What happened in the US-Indian diplomatic row over the arrest and detention of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York and her return to Delhi last week is fairly straightforward: the US intelligence made a concerted attempt to “recruit” an Indian career diplomat, and Delhi successfully thwarted it.
The American side has been taken by surprise. Their perception of the working of the Indian foreign and security policy establishment turned out to be way off the mark. In the recent decade when glaring espionage activities by the CIA surfaced – when they smuggled out a top intelligence official (2004) or when they breached the security perimeters of India’s National Security Council [NSC] in 2006 – the spooks in the American embassy in Delhi got away scot-free.
Any country with self-respect would have reacted strongly when such subversive acts by a foreign power surfaced, but India chose to shove the incidents under the carpet for reasons that are beyond comprehension. Whether it was because of the sense of vulnerability on the part of the Indian functionaries holding fort in the foreign policy and security establishment at that time or because of political interference – Delhi was negotiating the nuclear deal during those years – remains anybody’s guess. All that can be said is that if the Americans developed a sneering contempt toward the Indian establishment, it wasn’t entirely their fault.
The Americans got the impression that the Indian establishment was impotent and highly vulnerable to US pressure and the elites were lacking in integrity and a sense of honor. Delhi must be one of the few capitals where minor flunkeys of the American embassy take undue freedom to backslap cabinet ministers at public receptions. Arguably, a point has been reached where it has become difficult to lend credence to media reporting – from Delhi or Washington-based reporters alike – on matters affecting the US-Indian “defining partnership”.
In the present case too, there were big attempts at media management by the US embassy with a view to push back the Indian establishment.
Thus, a coloring was given that the Khobragade affair was a matter of ‘human-trafficking’ and ‘visa fraud’; that a rogue element in the American embassy mishandled the matter (really?); that Khobragade is a wealthy woman (so what?); that the Indian Foreign Service thinks no end of itself and so on – but, ultimately, none of this worked and Delhi kept up relentless pressure on Washington to ensure that the Indian diplomat returned to India without being forced to stand trial in New York on framed-up charges.
The heart of the matter is that the Indian diplomat spurned the overtures by the US intelligence and reported to her superiors, which in turn alerted the Indian counter-intelligence and prompted Delhi to demand that the diplomat’s housemaid (who is an Indian official passport holder, by the way) should be forthwith repatriated to India.
Evidently, the US intelligence was caught on the wrong foot because the housemaid is a valuable “asset” who could spill the beans regarding the modus operandi of the US embassy set-up in Delhi as well as the plot to compromise the Indian diplomat. The only way out for the CIA has been to ‘rehabilitate’ not only the Indian housemaid but also her entire family (as insisted upon by her) in America.
The Indian foreign policy and security establishment worked as one team to structure a comprehensive response to the espionage activity by the CIA. It gladdens the heart that the political leadership gave them a free hand to handle the matter professionally, and ignored the sniping by sections of the Indian media that the matter was being ‘mishandled’, et al’.
The point is, there has been a congruence of interests within the Indian establishment. For the External Affairs Ministry, it was a matter of critical importance that the CIA tried to subvert the Indian Foreign Service. For the Indian security agencies, it was payback time to settle scores with the US intelligence who made them look foolish in the bazaar ever since the CIA spirited out of India Rabinder Singh, a top intelligence officer, just when the Indian counter-intelligence was closing in on him, or when young Rossane Minchew of the US embassy honey-trapped an official of the NSC in sundry hotel rooms and got way with Top Secret documents.
The Khobragade case provides a reality check. Even the fat cats who serve as American lobbyists in Delhi should be realizing that they don’t call the shots, after all, when it comes to national security issues. This is one good thing. But more fundamentally, the state of play in the US-Indian relations stands exposed. The Delhi elites didn’t want to hear about the ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s startling disclosures that India, especially its diplomats in the US, has been a prime target for the Americans. But the downstream developments can no longer be wished away…
Quite obviously, India needs to remind itself that history has not ended with the Cold War. What is at stake here is nothing less than India’s capacity to remain an autonomous power in the pursuit of its national interests of development by steering an independent foreign policy.