New Delhi: US ambassador Nancy Powell’s resignation is the first real indication that Washington has woken up and is starting to smell the “chai.”
The resignation offers a chance to start over and rebuild what should never have been broken and “Khobragaded.” It will take years to regain the level of trust between bureaucracies and buckets of political wisdom on both sides to stitch the hole.
Whether Powell resigned under advisement from her superiors or came to the decision on her own is irrelevant. As an officer with 37 years in the foreign service, she knew that she had completely lost the confidence of her host government in the wake of the Devyani Khobragade affair.
Washington also finally understood that she had hesitated and reportedly even declined to meet Narendra Modi last year. She had to be urged by William Burns, the deputy secretary of state, to initiate contact with Modi’s office after a trusted US adviser traveled to India and reported the US Embassy was asleep at the wheel in Delhi.
Powell’s continued presence in New Delhi was going to complicate Indo-US relations further if Modi became the new prime minister.
With the added burden of the Khobragade affair, Powell had two major strikes against her. The only dignified option was to leave.
She may ponder in retirement the wisdom of her decision to sign off on the investigation and subsequent evacuation of the family of Khobragade’s maid under “trafficking visas.” And not take her Indian interlocutors into confidence.
The US Embassy and State Department’s India desk apparently judged that Indians won’t react in any significant manner if Khobragade was pursued legally for allegedly underpaying her maid. Once the ball reached Preet Bharara’s court, there was no stopping the show. But Bharara is not primary to why things got out of hand.
Not only did the Indian system react with horror at the “strip search” of a diplomat, average janata too was shocked at the treatment.
The irony is that most Americans still maintain they can’t understand India’s “extreme” reaction. They continue to believe that the strong Indian reaction came because the country was in election mode. That it was “driven” by the foreign office. Instead of looking for explanations, how about accepting they made a fundamental error in judgment? Something that could have been settled by asking New Delhi to withdraw Khobragade from post was left to the vagaries of the system.
The bitter truth is that the reaction would have been the same at any time, under any government and any foreign secretary had a diplomat been so crassly treated by the US system as Khobragade was. However controversial her own history has turned out to be, she represented the sovereignty of the country and didn't deserve the third degree. Americans have to understand that, however accepting they are of strip searches in custody for relatively less grave offences, other democracies can still be shocked.
Powell’s resignation is the first step in good maintenance. The next might be for Washington to put a lid on the Khobragade affair instead of throwing the rule-book at India.
And the next might be to appoint a heavy weight ambassador to India who has a direct line to the White House if the India-US relationship is to be one of the “defining partnerships of the 21st century.”