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India-US relations: 'The rupture is certainly real and quite tragic'

February 17, 2014 09:38 IST

India-US relations: 'The rupture is certainly real and quite tragic'

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Aziz Haniffa

'The Khobragade affair has left bruised personal feelings on both sides.'

'The manner in which the younger cohort in the Indian Foreign Service was able to drive New Delhi's policy response to this problem -- as if India's national interest did not matter -- was simply startling.'

'Never before have I seen a diplomatic crisis in US-Indian relations, or for that matter a crisis involving India and any other country, driven by bureaucratic trade unionism, where the political leadership was simply missing in action.'

Ashley J Tellis, one of the foremost strategic experts on US-India relations, accesses the fallout of the diplomatic spat, in conversation with Rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa.

Ashley J Tellis, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, DC-based think-tank, and the driving force behind its South Asia programme, believes the negative fallout from the United States-India diplomatic spat that followed Dr Devyani Khobragade's arrest is not only "real," but quite "tragic."

Dr Tellis has nearly three decades experience of following US-India relations and being a protagonist in the push for a US-India strategic partnership. He served as senior adviser to then US ambassador Robert D Blackwill at the US embassy in New Delhi. He also served on the National Security Council staff as special assistant to the President and senior director for strategic planning and Southwest Asia.

He is the author of India's Emerging Nuclear Posture and co-author of Interpreting China's Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future. He is also the research director of the Strategic Asia programme at the National Bureau of Asian Research and co-editor of the programme's 10 most recent annual volumes. He is frequently called to testify before the United States Congress.

How deep is the US-India rupture? Can it be healed in the near term?

The rupture is certainly real and quite tragic. Unlike problems arising from policy differences, which can be negotiated and resolved somewhat dispassionately, the Khobragade affair has left bruised personal feelings on both sides.

We often assume that diplomats are moved solely by concerns about the national interest. But, in truth, how they are treated makes a difference to the enthusiasm they muster in carrying out their duties.

Both sides are obviously trying to put the incident behind them, but it will take time. And the repair is not helped by the fact that both countries are terribly inward looking at this point in time.

Have you ever seen such a major diplomatic spat?

Lest we forget, there was a very difficult moment in the bilateral partnership after India's 1998 nuclear tests. The US then had imposed sanctions on India and the mood was dominated by great acrimony, at the highest levels in Washington, towards New Delhi's actions.

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Image: Dr Devyani Khobragade at her parents's Mumbai home, after she returned from New York.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff/com

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'There were obviously failures of process on both sides'

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Aziz Haniffa

Dr Ashley Tellis's interview with Rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa continues...

The big difference between the 1998 crisis and the present dispute is that the former was provoked entirely by policy differences.

In contrast, the latter implicates diplomatic niceties, the intersection of privileges and immunities with US domestic law, and so on.

What troubled me most was the fact that this crisis became more intense than was justified by the nature of the dispute.

There were obviously failures of process on both sides leading up to the point of Dr Khobragade's arrest -- a point that seems to be forgotten in India, where the hostile commentary seems to treat this matter as simply a product of US maliciousness.

But the intensity of the Indian bureaucratic grievances and the manner in which the younger cohort in the Indian Foreign Service were able to drive New Delhi's policy response to this problem -- as if India's national interest did not matter -- was simply startling to me and, if you permit me to say it, rather dangerous.

Never before have I seen a diplomatic crisis in US-Indian relations, or for that matter a crisis involving India and any other country, driven by bureaucratic trade unionism, where the political leadership was simply missing in action.

Can the US-India strategic partnership ever go back to the way things were?

I believe there will be a slow return to equilibrium, because the fundamental imperatives that drove the transformation of the bilateral relationship have not changed.

Come June, there will be a new government in India and a new opportunity for India to pursue policies that, hopefully, will take it back to the path of high growth. If India cannot retrieve its shine where economic performance is concerned, very little else matters.

Remember, the American bet on India was placed against the backdrop of high expectations that India would be an economic powerhouse of consequence.

The policy failures of the last several years in India have not only sapped Indian self-confidence but also weakened US interest in India, producing just the kind of corrosive environment where small problems become bigger than they need to.

