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L'Affaire Khobragade: Unprecedented winter of discontent for India, US

December 27, 2013 10:37 IST

'The diplomat's arrest has led to a major diplomatic spat, the likes of which I have not seen in my nearly three decades of covering the US-India relationship, says Aziz Haniffa.

'The knee-jerk reaction by the powers-that-be in Delhi was myopic to say the least.'

There is no denying that 2013 was a banner year for the Indian-American community, perhaps even the most significant in the history of the Indian-American immigrant experience.

The advances that were clearly manifested in the community's evolution signaled its arrival in the mainstream of American society. Not just in one particular area or another as in the past, but across the entire spectrum -- from politics to diplomacy, from judiciary to medicine, from philanthropy to music.

Not to forget the dusky Nina Davuluri -- who has a degree in brain behaviour and cognitive science and is on her way to become a physician -- giving new meaning to the Miss America pageant, what has traditionally been a parade of mainly blond white women who don't necessary belong to Mensa.

The community continued its shining spree when Dr Amerish 'Ami' Bera was sworn in as only the third Indian-American Congressman, and the first Indian-American physician to be elected to the US House of Representatives.

Two of the highest ranking Indian Americans in the Barack Obama administration, Dr Rajiv Shah, Administrator, US Agency for International Development, and Islam 'Isi' Siddiqui, Chief Agricultural Negotiator, Office of the US Trade Representatives, were retained by President Obama. Siddiqui resigned last week after five years on the Obama team.

There was the nomination and Senate confirmation of Srikanth 'Sri' Srinivasan as the new federal judge in the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, the second most powerful court in the US after the Supreme Court.

At the time Sri was being sworn in, Vijay Iyer was selected as a MacArthur Fellow with the clear acknowledgement that he was a jazz genius.

More historic firsts followed. The nomination and confirmation of Nisha Desai Biswal as the first Indian-American Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs, the appointment of Vikram Singh as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South Asia -- the first high-level Indian-American Pentagon appointee -- and the nomination of Middle East specialist Puneet Talwar as Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs, even as he was an integral part of the US negotiations with Iran from his perch at the National Security Council.

President Obama nominated Dr Vivek Murthy as the new Surgeon General. There was the buzz surrounding the primary challenge by Ro Khanna to the California Congressional seat held by the iconic Asian-American legislator Mike Honda, with Silicon Valley heavyweights squarely behind Khanna's campaign.

Even before he formally declared, the $700 billion dollar man Neel Kashkari's gubernatorial interest in California, challenging incumbent Jerry Brown, had the mainstream media abuzz.

Former Iowa state senator Swati Dandekar also threw her hat into the Congressional ring, with the Democratic establishment squarely behind her run.

GOP Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, of Louisiana and South Carolina respectively, proved their mettle and also raised funds for each other.

Jindal, in the clearest sign yet that he is seriously considering a bid for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016, unveiled the formation of his new organisation, America Next, a nonprofit to promote conservative policy ideas.

In the local elections, Latha Mangipudi won a seat in the New Hampshire State House, Upendra Chivukula won his 7th consecutive term to the New Jersey state assembly, and Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant stunned the world by unseating a four-term incumbent in the Seattle City Council elections.

The first-ever Congressional Diwali celebration was essentially an acknowledgment of their influential Indian-American constituencies by the lawmakers who lined up to mark their presence.

This was followed by the White House Diwali, with First Lady Michelle Obama playing host. Some intense lobbying by Sikh Americans with an assist by the indefatigable Congressman Joe Crowley, New York Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans also led to the Federal Bureau of Investigation creating a special category to monitor hate crimes against Sikhs.

Thanks to Major Kamaljit Kalsi's moving and powerful testimony, the US Civil Rights Commission wrote to Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel questioning Sikh exclusion from the military.

The GOP also made its first, organised attempt to draw the Indian-American community to its camp.

The House Republican Conference and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Ed Royce, California Republican, hosted the first-ever GOP Indian-American Meetup on Capitol Hill.

The event was viewed as two-fold: An attempt for the GOP to resurrect itself from the battering it received after the government shutdown in October where the blame was laid squarely on the extreme conservative right-wing of the party, led by the Tea Party favourites, and to project itself as a party of diversity.

And, of course, as is always the case when it comes to Capitol Hill reception by lawmakers for growing ethnic communities, a clear effort to attract more funds and support from the affluent and influential Indian-American community.

Congressman Bera rightly described 2013 as a "phenomenal year for the Indian-American Diaspora," arguing that it "signifies the coming of age of the community and a natural progression of the community."

"It is only the beginning," he said. "It clearly shows that the Indian-American community with its second and third generation are now completely ingrained in the mainstream of America."

Just think of the record number of appointments and nominees within the Obama administration, and of course there are a number of judges that are making their way through the pipeline and that is exciting."

Referring to the consensus among the legal cognoscenti about Obama's next Supreme Court appointee, Dr Bera added, "Hopefully, in the next few years, we'll see what Sri Srinivasan's next steps are."

The story of the United States-India relationship this year was in stark contrast.

The policy paralysis in New Delhi, the still in limbo nuclear deal, and much angst in the US business and industry about a plethora of problems led to a consensus among the pundits that the much ballyhooed strategic partnership had hit a plateau and was in a state of hibernation.

And just when one thought that was the extent of it L'Affaire Devyani Khobragade erupted.

The arrest of the now former Indian deputy consul general in New York has led to a major diplomatic spat, the likes of which I have not seen in my nearly three decades of covering the US-India relationship.

The event had all the makings of an unprecedented and prolonged winter of discontent between Washington and Delhi.

The only hope is that the decibel level of angry rhetoric and the politicisation of this fiasco by some vested interests will subside. And that the US-India relationship, which has been carefully nurtured by a critical mass of ardent admirers and supporters -- not to forget the catalytic role played by the Indian-American community -- will be retrieved before it is allowed to plummet anymore.

The knee-jerk reaction by the powers-that-be in Delhi was myopic to say the least.

The exhortations by some to terminate the defence agreements and arrangements with the US, at a time when this defence relationship is the only silver lining in an otherwise lukewarm year, is yet another case of cutting the nose to spite the face, if you will pardon the cliche.

Mind you, India has lost one of its most sincere and trusted friends in the Pentagon, Deputy Defence Secretary Ash Carter, who recently resigned after being the architect of the US-India defence technology cooperation initiative -- which he launched and personally oversaw.

He was the key driver of enhanced US-Indian defence cooperation, investing extraordinary amounts of time in deepening the bilateral relationship.

Now, killing this facet of the US-India relationship just to teach Washington a lesson would be foolhardy.

Image: First Lady Michelle Obama joins students for a Bollywood dance in the State Dining Room of the White House along with choreographer Nakul Mahajan. Photograph: White Chuck Kennedy/White House.

Aziz Haniffa