By Swapan Dasgupta
The kerfuffle over the wages paid to the domestic help of Devyani Khobragade in New York may well have exposed the casual manner in which Indians in important posts sign official declarations. But what caused an individual dispute to a full-scale diplomatic conflict between India and the US was different.
Yes, there was outrage in the Indian Foreign Service that US authorities were picking on Indian diplomats and consular officials in furtherance of local political ambitions. The outrage was sufficient to nudge an otherwise sleepy Indian Government into reacting sharply to the US disregard for the Vienna Convention. But what tilted the scales in this case was the public humiliation of Devyani, particularly the fact that she was handcuffed and strip- searched.
In India, the convention, in similar cases of misdemeanour, was for the Government to request the concerned foreign mission to send their errant official home as soon as possible. There have been innumerable cases of diplomats misusing their liquor quotas or even the diplomatic bag to engage in antiques smuggling. Rarely, if ever, have such cases resulted in the errant diplomat spending a night in the local lock-up or being confronted with the complexities of a Patiala House court. Discreet conflict resolution has been the norm.
The US has for long believed it is a case apart. Apart from believing, and often with some basis, that the single-minded objective of all peoples at all places was to immigrate to the New World, the US has also believed that it is both the moral guardian and the policeman of the world. Therefore, it feels it has the right to eavesdrop on the telephone calls of foreign political leaders, prejudge the alleged human rights violations of Indian leaders, and decide which country has religious freedom and which country doesn’t. In the Devyani case, the US has displayed its belief that it is the sole arbiter of diplomatic privileges, and it has broadcast its right to ‘evacuate’ anyone from anywhere in the world, with scant regard for other people’s rule of law.
While it may be comforting to know that US high-handedness is reasonably indiscriminate and not merely aimed at India, the Devyani incident has brought out the grim reality that Indo-US bilateral relations are not governed by reciprocity but tilted quite decisively in favour of the US. The much-publicised removal of barricades in front of the US Embassy may seem petty but it is an indication of the astonishing generosity India had shown in accommodating US concerns.
Showering the US with exceptional privileges was not an outcome of any special relationship India has with the US. Despite the special attempt made by former President George W Bush to upgrade Washington’s relationship with India, the past few years have seen bilateral relations become entirely an India preoccupation. India has invested disproportionately in bettering its relations with the US and allowed itself to be taken for granted.
In the past decade, US influence on critical areas of Indian life has grown exponentially, to the point where it appears distinctly unhealthy. From key bureaucrats who are only too keen to oblige American interests to senior generals who feel they can accept US honours without bothering to seek permission, the US today occupies a role in India that is akin to the hold of the Soviet Union in the India of the 1970s. Even institutions such as the media and academia are not spared from this over-weaning influence. And ‘strategic thinking’, such as it exists in India, has been completely mortgaged to US-based think-tanks. The ripple-effects of this can be discerned in our foreign policy.
The increasing hold of the US in public life could, arguably, have been justified if there was compelling evidence that Washington had thrown its considerable weight behind Indian concerns at a regional and global level. Unfortunately, this is far from being true. When it comes to India’s security, the US’s appreciation is significantly less than emphatic. In trying to extricate itself as painlessly as possible from Afghanistan, the US appears willing to overlook many of the transgressions of India’s neighbours. India, it would seem, matters to the US only as a business opportunity or as part of an unequal, no-question-asked friendship.
A possible reason why India has been taken for granted by the US stems from a belief that because India’s elite has too much of an interest in the US, it will not pursue national interests beyond a point. I fear the American calculations are right. The US has selectively obliged our decision-makers — through visas, green cards and scholarships to sons and daughters — to such an extent that it feels it can kick a diplomat or two or make them fall guys in a larger game.
Indeed the US and the over-zealous Indian-born prosector would have succeeded had it not been for the fact that Devyani was a Dalit woman, and that her prosecution coincided with some crazy judge sending Sonia Gandhi summons for a case relating to the 1984 riots. Belatedly, a supine Establishment felt it had to say enough is enough.
Sunday Pioneer, December 22, 2013