Estranged Democracies



India and the United States are back to squabbling. This is partly because the strategic content of the relationship is diluted these days. But also because the two democracies aren’t talking as much as they should to each other – despite having 40 plus bilateral dialogues.

How should the Devyani Khobragade incident unfolded if the two governments had not been talking past each other?

The answer: once the State Department had been intimated that Indian diplomat Khobragade had been implicated with a false line in her maid’s visa application, a senior State Department official should have called in the Indian ambassador and, over some tea, said, “The New York attorney has his knives out for your rep. Let her quietly go home.”

This didn’t happen. The State Department sent a letter in September which spoke of the seriousness of the charge, but not that it was going to trigger an arrest. The Indian side treated it as a pro forma warning – they’d had them before.

But neither side seems to have inspected this more closely and depended on a smooth if unexciting bilateral relationship to get over such things. Complacency even while communications were fraying.

The Indian side complains that the two countries no longer have the big picture strategic exchanges that they used to have a few years ago. Americans say they find the Indian bureaucracy obstructive and suspicious.

With the Indian government heading for elections and Obama set to be a lame duck by the autumn of next year, the likelihood of a resurrected relationship looks dim the coming months. But it would make sense if they got to talking a lot more.

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