Washington D.C.: A statue of Albert Einstein sits less than a block from the US state department and it’s a good time to channel him.
He once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Whatever the thinking was in the US embassy in New Delhi regarding Devyani Khobragade’s case, and by extension toward India, it wasn’t friendly or far-sighted.
A mistake was made when the embassy top guns signed off on the investigation and spirited out Sangeeta Richard’s family on “T-visas”, painting the maid and her family as victims of human trafficking.
That they chose the most provocative path and worked behind the backs of their Indian counterparts was an unfriendly act, to put it mildly. Clearly, they hadn’t a political bone in their body. They also forgot Newton’s third law.
The result: We have a “new normal” in Indo-US relations, which harks back to the old normal of tensions. The question: Is this desirable?
Never was so much built by so many and (almost) destroyed by so few — to misquote Churchill, another man Americans greatly admire.
The carefully constructed strategic partnership was growing — albeit slowly — while groping for new ways to consolidate.
Professional doubters in Washington and eternal sceptics in New Delhi had their fun, throwing a spanner or two every so often. But the arc of friendship was long and it was bending in the right direction.
And to risk it all for “Nannygate?” Really? Say, it ain’t so. A relationship which emerged from tiresome hostility and sweeping US sanctions imposed after the 1998 nuclear tests and went to an intelligent place of discussion and engagement is cracking over a wage dispute? It is absurd.
The punditry and pronouncements haven’t helped. Wise men have (once again) declared India unfit for major power status.
They have deemed the Indian reaction “overwrought”. I am not sure if there is a textbook but, looking at recent history, major powers tend to force immunity for their diplomats and Central Intelligence Agency operatives down the throats of the less powerful.
Half-baked reporting has US consular officers in India “stripped” of diplomatic immunity, their “long-held airport passes” taken away. They are left high and dry without their liquor import licenses and cheddar cheese.
In reality, the immunity status has been reduced from “full” to “partial” to match the status of Indian consular officers in the US. It is anything but punitive.
The US demands maximum immunity outside but gives minimum immunity at home.
The one-sided arrangement can unravel as it has now, especially after India had ignored a series of US provocations in the interest of the larger good. The Khobragade case was the tipping point.
As for import licences for liquor and food- it is widely known that what is primarily meant for diplomats and their families is also consumed by expatriates not entitled to tax-free benefits. Who makes the profit from selling tax-free imports at market prices? These questions come up when the spirit of give-and-take vanishes.
No one really objected to the benefits for decades as special privileges accumulated, starting in 1962 when it was felt the Americans had come to India’s help.
They grew steadily and, after 9/11, all requests were granted because of the special threat to Americans. Also because a special relationship was developing.
But the Khobragade episode has arrested that development. The trust, painstakingly built over the past decade, is shattered.
The old guard in the Congress and American naysayers, mainly in the Democratic Party, can watch the unravelling. Non-alignment 2.0 has met Washington’s “this-relationship-is-oversold” crowd.
As a senior Indian diplomat stressed, “The product is still sound” and the big picture must once again be brought front and centre. The challenge is not the fundamentals of the relationship but the sentiments surrounding it.
The Khobragade dispute is narrow and attitudinal and neither side should cut its nose to spite its face. It should be boxed and contained. The two sides can work out a creative solution once political heads take charge.
On the wider front, they can recharge the relationship with a high-level visit or an announcement or both.
They should also tackle the question of Narendra Modi’s US visa before, and not after, the Indian elections to avoid the possibility of further rancour. For US officials to say he can travel to the US once he becomes Prime Minister, is to expect that he will be a Gandhi to their Churchill.
For its part, India must work in earnest to get its economic act together and for that it needs US support. It must regain the confidence of Wall Street and the American industry.
The Indo-US defence relationship should be kick-started with energy and vision. The Pentagon has let it be known it is extremely unhappy with the state department’s handling of the Khobragade affair.
On the strategic front, the hedging by both sides must give way to enhanced engagement on East and South Asia.
India and the United States need to discuss the implications of China’s declaration of the Air Defence Identification Zone. The same goes for the future of Afghanistan and the impending departure of US troops.
The stakes are high and Humpty Dumpty needs to be put together again. To channel Einstein again: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”
The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington. She specialises in foreign policy.