India’s Political Parties Galvanized into Action

It’ s almost general election time in India and the two main political parties are on the move to prove their credibility. In the past 24 hours, India has uprooted cordial diplomatic relations with the US that have been carefully nurtured for the past decade or more. It has also passed the Lok Pal Bill creating an anti-corruption ombudsman that has been pending in various forms for 45 years.

It is no coincidence that these events come ten days after the new Aam Aadmi anti-corruption political party (AAP) dominated the results of assembly elections in Delhi – so both the government and main Bharatiya Janata Party opposition now need to prove their worth in order to stop AAP becoming successful nationally. Nor is the sudden emergence of Rahul Gandhi surprising as an energized parliamentary performer (in last week's Lok Pal parliamentary debate), just there are rumors that he might be named next month as the Congress Party’s prime ministerial candidate for the general election due in April-May. He needs to act fast to save his and his mother’s party from a humiliating defeat. It is also probably not a coincidence that the dramatic (some say excessively aggressive) diplomatic battle that India waged last week against the US – suddenly cancelling various diplomatic privileges and removing security barricades that blocked a road adjacent to the embassy in Delhi – came on the first anniversary of a horrific rape of a young medical student that shocked opinion internationally.

Since that rape, there has been a major change in the way that offenses against women are regarded, especially the way they are covered in the media. So it is scarcely surprising that Indian politicians backed the outrage felt by Foreign Ministry officials when US authorities last Thursday arrested Devyani Khobragade (above), India’s 39-year old vice-consul in New York, just as she was dropping her daughter at school. She was allegedly handcuffed and later strip-searched, underwent DNA swabbing, and held in a cell with others accused of crimes including drugs till she was released on $250,000 bail.

Relationship lacks supporters

There is a bigger issue here that concerns India’s current relationship with the US which, though enormously better than it was 10 to 15 years ago, is floundering because of a lack of care in both countries and a weak Indian embassy in the US. The relationship has few if any committed supporters in the current Obama administration, and there are many officials and commentators in India who would like to take a more aggressive stance, which this case has provided. [Dec 19: John Kerry, US Secretary of State, phoned a senior Indian official on Wednesday evening and expressed his "regret" for the way the arrest had been conducted, but said the law should take its course.]

The US alleges that Khobragade is guilty of visa fraud over an India maid who used to work in her home and who had not been paid the statutory minimum wage. Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary, has said that it is not unusual for foreign maids in the US to be paid less than the official minimum and that the American authorities accept the “contradiction between reality and the letter of the law”.

There are complications in this case that have yet to unravel including suggestions the maid and her family wanted to become US residents. India has accused the US authorities of fraudulently allowing the maid’s husband and children to enter the America last week two days before Khobragade was arrested, even though the maid had been reported missing by Khobragade some months earlier.

US Attorney Preet Bharara in New York has said the family were given visas and taken to the US because the Justice Department is “compelled to make sure that victims, witnesses and their families are safe and secure while cases are pending."

Bharara, a high profile India-born attorney famous for bringing sexual assault charges against IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn two years ago and other major cases against Wall Street banks, suggested that the family were being harassed in India and therefore needed to be evacuated. Salman Khurshid, the foreign minister, has described what happened as either a “conspiracy” or “irrational behavior.”

More significant is India’s reaction to the humiliation that the woman diplomat received. There have been earlier controversial security checks and harassment of senior Indian officials in the US which Ronen Sen, a former ambassador in Washington, said on television this evening does not happen in other countries. This has united India’s foreign service officials, led by Sujatha Singh, India’s new foreign secretary, in demanding the strongest possible condemnation of the US. She was in Washington for talks the day before the arrest and was apparently not consulted.

The BJP is accusing the government – with some justification – of running a weak foreign policy over the past 10 years, which has enabled the US to dominate the bilateral relationship. This raises a wider issue of India not asserting itself either in world affairs or with aggressive neighbors China and Pakistan, which a BJP government might well change.

It is therefore important for the government to try to build some credibility and the Khobragade case has given it an opportunity on the emotive issue of relationships with the US, while the Lok Pal bill will, Rahul Gandhi clearly hopes, help to smother memories of the massive corruption that has run through the Congress-led coalition government.

The Aam Aadmi’s party’s rise spurred Gandhi and the government to revive the bill, which creates a new corruption ombudsman. The main parties have resisted the bill for decades, and the government only agreed to produce legislation two years ago under intense pressure from Anna Hazare (above), a social rights activist, and from Arvind Kejriwal who has now broken away from Hazare to form and lead the AAP. Hazare seems to be a supporter of the BJP, which has amazingly co-operated the past two days with Congress to pass the legislation through both houses of parliament.

Rahul Gandhi is now setting himself up as the politician who ensured that the bill was passed. In parliament, he called for six other anti-corruption bills covering subjects such as public procurement, foreign bribery, judicial standards, and whistle-blowers to be passed before the general election. That is inevitably leading to him being accused of trying to capture the limelight and credit – which of course he is – when it is Hazare and others who deserve to be praised.

Asia Sentinel Correspondent John Elliott writes a Delhi-based blog, which appears at the right side of this page