Now that the brouhaha surrounding l’affaire Devyani Khobragade has simmered down, with all passion spent, it’s time to ask what lessons we need to learn from this unfortunate, if not also unsavoury, episode.
The first applies to all of us. When the story broke most people took Khobragade’s side against her maid, Sangeeta Richards. No doubt many were incensed by the manner of her arrest but did we have grounds to disbelieve the charges levelled against her by Richards? If not, wouldn’t a stance of neutrality have been more advisable between the two disputants, both of whom are Indian citizens?
For the media and the cognoscenti, I suspect, class determined their response. For politicians it was probably Khobragade’s caste. But if Richards had been the Dalit and Khobragade the Christian would our sympathies have been different? If the answer is yes, it only underlines the need for neutrality.
The second lesson is for the government. This is not the first time an Indian diplomat in America has got into trouble over domestic staff. Since 2010 it’s happened on at least two other occasions.
The problem arises from the fact we pay well below the US minimum wage but fudge the visa documentation to suggest otherwise. No doubt we’ve got away with it for decades and, perhaps, there was something arbitrary in the way the Americans suddenly picked on Khobragade. Nonetheless this was a situation inviting trouble. It has to be sorted out. Or it will happen again.
The third lesson is specifically for the external affairs ministry. In an interview to the Times of India (18/12/2013), Nishal Biswal, the American Assistant Secretary of State, revealed that the State Department, as early as September, had forewarned the Indian embassy in writing that there were allegations against Khobragade and action under US law could be imminent. If at that stage Khobragade had been voluntarily withdrawn the problem would have been averted.
Why wasn’t that done? The foreign minister told me (Devil’s Advocate – 12/1/2014) that the government could not have known what would follow. Even if true that suggests poor judgement. His officials assert the American warning didn’t mention legal action, imminent or otherwise. In which case why didn’t they dispute Biswal’s interview? Why did they leave it unchallenged, as if it was accurate?
Now, the Khobragade episode also became the occasion for equalising the allegedly different privileges accorded to Indian and American diplomats in each other’s countries. No doubt this was something that needed to be done. The timing, however, suggested an Indian over-reaction. The American press called it “vindictive”. The Indian press was harsher, with the Express terming it “the absolute abandonment of sobriety, reason and responsibility.”
So, if there is a fourth lesson it applies, once again, to the external affairs ministry: get the response right as well as the timing. Don’t make the handling of a specific problem an excuse to correct the unattended wrongs of the past.
Finally, a lesson for the Opposition. Should Yashwant Sinha, a former foreign minister, have called for action against the same sex companions of US diplomats because, after the recent Supreme Court ruling, they violate Indian law? Not only was it preposterous, it also suggested that a layer of barbarism lurked beneath the Indian response.
I know Mr Sinha and I’m confident this silly statement doesn’t reflect his actual views. Yet the world will remember him for this callous comment. It’s the price he’ll pay for jumping in where angels fear to tread.
Views expressed by the author are personal