Devyani was no 'Devi'

The situation that gave rise to the current spat between the US and India over the arrest of and treatment meted out by the US authorities to the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was quite preventable from both the nations. It showed a lack of  commitment to real friendly relations from both the sides. Diplomacy, if any, was highly deficient from either of them.

Let us start from the Indian side. That the legal minimum wages were not paid to the maid is a valid point. We may argue that the same may perhaps be applicable in a number of other cases for Indian citizens residing abroad, particularly those on Indian government appointments. That many of such Indian citizens themselves get paid poorly and they cannot afford to pay the American minimum wages to their servants and maids. In fact, such argument is indeed being made for Ms Khobragade; that her salary is lower than the minimum legal wage paid in the US.

But, this argument can be countered, as indeed was said by the American Attorney Preet Bharara, that one need not always carry one’s entourage of servants when one goes abroad. Almost every Indian who works in the US, does his or her own dishes, washes his/her own clothes herself/himself, cleans own apartment or house by oneself and keeps the garden mostly by himself. 

There are many inexpensive electrical gadgets available for such purposes. Why should an Indian diplomat be an exception? It is indeed true that the Indian embassies and consulates are a replica of the government offices in India; the same feudal mindset and the resultant inefficient office design and organisational setup and archaic procedures and systems continue. This is not just in the US; it is the same in the European continent. We cannot brush this as our ‘Indian culture’. The decadent ‘Babu’ culture, which we should have discarded long ago but haven’t, cannot be justified by calling it our Indian culture. 

There is another aspect to the ‘Babu’ culture; it is the scant regard shown to the existing rules and regulations. They are the implementers of the rules and as is seen in our own country, they use their official power or authority to bend suitably or blatantly violate the very same rules. When such violations are done on a regular basis in a foreign country, it is possible that one of them may get caught, tried as per that country’s law and punished. It is, therefore, better that the Indian government does not make a big issue of it. In fact, Indian government should see to it that the diplomats and other government servants posted abroad on official duty meticulously follow the laws of the host country. 

What kind of diplomacy is it when the diplomats themselves infringe the host nation’s laws and disobey the local rules and regulations? One cannot impose one’s so-called ‘culture’ on others and expect great results as a friendly country.

Larger issues 

Our tenets of diplomacy abroad are fundamentally flawed. Our view of the ‘world’ is very narrow and the attitudes of our government ‘servants’ are Victorian. Our external affairs apparatus is terribly outdated and rusted. It needs to be dismantled and a new structure has to come in its place. The currently hotly protested case is just one aspect of it. There are even larger issues covering bigger ground like the bilateral trade and its promotional issues. Our missions and their affiliate organizations like the Trade Promotion Centres do a pathetic job in promoting business from and to India. 

Therefore, ‘vision’ and ‘strategy’ are too alien words for these people serving in the foreign countries. And, of course, they are so engrossed in their own IFS and IAS glory that they have no time to attend to the problems of the Indian citizens working abroad and remitting valuable foreign exchange to be sent home. Indian citizens working in the Middle Eastern countries suffer many ignominies. To just quote an example: The passports of even our professionals – like engineers and doctors - are taken away by their employers. The sufferings and humiliations of the less educated Indians working in these countries can only be imagined. 

It is true that, although the US may be right in applying its law to the Indian diplomat, the US should not have been so obstinate in showing the rule book to the Indians; instead it should have shown some restraint in the interest of developing good relations between the two ‘democratic’ nations. The US behaviour, in many places abroad, too is not without any blemish.

 Drone attacks, although carried out against the Taliban, have been carried out in Pakistan without the host country’s permission. Moreover, had a woman US diplomat been involved in breaking an Indian law of the same seriousness, would US have tolerated if the diplomat was hand-cuffed, strip-searched and locked up with petty criminals? 

Then, why should the US take such an action against the diplomat of a ‘friendly’ country? Are India and the US really ‘friendly’ nations, as is espoused? In the new era of US’s new found resources such as shale oil, its decreasing dependence upon the Arab nations, its emerging relationship with less-nuclear Iran, its compulsions arising out of its deepening relationship with China combined with India’s continual economic underperformance and consequent damage to its image of an emergent world power, is the US recalculating its degree of ‘friendliness’ with India? If India is indeed losing on the ‘friendliness quotient’ with the US, it may affect its exports – IT and BPO services, other outsourcing, garments, chemicals, etc on a long term basis. Also, the flow of funds from the US into the Indian market may also get adversely affected. Opportunities in the European markets that are friendly to the US may also get eroded for the Indian services and goods. 

These are questions worth investigating by India’s foreign policy makers and implementers. Devyani incident may only be an indication of the future relations between the two nations. In which case, India must do a repositioning of its international relations strategy. Which nations should it get closer to? Which continents should it cultivate? It must also do a rethink of its economic strategy. 

(The writer is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)

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