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Issue No.: 560 | February 2014

India Tit for U.S. Tat

Firoze Hirjikaka
On the positive side, India's uncharacteristic boldness in expressing its outrage against a powerful ally was as welcome as it was surprising

So l'affaire Devyani Khobragade has escalated into a full blown diplomatic kerfuffle! India's Deputy Consul General in New York was hauled off to a police station in handcuffs, strip searched, with a cavity probe thrown in gratis. Her alleged crimes were underpaying her Indian domestic help and also a visa fraud. Showing surprising spine, the Indian government retaliated by reducing security cover for the US embassy and consulates; depriving the US diplomats and consular officials of the special privileges they have been enjoying for decades and - horror of horrors - preventing them from importing their Christmas booze. At the time of writing this, the impasse remains.

Those are the apparent facts, but I suspect the real story is being played out behind the scenes. Khobragade's nemesis is an Indian-origin US Attorney named Preet Bharara. It does not take a genius to figure out that this gentleman has higher political ambitions; and that he is displaying disproportionate toughness in this case to demonstrate that he is a no-nonsense, strictly-by-the rules upholder of US law. He also seems to have a penchant for prosecuting fellow Indians - he has put three in the dock in recent months - no doubt figuring that this enhances his impartiality. Bharara forcefully argued that Khobargade was not entitled to any sort of consular immunity; and if she broke the law - allegedly - in the land of the free and the home of the brave, she had damn well better face the consequences. I may point out that there is also a clash of cultures at play here, if not overtly. In India with its entrenched VIP culture, it would be unthinkable that someone of Khobragade's status and connections would be subject to the same police procedures as the common man. In America however, once an individual enters the criminal justice system, the cops will follow the standard procedure. Unlike in India, the do-you-know-who-I-am gambit cuts no ice in the US.

Amidst all the furor, what should not be lost sight of is that Khobragade did allegedly break a US law. Apparently in her visa application to take an Indian maid with her to New York, she did specify that the maid would be paid the US minimum wage. This was wildly impractical of course and I'm sure she had no intention of honouring the declaration. It was a time-honoured ploy to expedite the maid's transfer. Later she is said to have signed a separate agreement to pay about a third of what was originally committed, which technically constitutes visa fraud. Most Indians would not consider this transgression a big deal; and in fact, Indian diplomats and consular officials have probably been following this practice for decades. Why the US State department chose to make an example in this case is not clear. Whatever the reason, Khobragade was unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Devyani's father Uttam Khobargade, on the other hand, is the wrong man at any time. His outraged father avatar was perhaps expected, but his bombastic attempts to portray his pure-as-the-driven-snow daughter as tragic victim smacks of hypocrisy. She is hardly a paragon of probity. Only someone childishly naive would believe that he has not in the past used his position as a powerful IAS officer to influence out-of-town favours for his daughter. The Adarsh Commission's report has stated conclusively that she procured a flat in the upscale building by means that were far from above board. There is also a news report that the Ministry of External Affairs bent rules to grant Devyani the foreign language of her choice over the claims of more qualified colleagues.

Uttam Khobargade's over-the-top threat to go on a hunger fast if the US does not drop all charges against his daughter Deviyani does not do him credit. In the first place, Americans have no concept of hunger fasts; so the attempted blackmail was bound to fall flat on its face. If he is trying to pressurize the Indian Government, his method is equally excessive and unnecessary. The Indian government's response to Devyani's arrest has already been uncharacteristically tough, with condemnation from the senior most government officials, including the PM. In diplomatic parlance, the point has been made and India's honour has been upheld. It is now time for diplomats on both sides to work behind the scenes and make the unpleasantness go away. Applying relentless pressure on the US is likely to prove counter-productive. The Americans will not take kindly to being pushed into a corner; and it then becomes a matter of pride and saving face. The end result may be unpalatable to India. Let it rest for now and give diplomacy a chance. The latest insanity by the senior Khobragade is his allegation - which he later accredited to Ramdas Athavale, leader of the Republican Party of India (RPI) - that his daughter's vanishing maid, Sangeeta Richard, is probably a CIA agent. When will the old man realise that he is making an ass of himself and only hurting his daughter's cause.

Speaking of Ramdas Athavale, he has once again displayed his complete lack of political acumen. The unwarranted attack on a Domino's outlet in Bandra by his lumpen followers will only enhance the stereotype of Indian political parties as a compendium of mindless and opportunistic thugs who will stoop to any level for perceived political advantage. It probably did not even occur to the "great leader" that Domino's is a wholly owned Indian franchise; and the only connection they have with the US is the name. If he imagines that this utterly stupid action has harmed American interests in any way, he is even more delusional than he appears to be. Athavale is an old school politician of the most venal kind. He has no sincere political ideology, as is evident in his scrambling attempts to ally with any party that will have him. Thanks to his opportunistic leadership, the RPI on its own has virtually no standing; and antics such as this only make the electorate more disgusted. The voters have grown up Mr. Athavale. They are mightily unimpressed with such empty gestures.

And what of the other "victim" for whom Bharara's heart is publicly bleeding? I am speaking of the maid Sangeeta Richard. Here too, things are not entirely what they seem. On a television programme, the senior Khobragade enthusiastically waved a page from the purported diary of Richard, where she heaps praises on Devyani as a benevolent and generous employer. Then reminiscent of an early Hitchcock classic, the maid vanishes; only to resurface as an injured victim of human trafficking. The US Immigration department, with uncharacteristic alacrity, whisks off her husband and kids to the US on a special visa and places them in the Witness Protection programme.

While the method of Khobragade's arrest and the subsequent humiliation heaped on her was beyond the pale, some of the Indian reaction was churlish and bordering on the ridiculous. Yashwant Sinha's threat to imprison American citizens with homosexual partners was one such example of bombastic nonsense. Even more absurd was Mayawati's claim that Khobargade's mistreatment had something to do with her being a Dalit. Such pettiness only diminishes the rectitude of India's response. Removal of security barricades outside the American embassy could also be regarded as excessive and vindictive. On the positive side, India's uncharacteristic boldness in expressing its outrage against a powerful ally was as welcome as it was surprising. A lot of it was posturing of course, but this is the ballet most governments perform for the benefit of public opinion. At the end of the day, it would be unrealistic to expect Indo-American ties to be seriously impaired because of this episode; and they won't be. A reality of global politics is that the stronger partner will always prevail in the end.

FIROZE HIRJIKAKA is a retired civil engineer, a blogger
and a freelance writer and a member of the Advisory Board
of Freedom First.





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