The Devyani Khobragade episode that took place in the backdrop of a strong strategic cooperation between the two countries has terribly hurt the Indian government and the people alike. The diplomatic discord between India and the US over the indictment, arrest, strip and cavity search of the Deputy Consul General of Indian Consulate in New York has cast a long shadow over the bourgeoning strategic partnership between the two countries.
Both New Delhi and Washington officials in charge of their diplomatic affairs swore by the need to preserve and promote strategic cooperation and not allow any single incident to adversely affect the relationship in the midst of the diplomatic row. However, such pledges only exemplify the fear that this episode has cast a long shadow and will take a slow and long process to finally be erased. Promoters and stakeholders in the Indo-US friendship question as to why such an incident took place at all and why it took so long to partially resolve the issue and that too in a distasteful manner. Khobragade was asked to leave the US and not return unless to face the charges in the American court. Wayne May, a US diplomat accused of colluding in the clandestine evacuation of Indian citizens (family members of Sangeeta Richard, the alleged victim in the case) was asked to leave the country by the Indian government within forty-eight hours. The Indian external affairs ministry felt that the US could have avoided this ‘mini crisis’, and the US State Department regretted that Wayne May was asked to leave the country by India.
While the two governments have expressed the desire to get back to business, it is doubtful if it is going to be business as usual. Certain wounds do not heal well and keep resurfacing periodically to prevent the robust growth of mutual trust even after considerable investment of political and diplomatic capital. How long did it take for India to manage its psychological hurt over Washington dispatching the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 War? It was not until President George Bush signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India that the Indian strategic community could address the issue of US nuclear threat to India. Indians have also not forgotten the Bhopal Gas tragedy that directly shaped the debate in the Indian parliament over the nuclear liability bill.
The issues of American disregard for India’s sovereignty (as reflected in the clandestine evacuation of Richard’s family members), American disrespect for the Indian judicial system (as indicated by overlooking the Delhi High Court’s injunction against Sangeeta Richard), the US State Department’s unwillingness to share information about the impending arrest of Khobragade with the visiting foreign secretary of India, all raise questions of mutual distrust, and the ending of one phase of the diplomatic discord by expelling each other’s foreign service officers will almost certainly haunt future diplomatic interactions.
Early indications of the impact of this episode can be found in the postponement of visits to India by the new Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal and US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. These two officials were, of course, aware that a visiting Congressional delegation could not meet the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, and other senior officials in India.
Practitioners of diplomacy will no doubt avoid looking at history and instead seek to move ahead with the relationship. Both the State Department and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs may try hard to put in place a series of ‘damage limitation’ exercises and new initiatives may be launched to prove that the ‘strategic partnership’ is alive and kicking.
But none of these efforts will take off the ground until an agreeable solution to the Khobragade episode is found. In addition, the current diplomatic spat is only the latest in a series of developments that signal numerous glitches in the Indo-US strategic partnership. Bilateral differences over climate and trade issues; American disappointment over the slow pace of implementation of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement, Indian displeasure over the pending Immigration Bill in the US Congress, American frustration over the slow pace of Indian economic reforms, particularly foreign investment in the retail sector and Indian discontent over the Obama administration’s over-emphasis on curtailing outsourcing are some examples.
However, the real challenge of diplomacy is removing hurdles and facilitating cooperation for mutual prosperity and national security. Besides, the regional security challenges in the wake of the US decision to end military operations in Afghanistan and the Chinese decision to open a new chapter in their concept of ‘peaceful rise’ and adopt a muscular approach to territorial and maritime disputes should alert New Delhi and Washington not to miss the broader picture, while resolving bilateral differences!