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Delhi makes Nancy pay for Devyani

- Ambassador cuts short India assignment
Devyani Khobragade and Nancy Powell

New Delhi, March 31: The bitterest spat in over a decade between India and the US over diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s arrest in New York last December has claimed its highest-ranking casualty: US ambassador to India Nancy Powell.

Powell, who India holds responsible for allowing a small wart in bilateral relations to bloat into a tumour needing surgical intervention, was nudged into quitting as part of an unofficial understanding between the US and India, both keen to reset their damaged ties.

“US ambassador to India Nancy J. Powell announced in a US Mission Town Hall meeting March 31 that she has submitted her resignation to President Obama and, as planned for some time, will retire to her home in Delaware before the end of May,” the American embassy here said in a statement this evening.

The statement did not mention the reasons for Powell’s resignation or decision to retire from the US foreign service that she has served since 1977 in multiple responsibilities.

Powell has been ambassador to Pakistan, Nepal, Ghana and Uganda. She was consul-general in Calcutta between 1993 and 1995 and has also served in Bangladesh, Togo and Canada. She was director-general of the US foreign service before she became ambassador to India in 2012.

But Powell’s departure and its timing, Indian and American officials confirmed, is a direct consequence of perceptions that tensions between the nations escalated under her watch.

“That’s part of the unstated deal,” an American official said. “We want to start over fresh, lay down the ground rules again and send the right signals.”

Powell, Indian officials feel, not only facilitated the Khobragade arrest by not warning Washington about New Delhi’s likely response but also oversaw what was strictly a violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic norms and a violation of Indian tax laws.

Khobragade was arrested in Manhattan by federal agents on charges of lying in her visa application and underpaying her Indian household help, Sangeeta Richard.

But what angered India more than Khobragade’s arrest was the decision by the US embassy to issue special visas — meant only for family members of trafficking victims — to Richard’s husband and two children.

The US embassy had paid for their tickets to New York. They flew out of India two days before Khobragade was arrested.

Richard and her husband were both named in FIRs by Delhi police at the time. The sequence of events has created a perception among Indian officials that the US was trying to interfere in India’s own legal processes.

The US embassy’s decision to buy tickets for the Richards on a credit card that receives tax exemptions under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was a violation of the global rulebook and of Indian law, New Delhi complained to Washington.

Only purchases for diplomats are exempt from taxation under the Vienna norms and under Indian law.

The embassy official who issued the “anti-trafficking” visas to the Richards and then bought their tickets was sent back to the US. But India refused to accept that as closure even after Khobragade was released and eventually flown back in January.

“It’s ridiculous to expect us to believe that the US ambassador did not know what was happening under her watch,” an Indian official said. “It’s her job to know.”

Replacing her, officials from both countries said, was viewed as a necessary signal that the US is keen to rebuild ties with a new government that India will elect by May.

Indian officials communicated to their American counterparts that they were simply uncomfortable working with Powell and followed that up by “making it pretty clear that they wanted to minimise engagement with the ambassador”, a US official said.

When foreign minister Salman Khurshid met US secretary of state John Kerry in Montreux late in January, the two began discussions on a roadmap listing markers for both sides to demonstrate “good faith”, an official said.

In a series of meetings over the past two months, senior officials from the two nations also discussed possible public gestures that would help ease tensions. Those discussions, the US official said, only confirmed American apprehensions that India saw Powell as a hurdle to healing the ties. That’s when the US suggested replacing Powell.