Devyani Khobragade’s return to India without having to go through a trial and possible imprisonment in the United States is a relief as it brings to an end an episode that threatened to engulf the entire spectrum of bilateral relations. But to cast it as a victory of Indian diplomacy and sovereignty or as a triumph of David over Goliath is to cover it with undeserving gloss. Both the diplomat and the Indian government have asserted that the charges against her, of giving false information to obtain a visa for her housekeeper and underpaying her, were untrue. The proper way to establish this should have been in court. Instead, what the world saw was Indian diplomacy at its shabbiest. In order to give Ms. Khobragade the cover of full immunity which she did not have as a consul, New Delhi transferred her from the Indian Consulate-General in New York to its mission at the United Nations; within hours of her new diplomatic status being granted by the U.S. State Department to which the UN had forwarded the request, she flew out of the country. Of course, there was plenty of behind-the-scenes bargaining which allowed her to leave. But not before she was indicted in a court. As with expulsions, it has also been made clear that the diplomat, who is married to a U.S. national and has left her children behind, will not be given a visa or allowed to enter the country again. India has retaliated by expelling an American official.
India-U.S. relations will take some time to recover from this month-long saga, which saw New Delhi withdrawing special privileges to U.S. diplomats based in this country, and the postponement of a visit by the U.S. Energy Secretary. Washington needs to introspect if it could have handled the issue differently, starting from the time that Ms. Khobragade brought to the State Department’s notice last year that her domestic employee had gone missing. Clearly, the U.S. side underestimated the Indian response to the arrest. Washington failed to anticipate that the incident would become fixated in the Indian public imagination as an issue of national pride. Considering that the U.S. and India have acknowledged that both have high stakes in strong ties, the sensible course would have been to enable a situation in which the diplomat was allowed to leave the country before charges were pressed against her. Whether or not the row was a manifestation of the drift in ties being felt on both sides long before this, it will need deft diplomatic footwork to restore a degree of calm and trust to bilateral relations. If there is one silver lining in this dismal episode, it is that the two sides now perhaps have a better measure of each other.