The Telegraph
Saturday , June 22 , 2013
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Tantrum homework for Team Kerry

New Delhi, June 21: US secretary of state John Kerry’s delegation, arriving here on Sunday for the “strategic dialogue” with external affairs minister Salman Khurshid, has sought to take out anticipatory bail from the unpredictable turbulence of the UPA’s coalition compulsions before leaving Washington.

Members of the delegation who will have inter-ministerial engagement with Indian counterparts in New Delhi have been made aware, as part of an inter-agency process in Washington, about an April incident in Boston. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav had skipped his Harvard lecture after his cabinet colleague Azam Khan was referred by an immigration officer upon his arrival for “secondary inspection”.

Tantrums by the political duo from Lucknow in protest against the secondary inspection was cause for diplomatic friction between India and the US for four days. The chief minister also forced the cancellation of a reception for him in Manhattan, the maiden event organised by the new consul-general in New York, Dnyaneshwar Mulay.

It is unlikely that the incident at Logan airport will be raised during the plenary of the strategic dialogue on Monday or at any of the other meetings that Kerry will have here from Sunday afternoon till Tuesday morning.

But since the annual dialogue, which is into its fourth year, has a freewheeling format, any issue could logically figure in the discussions. Wanting to take no chances, the South Asia bureau of the US state department, which minutely follows political developments across India, has taken into account the coalition compulsions of the UPA government which relies on the outside support of Akhilesh’s family fiefdom, the Samajwadi Party.

It is a reflection of the low ebb in contemporary Indian political processes that the Americans consider it not inconceivable that New Delhi could raise the incident as a concession to alliance appeasement.

The South Asia bureau is also acutely aware that the external affairs minister has to fight for re-election to the Lok Sabha from Uttar Pradesh next year, and the Americans are unsure how he would like to deal with the Boston incident.

The Samajwadis falsely alleged that Khan was “detained” in Boston and used the episode to organise demonstrations and whip up Muslim sentiment in favour of their party.

Khurshid, despite his formidable reputation, is an unknown quantity in personal dealings with the Americans. He was not in government during the more intense phases of engagement between India and the US, including the nuclear deal negotiations.

Monday will be the first time that he and Kerry will have their meeting, which is unusual given the extensive, regular and diverse interactions between India and the US at all times and in all seasons.

The Americans had high hopes after “regime change” in both Lucknow and Calcutta and had decided to invest heavily in both Akhilesh and Mamata Banerjee. Hillary Clinton, Kerry’s predecessor, visited Calcutta and a procession of corporate leaders from the US, coordinated by the US-India Business Council, descended on Lucknow.

Both their investments in emerging leaders are now in a shambles, but it is Khan’s behaviour in Boston that was like a sock in the eye for the Americans.

According to members of Kerry’s delegation, contrary to the impression created by Indians in authority to massage Samajwadi egos, immigration officials at Boston airport had firmly told Indian diplomats who tried to intervene on Khan’s behalf when he was flagged for secondary inspection to keep out of the process.

The UPA government’s spin doctors had given an impression when the controversy erupted and in subsequent weeks that they had valiantly intervened to protect Khan’s “VIP status” and threatened to take up the matter further with the US state department.

It turns out now from accounts by homeland security department officials in Boston in the run-up to the strategic dialogue that when Indian diplomats were told to keep out of their efforts to interfere with further questioning of Khan, they were also told that Khan and Akhilesh were not on any official business in the US.

There was no bilateral content at all to the Uttar Pradesh delegation’s visit and the Americans were, therefore, unwilling to consider the presence of the chief minister and his cabinet colleague in Boston and New York as an official visit.

Homeland security department officials have documented since then that Khan did not arrive in Boston on a diplomatic visa as ministers on official business do. He was on a visitor’s visa like an ordinary tourist.

What is more shocking in the context of the Samajwadi protests and the Indian government’s mealy-mouthed deference to those protests is that Akhilesh, as chief minister, did not even travel to Boston on a diplomatic passport.

Instead, he arrived in Boston on an ordinary passport. He too had used a tourist-cum-visitor visa to enter the US in April. The Boston immigration, all the same, extended diplomatic courtesies to the chief minister, which he was not entitled to under US protocol.

Homeland security officials have, however, emphasised that they have no grievance against Akhilesh, who behaved impeccably at the airport and did not interfere with any process under US law.

According to American sources, what put their backs up after the immigration computers routinely raised a red flag against Khan’s name was his remark to a woman officer who had called him for further questioning that he did not plant the bombs in Boston.

Akhilesh and Khan had arrived at Logan shortly after the terrorist bombings of the Boston Marathon when emotions were still raw in the city because of its casualties and damage. Khan also allegedly told the officer that in his next life he wanted to be born a Hindu and that if he were not a Muslim, he would not have been singled out for secondary inspection.

An official told this correspondent that if an ordinary traveller had made such remarks, he would have been booked for hate speech and detained.