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20 December 2013, Gateway House

Nanny-gate dogs strategic partnership

The recent arrest and alleged mistreatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade by the U.S officials has cast a cloud over decades of Indo-U.S. partnership. With the furore showing little sign of dying down soon, could this impact bilateral ties at a time when the two nations need to work together in South Asia?

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The loud diplomatic row between India and the U.S. has pushed relations to a sudden low. The ensuing debate reflects how nurture may not have yet overcome nature.

The two countries are “strategic partners” – the term implies a level of understanding and convergence of views on big, bold ideas. Yet the relationship today is severely rocked by a version of “nanny gate.”

Old narratives are back with a vengeance. In the U.S., the reporting on the case has meandered into a generalised commentary on the state of Indian society, its many ills, its caste and class system and its love of the VIP culture, completely losing sight of the main issue at stake. In India, that 70s show is on again where Americans are arrogant, suspicious characters, plotting nefarious moves. Bad memories have come flooding back.

The damage to bilateral ties is noticeable and it reflects the fragility of progress in a young relationship.

The Indian government has taken serious offence at the arrest, strip search and handcuffing of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, calling it “barbaric” and “deplorable.” Khobragade was accused by a US prosecutor of “visa fraud” for bringing a maid from India and failing to pay her American minimum wage.

New Delhi says the maid, Sangeeta Richard, who was on an official passport disappeared in June, demanded extra compensation, threatened legal action and finally found a way to reach the US prosecutor’s office.

The Indian Embassy sought the State Department’s intervention at various stages but apparently received no response, the Consulate in New York tried to file a missing person’s report but failed and finally New Delhi asked Richard to be repatriated to India after revoking her passport. All efforts drew a blank, Indian officials say.

The U.S. State Department finally responded in September with a letter indicating that legal action against Khobragade was imminent.  But it ignored Indian requests and Indian court orders against Richard while working to get her family out of India. Washington has not clarified why.

U.S. spokesmen have repeatedly emphasised the importance of the India relationship but allowed the “process” to overwhelm it. Preet Bharara, a zealous prosecutor in New York and a political aspirant, has further complicated the picture by jumping in to assert the supremacy of American legal and social values and his right to protect a person he saw as a victim.

Bharara’s statement effectively negated the value of Secretary of State John Kerry’s expression of regret about Khobragade’s treatment. The affair threatens to spiral out of control, an outcome that neither country should desire.

Washington is shocked at the severity of the reaction in India. It is alarmed at the removal of security barriers around the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. After Benghazi, any move that might endanger the lives of U.S. diplomats arouses deep anxiety.

The mood in Washington appears to be hardening as pent up anger against India over quite different policy matters melds into a wrecking ball.

Currently, we are matched outrage for outrage.

But is this what both sides really want? More than a decade of hard work of building Indo-U.S. relations from estrangement to engagement is at stake.

Political leaders need to take charge of the situation and stop the bleeding. The White House should step in and launch a rescue operation. President Obama surely wouldn’t want to leave a legacy minus India. He could put the balm before the wounds begin festering.

India has asked that the charges against Khobragade be dropped but U.S. analysts say the demand is unlikely to be met. A State Department spokeswoman said the judicial process would be allowed to “play out.” She also said that diplomatic immunity for Khobragade would not work retroactively if the diplomat were shifted to India’s UN mission – a solution that was being contemplated. That leaves one option – taking Khobragade back to New Delhi, which may not be considered optimal given the sense of grievance about her treatment.

Interestingly, the whole affair has unleashed a variety of debates – many of them valid, and many of them patronising but all of them largely irrelevant to Operation Rescue. It is mainly a government-to-government problem the resolution of which can’t be tested against how Indians treat each other or for that matter how Americans treat each other.Indian prosecutors can’t hope to fight racism in America by forcing Americans to treat blacks better. Social and attitudinal changes come from within as seen in the slow but sure voice of Indian women fighting back since the rape last year. It is a revolution.

Other revolutions will come too. Outside coercion is generally unhelpful. Bharara’s need to “evacuate” Indians to save them from due process of another democracy as he did Richard’s family will surely diminish.

If the U.S. really cares about poor, exploited Indians, the way forward is not to let bilateral ties plummet. It is to allow the calm of the Christmas season to seep through actions and reactions.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

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