Friday, January 10, 2014

Devyani controversy and what it says about India's foreign policy


I don't like writing just for the sake of writing and thank god have no need  to attract visitors to my blog all the time to get traffic for ads. I write only if I have something interesting  to say on certain subject, to argue with some point of view, to comment on outrageous articles and so on. Usually I'm content with posting short comments in my twitter feed @FarEasterner  and I open my blog just to express in length fresh ideas.

A case of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade arrested and strip searched in New York attracted my attention immediately after arrest happened and I raised alarm in my twitter. Thankfully I was not alone who felt  humiliated by treatment of Indian diplomat, my tweets pressurizing UPA government to take retaliatory actions  against US were retweeted 100s times.

India took largely symbolic steps which brought about partial satisfaction today as Devyani was declared persona non grata by US and thrown out of the country. She was expected to arrive in New Delhi few hours ago late Friday.

Devyani case in nutshell is very simple and mundane, about domestic dispute between employer and servant. Publicity-seeking New York attorney Preet Bharara gave a touch of originated overseas  vicious intra-Indian affairI spilling over US noble shores. If US didn't take rude and unnecessary step of arresting and strip-searching Devyani there would not be public outcry in India and no damage to important bilateral relations would be done.

Observers, commentators and indeed public on both sides of the story had their say and covered all aspects of the case, including personas of Devyani Khobragade, Sangeeta Richard, her maid, South Manhattan attorney Preet Bharara & US/Indian diplomats, politicians who took active part in mutual recriminations.

My questions regarding the case concern with character of India's foreign policy and extent of damage done to US-India relations by the affair and what it means for the world.

Let's start with Indian foreign policy which dissatisfied many Indians who think it's too shy, too toothless, too pliable to concerns and wishes of more powerful players in the world, Indian policy seem to them as weak, not assertive and unsuitable for the great power which India strives to be.

 I'd disagree with such opinions of ultrapatriotic Indians because I believe that India has independent foreign policy based on her perceived national interests. Often it seems reluctant, parochial & short-sighted, even arrogant in relation to smaller neighbors (and I harshly criticized Indian diplomats in the past), nevertheless it's independent.

That's why I disagreed with charges made by Prakash Karat & Communist comrades as well as by some in BJP like Yashwant Sinha that Manmohan Singh' government sold out to America on much-touted nuclear deal. I thought the deal itself was nothing to worry about, India wishes to have more electricity to fuel economic growth, what's the problem. Of course, both US/India sides read too much into it, tasting newly found bonhomie but I knew from my experience with Indians that Manmohan Singh government is not sold out to US, and maintains independent foreign policy inherited since Nehru's non-alignment  movement.

Indians always seem to me very nationalistic, not in a sense of "India for Indians" but in patriotic sense, and legacy of long rule by foreigners, first Muslim emperors, then British colonizers is sitting firmly in Indian public memory shaping and determining the country's foreign policy.

Indians are very tolerant, welcoming, easy-going people but they will not tolerate insults to national pride from anybody, be it Russia, US or China and unfortunately for  Western strategists who cherished dream of turning India into cat's paw in South Asia it was clumsy Washington who put foot on Indian pride first like elephant in china shop. Former undersecretary PJ Crowely admitted this, citing bureaucratic and diplomatic negligence behind Devyani's mistreatment for minor crime.

So what will be consequences for India-US relations after Devyani incident? I think they will be two-fold, on practical side I don't see any immediate negative effects, because it's initially was diplomatic brawl, however mutual trust & nuclear deal bonhomie evaporated in the process of strip-searching Devyani by US marshals. Public and press on both sides feel other side was confrontational and it's not going to change in near future. Considering Obama's preoccupation with Snowden scandal it seems unlikely he will launch new far-reaching initiatives with indian lame-duck government. Expected victory of Narendra Modi who was repeatedly denied US visa will make things worse.

As Washington Post said today in editorial rosy view of India-US relations was shattered by Devyani affair.  Maybe crisis in bilateral relations happened timely as both sides and first of all Western media need to be realists, not propagandists, replacing sober assessment  with rosy views and wishful thinking.

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