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The Devyani Khobragade controversy reveals mounting stress in a strained relationship between India and the US

Friday, 27 December 2013 - 7:37am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

The year is ending with bad news on the US- India front. An already struggling relationship is now facing the challenge of navigating through a diplomatic minefield where all the nationalistic buttons have been pressed by the Indian media and the Indian political class. Mismanagement by Washington and New Delhi of a relatively minor matter will have some severe long-term reverberations.

Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general for political, economic, commercial, and women’s affairs in New York, was arrested recently on charges of committing fraud in the visa application for her maid and paying her far less than the minimum legal wage. Khobragade  was handcuffed in public and later released on bail of $250,000 after pleading ‘not guilty’ in court. 

There are allegations that she was forced to undergo repeated body cavity searches — a treatment usually reserved for drug suspects. The US Marshals Service (USMS) has confirmed that the Indian diplomat was subjected to a “strip search”, the same as other arrestees, after her arrest, suggesting that “standard arrestee intake procedures were followed” though the charge of cavity searches has been denied.

New Delhi reacted fast as the Indian media whipped up the issue and political parties across the spectrum came together to denounce American actions. India followed this up by initiating a series of steps to strip US diplomats and their families of privileges including withdrawing all airport passes and stopping import clearances for the embassy.  Asking all consulate personnel and their families to turn in their identification documents immediately, the government has also sought key information such as salaries paid to all Indian staff employed at the consulates and by consulate officers and families including as domestic helps. Import duty waivers, including permits to import liquor, were withdrawn and security barricades outside the US Embassy in New Delhi have been removed. There are demands that New Delhi should go even further, suggesting that there is a need to boycott American products. BJP leader and former Union finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, has demanded that the government take action against US personnel in India having same- sex companions following the recent Supreme Court of India ruling against gay sex.

The US, for its part, has expressed regrets but has refused to apologise.

Whatever be the merits of this particular case, the larger reality that confronts both the US and India is that their bilateral relationship is suddenly facing unprecedented stress and there is no leadership on both sides that is paying any attention.

As it is, this has been a lackadaisical year. John Kerry has not been as gung ho about the partnership as his predecessor and there is a broader concern in  Washington about the reliability of India as a ‘strategic partner.’ There is a sense of despondency about future India as a potential strategic partner in Washington that is unprecedented in the last two decades. The growing differences between the two today are not limited to one or two areas but are spread across most areas of bilateral concern. These include market-access issues, the problems in implementing the US-India civil nuclear accord, the US immigration changes, changing US posture towards Afghanistan, defence cooperation and trade.

Meanwhile, the weakening Indian economy and political vacuum in New Delhi have further complicated matters. American investors don’t view India’s current investment climate favourably.

There has been little progress on civil nuclear issues five years after the landmark US-India civil nuclear-energy cooperation pact. Washington had hoped to quickly finalise agreements on nuclear reactors and liability issues so that nuclear commerce between the countries could commence. But India’s 2010 nuclear-liability law has concerned the US because it does not cap liability for nuclear suppliers, which has prevented the American civil nuclear industry from yet entering the Indian market.

Elsewhere, in the commercial relationship, Washington had indicated that it would be open to supplying liquefied natural gas to India despite the fact that the two countries lack a free trade agreement (FTA). Like other non-FTA countries, India will need a special exception written into US law before it can receive gas exports. The prospect of an exception had generated a lot of enthusiasm in New Delhi as the next big thing in bilateral ties. But given the amount of political capital needed to secure an exception, it is unclear whether a liquefied natural gas breakthrough will happen any time soon. And though defence sales from the US to India are booming, New Delhi would prefer to see a higher degree of technology transfer for which Washington is apparently not yet ready.

On the security front, Washington is preparing its military withdrawal from Afghanistan next year and the Obama administration seems increasingly willing to cede power to the Taliban as part of an ostensible peace deal. New Delhi is worried not only about the return of the Taliban to power but also the desire of some in Washington to appease Pakistan at the expense of India and Afghanistan. The US refusal to extradite David Coleman Headley, the American who helped plan the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, and its decision to grant immunity to two former Pakistani generals allegedly involved in the plot, are viewed as part of a broader change in Washington’s South Asia policy.

As bilateral differences mount, there are no big ideas driving the US-India relationship and neither side is prepared to take a leap of faith akin to George W Bush’s on the civil nuclear deal. The relationship appears stuck on a plateau. Though Washington remains largely supportive of India’s global aspirations, including a more robust Indian presence in Asia, the Khobragade case once again underlines the fragility of US-India ties and how easily the rhetoric can degenerate to the Cold War days. 

The author teaches at King’s College, London




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