With Devyani Khobragade back in India, it would be tempting to characterise the entire affair as a great deal of sound and fury over very little. Parallel to the posturing and high-decibel rhetoric, after all, bureaucrats on both sides did what bureaucrats are supposed to do and patched together a compromise that gives each party some of what they wanted. But dismissing the dust-up in this manner would be a mistake. For one, this is not quite the end of the matter. The US State Department might have acquiesced to granting Khobragade fully post facto diplomatic immunity, thus allowing her to leave the country, but she has also been indicted on two criminal charges by a US court. This could come into play if she is ever in the US again without diplomatic immunity.
Given that her husband and children are US citizens, this could conceivably be an issue at some point in the future. Perhaps more importantly, the manner in which both establishments have handled the matter points to larger problems.
Reams have been written and volumes spoken about the technicalities of Khobragade’s alleged visa fraud. But this is almost secondary. The truth of the matter is that when it comes to diplomatic interaction, protocol, government-to-government relationships and national clout — not ethical, nor even domestic legal norms — decide the rules of the game. If the US charges are correct, Khobragade indeed violated US law. But quietly asking her to leave the country as they indeed did in the end should have been the US authorities’ tack right from the beginning. The stand they took instead is both transparently hypocritical and shortsighted.
The manner in which US President Barack Obama extracted Raymond Davis — the US security contractor who killed two men in Pakistan — despite his lacking diplomatic immunity illustrates just how malleable Washington considers diplomatic norms to be when the need arises. To now stand on principle — and mistaken principle at that, given the manner in which the arrest violated provisions of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations — is to send a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ message. That is puzzling if Obama and the State Department hold the US-India relationship to be as important as they have professed.
As for the Indian reaction, the best that can be said for it is that it has succeeded in extricating Khobragade from the pickle she got herself into. Exerting pressure on Washington and moving towards a reciprocity-based relationship is one thing. Going after the US diplomatic community here for every petty reason that can be conjured up is another. What we have seen over the past month or so has, in large part, been more akin to a tantrum than the purposeful, forceful approach of a mature establishment. As for the domestic outrage, the less said the better. No matter what her father Uttam Khobragade and her legions of apologists might say, she is no hero. And if Delhi, drunk on success, holds out for concessions such as formal apology, it will be overplaying its hand comprehensively.
The baby-with-the-bathwater approach from both sides has now created a serious strain where none needed to exist; US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has cancelled his visit and US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal has postponed hers. These are not the signs of a legitimately important relationship. If there is one thing both Washington and Delhi could learn from this unedifying affair, it is that they could stand to work on their diplomatic nous.