Opinion: US-India Relations

The Devyani Khobragade affair keeps getting curiouser and curiouser. Khobragade, a diplomat posted at India’s consulate general in New York, was arrested the other week by US authorities on charges of visa fraud and labor law violations relating to her employment of a nanny/housekeeper who accompanied her to the United States.

The manner of her brief detention has sparked widespread outrage in India and riled US relations with New Delhi. As more details come to light – including revelations of US actions to “evacuate” the nanny’s family from India as well as growing speculation that the nanny was a CIA mole – it’s clear that what at first appeared to be a relatively straightforward matter is anything but. (See here and here for a detailed chronology of events as they are currently known). Still, though they may require revision as more information emerges, it’s worth making three observations about the unfolding saga.

First, given that the arrest was prompted by the State Department’s diplomatic security bureau, it’s striking that no one in the foreign affairs bureaucracy appears to have anticipated the quite predictable backlash in India and its consequences for a relationship senior department officials have worked hard in cultivating over the past decade.

To be sure, US authorities could not turn a blind eye to allegations of the nanny’s mistreatment by Khobragade, especially since Indian diplomats in New York have compiled quite a history of run-ins with US labor law. In 2011, the Indian consul general at the time was sued by a former domestic servant for mistreatment; the case was eventually settled out of court. And last year, a US court slapped the consulate’s press and culture counselor with a $1.5 million civil judgment after finding her guilty of slave-like treatment of a former maid. The counselor had earlier left the United States and refuses to pay the award.

Nonetheless, even if the charges against Khobragade are true – and it’s important to stress that they do not involve allegations of physical abuse – there are smarter ways to proceed, such as quietly telling New Delhi that her presence in the United States was no longer welcome and making clear that this sort of misconduct by other diplomats would not be tolerated. This approach – about which the Washington Post quotes a US official as saying “That’s the way these things are done” – would have sent the necessary stern message without generating the altogether foreseeable brouhaha.

Instead, the State Department bureaucracy opted to act in a manner for which Secretary of State John F. Kerry has now conveyed his “regret” in a phone call to Indian leaders. India’s main national opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has used the incident to score domestic political points. But its spokesman is surely right when he asks “How would the US react if one of their diplomats were subjected to this treatment in India?”

Indeed, the US argument that Ms. Khobragade’s consular position does not afford her full diplomatic immunity is at odds with Washington’s stance in the Raymond Davis affair three years ago. A CIA contractor operating out of the US consulate in Lahore, Davis was arrested by Pakistani police after he fatally shot two men in circumstances that remain under dispute.

Washington did not contest the double-murder charges but asserted that Davis was protected under the principle of diplomatic immunity. President Obama even weighed in, stating that "There's a broader principle at stake that I think we have to uphold."

(New Delhi is not pure on this issue, either. Earlier this year, the Indian supreme court, using questionable legal reasoning, rejected arguments about immunity and barred the Italian ambassador in New Delhi from leaving India during a diplomatic spat between the countries.)

Beyond anger over Ms. Khobragade’s treatment by US authorities, New Delhi officials are also incensed by the other extraordinary actions Washington took in this convoluted affair. These include designating the nanny as a victim of human trafficking and granting her a special visa to stay in the United States even though her official passport had been revoked by New Delhi and she is subject to an arrest warrant in India; rejecting the validity of the legal proceedings Khobragade initiated against the nanny in India over the labor dispute; and then spiriting the nanny’s family out of India on the grounds that it was being harassed by government authorities.

As one Indian official sees it, “This was a breakdown of trust and of transparency in a manner that you simply do not expect between friends….This was behind-your-back stuff, and I’m not sure the trust can be repaired in a day or over a phone call.”

As the investigations into last year’s jihadi assaults on the US diplomatic mission and a CIA annex in Benghazi revealed, the State Department’s diplomatic security bureau has been the venue for egregious management failures over the past several years. It will be of interest to learn whether the bureau’s staff, as it formulated plans vis-à-vis Ms. Khobragade, even bothered to consult with those inside the building who manage the India policy account and might have advocated for a less provocative course. Secretary Kerry has pledged a review of all aspects of this case. He should start with the decision-making inside his department.

A second item bearing mention concerns the Indian diaspora. Consider the high-profile role played by Preet Bharara, the chief US prosecutor in Manhattan, whose office is handling the Khobragade case. He has been quite vocal in defending US actions, including taking pointed swipes at the Indian judicial system. The Indian media is quick to celebrate the increasing stature of Indians in American society, though the Punjab-born Bharara is often portrayed as a villain.

Last year, Bhahara successfully prosecuted Rajat Gupta, McKinsey & Company’s former chief executive and an iconic figure in the Indian diaspora, on insider trading charges. Bharara’s actions, which are chronicled in Anita Raghavan’s excellent new book about the Galleon Group hedge fund scandal, were criticized by some elites in India and the Indian-American community as tantamount to betraying his own people.

A good deal of Indian ire in the Khobragade matter has come to focus on Bharara. Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid curtly dismisses him, while the country’s media outlets report (here and here) that New Delhi officials believe that Bharara is “targeting people of Indian origin” and that Khobragade’s arrest is somehow related to furthering his political ambitions.

The Indian community in the United States has played a key role in building linkages between the countries and transforming the way Americans view India. But with Bharara, the effect has been to inflame Indian perceptions of America.

Additionally, Khobragade’s husband is an Indian-American born in New York and whose family now resides in Michigan. This under-reported fact may shape how the case plays out. Since Ms. Khobragade presumably wishes preserve her ability to visit the United States without fear of future arrest, skipping town is not as attractive an option that it was for earlier Indian diplomats stationed in New York. This means that she simply cannot depart US soil with the criminal charges still hanging over her head.

Ditto for a likely civil lawsuit by the nanny which results in a court judgment that could be executed whenever she visited her American in-laws. So far, US prosecutors are not retreating and Khobragade is resisting suggestions that she settle out of court. In the end, however, she will need to resolve this matter fully one way or another.

A third note concerns the deeply-rooted suspicion of American global policy that continues to lurk in the Indian political class despite a decade of warming governmental ties and growing inter-societal linkages. Consider how the “strategic autonomy” mantra in New Delhi is solely deployed against Washington. India has no problem with rapidly expanding security ties with Japan, the chief US military ally in Asia, yet remains ambivalent about the Obama administration’s strategic entreaties even as China’s strategic pressure on the country rises.

These dynamics explain a good deal of New Delhi’s high-handed nationalistic reaction to Khobragade’s arrest. As Foreign Minister Khurshid angrily told the Indian parliament last week, the case “is no longer about an individual. It is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world.”

One of Khurshid’s cabinet colleagues was blunter, declaring that “The US is playing games with India.” For Washington officials who have invested much energy attempting to raise US-India relations to a new standard, it must be dismaying to watch how quickly New Delhi can resort to perceptions that supposedly belonged to a bygone era.

(David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and senior director with Geoskope, a cross-market intelligence company.)