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VICARIOUS PLEASURES

- Watching Uncle Sam being outwitted on his own terrain

This has been another good week to be an Indian journalist in Washington. It felt nice to be sought out at venues such as the National Press Club, where diplomats from regions as diverse as Latin America and Europe to Africa and Asia are associate members; and sought out, not merely for trading stories, for a change, but sought after to bend elbows together only because you are Indian. The joy among Washington’s diverse diplomatic corps, one of the largest for any city in the world, over the perception that India showed Americans where to get off on the Devyani Khobragade episode is surprisingly boundless.

The vicarious pleasure that the foreign diplomatic community living in the United States of America has drawn from Washington being outwitted by a Third World country on its own terrain is a startling indication of how deeply foreign governments — even some close allies of the United States of America — resent American bullying. But very often they are helpless and unable to do anything about it. That India stood up to Uncle Sam is something many of these diplomats would like to emulate. Unfortunately, even as they daily face from the American bureaucracy the kind of treatment that the Indian deputy consul-general in New York faced — albeit in lesser and varying degrees — they are made to suffer in silence more by their own political bosses back at headquarters, who like to be more American than the Americans themselves.

Manmohan Singh is not the only head of a foreign government to have claimed in public, in the White House Oval Office, and to the eternal discomfiture of his aides (to which I was witness), that the people of India love George W. Bush. I was once at a Central European embassy in Washington, whose diplomats were being treated like dirt in that city even as the Americans were demanding and getting whatever they wanted from that country in return. That country’s prime minister was visiting the US and the occasion was its ambassador’s reception for him.

The word, ‘reciprocity’, was unknown in this particular bilateral relationship and that country’s diplomats, though professional and proud, could do nothing about it. The more the Americans treated these Central European diplomats as they treated Prabhu Dayal, India’s consul-general in New York and Neena Malhotra, a consular official also in New York — both of whom were implicated in bleeding-heart-for-the-maid-business — the more craven their political bosses back in Central Europe became.

At the first opportunity, they supplied troops for Bush’s megalomanical and tragedy-laced aggression against Iraq in 2003. Then they bent over backwards to please the US on any militaristic adventure. Whenever Washington asked leaders in a Central European capital to jump, pronto, came a telegram or phone-call from headquarters to that country’s embassy in the US to find out from the state department, “How high should we jump and when?”

The Americans never gave a visa waiver to citizens of most of these Central European States, although that has recently changed. But all along, Washington got away with a one-way street in the visa-free regime with those countries. Americans naturally began to assume that, for them, being able to land in those countries was their birthright even as citizens of those countries had to queue up at US embassies and routinely face humiliation while applying for American visas.

It was into such an environment that this European prime minister waded during his visit to the White House. The man spoke very little English, but he made it a point to depart from the speech in his native tongue and read out in English, “We love President Bush.” Just in case there was any confusion on account of his accent, he repeated for clarity and emphasis, “We love President Bush.” I have rarely seen an ambassador’s face become as ashen as the visage of this envoy when he heard his prime minister utter these words. After that the envoy was no longer the host of the evening, he was a ghost among his guests.

But such treatment in Washington — and to a lesser extent in New York — is not reserved for America’s new allies from Central Europe alone. I know of a lady diplomat from Western Europe, a country very closely aligned to Washington, who was once waiting in her car, parked on the roadside outside an apartment block in the US capital. She was expecting a friend from the high-rise building to join her to go for dinner. For whatever reason, some residents of the apartment block became suspicious of her presence in the waiting car and called 911, the emergency police helpline. Promptly the police arrived and asked what she was doing in the neighbourhood. The lady diplomat told the law enforcement officer that she was picking up a friend. The officer told her to move on. When she pointed to her diplomatic car plates as proof of her authenticity and tried to reason with the police, the officer became aggressive. She moved on: there was every possibility that the diplomat would have been physically removed from the scene for disorderly conduct if she did not comply, even if she may not have been arrested because of her immunity.

There was a time when reciprocity was sacrosanct in New Delhi’s dealings with Washington. When Bill Clinton was going to India in 2000, the first American presidential visit in 22 years, T.P. Sreenivasan, then deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Washington, received a phone-call from a senior US official a few days before Clinton’s travel. The official matter-of-factly informed the senior diplomat that US marines, who were part of the president’s security detail, would be leaving for New Delhi that afternoon. In the course of the conversation, Sreenivasan asked as a gesture of courtesy if everything went well with the visa procurement for the marines and if he could help with any arrangements. Sreenivasan could not believe his ears when the US official said the marines had made no effort to get visas. “Our marines do not travel with passports. They do not need visas,” was the reply. Sreenivasan curtly told the American that if the marines did not have visas they do not go to India. Period. The contingent put off their trip, but the mission did help with the visas, which were issued the next day so that the presidential schedule was not disrupted.

However, over several subsequent years, India fell into the same rut into which the Central Europeans have been trapped in their dealings with the US since the collapse of communism and regime change in the former satellite states of the Soviet Union. Some years ago, the head of India’s consular section at its embassy in Washington — since transferred back to India and subsequently retired from service — told me that New Delhi had simply sat on his repeated pleas for parity in visa fees for Indians applying for US visa and American citizens seeking Indian visas.

Because of the Indian government’s repeated failure to ensure reciprocity in visa fees, Indians applying for US entry documents in New Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai at that time paid three times more than what US citizens seeking similar documents had to pay at the Indian missions and posts in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Houston. What is worse, Indian applicants had to forfeit more than half of these exorbitant charges as visa application fee even if they did not get visas at the end of the process. Americans faced no such prospect at Indian missions: more often than not, they got their visas compared to a high rate of rejection of US visa applications from Indians.

Devyani Khobragade’s experience is a wake-up call. Hopefully India will not go back to sleep on matters of its honour and prestige now that the diplomat has returned to India.