January 25, 2014

US, India step forward tentatively as iced out ties starts to thaw

Chidanand Rajghatta,TNN | Jan 25, 2014, 04.23 AM IST


WASHINGTON: Not a word was said about the toxic, month-long spat that seemed to poison the much-vaunted strategic relationship between the two sides. Instead, there was gloss and platitude aimed ostensibly at healing the lacerations caused by the so-called Khobragade episode, which both sides are trying to consign to the back-burner.

At the reception to mark India's Republic Day, hosted on Thursday by S Jaishankar, India's new ambassador to the United States, there was modest representation from the US administration, with what was unsaid on the occasion being as important as what as said. There was no reference at all, not even in passing, to the recent diplomatic skirmishes (some of which is still ongoing) stemming from the ugly face-off. On the contrary, belying the icy, sub-zero weather outside, mandarins from the two sides attempted to thaw out the relationship, if not return it to warmth, over chicken tikka masala and gajar halwa.

"India's Republic Day reminds us of the strength of India's democratic institutions and traditions. And it also reminds us of the strength of the ties between our people and our governments," intoned Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom, the highest ranking US official to attend the reception, in her brief remarks. It was rather unconvincingly, given the recent misunderstandings.

Then, for good mandatory measure, she harked back to the "strategic partnership between the oldest and the largest democracies in the world," adding that, "the bottom line is that this partnership is broad and it is strong." The Indian Ambassador made similar remarks. Both officials wore pins that fused the tri-color and the star-spangled banner.

But in sideline conversations, the Khobragade episode was never far away, with sotto voce inquiries on whether the worst was over. US officials clearly thought it was, and their broad reading was the incident had "tested" the relationship which had never been tested like this, and both sides ought to get over it and move forward.

But clearly, the episode still rankles in the Indian ranks and there is plenty of unfinished business, including having the case against Devyani dropped, and arriving at a modus vivendi on the whole issue of domestic assistants and their wages. All this will continue to simmer in the background.

American interlocutors who wish the relationship well agreed that the incident was unnecessary and traumatic, and they blamed the "law-and-order" approach of some of their colleagues for the spat, which defending and explaining that that is the way system worked — the guys in dark-suits and earpieces (in this case the Bureau of Diplomatic Security) called the shots although the political leadership should have stepped in to reign them. After Benghazi, it hard to do that, one American sighed despairingly.

From the Indian side too, in more candid moments, there was acknowledgment of lack of focus and leadership at time of transition in the South Asia bureau (where the new Assistant Secretary Nisha Desai Biswal was in the process of being confirmed) and the Indian Embassy in Washington (where both former Ambassador Nirupama Rao and her deputy Arun Singh) were winding down. Basically, said one Indian interlocutor, there was "sloppiness all around" and everyone assumed that since bilateral ties were so good in most other aspects, nothing untoward would happen - least of all such a train wreck based on a deep misreading of each others' bureaucratic cultures.

What emerged after two hours of private conversations on the margins of an event that was friendly, if not bonhomous, was this: Both sides realize they are coming out losers in the game of bureaucratic chicken, but neither side knows how to step back, given the way the US "law and order" folks insist on their right to prosecute and the Indian bureaucratic elite guard their hard-won privileges. As party attendees headed out into the icy winter weather on Thursday, the footsteps were decidedly tentative given the black ice that was hard to detect on the asphalt

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