Hardball delivers diplomat - Bharara blinks on main charge

Read more below

  • Published 11.01.14

Washington, Jan. 10: India staked all in its successful effort to bring Devyani Khobragade back home.

The straw that broke Uncle Sam’s back in America’s failed efforts to make an example of the Indian diplomat in order to prove the might and right of the US judicial system was New Delhi’s unexpected decision to call off this month’s Indo-US Energy Dialogue.

Besides, lost in the excitement yesterday over the extrication of Khobragade from the grip of the American justice system was a steep climbdown by Preet Bharara, the US attorney for Manhattan, as he accepted the inevitability of the Indian diplomat’s departure for home.

The prosecutor’s letter to trial judge Shira Scheindlin lists only two charges that will remain pending in court until Khobragade returns to the US as a private citizen to be arrested or in the unlikely event that her immunity is waived by India at any point. India has already rejected a US request to waive the immunity and clear the way for her prosecution.

The two counts are visa fraud and making false statements. Bharara came roaring at the Indian diplomat last month with human trafficking as the main charge. That was the excuse for giving the maid Sangeeta Richard and her family a refuge in the US.

The absence of any charge of human trafficking against the Indian diplomat is an admission that Bharara’s original case against Khobragade has fallen apart before it was even brought to court.

On the diplomatic front, New Delhi’s decision to call off the dialogue forced a prominent member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, energy secretary Ernest Moniz, yesterday to cancel his planned trip to India.

Americans are not used to being told that members of their cabinet are not welcome in a foreign country. In fact, the attitude in every administration here, be they Democrat or Republican, is that cabinet-level visits from Washington are favours done to friends and allies.

As Indo-US friendship blossomed, many Indians are guilty of having pandered to such sentiment by repeating that where few US high-level visits took place to New Delhi until a few years ago, there was now a steady procession of secretaries from state to defence to treasury emplaning for India.

Therefore, Moniz being forced to put off his trip was a bolt from the blue. Especially because India had worked overtime in recent months to convene the energy dialogue with the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, as the Indian partner to the energy secretary.

The annual dialogue launched in 2005 was not held last year. Because bilateral cooperation in energy has acquired an expanded significance on account of America’s shale gas production and US liquefied natural gas exports, India was very keen that the energy dialogue must be revived soonest.

New Delhi’s signal that it was staking such initiatives on restoring honour and civility in its diplomatic dealings with Washington finally convinced the Obama administration that it had to act decisively to get past the Khobragade muddle.

There was a second shock this week that forced the US to initiate action at high levels of the administration to resolve the impasse over Khobragade. It was a belated realisation within the US government that the callous disregard of Indian sensitivities on the issue that brought on a crisis in Indo-US ties was not getting any support from Capitol Hill.

US legislators are normally in the vanguard of trumpeting their patriotism and upholding American exceptionalism to the exclusion of multilateral treaties and international covenants because such actions are populist.

But the mood on Capitol Hill has been sombre and a sense of disappointment has been setting in that the Obama administration wantonly spoiled a blooming relationship with the largest democracy in the world.

As Senators and members of the House of Representatives returned from holidays this week, the new Indian ambassador here, S. Jaishankar, has been spending long hours with Senate and House leaders, putting across India’s case on its deputy consul-general in New York.

Jaishankar is known to every Congressman and Sentaor who has had anything to do with India in recent years. He was the pointman for India’s nuclear negotiations with the US after the high profile deal was announced in 2005. So he had no difficulty getting a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Aides to several US legislators whom the ambassador met this week said Jaishankar did not rail about any injustice done to the Indian diplomat in New York. His attitude was very different from that of some of his predecessors, political appointees who constantly lectured Americans on why India is right.

Instead, he emphasised the need for an honourable end to the slide in Indo-US relations because of a misguided housemaid and conveyed India’s desire to resolve the issue and move on. As a result, any attempt to whip support for prosecutor Bharara’s case against Khobragade using human rights or human trafficking as pet causes was nipped in the bud in Senate and House lobbies.

That came as a surprise to many people here and in New York who are used to pursuing such cases under the garb of civil society. Before US legislators went on vacation, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, then charge d’affaires at the Indian embassy here had prepared the ground for making India’s case on Capitol Hill as soon as Jaishankar arrived to take charge as ambassador.

Sandhu effectively put together the India Caucus in the House of Representatives in the late 1990s as a middle-level diplomat here. Political operatives who worked with him then are now occupying high-level positions across this city.

If anything, the resolution of the Khobragade issue has proved the critical importance of the India Caucus — now in the Senate as well — in bilateral relations with the US.