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In the Devyani Khobragade saga, Indo-US ties biggest victim

The almost month-long theater of the absurd enacted over the Devyani Khobragade incident has left no clear winners or losers in the worst Indo-US diplomatic spat in living memory, but has left bilateral relations between the world’s most powerful democracy (US) and the world’s most populous democracy (India) bruised and battered.

It is curtains over the Devyani saga. Now it is over to the broader India-US bilateral relations. Let there be no mistake about that.

Whatever actions and reactions one would see from now onwards will be inevitably impinging on the Indo-US bilateral ties.

It has been a theater of the absurd because the US chose to resort to sub-optimal ways in blandly allowing an alleged visa fraud offence involving an individual diplomat cloud relations with a country like India that the Americans have now been swearing for years is Washington’s pivot in its Asia strategy (read ‘China strategy’).

 In the Devyani Khobragade saga, Indo-US ties biggest victim

Devyani Khobragade.

Such a ham-handed approach that too when the Pentagon had publicly raised questions early in the entire Devyani narrative over the State Department’s handling the case, obviously keeping the long-term strategic relationship between the two countries in mind, is a pity.

The Americans grossly misjudged and miscalculated the response of India, ignoring the fact that Washington chose to up its ante at a time when general elections are less than four months away and no government in New Delhi could have politically afforded to take the American affront lying low.

Now that Devyani Khobragade has reached back home in New Delhi while the criminal case against her in the US remains alive (and it may well remain alive for centuries as the Indian government would care two hoots!), it is the bilateral relationship between India and the US that is the biggest victim.

India has acted strongly after a gap of 33 years in resorting to tit-for-tat diplomacy with the Americans by expelling a US diplomat in New Delhi of the same rank as Devyani , saying it had "reasons to believe that the diplomat is closely involved in the processes relating to the Khobragade case and subsequent unilateral action by the US."

India expelling an American diplomat is unthinkable and unimaginable. Not just in India but in the whole of South Asia one associated with the tit-for-tat diplomacy with the India-Pakistan affairs.

Why should the US, the world’s sole superpower, make itself so lowly? Who is the gainer or the loser in this stupid match of diplomatic buzkashi?

The Indian government cannot be faulted if it believes that it is sole winner in this fierce competition being played out in diplomatic corridors. Conduct an opinion poll whether the Indian tit-for-tat vis a vis the Americans is justified and the result will inevitably be that India has done the right thing.

But is it really so?

The Devyani episode has put spotlight on non-reciprocal privileges that the American diplomats have been enjoying in India over the decades. It is only now that the American diplomats must be feeling thet heat being turned on them.

The question is why in the first place India has been extending the kind of privileges and perks to American diplomats that its own diplomats in the US have now getting? Why does it have to take a crisis or a flashpoint to expose the uneven diplomatic conduct in the India-US diplomatic discourse? Why shouldn’t the Ministry of External Affairs be held responsible for this lapse?

After all, the Americans have been practicing a kind of diplomatic apartheid vis a vis India for decades.

Moreover, the MEA would like us to believe that its action of expelling a Director-rank US diplomat in a tit-for-tat for Devyani’s expulsion is firmly rooted in the principles of reciprocity.

If this were the case, then where is the reciprocity?

Devyani was charged with a criminal offence, arrested, hand-cuffed, strip-searched, cavity-searched (though US marshals denied Devyani’s claim), thrown in the prison for several hours with hardened criminals and prostitutes and finally released on a bail bond as high as a quarter million dollars. If convicted, she would have got a sentence of ten years in jail.

The question is whether the unnamed US diplomat who has been expelled as a fallout of the Devyani case has been subjected to this kind of treatment?

Forget about the said US diplomat being subjected to all the humiliation that Devyani suffered. The Indian government can argue that it is civilized enough not to take the tit-for-tat approach to such depths.

But the MEA needs to answer a few questions. One, did the unnamed expelled US diplomat enjoy full diplomatic immunity or only partial diplomatic immunity like Devyani? Two, did the Government of India register any criminal case against the said US diplomat for contravening Indian laws? It is believed that the said US diplomat played a pro-active role in the “evacuation” of the family of Devyani’s maid Sangeeta Richard.

There are no answers.

But there should be answers when one looks at the bigger picture of the Indo-US relations. Perhaps it is time for the principals from the two sides – President Barrack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – to intervene and stop this diplomatic bloodbath which would only worsen if allowed to continue without political intervention at the highest level.

The how’s and why’s of these aspects are a different story. Watch this space.

The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha.

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Updated Date: Jan 12, 2014 13:44:29 IST