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Image: India and US flags arranged before a media briefing.
Photographs: Reuters

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'The legal process takes its own course'

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Aziz Haniffa

For all the conciliatory remarks from both sides, the prosecutor's office while strongly noting that far from the charges being dropped -- as India demands -- has argued Dr Khobragade will have no grandfathered immunity in the criminal case against her and will be arrested if she returns to the US.

That should not be surprising. As you well know, in the US, the legal process takes its own course. From what I understand, the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York had offered Khobragade a plea bargain which she declined, as is her right to do so.

Having made that choice, I am not sure that the case, which involves serious criminal charges of visa fraud, can simply be 'dropped' in the absence of justifiable reasons for doing so.

India is singularly now bent on implementing reciprocity regarding US diplomats, which, many contend, can hardly alleviate any rapprochement.

That certainly appears to be the case. I can understand the compulsions that drive India to assert the necessity of reciprocity. But the issues of privileges and reciprocity can never simply a matter of equal treatment in a legal sense.

The considerations offered by one country towards another's representatives are deeply linked to the quality of the relations that bind the two States.

The reason American diplomats in India were offered, historically, great latitude in how they conducted their business was precisely because India valued the US as a special friend, going back to the early post-Independence era.

I hope that whatever New Delhi does now does not end up undermining the prospects for the deeper partnership that both sides have tried to build for over a decade.

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Image: US Attorney Preet Bharara.
Photographs: Getty Images

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'The optics of removing the barriers were indeed atrocious'

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Aziz Haniffa

Administration and Congressional officials were also quite perturbed at the removal of security barriers outside the US embassy in New Delhi and any US public opinion or Congressional sympathy for India evaporated as the optics looked bad, particularly considering the paranoia that still exists over Benghazi.

The optics of removing the barriers were indeed atrocious. It was another of those overwrought Indian reactions, even though I think the real security impact of their removal is probably minimal.

Yet the high theatre associated with removing these security barriers in front of television cameras lost India more than a few friends in Congress and in the administration.

I think the point that needs to be appreciated is that all India's friends in Congress and elsewhere agree that the Khobragade case should have been handled very differently. That it was not was largely because of errors of omission involving both the US and India.

In any case, India's sense of grievance about how the matter evolved is understandable.

What is perplexing, however, was the disproportionality of the Indian response, which ranged from the hysterical to the peevish, and the failure of the Indian political leadership to channel the bureaucratic resentment in ways that would not damage the investment India's last two prime ministers have made in cementing new ties with the US.

What happened in the aftermath of Ms Khobragade's arrest was, therefore, just as unsettling as what happened in the lead-up to that event. And it reminds us of the difficult but important work that still has to be done to make the strategic partnership between the two countries real.

Could this all have been avoided and a diplomatic resolution found right at the beginning? Ultimately that is what happened when Dr Khobragade was whisked away to India. After all, this was not a major realpolitik spat, but about not paying the maid the contracted salary?

The short answer, as I alluded to before, is yes. This crisis could have been avoided -- and it should have been.

Both the US and India have real challenges that must be addressed collaboratively. We do not have the luxury of being distracted by unproductive and unnecessary altercations.

Was this also a symptom of the Obama administration's lack of interest in India now -- there are people who believe India has lost its strategic importance to the US -- not to mention the economic malaise and policy paralysis in Delhi?

I believe all these elements played some role, but the real problems involved errors at the working level on both sides, misjudgments about the anticipated impact of pursuing this case in the manner that eventually transpired for the bilateral relationship, and the dubious choices and actions of both the Indian diplomat and her domestic help.

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Image: Barricades being removed outside the US embassy in New Delhi.
Photographs: Reuters

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'The Indian State is always acutely sensitive to issues of recognition and respect'

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Aziz Haniffa

When the nonproliferation ayatollahs and their fraternity in Congress were vacillating on the nuclear deal, President George W Bush -- under whom you served -- told his aides: Make this happen. Couldn't President Obama or Secretary of State John F Kerry have made this controversy go away before it became a major crisis?

