India and the United States have returned to petty squabbling in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War. That the shabby treatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade at the hands of the United States Marshals Service should be the dominant story in the bilateral relationship is evidence of how nothing much else is happening between the two countries.
When there is little substance in bilateral ties, then small irritants like the latest one will set the tone. Ms Khobragade’s treatment was unfortunate, but it is hardly the stuff of strategic relationships and geopolitics. But with India and the US increasingly walking separate paths on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the economic and defence relationships stalled, and New Delhi uncertain about the direction of US foreign policy in general, the two largest democracies are struggling with the big picture.
On another level, the incident is a reminder that New Delhi needs to resolve the festering problem of providing household help to Indian officials posted overseas. The core issue is an economic gap: a maid in Manhattan has to be paid more than a full-time Indian diplomat in Manhattan. Any Indian diplomat who brings domestic workers to the West will end up underpaying them according to local law. And then he or she runs the risk of having the person go to the local authorities with claims of being paid below legal wages.
Until this is resolved, almost every Indian diplomat with household help will be skirting the law when they live in a high-wage economy. A further complication is ever-stricter international codes on human trafficking. A foreigner brought to work in a home in the West can now receive asylum and citizenship if he or she is able to prove her employer defrauded or otherwise maltreated them. Automatically, the incentive to level such charges against an employer increases.
Indian diplomacy can now expect to face at least one or two such cases every year. They are likely to increase. India is right to be angry about the high-handed treatment of Ms Khobragade, however it must also recognise that the charges against her may well be true. And it must also accept that if the maid was underpaid it was because of the absurd discrepancy that exists between the wage scales of India and the West.
If Indian diplomats cannot be paid more, then New Delhi needs to work out an alternative arrangement by which its diplomats can avail catering, entertainment and house-cleaning services overseas — perhaps local companies could be hired. The present situation where India is repeatedly plunged into diplomatic crises over maids is untenable.