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Was Nancy Powell exit part of secret strategy to reset Indo-US ties?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014 - 9:20am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: dna

It is likely that US envoy to India, Nancy Powell, who announced her resignation on Monday, was asked to leave in an attempt to prevent a further degradation of Indo-US relations. Diplomatic circles in India expect Powell's exit to end strained ties, which hit an all-time low over the arrest of India's deputy counsel Devyani Khobragade in New York in December 2013, and signals the start of a new chapter in bilateral relations. But the community is surprised about the potential successor whose name is being propped up — Indian-American Rajiv Shah.

The 41-year-old Shah, a Gujarat native, is the head of USAIDS. Perhaps the US wants a person familiar with the country's cultural context to replace Powell, but India has had a tough time dealing with Indian-Americans serving the US. For instance, in the Khobragade's case, it was Indian-American Preet Bharara, the New York attorney, who complicated the case; Bharara proved to be a hardened American than a native.

"Managing expectations arising out of cultural perceptions will be extremely difficult for him (Shah)," a person in the diplomatic community told dna on condition of anonymity.

Powell (67) was appointed to head the Indian mission in 2012 even though she had long crossed the superannuation age. Her term was to end in 2017. In her letter to US president Barack Obama, Powell said she plans to retire to her Delaware home before the end of May. But sources in Delhi say that Powell's exit was part of an unofficial understanding at the highest levels between New Delhi and Washington to send her home to reset damaged ties.

In India, Powell was seen in an uncharacteristic role of a villain. She was being rapped as the trigger and propeller of the unseemly controversy pertaining to Khobragade. Indians were more peeved at the US embassy's role in the "evacuation" of Khoragade's maid Sangeeta's family (husband and two children) to the US; the tickets were issued by the US embassy's official travel agency.

While the US state department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said Powell's sudden resignation does not indicate any realignment of ties with India, observers here believe she was handicapped for not reaching out to the political spectrum in India, including to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Off late, she was also unwelcome in South Block, not invited to attend briefings arranged for western diplomats on crucial issues. Powell's ineptitude was seen as a symptom of the declining India-US bonhomie, and that it was the Obama administration that had to take the rap for the sorry state of relations between the two countries.

The US is engaged in cut-throat competition with the Europeans and Chinese for business opportunities in India. American corporates had long realised that Gujarat offers an attractive business and investment destination, and cannot be sacrificed at the altar of niceties and legalities of human rights. In true old world wisdom, the UK and the EU adopted a pragmatic view. The Americans took a longer time.

Foreign affairs expert Brahma Chellaney said: "Powell is the one who stirred trouble in the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade episode by sending the husband and children of the domestic help to the US, and pushing for the case to be filed in the US."

According to former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal she did not "have her ears to the ground and did not anticipate the strong reaction of the Indian side to the issue". He said that either she did not advise the state department appropriately or she did not understand the sensitivities in Delhi.

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