As you well know, Aziz, President Bush invested a great deal in transforming the relationship with India. But his administration's attention was focused on policy issues.

The Khobragade case was quite different. It involved entirely a legal -- criminal -- matter. I don't think any President would insert himself into resolving something like this. And there is no need to.

If all the parties involved, including Ms Khobragade, had paid but a little more attention before the problem reached the point where an arrest became inevitable, the issue would have been resolved quickly and outside the public eye.

Couldn't Kerry and other senior administration officials have been more conciliatory and gone beyond expressing simple regret?

I do not see how Secretary Kerry -- speaking for the US government -- could have said anything other than what he said. The US attorney's office and all the relevant law enforcement agencies followed the letter of the law and the established procedures.

Contrary to what many Indians -- including those who should know better -- believe, Ms Khobragade was not singled out for hostile treatment.

With the political environment in India and the upcoming elections, New Delhi still perceives this slight and the way the diplomat was treated -- with the State Department refusing to offer an unqualified apology -- as a betrayal. Is this being naive?

I believe the upcoming elections made it harder for the Indian government to respond in a measured way. As one senior Indian political figure told me privately, A Congress government doing badly in an election year could not be seen as betraying a Dalit diplomat when the economical and socially underprivileged constitute the core of its political support.

Beyond the electoral considerations, though, the Indian State is always acutely sensitive to issues of recognition and respect.

The news about how Ms Khobragade was treated by US law enforcement -- despite its inaccuracies -- triggered widespread revulsion in India, even among sections otherwise friendly to the US, and the weaknesses of the current government ensured that it could not successfully walk that fine line between protecting its own diplomats and protecting the larger US-India relationship.

Having said all this though, there were no factual grounds for the State Department to issue any 'unqualified apology' in this case.

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Image: The US State Department.
Photographs: Reuters

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'The Indian media's performance was abominable'

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Aziz Haniffa

How would you describe the performance of the Indian media? Some have described it as sycophantic, while I guess they have made the same charge against the US media?

I thought the Indian media's performance, especially that of the electronic media, was abominable. Night after night, the performances on television displayed little other than bruised amour propre. Even that is understandable.

What was genuinely outrageous, however, was the patent disregard of the facts in this case. Scores of commentators, including some individuals who should know the US all too well because they have either served or lived here, inflamed matters further not simply because of their opinions -- they, obviously, have a right to those -- but because of their stunning inability to either respect the facts or even figure out what those were in this instance.

The electronic media in India did not acquit itself well, in my opinion. Sadly, however, it treats many other issues of importance similarly -- and that is tragic for Indian democracy.

In contrast, I thought the US media simply ignored the affair for most part, coming late to the story, and then focusing on it mainly for its impact on the bilateral relationship.

Was there an institutional fault line at the US embassy in Delhi? Bringing the nanny Sangeeta Richard's family to the US could have been a rogue operation, but some also argue that Ambassador Nancy Powell would have had to sign off on it. Doesn't this affect her credibility and effectiveness now?

I don't think the facts on this matter are yet known fully. In their absence, I must reserve judgment.

You served in Delhi under Ambassador Blackwill, who is credited with pushing the strategic partnership forward aggressively. How would he have handled this?

I think you already know the answer to that trick question! But the important thing, which I must emphasise, is the need for both sides to move ahead.

The US and India have important common interests, which must not be frustrated by tactless handling of problems that in the scheme of things are relatively minor.

I was privileged to serve in the US embassy in New Delhi for two wonderful years, and I was always touched by the generous courtesies that were extended to the mission and its personnel by our Indian hosts.

That kindness did not materialise simply because embassy officials happened to be 'nice guys' -- although we invariably were! Rather, it was because the two countries valued their bilateral relationship that extending such courtesies became possible.

At a time when Washington and New Delhi are figuring out how to repair the damage caused by the Khobragade affair, I hope they will not forget that the special courtesies extended to one another reflects their desire for a stronger strategic bond and hence must not be measured by any picayune notions of mechanistic reciprocity.


Image: Photograph used only for representational purposes.
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters

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