When Secretary of State John Kerry assumed office February 1, 2013, it was assumed in India that the
warmth that Hillary Clinton exuded
towards India may be replaced by a new,
more business-like style. But no one imagined that the trajectory of United States-India relations would be anything but
The trouble, if any, was anticipated to be
lurking over the planned drawdown of US
troops in Afghanistan, with attendant
Indian concerns about the end-game.
The election of Nawaz Sharif as prime
minister of Pakistan was again wrongly
assumed by many, in and outside the government, in Delhi as harbinger of happier
times for the region.
The opening moves by Kerry with shuttle
diplomacy in West Asia delineated
rearranged priorities for someone seeking a
place in history, presidency having receded
beyond his grasp. Advance quotes from the
memoir of former defense secretary Robert
Gates are hinting at divisions and uncertainty at the top of US administration in
their handling of war and peace.
That India brief was on drift mode was
obvious from Kerry having waited till June
to visit India, eventually for the fourth
meeting of the US-India Strategic
Dialogue. His articulation in public on
bilateral relations left a question mark over
how strategic he really perceived them to
In a public address at the Habitat Center
in New Delhi, there was no mention of terrorism. Mostly long preaching on how climate change and the then unfolding rain
induced tragedy in Uttarakhand were
inter-related. He did not let an opportunity
pass for the marketing of new clean energy
technologies, and to push India towards
accepting emission ceilings.
The assumption of office by the fifth generation of Chinese leadership and the informal summit in California between
Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping
was held against the background of the
Snowden revelations about the predatory
electronic intelligence gathering by the
National Security Agency.
The gradual unfolding of the extent of the
abuse of the cyber world, essentially a global common, created tremors globally.
Indonesia frowned at the Australians,
Brazilian President D Rouseff cancelled a
proposed visit to Washington and the
Europeans, particularly the Germans,
threatened of its impact on the Free Trade
Agreement under negotiation.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
swallowed his pride and went on a farewell
visit to US in September 2013.
Analysts in India wondered if pizzazz
could be restored to a relationship that had
hit multiple hurdles on both sides, giving
an impression of loss of momentum.
The US felt unrewarded in the civil
nuclear cooperation field as the nuclear lia-
bility law passed by India’s Parliament held
suppliers of equipment and technology
liable for any future malfunction. Multi-
brand retail also, under political and public
pressure, was permitted subject to onerous
On the Indian side there was mounting
consternation over America’s revised visa
policy clearly targeting Indian software
companies. In the defense field too, while
India placed huge orders for military transport aircraft, there was US bickering over
their bid for Medium Multiple Role
Combat aircraft being outclassed by the
The US also had intellectual property
issues in the pharmaceutical sector, where
India thought patent extensions were mere
tweaking of existing drugs while the US
saw a breach.
Alongside these lists of unmet commercial possibilities on either side, the cottage
industry of working groups in myriad fields
continued to meet, discuss and even move
forward wherever possible.
Thus, while the mechanics of a ‘strategic
relationship’ lurched on, the romance had
evaporated from the relationship. Prime
Minister Singh in perhaps his last press
conference some days ago, when asked the
high point of his 10 years in office, singled
out the US-India civil nuclear deal.
He was right to the extent that under
President George W Bush the deal was only
incidentally about energy. It was about lifting the technology denial regimes, created
in waves post India’s 1974 nuclear test,
without which India could not aspire to
compete with China.
The US made a strategic shift, to the
painful surprise of China, Pakistan, etc,
which had potential for creating a new and
balanced Asian security order, subsuming
the peaceful rise of China.
Unfortunately, eight years after that
achievement, two debilitating wars by the
US in Iraq and Afghanistan, the banking
meltdown of 2008 and the Eurozone crisis,
it is a new dynamics in which India and the
US are operating.
The US appears to have made some fundamental choices: Iran over supporters of
Al Qaeda and Sunni extremism, including
if necessary its traditional allies like Saudi
Arabia; peace in West Asia over Israeli
bickering and back-pedaling; withdrawal
from Afghanistan even if to level zero and
likely resurgence of Taliban; offshore balancing of Chinese assertiveness in the East
and South China Seas through twin methods of Trans Pacific Partnerships and military capacity building of selective powers
directly or through Japan.
The Devyani Khobragade issue has lingered like the Arctic chill over bilateral
relations. From the Indian standpoint the
manner of arrest, in breach of the Vienna
Convention on Consular Relations, showed
extreme insensitivity and unconcern for its
impact on public opinion in India. From
the US perspective the issue was the protection of the domestic help’s rights.
Why and how a wage dispute was allowed
to become visa fraud — when the US
embassy in Delhi has handled hundreds of
such applications over the last two decades
knowing the discrepancy between stated
salary and actual emoluments — and finally was turned into human trafficking,
If it was done deliberately to send India a
signal of extreme unhappiness about pending issues, partly explained above, the US
government has been extremely successful.
If not, it is a careless use of discretion.
Something needed to be done quickly as
the next date of appearance for Devyani
loomed January 13, following which the
issue would have exacerbated rapidly. The
best case scenario was for the US to have
conceded that in view of Devyani having
been co-opted onto the UN delegation, her
immunities became absolute for that period.
Thus with the Indian government not
waiving her immunity, the US had the
option to seek her withdrawal from their
territory. Instead, the US allowed it to proceed to the precipice with the Manhattan
court turning down request for an extension and the District Attorney preparing to
Only then a deal emerged that while she
was indicted on charges of false statement
and visa fraud, mercifully not human trafficking, but the G1 visa protection was
extended allowing India to withdraw her,
having refused to lift her immunity.
The immediate impact on bilateral relations was manifested in the postponement
of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s visit as
well as that of Nisha Desai Biswal, the new
assistant secretary for the region.
Whatever goodwill a person of Indian
origin was supposed to beget has been dissipated by the actions of another such individual — US Attorney for the Southern
District of New York Preet Bharara.
The focus must shift back to the larger
issue of domestics with other Indian diplomats in the US, as well as future arrangements that are not easy diet for evangelical
soul-savers and guinea pigs for Preet
Bhararas to build political careers.
That the State Department allowed the
issue to arise and then linger for two
months casts its commitment to US-India
relations in poor light.
There is also the lingering suspicion that
a number of former India hands played a
role in this melodrama as the State
Department handled the matter for over six
Devyani — she is a public servant and her
personal life has already received far too
much attention — and her ambitious father
now need to retreat to the background. So
that wiser diplomatic heads restore sanity
to US-India relations as India prepares for
Ambassador K C Singh is a former
Why and how a wage dispute
was allowed to become visa
fraud and finally turned into
human trafficking escapes
explanation. If it was done to
send India a signal of extreme
unhappiness about pending
issues, the US has been
extremely successful. If not, it is
a careless use of discretion.
May the Arctic chill pass
Wiser diplomatic heads must restore sanity to US-India relations
SHANNON S TAPLE TON/REU TERS Demonstrators protest across the street from the
Indian consulate building in New York, December