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Down America, up, up Hollywood

News from Obama: what he didn’t say

Obama at his year-end news conference. (Reuters)

Washington, Dec. 21: For India, which is in the middle of a rare diplomatic spat with the US, what President Barack Obama did not say yesterday during his 62-minute conversation with reporters in the James Brady briefing room at the White House was more important than anything he did.

Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney had shortlisted the Press Trust of India correspondent here among those who were to put questions to the President yesterday. Carney’s logic was that India was at the front and centre of the news cycle across the world all week for the wrong reason that its decade-long love fest with America was suddenly in a tailspin.

But the President pointedly chose not to pick PTI to put a question: the agency correspondent’s question, without any doubt, would have been about the fallout of this administration’s approval of the ham-handed arrest of Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul-general in Manhattan.

Obama’s disinclination to address the issue is not a good sign for those in Washington and New Delhi who have all but given up their Christmas holiday to find a way out of the quarrel which has created a crisis in bilateral relations.

The press secretary admitted two days before the presidential media conference that Obama “has been briefed on this issue”.

But this newspaper has ascertained that the briefing which the President received from his national security aides has been limited largely to their concerns about the safety of US government personnel following the removal of the protective barricades around the embassy.

In response, Obama is understood to have asked his national security team to work with India to ensure that all US diplomats and consular officials get the full rights and protections under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

The Khobragade case did not figure in the briefing to the President except to say that it was the trigger for the removal of the barricades, according to sources privy to what Obama has been told so far. But it is the case in its entirety and the circumstances of the diplomat’s arrest which is central to the Indian strategy to defuse the crisis.

Carney conveyed a sense of what the President has so far been told about the issue when he made the point that “we have conveyed at high levels to the government of India our expectation that India will continue to fulfill all of its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.” Period.

He referred all other questions on the subject to the state department, which in turn, has been largely passing the buck to the justice department, especially the prosecutors in New York, except on the issue of the deputy consul-general’s immunity.

As Washington heads into the Christmas-New Year holiday fortnight, these are not good signs for those working to resolve the issue. They do not portend the possibility of any intervention at the highest political level, which appears to be the only way out of the diplomatic crisis as of now.

Obama left the media conference to go straight into a 16-day family holiday which he will spend in his birthplace of Hawaii as he has done in the past. Secretary of state John Kerry is also away on holiday with his family in South East Asia for about a fortnight.

That gives India two weeks to finetune its strategy to rescue Khobragade from New York and bring her back home, assuming in all likelihood that the crisis will not be resolved before the New Year.

Towards this end, a section of well-meaning retired diplomats are informally circulating a proposal in New Delhi that Hardeep Singh Puri, who retired recently as India’s permanent representative to the UN, should be sent as special envoy to Washington briefly to find a way out of the stalemate.

The rationale behind the proposal is that Puri has a very special equation with Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice. Their professional chemistry developed during the four and a half years when Rice was the US permanent representative to the UN in New York.

Puri’s tenure in New York ran parallel to that of Rice. More important, India was a member of the UN Security Council for two of those four years. Stories among UN diplomats are legion about how the two ambassadors worked on the Council like music conductors directing an orchestra and bailed the world body out of a number of tricky situations.

India and the US have historically been at odds at the UN, where the former is firmly tied to the non-aligned and G-77 groups. But their work towards common goals between 2009 and 2013 was a rare first.

What India lacks now in getting attention here at the highest level is access. New Delhi is woefully lacking in penetrating access to the White House to couch its demands in a persuasive framework in order for the President to intervene and act decisively.

It is clear that the state department is not in any position to deliver on New Delhi’s demands as of now: after all, it was this department’s bureau of diplomatic security which arrested Khobragade in the first place. It was this department which sanctioned the evacuation of housekeeper Sangeeta Richard’s family from India after she was given a special visa as a victim of human trafficking.

The prosecutors in New York have dug in their heels and are unlikely to relent unless the White House intervenes. The key to such intervention is Rice, who enjoys the President’s total trust, according to assessments here and in New Delhi. Rice, in fact, was Obama's first choice as secretary of state, but she was blocked by Republicans in the Senate.

India’s other handicap is that the people who are negotiating for New Delhi now are seen in Washington as having been tainted by the false promises of the nuclear deal made to Americans, as they see it.

National security adviser Shivshankar Menon’s reputation as a brilliant diplomat may well be justified. But for Americans who feel let down by India on the nuclear deal, he was the foreign secretary during the deal negotiations.

S Jaishankar, the new Indian ambassador here who is arriving next week was the joint secretary in charge of Americas during the nuclear deal talks. Puri carries no such baggage. Nor does the foreign secretary, Sujatha Singh, whom the Americans describe as having a clean slate from their point of view and can be trusted.