Behind The Nannygate
There are few occasions when the entire political class of India speaks in the same tone, something that one witnessed in the last two days of the latest session of Parliament. It happened over two issues. One was the passage of the Lokpal Bill. Though the Samajwadi Party walked out when the Bill was finally voted, history will record its adoption as unanimous. The second issue was the arrest and strip-searching of Indian Deputy Consul General (since shifted to India’s permanent mission to the United Nations) at New York, Devyani Khobragade, for allegedly lying on her maid’s visa application. The political consensus is that what the American officials did to the Indian diplomat was a grave injustice and that strong reciprocal treatments must be meted out to the American diplomats working in India. This column will focus on this diplomatic crisis that has erupted between the two dynamic democracies, one world’s largest and the other world’s most powerful.
For most of the time in the post-World War II, the two countries were “estranged”, a situation that changed after the end of the Cold War and kept them “engaged”. But the eruption of what is called the “Nannygate” scandal now has the potential of derailing the two from the path of the engagement. The whole episode raises few important questions that the Americans need to answer. Let us buy the argument of the New York Attorney Preet Bharara (born in Faridkot of Punjab to a Sikh father and Hindu mother) that Devyani was exploiting the poor maid, Sangeeta Richard, by not paying her wages as prescribed under American laws and that she had facilitated the maid’s visa by giving “fraudulent” information about the nature and remunerations of her job in New York. Now, it does not require a Nobel laureate’s IQ that if at all, there was any misrepresentation, the answer was due from the “applicant” for the US visa at New Delhi, and if the answer was not satisfactory then Visa should have been denied to her. But the very fact that Richard was granted the visa means that the American official concerned in the US embassy in Delhi should have been the first person who should have been taken to task by Preet Bharara, not Devyani.
Of course, it is an open secret that Indian diplomats, posted in the United States or for that matter in any developed country do not pay their maids, if any, the wages as prescribed in the host country. And that is because they cannot afford to do so, although the Government of India pays partially for this wage as also the maids’ travel expenditure and medical insurance. For instance, under American system, Sangeeta Richard’s monthly wage should have been around $4,500 (and this excludes her housing and travel allowance), whereas Devyani’s monthly salary is said to be about $4,120. But this was not exactly an issue between India and the Unites States all these years until recently.
Even if it became an issue, then it could have been handled diplomatically. The US could have asked New Delhi to recall Devyani from New York. Instead, it went to the extreme and argued that as a Consular official, she did not enjoy the full diplomatic immunity that any diplomat enjoys working in the Indian Embassy in Washington DC and UN Mission in New York. Devyani was not only arrested but also humiliated as if she was a hardcore criminal. Handcuffing a diplomat while dropping her kids at school, strip searching her and putting her in the same prison with other criminals are simply unthinkable for an issue , which at the most, is a petty one and that too contestable.
Besides, there is no consistency on the part of the United States as regards the inappropriate behaviour of the foreign diplomats working in its territory. It is well known that many foreign diplomats have done illegal things in the US But in all such cases, the Americans did not behave the way with them as they did with Devyani. The Americans dealt directly with the countries concerned, be it Russia or Germany or China. The same principle could have been applied in this case too. And that gives the impression that they just do not bother about the Indian sensitivities. And they got away with it on earlier occasions as the Indian government was coward enough to raise its voice. Just see what they did to former President APJ Abdul Kalam; they asked him to remove his shoes before entering a commercial American flight!
The irony with the Americans is that they will like to have a treatment in foreign countries that they will deny to a citizen of that foreign country in American soil. Imagine if at our airports we will go for physical checking and verifications of former US presidents like Bill Clinton and George H W Bush! In fact, I find it funny that the Americans have reacted badly to the Government of India’s decision to revoke the facilities to American diplomats working in its various consulates in the country that are strictly speaking not due to them and comparable to the facilities that the likes of Devyani get in the United States. Diplomatic protocols are nothing, if not reciprocal. You cannot expect to enjoy the same that you deny to others!
Be that as it may, it is really baffling as to why the Indian diplomat was selectively targeted by the US? And why is Preet Bharara, an Indian-American, badly after Indians? Incidentally, Preet’s earlier victims include high-profile business executive Rajat Gupta, now under American custody for the alleged “insider trading trial”. In fact, while investing Gupta’s case, Preet himself came under attack by one Benula Bensam, an Indian-origin law student that she was unlawfully questioned. She had filed a law suit against Preet, though that was subsequently dismissed by a US court.
In this case concerning Devyani, it seems she was clearly trapped with due approval of the senior authorities of the US State Department. Richard was essentially blackmailing Devyani after reaching the United States in November 2012 for higher wages and permission to work outside. On June 23, 2013, Richard left Devyani’s residence to buy some groceries and disappeared, only to re-emerge a few weeks later at the office of an immigration attorney. Reports indicate that Richard demanded an unknown sum as her due salary, and an ordinary Indian passport in lieu of the official one she had. Now the questions are: where was Ricahrd staying all these days? Who was taking care of her? How did she reach and afford the highly expensive American lawyers to negotiate with Devyani?
But this is not all. Just two days prior to Devyani’s arrest, Richard’s husbancd and kids arrived in New York from India. How did they get the visas? Who sponsored their trips? It is obvious that the US authorities are clearly helping her with the promise that if she cooperates with them, she and her family members will be getting Green Card (permanent residency in the US) on a fast track. It may be noted here that Ricahrd and her family have been provided T Non-immigrant Visas as the first step toward issuing them US Green Cards. US Congress created T Visas in October 2000 to help law-enforcement agencies investigate and prosecute human trafficking, and offer protection to alleged victims like Ricahrd. Usually T Visa-holders must wait for three years to file for a Green Card. But if the US Attorney General certifies that the investigation is complete then the Green Card application may be filed early. In Ricahrd’s case, if investigation into Devyani’s alleged crimes is completed soon, she can quickly file a Green Card petition after getting clearance from the US Attorney General’s office.
But then, is this Nannygate worth enough to derail the relations between the two friendly countries? All told, India and the Unites States are natural allies; they share so many things in common. It is true that ties between them in recent years have seen more downs than ups. The Americans resent that after doing everything to recognise India as a nuclear power, a unique distinction without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Indians have not been grateful enough. Take, for instance, the case of Indo-US nuclear trade. Nothing has moved on this front over the last five years. What is worse, in order to implement the Indo-US nuclear agreement, the Indian government passed a “Nuclear Liability Act” in 2010, whose provisions, virtually dictated by the BJP and the Left, are so onerous and inconsistent with international norms that every international nuclear supplier is greatly worried. The Americans have also not appreciated the fact that India rejected earlier Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s proposals of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for its Air Force. That deal went to the French Rafael.
Viewed thus, it could be argued that Nannygate is an act of sweet revenge by the Americans. One hopes it is not the case. After all, no one should overlook the fact that the US has already emerged as the third largest supplier of military hardware to India in recent years. India has bought the US 10 C-17 Globemaster strategic airlifters (totalling US$ 6 billion+), 8 Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft with follow-on orders for 4 more (totalling US$ 3 billion+), 6 C-130J Hercules transport aircraft with possible follow on orders for 6 more (totalling US$ 1 billion+). Then there are deals such as amphibious warfare ship INS Jalashwa (formerly USS Trenton), 197 light helicopters from Bell, and GE engines for HAL Tejas. The total bill for all these deals goes much beyond the US$ 10. 4 billion that the MMRCA deal is worth. In other words, the criticism that India is not “reciprocating” to US overtures is belied by hard facts.
By Prakash Nanda