The end of the US-India honeymoon
New Delhi's overwrought reaction to a diplomatic kerfuffle jeopardizes ties that had been strengthening.

Reuters

Supporters of Rashtrawadi Shiv Sena, a Hindu hardline group, carry placards during a protest near the U.S. embassy in New Delhi December 18, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • With the Khobragade affair reaching its 3rd week, it looks like the damage to US-India ties will be long-term.

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  • New Delhi's overwrought reaction to a diplomatic kerfuffle jeopardizes ties that had been strengthening.

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  • The government's response shows how far India remains from conducting itself like a major power.

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With the so-called Khobragade affair, involving the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York, stretching into its third week with little sign of resolution, it looks increasingly likely that the damage to U.S.-India ties will be long-term. Widely held assumptions in Washington and New Delhi—that both countries had found a way to forge a stable, mutually beneficial partnership—turn out to have been premature.

By now the bare bones of the controversy are well known. On Dec. 12, U.S. marshals briefly arrested 39-year-old Devyani Khobragade, a mid-ranking Indian diplomat posted as a consular official in New York. Authorities allege she falsified visa documents for a maid-cum-nanny by promising her more than an American minimum wage while in fact paying her much less. Ms. Khobragade's family denies the allegation.

India's foreign office reacted with outrage at news that Ms. Khobragade was handcuffed, strip-searched and held in a cell with common criminals before being freed on bail. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon called the U.S. action "despicable" and "barbaric." In retaliation, New Delhi removed security barriers outside the U.S. Embassy, stripped American consular officials of diplomatic immunity, and withdrew long-held airport passes and import privileges for U.S. diplomats. Despite an expression of regret by Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone call to Mr. Menon, the spat shows no sign of subsiding.

There's enough blame to go around. To describe the State Department's role in the showdown as clumsy would be an understatement. Officials who gave a green light to the arrest apparently failed to foresee the storm it would ignite in India, which has invoked diplomatic immunity to argue that the arrest was illegal under international law. (U.S. authorities say the diplomat's immunity extended only to her official functions.) Even expelling Ms. Khobragade would have been less inflammatory than arresting her. And if an arrest was unavoidable, it's still hard to justify treating a diplomat in a wage dispute like a Colombian drug lord.

To add insult to Indian injury, U.S. Embassy officials in New Delhi reportedly helped spirit out the former nanny's family days before Ms. Khobragade's arrest. To many Indians, both acts smacked of hostility. "Is this how you treat a so-called strategic partner?" ran a common refrain across Indian editorial pages and TV talk shows.

But while Indian anger is understandable, the government's overwrought response shows how far New Delhi remains from conducting itself like a major power. Removing security barriers in front of the U.S. Embassy little more than a year after the deadly attack in Benghazi shows a foreign office tone deaf to how the issue would play in the U.S. The withdrawal of diplomatic perks—a relatively trivial matter in itself—suggests less steely resolve and more smallness of spirit. Should a rising superpower care about where an American diplomat shops for wine and cheese?

In the weeks ahead, pundits will continue to quibble over the case. For much of the Indian media, Ms. Khobragade has emerged as a heroic figure, a young diplomat needlessly humiliated by a callous superpower. Most Indian journalists have portrayed Sangeeta Richard, the former nanny, as a scam artist who gamed the U.S. immigration system by falsely alleging mistreatment to secure visas for herself and her immediate family. Ms. Richard's supporters, of course, claim the opposite: that she, not Ms. Khobragade, is the victim of the piece.

Amid this welter of recriminations, one thing appears clear: U.S.-India relations remain a lot more fragile than was widely believed. Over the past decade and a half, the U.S. had shed its reputation in India for lacking the finesse to deal with a bewilderingly complex country in a region in flux. Ms. Khobragade's arrest has resurrected the old cliché about the Ugly American, better at upsetting people than befriending them.

At the same time, India's overwrought response to the incident reveals a country imprisoned by its past. The American assumption that a shared belief in democracy, along with a common interest in keeping Chinese hegemony and radical Islam at bay, would imbue Indian foreign policy with a more practical bent has proved premature. Ms. Khobragade's treatment may have been egregious, but many Indian officials and celebrities react to even routine airport patdowns or questioning in America as grave insults to national honor.

India's response to the incident shows how difficult it is for New Delhi to shed an old habit of seeking self-respect by reflexively railing against America. As the story broke, politicians and pundits vied with each other to attack American perfidy on air. Among their helpful suggestions: granting asylum to Edward Snowden and arresting gay partners of U.S. diplomats for breaking India's archaic laws against homosexuality. Leading columnists peddled conspiracy theories about Washington's desire to humiliate India. Anyone arguing for restraint or balance was quickly dismissed as an American lackey.

As things stand, it's unclear whether Ms. Khobragade, whom India has shifted to its United Nations mission in order to strengthen her diplomatic immunity, will stand trial in New York. But in the meantime, the damage to relations between the countries' diplomats is real. Perhaps U.S.-India ties will bounce back from this setback as they have from others, but for now the honeymoon between the world's two largest democracies is over.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. He is on Twitter @dhume.

 

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