Bring Washington to Its Senses

One wishes that in matters of terrorist strikes and diplomatic provocations of the kind that the Devyani Khobragade affair represents, the Indian government had the wit and long discovered the merit of reacting instantly and in tit-for-tat manner. Thus, the 26/11 and, earlier the attack on Parliament, should have been answered within 20 minutes of the onset of the attacks with Indian Air Force sorties out of Udhampur to decimate Lashkar-e-Taiba training sites, concentration areas, and supply depots in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the co-ordinates for which targets are readily available. And once the atrocious treatment of the Indian deputy consul general (DCG) at the hands of the US Marshals became known, an immediate counter ought to have been the public arrest of one of the American DCGs posted in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Kolkata and a proper “cavity search” by rough-hewn local cops. This option is unavailable to India now as it will appear calculated, not reflexive.

Instead, in each instance New Delhi’s seemingly incurable habit of inaction kicked in. 26/11 was responded to with mere threats, the attack on Parliament by time-consuming “mobilisation for general war” that achieved nothing, and the outrage against the Indian DCG by tarrying, with the urgency and value of immediate like-action being lost as the external affairs minister Salman Khurshid sought “dialogue” with Washington. Procrastination reduced India’s honour to a trifle-able commodity and the principle of parity of treatment of diplomats a joke.

The more the situation unfolded the clearer it became that this was a larger drama contrived between the self-promoting and ambitious Preet Bharara, the ex-Chandigarh NRI and US attorney for Manhattan (2nd District), and the Bureau for Diplomatic Security (BDS) within the US state department responsible for the security of foreign diplomats displaying sheer incompetence or, alternatively, seeking to stir up momentary excitement. Bharara knew perfectly well how this action would burnish his reputation in US circles and play out in India. The BDS apparently deliberately ignored the informal understanding Washington has with a bunch of European and Third World nations, including India, regarding domestic help brought into the US by diplomats on A-3 or G-5 visas who earn wages that are sub-par only by the US standard. This year, some 2,200 such visas were issued by the US state department. But it was Bharara’s call to home in only on Khobragade that BDS acquiesced in.

True to its nature, the slack-willed Manmohan Singh government stuck to its by now well-known script by doing little beyond ending the system of unilateral benefits the US embassy and consulates and US-origin staff have enjoyed from the ’60s onwards their Indian counterparts stationed in America can only dream of. Absent a reciprocal agreement relating to terms and conditions of work, and the slate of rights, privileges, exemptions, and immunities the diplomats of the two nations will henceforth enjoy, Washington should be warned that the US diplomats and US-origin consular staff, who are paid a handsome sum as “hardship-posting” allowance in India, will start earning it. Absolute parity of treatment down to the minutest detail will obtain decorum and balance so far missing in the bilateral relations.

Sadly, India subsided in the face of US secretary of state John Kerry’s merely expressing “regrets” and undersecretary Wendy Sherman “remorse” which, considering the perverse behaviour of the US Marshals against Khobragade, amounted to salting the wound. New Delhi is even wavering in its demand for an unambiguous apology combined with closure of the case against the DCG in New York—the minimum needed in the circumstances. How the US government manages that is its business. New Delhi need only insist it will be satisfied with nothing less.

This disruptive episode in India-US relations points to two very dissimilar trends—one regarding the conduct of Indian foreign policy, the other concerning subterranean forces busily at work to undermine India strategically, with the former assisting the latter. The fact is harsh actions at the ground or tactical level are in no way antithetical to strategically burgeoning bilateral ties as long as the two streams are not mixed up. Practising an almost amateurish brand of diplomacy, New Delhi seems unable to pull it off. The Indian government expects that mutually beneficial ties must result in benignity all-round and that, as in this case, a friendly US had no business dealing in an unfriendly manner with an Indian envoy. This is to ignore the bureaucratic politics constantly buffeting policies in large countries.

