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Meet Uttam Khobragade: The quintessentially self-righteous Indian

Hell hath no fury like a powerful bureaucrat scorned.

The retired bureaucrat Uttam Khobragade has been his daughter’s defender-in-chief during the entire Devyani saga. He has been leading protests, popping up on television, and waxing indignant to the media non-stop, leaving no one in any doubt that when Preet Bharara went after Devyani, he messed with the wrong family.

The treatment of Devyani by the US authorities might have been ham-handed and disproportionate but Uttam Khobragade’s power-martyrdom act is no less cringe-inducing.

When Devyani finally boarded that airplane out of the US, her father decided to share a personal anecdote with the media as reported by Ellen Barry in The New York Times.

“Devyani was seen off at the airport by an official of the State Department,” he told reporters Friday morning. “He told Devyani that, ‘Madam, I am sorry, and it was wrong.’ She told the official, ‘You have lost a good friend. It is unfortunate. In return, you got a maid and a drunken driver. They are in, and we are out.' ”

Uttam Khobragade has headed the defence of his daughter in India. PTI

Uttam Khobragade has headed the defence of his daughter in India. PTI

Trapped in his bubble of self-righteous self-importance Uttam Khobragade does not even realize how much that little anecdote reeks of his own naked class bias, even as he accuses others of discrimination. The family has been at pains to prove to the world how well they treated Sangeeta Richard, and how Richard turned out to be a scheming back-stabber.

The FIR filed by Preet Bharara’s office sticks to numbers and forms and inconsistencies therein. For example, the ‘official’ contract between Devyani and Richard specified a work day between 7 am and noon and 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm during the week and half a day on Saturday. Richard alleges her days typically began at 6:30 AM and ended between 9:30 PM and midnight, six days a week and some Sundays as well.

But those are just numbers that can be proved or rebutted in court. What’s really at issue here is attitude.

Mr. Khobragade’s quote proves that in their eyes a maid’s a maid and an IFS officer is an IFS officer, and how dare the twain meet on equal footing anywhere. That the USA has sided with a maid and a driver over a consular officer is what is utterly baffling and galling to them.

Devyani has since spoken to the media as well expressing her understandable anguish at leaving her young children behind with her husband who is an academic in the United States.

"What if my children choose to study and work in the US? What if I can never return to the US, which I cannot now… Does it mean we will never be able to live together as a family again?” Devyani told The Indian Express.

A mother separated from her children is obviously heart-wrenching but again Devyani seems completely clueless about how much privilege she does enjoy. Her children can “choose to study and work in the US”. Many Indians working in construction sites and kitchens in places like the Middle East to try and send back money to their struggling families back home, don’t have the luxury of choices. They just endure that separation in order to send back those remittances.

Meanwhile her father, buoyed by the collective outrage of ordinary Indians and talk show pundits, is actively considering running for political office. Some would peg it as a crusade for justice. Others would see it as rank opportunism. Either way, given that the Indian government and pretty much all the political parties stood solidly behind Devyani, it’s not clear what wrong MP Khobragade could redress. But not-yet-candidate Khobragade is already demonstrating all the prickliness and arrogance of a career politician.

The Indian Express reports that he “flew off the handle” at a press conference because some mediapersons dared to ask him about his role in the Adarsh housing controversy. It is correct that the Adarsh housing issue has nothing to do with Sangeeta Richard’s visa form. But Mr. Khobragade chose to dismiss any questions about Adarsh not just as irrelevant but as “casteist”.

All it proves is that Mr. Khobragade is happy to play the caste card when it suits him to deflect uncomfortable questions. The irony is that several journalists who covered him as a bureaucrat remember he had no compunctions asking about reporters’ castes and putting them in place accordingly when he thought fit.

Mr. Khobragade now wants to come across as the injured pater familias, more sinned against than sinning. He seems convinced 1.2 billion Indians are rooting for him and his daughter. He told the media “At this moment, through the agony my family has gone through in the past month, you people stood with me like a rock.” But what really comes through in his statements is less gratitude and more entitlement.

If America’s handling of Devyani Khobragade allowed it to live up to the stereotype of the Ugly American, Uttam Khobragade is the very personification of the Indian version.