India's foreign policy establishment is angry and in a mood to retaliate against a country none other than the United States. The issue at hand — the ‘ill treatment’ of a mid-level Indian diplomat posted in New York.
We’ve seen similar rage earlier, around two years ago, when Norway's Child Protection Services took custody of two young children of Indian nationals and Norway residents Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya, alleging "emotional disconnect" under the Scandinavian country’s strict laws. Then Foreign Minister SM Krishna resolved to bring the children home to India and he did. Now, Foreign Minister Salman Khurhsid says he will bring Devyani Khobragade home, with her dignity intact. No doubt he will.
But before you start to cheer, consider the record of the Foreign Office on much bigger "insults" to India and its interests. Where was the rage and determination when tiny Maldives kicked out an Indian conglomerate GMR from the construction of an airport in that country? Was that not an "insult" to India and its interests? Where is the anger and rage when Chinese troops repeatedly loiter into Indian territories whether in Arunanachal, Ladakh or even Uttarakhand? Isn't the Chinese action "ill treatment" of India’s territorial integrity? Do we remove security at Pakistan’s embassy despite repeated snubs on bringing to justice the perpetrators of 26/11, surely a bigger blow to India than the arrest of a diplomat for a felony?
The truth is this. In the recent past, India’s diplomatic establishment has shown more anger and determination in dealing with what ought to be routine consular matters (be it Devyani, the Bhattacharyas or even Captain Sunil James) than in dealing with issue that genuinely concern India’s national interest.
Why? For one, the stakes in bilateral consular disputes are pretty low. India’s diplomatic establishment seems to relish baring its fangs when the consequences are easily contained. The US is not going to spoil its relationship with India over the conduct (or misconduct) of a junior consular officer (it certainly won't end drones even if India removes security barriers from its embassy), just like tiny Togo isn’t likely to not look India in the eye over the fate of one sailor. Norway’s interest in keeping the two young Indian children in foster care was hardly entrenched. Ultimately, all these cases concern the interest of individuals more than national interest.
On the other hand, the stakes in bilateral matters of real national interest are much higher. India should be more assertive with China over its territorial claims, but its establishment fears the consequences of an over-heated diplomatic exchange (involving the withdrawals of privileges, ending other diplomatic niceties). What if China were to actually walk into Indian territory and stay there?
You might say that there isn't any danger of the Maldives invading India, so why aren’t we able to raise the stakes there? There isn’t any reason why India should not have been more assertive in Maldives. But for the diplomatic establishment the stakes are high with China because it may move in should India vacate the ‘friendly’ space. The plain reality is that China is moving into what was our backyard and it is missed by our foreign policy establishment. China mixes a policy of carrot and stick to win influence. India’s cautious MEA establishment does neither.
Of course, in consular matters, like Devyani’s, public opinion is driven into a frenzy because of the human element, often missing from high stakes diplomatic battles. That forces the establishment into an aggressive response. It is unfortunate that the foreign policy establishment hasn't seen the need to build public opinion around critical issues of national interest. That could so easily give them a platform to be more assertive on crucial issues.
There’s nothing wrong with an aggressive diplomatic corps. But let’s see some rage when the nation is actually insulted, not simply when a citizen or diplomat is 'ill-treated.'