India and the US must act fast to stanch the damage that the Khobragade matter is wreaking on ties.
Outrage and anger are usually the biggest distraction from sensible policy. And by that logic, the display of extremes by both India and the United States in the Devyani Khobragade case has led to an absolutely avoidable diplomatic incident — one that diplomats on both sides realise has damaged goodwill, so necessary to take this important strategic relationship forward.
It’s important to understand the issue at hand. The Khobragade episode has two levels to it — one, the case itself and the other, the larger issue of diplomatic courtesies and the handling of this particular case.
First, the case. Indian diplomats landing in trouble because of issues related to their domestic help is not new or unusual. There have been a few cases in the US itself, and the possibility of such problems becoming more frequent was quite imminent back in 2009, when US authorities started insisting that the calculation of minimum wages cannot include the help’s insurance cover, living, travelling or food costs. It was made clear that the wage would be the amount paid directly to the domestic help and so the declaration, in a sense, was a bit more qualified. This turned into a deterrent for Indian officials, many of whom simply stopped taking domestic help to the US.
But, in diplomacy, there are rules and there are understandings. The unwritten code in this instance was that these declarations were essentially necessary paperwork for getting visas, which need not be taken seriously beyond that. At least, that seemed to be the understanding on the Indian side, because seeking privileges beyond the entitlement is a negotiation
of quid pro quos for each other’s diplomats — a negotiation that happens almost on a daily basis between foreign offices and diplomatic missions everywhere over routine issues, like special access to the airport or increasing the limit on importing liquor.
However, it is now clear that the Indian side, in some ways, misjudged the problems this could create. And so, cases started emerging and, as a result, this became a proper topic of diplomatic conversation between both countries. When Khobragade’s domestic help went missing, red flags went up in South Block. That is why legal safeguards were taken and an injunction was obtained from a Delhi court, which was handed over to the US state department.