The Devyani Khobragade affair that has rocked India and the United States of America’s relations so unexpectedly carries many lessons. It has highlighted the inherent difficulty in forging an equal relationship with the US. The US’s attitude towards other countries is conditioned by its status as the world’s pre-eminent power, its view of itself as the repository of the best political, economic and human values which it seeks to universalize, its urge to constantly judge others and rank countries in accordance with the degree to which they measure up to its values and its willingness to impose these by force if necessary, even if that entails terrible misery for others.
The US has escalated a minor wage dispute between an Indian diplomat and her India-based maid beyond all proportion in a stubborn bid to apply its labour laws to domestic staff of foreign diplomats as if they are immigrants and employed from the local labour pool. If US society was perfect, without any exploitation, injustice and discrimination, if its institutions protected unfailingly the dignity and human rights of every individual, if its police forces were exemplary in their conduct, then the obstinate efforts to ensure that a foreign diplomat conformed to its pristine standards might make some sense. The Devyani episode shows that at the highest level US decision-makers are willing to jeopardize an important relationship on a narrow point of law applied arbitrarily. India could also face unpredictable US behaviour tomorrow on some other issue on which the Americans mulishly uphold some principle of their own making. This makes the reliability of the US as a partner uncertain. If the US political class can allow, as we have seen, a significant relationship to be gratuitously buffeted by secondary issues, it would be unwise to become over-dependent on it. We should keep enough distance from the US so that our ability to resist its encroachment on our rights and sovereignty is not lost.
American rhetoric about India should be discounted. Grandiloquent language comes easily to the Americans, and flattering phrases from the world’s foremost power can be beguiling. How can the US talk of helping India become a great power — a patronizing attitude in the first place — if it is ready to humiliate India on a minor wage issue? The Devyani affair and the decision to evacuate Indian nationals was not simply a mis-step by some overzealous individuals, the US ambassador in India and the state department were involved in it over months. The inability of the secretary of state and the White House to appreciate properly the consequences of US action on India-US relations and the unwillingness to intervene in a timely manner points to serious deficiencies in political monitoring of the processes of decision-making in the state and justice departments.
For all the inflated talk of India and the US being the world’s largest and oldest democracies and sharing the same values, the reality is that the US internally scoffs at the institutions of democracy in India, as the egregious act of evacuating Indian citizens from the purview of Indian courts shows. Indians have been the largest recipient of US visas that are associated with severe sex or labour trafficking. That our authorities have not monitored such an assault on our legal system is inexcusable. With the pervasive view that the US and India were now genuine strategic partners, our inclination has been not to disturb the relationship and even overlook objectionable US behaviour. In spite of Edward Snowden’s revelations about India being the fifth largest victim of US snooping, we have preferred to bury the issue. Time has now come to clamp down hard on the US embassy by warning it in writing that such evacuation amounts to interference in India’s internal affairs and, if continued, will expose their diplomats to legal action. The credentials of the expelled US diplomat’s replacement should be scrutinized carefully and the visa granted on the specific condition that he will not be involved in such activities.
Beyond this, we should move towards reducing the size of the US missions in India. Our most important relationship in many ways is with the US, but we have a small embassy there. India is by no means the most important country for the US but it has one of its largest embassies here — 10 times the size of our embassy in Washington. One clear explanation for the discrepancy in size is that we do not monitor US internal affairs on a scale that the US does or try to penetrate its political and administrative structures. We should ease out surplus US diplomats dealing with human rights and trafficking issues as well as those handling communications to prevent snooping. Besides imposing security burdens on us, an over-staffed embassy gives the US means to more easily penetrate our system, influence and monitor decision-making, create lobbies that will advocate the US viewpoint even against our national interest and shield the US from retaliatory action for unacceptable conduct. The cover of intensive friendly engagement and numerous dialogues gives the US key platforms to push their agenda; we should not increase our vulnerability unwittingly.
The commentary in the mainstream US press on the Devyani affair carries a lesson for us too. It has been parochial, full of condescension, narrow political thinking and cultural insensitivity. Editorials have poured scorn on Indian reactions as being petty, unbecoming of a democracy and a would-be great power. If India had dutifully accepted the affront as well-deserved and applauded the application of US humane laws to one of our erring diplomats, we would have, of course, proven our democratic and potential big power credentials. Our reflexes have been compared to those of Russia and China. India, it seems, cannot aspire to great power status outside US control of its world-view. The US press has also scoffed at the addiction of our middle class to domestic servants, its maltreatment of the underclasses — a harking back to attitudes before the nuclear deal, India’s growth story and its success in information technology. If tomorrow there are substantive policy differences with the US, the American press will unleash itself against us, distorting our case with the American public.
The US manipulation of our own media puts us at a double disadvantage. Its tactics in highlighting the removal of barricades around the US embassy as a vengeful act threatening the security of US diplomats — which is false — succeeded partially. In a bid to isolate the external affairs ministry, US-linked editors have launched tirades against the Indian Foreign Service by imputing that the IFS is merely seeking to protect its feudal privileges, no question of principle is involved, even suggesting that the IFS was placing its parochial interest above the national interest. We have had a long history of Indians selling their own country’s interest and it is not surprising that this venerable tradition continues.
Unless India reacts strongly to US high-handedness when required we will neither have self-respect nor will we be respected by the international community as a country with an independent foreign policy.