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Three unrelated forces caused escalation of US-India diplomatic crisis

The present practice of Indian diplomats bringing in domestic help and paying desi wages is becoming more and more difficult to sustain. The Indian diplomats are legally allowed to do this.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2013 01:14 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
India-US ties,devyani khobragade,Indian diplomats

The present practice of Indian diplomats bringing in domestic help and paying desi wages is becoming more and more difficult to sustain. The Indian diplomats are legally allowed to do this.

In this case, however, the maid’s visa forms a US-level salary was declared even though the formal contract had an Indian salary. This sort of activity is known to the US state department, say Indian diplomats, but has been winked at in the past.

This runs into a human problem. An Indian maid who arrives in New York City finds she is being paid the equivalent of $3 an hour, well below minimum wage and even more below Manhattan wages which can reach $25 an hour.
Most servants can live with this, but one in a dozen will become disgruntled. They become susceptible to the siren call of NGOs who help abuse victims. Some maids may suffer genuine problems with their employees.

There is no evidence Debyani Khobragade maltreated her servant, Sangita Richard, and a fair amount that the latter tried to jump ship in the US, was caught and then cited the visa form salary discrepancy to get the police to go after her former employer.

But the problem of the servant seeking the American (or European) Dream now recurs regularly – and will continue so long as this salary discrepancy exists.

Preet overdrive
The district attorney of the New York Southern District, Preetinder Bharara, is said to model himself after Rudolph Giuliano – the firebrand New York prosecutor who became a presidential candidate.

The Arvind Kejriwal of US law, Bharara has positioned himself as a fighter of privilege. His victims include ex-McKinsey boss Rajat Gupta, the heads of JP Morgan and other investment bankers, and diplomats from Russia – and now India.

Bharara, whose Sikh father brought Preet to the US when he was two years old, is riding a populist wave in the wake of the global financial crisis. A maid claiming she was forced to have two different salary agreements — a private one with an Indian salary and a public one with a US salary — by a senior foreign diplomat is the perfect foil for Bharara.

Noting his dogged pursuit of Rajat Gupta and his NRI financial circle, some Indian officials say Bharara needs to be particularly hard on South Asians to vaccinate himself against any future claims of bias towards his own kind. His links to India are, in any case, wake and he hasn’t visited India in 13 years.

Bharara is now the key to an end to the Kobhragade crisis. One of the reasons India is squeezing the US hard is to get the White House to give him a call. If Bharara goes ahead and indicts Kobhragade, even Barack Obama may not be able to stop it from going to court.

Indo-US ties flourished with Bush Jr, deteriorated under Obama
It was not as if India and the United States did not find themselves caught in immigration and trade squabbles during the administration of George W. Bush.

But because the India relationship was top of the agenda, the White House carefully monitored developments and ensured preemptive fire-fighting.

There were times when the then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice personally checked official statements regarding India.

This was important because the Indian and US political and legal structures are different.

In the US, for example, a government attorney can initiate legal action against a foreigner without State Department clearance. This would be unlikely in India.

Under Barack Obama, however, the Indo-US relationship has been marked by drift. President Obama is known to have taken a dim view of the Indian nuclear liability law, an act he saw as a New Delhi double-cross. His own flirtations with China and withdrawal from Afghanistan has also resurrected a Cold War era distrust of Washington in New Delhi.

The Khobragade incident, and the seeming reluctance of the highest levels of the US system to get involved, is a reminder, as one Washington lobbyist said, “no one owns the India file in the White House.”

First Published: Dec 19, 2013 01:12 IST