The dispute between India and the United States over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York is still on a low boil:
India’s diplomatic corps, still seething over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York, continued its tit-for-tat campaign against American diplomats this week, revoking privileges, beginning tax investigations and issuing new consular identity cards that say the card holder can be arrested for serious offenses.Although top Indian politicians are no longer denouncing the United States daily for the arrest and strip search of the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, 39, foreign service officials are not letting the matter drop. The continued hard feelings suggest that the dispute could have a long-term impact on a relationship both sides say is crucial.
The tiny Indian Foreign Service (just 1,750 people) is an elite body of carefully selected, extremely well-trained and very intelligent career civil servants. The IFS faces some problems, though. First, it is so small that it has a hard time managing India’s growing international portfolio. Second, as Indian politics becomes more populist, life gets harder for the elite bureaucracies, including the foreign ministry, who ruled the roost in India’s post-independence era. In an age of assertive state and regional identity politics, it is much harder for New Delhi bureaucracies to manage India by administrative fiat. Bureaucrats, including those in the foreign ministry, are operating in a much more challenging political environment.A case like this one, which gives the foreign ministry street cred among nationalists, is welcome under the circumstances. By fighting with the US, the foreign ministry is reaping huge rewards in Indian public opinion and gaining legitimacy for its role as a vigilant defender of India’s interests worldwide—even as it acts to protect one of its own. It would be unrealistic to expect the foreign ministry not to want to milk this issue for what it can get, both at home and vis-a-vis the US, so US diplomats may find it hard to bring the incident to a rapid close with a few face-saving remarks.Meanwhile, the whole question of India’s ever-closer relationship with the United States still raises some hackles on the subcontinent. There are many people in India—often linked to the old powerful bureaucracies built back in the day when a hegemonic Congress Party, steeped in left wing anti-colonialist thinking, ruled the roost. For them, this is a heaven-sent issue—a way to cool relations with the US while waving the flag of Indian patriotism. Again, these people have no interest in letting this issue fade away.Fortunately, there are plenty of people in India who understand the strategic importance of US-India relations, and they will be working to minimize the long term damage of this incident. For American diplomats and others who want to help them, the key is to recognize the legitimate concerns that drive a lot of the emotion on the Indian side of this issue. India wants recognition of its status as a first rank power in the world. It fears that it doesn’t yet get this and it sees cases like this one as examples of Indians being treated with contempt.That’s not how it looks to many Americans in this case, where from the American view it is all about the defense of the rights of an Indian citizen (the maid), but many in India perceive the treatment of the diplomat as an expression of contempt for the Indian state.Coming to some kind of mutually face-saving compromise on the current case would be a good idea, and if nothing else it is useful to remember that President Obama has the power to pardon any offenses under US law. More important, the US needs to sit down with the Indian government and work out a mutually acceptable understanding that will govern the status of diplomats and consular officials in both countries on the basis of reciprocity.America’s goal here is not to win an argument about the merits of this case. It is to deepen our relationship with India without doing violence to our own principles and laws.