India’s diplomatic heft on the wane in US

US House resolutions pillorying India are ghosts from a bygone era. It has been nearly 20 years since a political resolution against India was tabled on Capitol Hill. For a quarter century, India’s biggest diplomatic investments in America have been in Capitol Hill, on a scale much bigger than what successive Prime Ministers invested in the White House.

India’s diplomatic heft on the wane in US

Home alone: After the Devyani Khobragade incident, there is a silent rebellion among the wives of IFS officers against a US posting.

KP Nayar

KP Nayar
Strategic Analyst

A resolution in the US House of Representatives taking aim at India’s Kashmir policy, tabled jointly last weekend by a Democrat and a Republican, is a case of New Delhi snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

House resolutions pillorying India are ghosts from a bygone era. It has been nearly 20 years since a political resolution against India was tabled on Capitol Hill. For a quarter century, India’s biggest diplomatic investments in America have been in Capitol Hill, on a scale much bigger than what successive Prime Ministers invested in the White House.

And these investments, which today lie in waste, never failed to pay handsome dividends. Some of India’s serving high commissioners, ambassadors, secretaries to government, all of them outstanding diplomats today, cut their teeth tirelessly walking the corridors of the Capitol Building and the sprawling ‘House offices’ next door where the armies of Congressional aides have their everyday workplaces.

When this writer arrived in Washington two decades ago to take up residence as a foreign correspondent, several Congressional aides confided — thanks to introductions from the people they trusted — that they were the “go-to” people for any work on Capitol Hill. “My boss does not know anything,” more than one aide told me about Congressmen using variations of the same sentence.

“We inform the boss about the issues of the day. Most of the time, our bosses do what we tell them to do and they vote on our advice.” To those uninitiated in the ways of the House of Representatives, less so in the Senate, this may seem unbelievable but it is true.

The message from Congressional aides, which unfailingly proved true during my long years of covering the US Congress, was simple. Elected representatives have their plates overflowing with issues that are of immediate concern in the districts from where they have won. These are issues which cannot wait or else anti-incumbency will see the Representatives defeated in biennial elections to the House. Foreign policy is a matter of peripheral concern to most of the 435 members of the House, primarily whose accountability is to the American people and not to the rest of the world.

A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee or one of its sub-committees may take some interest in international affairs. In that case, the Congressional aide assumes a larger than life persona for a diplomat whose country may be in the crosshairs of the Congress.

Israel was the first country to recognise this very critical factor about working with America. India took a leaf out of Israel’s book on how to deal with the US, when New Delhi had its back to the wall on Khalistan, Kashmir, human rights, child labour, trade practices, trafficking in human beings — in short, every issue that America did not like about this country in the 1980s and early 1990s.

S Jaishankar, now External Affairs Minister, was the first diplomat to be plucked out of Kremlinology to be posted as a First Secretary to do

political work in Washington. When Jaishankar returned from Moscow after his first foreign posting, ready for a long life in Soviet affairs, those who recognised his potential very early, sent him, instead, to work in the Americas division at the headquarters. He then went to Washington four years later.

What began as a trickle with Jaishankar, became a flood in the late 1990s and thereafter with young officers with promise being assigned Washington exclusively to deal with the US Congress. Taranjit Sandhu, now High Commissioner in Colombo, Vikram Misri, now Ambassaador in Beijing, Jawed Ashraf, now High Commissioner in Singapore, TS Tirumurti, now Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, Gautam Bambawale, who retired recently after heading the Missions in Thimpu, Islamabad and Beijing — the list is long.

As young officers, they put everything else aside in Washington, lived shadow lives as Congressional aides, in a manner of speaking, and transformed a hostile House of Representatives into the friendliest place for India since Independence. It took more time, but the Senate followed suit.

From that pinnacle of popularity, where the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans became the biggest caucus on Capitol Hill — bigger than the Israeli caucus — how did India get to a point where an Indian American Congresswoman is now tabling a bipartisan resolution against India?

This outcome is the sad story of a complete and irresponsible neglect of the Indian Embassy in Washington by the MEA in the last two years. Since Harsh Vardhan Shringla arrived on January 9 this year to take charge as Ambassador, he has had to work with a miserably weak team of supporting diplomats. No Ambassador to the US since Independence has had to put up with such a self-defeating situation in Washington.

In part, this is the result of a silent rebellion among the wives of Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers against going to Washington — indeed anywhere in the US except as the wife of a Consul General. IFS officers do not want wives to be unhappy in the US and they certainly want peace at home. So, when posts in America are circulated prior to meetings of the Foreign Service Board — which decides all IFS postings below Ambassadors — few bright or promising diplomats apply for slots in the US.

This predicament is the result of the notorious Devyani Khobragade incident in 2013, when the then Deputy Consul General in New York was arrested, humiliated and her diplomatic immunity violated on charges of visa fraud involving her maid and other alleged offences. Since then, it is impossible for IFS officers — except the Head of Mission and Head of Posts — to take housemaids with them to America.

Wives of several bright diplomats told this writer privately that they did not marry into the IFS to wash dishes for the Government of India or to wait on ministers or Members of Parliament who want Indian food to be served in diplomatic residences while travelling abroad. With young officers who would once have readily volunteered for a stateside posting now turning their backs on America, nurturing the Congress has grievously suffered.

Congressional aides will not hobnob with an Ambassador who is usually double their age and the informality they share with junior diplomats will be absent in dealings with a Head of Mission. The domestic revolt in the IFS is only one reason for India to go back 20 years and recreate a hostile US Congress, but other reasons require another column.

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