A lot has been written on the Devyani Khobragade and Sangeeta Richards fiasco over the past week in the Indian as well as the foreign press. The focus of this column, therefore, isn’t going to be on what has already been said, but on how and why India always manages to shoot itself in the foot and the dilapidated state its foreign services are in.
Among other things, diplomacy is an art of negotiation. It is supposed to get you a winning deal, and at the same time make the opponent disillusioned about a win of their own. It is somewhat like selling ice to an Eskimo. An art Indian diplomacy, sadly, is always woefully short of.
Let me take a short detour. Two weeks ago, India clinched an unmanageable deal at the ninth WTO ministerial conference held in Bali. The reactions, both initial and nuanced, where of mild shock and surprise. Doesn’t that say a lot about our confidence levels in our diplomats, foreign policies, et al? When was the last time Indian diplomats achieved something extraordinary? The US nuclear deal, perhaps? Our diplomacy with our immediate neighbours like Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka and even Bangladesh is strained at best.
Shouldn’t this ring a warning bell that the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) needs some urgent reforms? If diplomacy is at the centre-point of a country’s image in the international arena, shouldn’t professionals be left to handle it instead of giving it away as a plum posting to a branch of the administrative services?
Of course I am not implying that the current system of choosing our nationals to work in the foreign offices through the IFS exam is flawed. But, if the world has moved towards professional diplomats why isn’t India joining the bandwagon? The civil services exams in India are prefixed ‘prestigious’. How long does it take for our diplomats to forget the prestige attached to their jobs of representing India?
According to Chevening, Devyani Khobragade, a Rolls-Royce Fellow of 2012, is said to be a staunch supporter of gender equality “in her country”. I think the last three words of her description on Chevening prove her work for gender equality is confined to the borders of India.
Diplomatic immunity doesn’t give one the right to abuse the laws of a foreign land. The exultation of the soft power of a state is best when its diplomats subject themselves to the highest order of service, including respect for the law of that land.
But here we have another problem: precedence. People have been quick to point out to the US what it did in the case of Raymond Davis, who killed two Pakistani nationals in Pakistan. So, does a precedent mean the past act was correct and should be taken as a base in any similar future actions?
Precedence should only be a reference point to what happened and, if possible, one must learn from it. But we are far from that.
We like to hold on to our pasts and take decisions in the present. This might be a very naïve view of the world order, but important if we want to have a meaningful impact and change around us.
What Devyani Khobragade did is unacceptable. She broke the laws in the US. India overreacted in its response. The security of diplomats is the domain of the host country and India’s famous kneejerk reactions will cost it dearly if not corrected in time.
Since much water has flown under the bridge, India has no option but to salvage its image that has been tarnished by its idiotic decisions over the past week.
Instead of being given full diplomatic immunity, Devyani Khobragade should be relieved of her duties for abusing her status as an Indian diplomat in the US. The US should apologise for its behaviour. Sangeeta Richards, who everyone has forgotten, must be brought back home and compensated of her dues.
And our diplomats must go back to doing their job – bettering our relations with the world instead of worsening them.
Shubhashish is a journalist who is now pursuing Masters in International Studies and Diplomacy in London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org