Lessons From The Devyani Khobragade Episode: Is India Willing To Be Bullied So Easily?

Posted on January 13, 2014 in GlobeScope, Politics

By Vishal Kale:

The latest India-USA spat over a diplomat has brought an interesting divergence in the popular discourse – with the internet chat rooms, and sites being loaded with comments on the “vitality” and the importance of the India-US “strategic relationship”, blaming India squarely for its retaliatory actions; and the offline discourse in newspapers being decidedly pro-India and far more balanced, ably supported by the views of the general populace, in whose eyes USA has gone down several notches. Given this divergence, this article attempts to arrive at a balanced view of both the relationship and some of India’s recent actions.


The Strategic Relationship:

First, the much vaunted “strategic relationship” – we need to examine what a strategic relationship means in concrete terms, and then ask ourselves whether the US connection fits that description. We then further need to ask ourselves if we are benefiting from the connection, and if so, how? A strategic relationship implies shared strategic concerns, as well as shared common goals in terms of threats, international trade, economics, people-to-people contacts, developmental objectives, scientific cooperation and co-option, security concerns and shared foreign policy objectives. If you examine the relationship from these parameters, then it can be readily seen that, apart from the people-to-people parameter, there is little in common between Indian objectives and those of the USA. With so little in common, is it any wonder, then, that this relationship is in a deep quagmire?

Note that similarity in political systems is not a parameter that is a prerequisite for a strategic partnership. It is at best an enabler, a catalyst. Thus, a statement that we can be “partners” since both are democracies is in reality a classic non-sequitur, a forlorn hope, and an empty statement. It is not logically consistent with the facts and the realities as we know them. The reason is that each nation will place its own interests and objectives first; regardless of whether they are correct, or moral, or indeed universally acceptable. In the absence of a commonality and shared concerns, there is bound to be friction – which is what is happening in the India-USA relationship. The lack of shared commonalities is the core reason for the dissonance.

For any relationship to be vibrant, there has to be give-and-take; both partners have to contribute to the relationship in equal measure, and it should be mutually enriching. Further, the offers on the platter should be at least equal to other offers from other prospective partners. On this parameter, the USA has been found wanting on innumerable occasions, leading to stress building up in the relationship. As an example, the USA is still denying equal partnership to India in scientific collaborations which are of a strategic nature – unlike the Russians, with whom we have several co-development ventures that are benefiting both partners. Indeed, the USA is in fact the single largest impediment in Indian ambitions and desires – like for example, cryogenic technology. The USA is the main impediment in various trade talks, like, for example, the farm subsidies issue, where US intentions were actually harming Indian interests in a vicious manner.

A similar analysis can be made across most parameters mentioned; strategic concerns of the two nations are widely divergent, with the USA wedded to Pakistan, and focused on China. It has little to gain from a marriage to India in strategic terms. It is not willing to pass on state-of-the-art technology to India; it is not willing to help India develop its own internal technologies (unlike other countries), it is not willing to pressurize Pakistan in a meaningful manner; it is not willing to cut off arms supplies to Pakistan; it has shown no desire to allow India to develop its own scientific capabilities. USA does not share the same security threats that India does, neither does it share our trade and economic priorities.

The list of differences in Economics and Trade are too massive to be listed on a blog post – but a few examples are the WTO deadlock, Farm Subsides wherein US stance is manifest as an actual harm to India, Nuclear Liability Bill, FDI clause – wherein they stringently objected to the local procurement clause. That last one is a clincher – the USA objected to our efforts to develop our own internal strengths, and eliminate our weaknesses. This the same approach that is evident above – an unwillingness to develop Indian strengths. It is fine if you don’t like Indian policies, that is life but it is another thing entirely when you pressurize a weaker nation and set up impediments in its path (science) or pressurize a nation to adopt policies that may be harmful to its interests (FDI, Farm Subsidies etc.). This is evident in the US pressure lobby which intends to quantify economic damage to the USA from Indian policies. What if India does the same – quantify damage to India due to US policies? Has anyone heard of any such attempt being made in India?

