democracies, throwing up a nasty December surprise when all should have been calm and mostly bright.
Since Dec. 12, when Devyani Khobragade, the Indian deputy consul general in New York, was arrested on charges she had underpaid her nanny, relations between the two countries have cooled. The sudden chill is threatening to freeze progress made by India and the United States over the years. The last decade saw estrangement turn to engagement as the two countries recognized a convergence of their strategic interests. The vision was lofty, the potential unlimited. It was nothing short of two democracies joining hands to fight the good fight.
How could a version of "Nannygate" rock relations and put them in a hard place? The short answer: negligence, disarray, and a lack of foresight in Washington. Some apparently thought nailing an Indian diplomat over a wage dispute was more important than the overall relationship. If they miscalculated, they have only themselves to question. They have shattered the trust the Indian bureaucracy was starting to build with their American counterparts.
The fury in India against Khobragade's public humiliation is widespread and real. The Indian government is angry at the apparent disregard by the Obama administration for diplomatic conventions, courtesies, and norms. New Delhi can't fathom why the United States, a friendly country and India's much-celebrated "strategic partner," would treat a female diplomat like a hardened criminal and then throw the book at them.
India's protests over the case are neither exaggerated nor irrational. Americans demand and receive special treatment as diplomats abroad, far more special than the treatment they offer foreign diplomats serving in Washington. U.S. diplomats are whisked out at the first hint of trouble with local laws, even when the crimes are egregious. Yet reciprocity is one of the main planks of diplomatic relations. India's message: The United States will no longer be a friend with special benefits if it won't extend even basic courtesies in return.
There is little dispute that the case was badly handled -- authorities don't typically handcuff, strip- and cavity-search a diplomat for an offense of allegedly underpaying a nanny. Khobragade was not accused of a "grave" crime, nor was she evading the police. The narrative in the United States has centered on the diplomat's alleged misconduct and the rightness of the U.S. prosecutor's case without reference to legal developments in India.
Khobragade is accused of making false statements on a visa application for Sangeeta Richard and not paying her the U.S. minimum wage. But what is not widely known is that Richard reportedly disappeared from Khobragade's New York home in June, forcing the Indian government to start legal proceedings in New Delhi for her repatriation because she was in violation of her visa obligations. Her official passport was revoked.
The Indian embassy reportedly informed the State Department about Indian court orders and repeatedly asked for help in locating her. Non-committal responses lulled Indian officials into thinking that a way was being found to settle the matter. They were oblivious that the State Department had signed off on an investigation against Khobragade based on the allegations leveled by Richard with the help of human rights lawyers. A wage dispute had morphed into a case of human trafficking in the hands of a few zealous interpreters and professional NGOs. But then facts without history or context are a luxury of the powerful.
Richard's husband and children were "evacuated" by U.S. officials without informing the Indian government. This has given the case an air of conspiracy. Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary of India, said the "whole thing has been done with enormous bad faith by U.S. authorities." There is reason to question Richard's motives. Past incidents show that many domestic workers have made false claims to stay back in the United States to "pursue their dollar dreams."
If the United States operates on the principle of "rule of law," why weren't Indian laws and the prior legal proceeding against Richard in India respected by the U.S. attorney's office? The Obama administration can't demand the return of Edward Snowden for crimes committed in the United States while it disregards the courts of another democracy. The attitude is unhelpful and shows a double standard.
Foundational inequalities between the powerful and the less powerful are at play. India's legal system is deemed unworthy of consideration in front of American rule of law. The brash, unapologetic attitude of a U.S. attorney has rammed headlong into an old culture of respect and quiet negotiations.
It should come as no surprise that India has retaliated with measures of its own. It has withdrawn extra benefits granted to U.S. diplomats in New Delhi to make the equation strictly reciprocal. Special access to airports and liquor licenses have been cancelled. U.S. consular officials will now have limited rather than full diplomatic immunity, in line with the status of Indian consular officers in America. Work permits of embassy spouses to teach in the American school are also being examined. The moves are aimed at rationalizing the one-sided extension of diplomatic courtesies.
The best that can be said of the mood in Washington: "To be determined." Americans are surprised at India's reaction. They are unable to understand the depth of revulsion. Where Indians see humiliation, Americans see "standard procedure." Where New Delhi sees arrogance, Washington sees business as usual.
The U.S. response is also borderline condescending and insular. Analysts like Max Fisher have forwarded self-serving arguments to create the impression the case was filed in a fit of absent-mindedness. But the State Department is party to the lawsuit and presumably weighed the pros and cons. Fisher's reading of the affair reflects a certain American mindset: What we do is right, what others do is wrong. The same lazy mindset immediately labels any opposition to U.S. actions as anti-Americanism. Yet it is worth noting that Indians have consistently held a favorable opinion of America.
Both sides agree that the bilateral relationship is far more important than an individual case, but so far the official U.S. position appears to reflect narrow domestic compulsions, not the wider view. If normalcy is to return, Washington needs to take concrete steps and avoid a long court battle. The ball is in the American court.
Difficult negotiations are on for a way out of the impasse. It is likely that one will be found, especially if the White House considers the long-term strategic implications of a rupture that may take years to heal. More details about the case may come out in time: Recent reports from India say that the investigating officer may have made a mistake in calculating salaries and the diplomat was not, in fact, in breach of the contract.
But the Obama administration's inept handling of the case has left a deep crack in what was still a nascent relationship in many ways. India and the United States were discovering each other after decades of hostility and estrangement. Strategists in India now miss George W. Bush, who laid the foundation of the strategic partnership and broke old, regimented thinking in Washington about India. The Obama White House must assess if the benefits of Nannygate outweigh the costs.
Seema Sirohi is a senior journalist specializing in foreign policy at the Gateway House Indian Council on Global Relations. Follow her on Twitter: @seemasirohi.
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