By: Robert M. Hathaway
The cold hand of dashed hopes and a mutual sense of betrayal have cast a pall over relations between India and the United States. It’s not just the bitter aftertaste of the Devyani Khobragade affair, though that lingers as well. Even before the
Indian diplomat was unceremoniously arrested in New York, many analysts had concluded that the air had gone out of the Indo-American balloon. Barack Obama’s 2010 pledge that the bilateral relationship would be “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” rings hollow.
Yet, a stagnant relationship is not a condition either country should welcome. More to the point, studied indifference, let alone fractured relations, serves the interests of neither New Delhi nor Washington. A new understanding on consular privileges and immunities would help thaw relations and avoid further Khobragade-like episodes.
The first order of business for Washington should be the appointment and confirmation of a new US ambassador to India
to replace the resigned Nancy Powell. Washington, in recent decades, has rung up a miserable record in naming and confirming ambassadors to important countries, including India. The Obama administration and
the Senate should not dither in this instance.
If Narendra Modi becomes India’s next prime minister, as appears likely, US officialdom must also move quickly to establish a relationship with an individual it has ignored and castigated over the past decade. Many Americans remain uneasy about Modi’s possible complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots. But dealing with Modi, either as prime minister or in some other capacity, is inevitable. Sooner rather than later, Washington must recognise that ostracising Modi does not serve US interests. Fortunately, this rethinking has begun.
For many Indians, all three episodes — the Khobragade fiasco, the extended periods when the US has no ambassador in Delhi, the decade-long shunning of Modi — speak a common theme: American arrogance and double standards, a lack of respect for India and an unwillingness to treat it as an equal. This is not an accurate reading of the thinking in Washington, but it underscores the need for the Obama administration to recalibrate its approach to Delhi. But more than merely tweaking the American approach is required. Washington must re-examine the signals, inadvertent or otherwise, it sends to a variety of peoples around the globe.
India too has to up its game, since productive ties with the US are very much in Delhi’s interest. The impression has taken hold in some quarters in Washington that India either wilfully misinterprets US policy or, at a minimum, is inclined to cast US actions in the least favourable light. The media frenzy in India and the official retaliation exacted upon US diplomats in the days after continued…