The reality is, apart from people-to-people contacts, and a shared interest in terms of people and political systems, there is little in common between the USA and India as on date. The USA is only our business partner, with billions of dollars’ worth of trade, it is our third-largest trading partner, and 5th-largest FDI source. That is it. But stretching it to convert it into a “strategic partnership” is being optimistic in the extreme, for the reasons outlined above. And the nature of trade and business is such that economic interests can overcome strategic divergences – India and China being a case in point. China is also a major trading partner, but by no stretch of imagination can this be used to imply a strategic partnership!

In simple terms, trade will trump over disagreements on strategic, diplomatic or foreign policy objectives, or most other concerns. The mutual damage that will ensue from a break will automatically ensure an over-riding concern for trade. But that makes India and the USA mere customers, trading partners, or a mutual need. Nothing more, nothing less. And that is precisely why a stronger approach by India will have precisely zero impact on business ties, for neither side can afford it. In actual fact, India can afford a more strident, and pushy approach towards USA; any fear of it impacting the trade between the two are unfounded.

Reciprocal Diplomacy

It is in this perspective that we need to examine the recent actions by India. It is painful to read even Indians pan the actions – especially the removal of barriers – without analyzing in detail. Why is it that a threat to USA citizens is a threat, and a threat to Indian citizens does not find even a single mention anywhere? Just as there have been threats to US embassies, there have been threats to Indian embassies as well! The step of barrier removal was first contemplated when the USA unilaterally removed barriers and parking from the Indian Embassy. That is acceptable, and this isn’t? It is OK for Indians in the USA as well as in India to have a security risk for the Indian Embassy, and not vice versa? Did anyone stop to think for a moment that we may be in the right this time around? What gives USA the right to complain, when it initiated the problem months ago? Or is it the contention that US lives are more important than Indian lives – for that is what logically follows from the above facts?

Coming to diplomatic immunity, it was and is a known fact that India gives even consular immunity to USA. Why then is the Indian demand for a reciprocation in the Devyani case so out of kilter? Is it the contention that US citizens are more important, they are more human? Why is no one mentioning that the same oh-so-law-abiding USA refused to act against Russian diplomats who had allegedly committed a multimillion dollar scam? Why then act against an Indian in a frankly petty case? Why insist on consular immunity for its own people while expressly denying it to Indians? Double standards? Why did USA protect Raymond Davies? Why did USA protect its own diplomats – even consular diplomats – in many, many places? And far more importantly, why is the Indian online citizen not keyed into this reality – when this is common knowledge on the streets, and has been for several years? Why are we being so defensive?

The entire USA approach to the Devyani Khobragade affair smacks of disdain and total lack of concern and appreciation for India. This is evident in the difference in approach to the other cases given above. It has also been proven conclusively that in the eyes of the US, India has no real place. Had that been the case, the approach would have been to take it up with Indian authorities – again, like a Russian case, wherein the diplomat was brought back to Russia and was tried in its courts. In place of that, you have an approach that involved strip-searching a lady Deputy Consul General (by no means a small post) – regardless of her guilt, this was totally high-handed and unacceptable. You have comments on the efficacy of the Indian Justice system, to boot. This smacks of a superiority complex and total disdain – an approach that has no place whatsoever in a strategic partnership.

Put simply, it was an insult to India, and to the Indian people – nothing less. The USA would have been in the right had its own actions in the past upheld the moral stand it is now taking, which is not the case. This case has in reality stripped bare the USA in front of all of India –  judging from the Government action, media response and the word on the street. While it is the Indian lady who suffered the indignity, it is the USA that has been stripped stark naked in front of all of India. Even supposing she might be guilty – the actions undertaken are totally uncalled for. Having said that, we are lucky this case came about; for it laid bare the USA’s lack of real concern for Indian aspirations and views, the large Indian emigrant population notwithstanding.

But what is sadder still, is that quite a few Indians cannot see the other side of the coin, and can only castigate India and its actions. For them, it is OK for India to cow down and take this insult lying down – regardless of the guilt or innocence of the person involved.