In Washington, there is a powerful lobby within the state department that is unconvinced that getting close to India will benefit the US much. An equally strong lobby in the US department of defence, motivated by emerging Asian geopolitics, a declining military budget and capacity for projecting power, is persuaded that without India drawing China’s attention away from the East Sea and the western Pacific, the US may have its hands fuller than it would wish. The reason for the outrage Khobragade experienced—attributed by some to the Obama administration’s supposedly growing “indifference” to India—doesn’t make sense, because from the US perspective too much is at stake for the “strategic partnership” to be so casually imperiled, particularly as strong Indo-US security links are deemed prudent and necessary by both countries.

What then is the best riposte, albeit belated, to the evidence of an unacceptable US attitude? India has just the leverage—an analog of the A-3 visa conundrum faced by the ministry of external affairs when posting diplomats to the US, where hiring native domestic help is unaffordable but taking Indian servants along risks Indian diplomats to arbitrary invocation by the US authorities of legally-enforceable standards of minimum wage. It can require that the large horde of Indians employed by the US embassy and consulates be paid salaries at the US-level, which will raise the wage-bill manifold. And, besides imposing curbs on US diplomats, several multi-billion dollar arms deals in the pipeline should be frozen. It will quickly bring Washington to its senses.

[Published in New Indian Express,27th December 2013 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Internal Security, Military Acquisitions, Northeast Asia, Pakistan, Pakistan military, South Asia, Terrorism, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Bring Washington to Its Senses

  1. Shaurya says:

    Still do not get, why would the US choose such a stupid issue handled in the most undiplomatic manner to make a larger strategic point? If it was just a DoJ led action, one can explain how something like this would have happened but the state department was involved all the way in this affair – so under Kerry’s watch! Strange, very strange.

  2. From Amar Sinha (reproducing his email)

    What you have expressed in your article is the wish of common people on India. But as suggested, simply cannot happen as the sole concern of our politicians is to make money and stash the same abroad. Country has never been the concern, post independence. Irrespective of politicians everyone has got swiss accounts and accounts in other tax heavens, we all know. You think our politicians will have the guts to retaliate? Very next day all swiss account details will be in papers and mean politically death to who so ever is in power.
    We are all aware, how cryogenic engine was got sabotaged by CIA and a genuine scientist spent so many years in jail and lived with the social stigma. our politicians and babus are purchase able items with price tags.
    Nothing of the sort suggested by you is going to happen. At the most it will be discussed in drawing rooms. Sorry for this comment.

  3. mnas dhar says:

    couple of paki journalists (Ijaz haider & moeed pirzada) were discussing your article namely “US boat on elint mission” dated 21st october and whether the whole devyani khobragade case is a tit for tat. (please comment)
    on a different note had no idea these chaps keep such a close eye on are affairs and security analysts.

    • Interesting twist about US getting tough with India on Khobragade in response to the apprehension of the elint ship off the Coromandel Coast. Very plausible. And, yes, Pakistani media commentators, strategic enclave, govt and, especially the military, are up on writings by Indians.

  4. Shaurya says:

    I do hope, for their own sanity, the US did do this for more reasons than just labor laws discrepancies by a diplomat, for Kerry know about this arrest.

    “QUESTION: Did Secretary Kerry personally sign off on the arrest?

    MS. HARF: I don’t think that’s how it works. I’m happy to check. Sign off officially or – I don’t even – I mean, in any way —

    QUESTION: Was he aware that the arrest was going to take place?

    MS. HARF: He was certainly aware, yes, absolutely. He’s been kept up to speed on this case. I can double-check on exactly how it works.

    QUESTION: The last one —

    MS. HARF: How the process works, I just don’t know.

    QUESTION: So he approved the arrest?

    MS. HARF: I can double-check on how it works, because I don’t know he has official approving authority.

    Yes, wait, and then I’ll come up to –”

  5. There was never any doubt about the US State Dept’s complicity in this farce, was there?

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