Washington is likely to appoint a new ambassador in New Delhi to work with the next government, say US and Indian diplomats familiar with the plan. Nancy Powell will be replaced, probably with a political appointee, as an attempt by the Obama administration to “clean the slate” with India.
Powell will be shifted as part of a larger effort to repair an Indo-US relationship damaged on two fronts. No dates for her move are known, but it will be some time after the summer’s Lok Sabha elections that end May 16.
First, and most important, is Washington’s belated recognition that a Narendra Modi government is likely and that the US’ hardline on his visa ban will have bilateral consequences.
“In all likelihood, Powell will be recalled, as she is seen as someone who is cold to the party’s prime ministerial candidate,” a senior BJP leader told HT.
Wrongly or rightly, Powell is being singled out as a reason the US declined to join other Western countries in lifting the visa ban last summer.
She is also being seen as having dragged her heels on meeting the Gujarat chief minister. BJP sources say Modi “perceived” the ambassador as being too close to the UPA’s foreign policy establishment and that she “seemed somewhat reluctant to travel to Gandhinagar”.
In her defence, US sources say Powell held back from engaging with Modi in part because of “resistance from New Delhi”.
Moving the ambassador would be an easy way to preempt calls from Modi’s circle that, as PM, he should cold shoulder the US. “Being sacrificed for political ends is part of a career diplomat’s job,” said a diplomatic source.
The second front is the arrest and strip-search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade. Powell has been privately criticised within US and Indian officialdoms for failing to pre-empt the crisis. But others argue the Khobragade incident was more a consequence of systemic problems than any individual’s failure. Either way, replacing a diplomat is an easy way for Washington to signal it wants to look beyond the crisis.
Powell had sought to meet Modi in December, but he rejected her initial offer for a meeting on the sidelines of a conference. By the time the ambassador was ready to meet him in Gandhinagar, the Khobragade incident intervened. They finally met in mid-February.
Powell is one of the most experienced state department officials when it comes to South Asia with a career that has included stints in Kolkata, Kathmandu and Islamabad. But the decision to send a career diplomat to Roosevelt House – because of an inability to find a prominent Democrat who was interested in going to New Delhi -- was itself an indication of the poor state of Indo-US relations.