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LADY VANISHES

Diplomats love eddies in tea cups. The unexpected resignation of Nancy Powell as the ambassador of the United States of America to India, has provided one such occasion. The Indian foreign policy mandarins believe, sort of sotto voce, that Ms Powell had this coming after her role in the Devyani Khobragade affair. The more triumphalist ones will even claim that her resignation was part of the negotiations to put Indo-US relations back onto some kind of even keel. There is no doubt that the boat of that relationship has been seriously rocked. But it would be a trifle exaggerated to lay the blame for it at the door of Ms Powell. To argue that she is in some major way responsible would lead to the conclusion that her departure will result in an improvement in ties between India and the US. This seems unlikely. Ms Powell is a career diplomat and it was an unfortunate coincidence that her term as ambassador saw a pretty ugly incident. But the incident itself was perhaps a symptom of a more deep-seated ailment over which Ms Powell had no control and was powerless to cure.

Notwithstanding Manmohan Singh’s hymn of praise for George W. Bush and the strong advocacy of the Indo-US nuclear deal, it has been obvious for some time that the ship of Indo-US relations is in choppy waters. One reason for this could be the obvious fact that India is not very high on Barack Obama’s list of priorities. This show of indifference cannot but ruffle a few feathers in the ministry of external affairs in India. There are also some operational issues over which the two countries are engaged in a tussle. Trade and defence are two such key issues. But there are more fundamental concerns. Washington would like India to be more pliant, if not subservient. But this India’s political class and foreign office bureaucrats are unable and unwilling to deliver. Mr Singh, as prime minister, went as far as it was possible to go, at his own cost. He may have lost his credibility by appearing to be too servile to the world’s most powerful nation. India would like to be a key player in Asian and international affairs but wants to be one on its own terms, not as a satellite of the US. The latter wants India to be powerful provided India does not go against US interests. There are many contradictory pulls and pressures. The departure of an ambassador can hardly alter or even affect the terms of engagement.