L’Affaire Khobragade is ending with a proverbial whimper, and that is fitting for such an unedifying scandal. A U.S. federal grand jury has returned an indictment against Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade on charges of fraud and making false statements, alleging that she filed a false employment contract with her maid Sangeeta Richard and then underpaid and overworked her. Khobragade left the U.S. at the request of the State Department on Thursday. The charges against her will remain “pending,” which means she probably won’t be back anytime soon.
The case provoked outrage in India over the way in which Khobragade was arrested -- strip-searched and temporarily detained “with common criminals and drug addicts" -- and has generated infinitely more heat than light. No doubt the telegenic Khobragade will be feted upon her return by politicians looking to strut their nationalist credentials. With a resolution of sorts, though, it's worth drawing a few lessons from the affair:
1. The original issue is not the issue.
The question of how Khobragade was arrested — rudely and humiliatingly according to her; with exceptional courtesy and in accordance with standard U.S. procedure, according to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara — has gotten mixed up with her guilt or innocence. There’s no point in speculating about the latter, not least because it’s unlikely ever to be established one way or another in a court of law. However, Bharara felt he had enough evidence to bring charges against Khobragade and as a matter of principle there’s no reason she should have been treated any differently than any other suspect in such a case.
2. The U.S. needs to be more sensitive to others’ sensitivities.
Whether warranted or not, the perception that U.S. diplomats are afforded more generous treatment abroad than their counterparts are in America exists and is widely resented, not just in India. In some cases special allowances need to be made for the unique global role played by the U.S.: It’s hard to imagine how the larger strategic interests of the U.S. and Pakistan, for instance, would have been served by trying CIA contractor Raymond Davis after he allegedly killed two men whom he thought were about to attack him in Lahore. In others the perks are relatively harmless — and so perhaps not appreciated enough by the Americans who benefit from them. There’s no reason for the State Department not to make an extra effort — particularly with diplomats from supposedly key partners such as India — to return the courtesies where possible.
3. India needs to get its priorities straight.
It’s a bit too easy to mock the operatic denunciations of Indian officialdom -- “The U.S. must do something!” one wailed angrily. India has entered the campaign silly season, with elections due in the spring, and the ruling Congress party confronts the possibility of a defeat of historic proportions: One can only imagine the rhetorical excesses that U.S. politicians would engage in under similar circumstances.
Certainly there are frustrations and frictions in the relationship with the U.S. — perhaps more than many people in Washington realized before now. But officials in New Delhi must recognize that partnership with the U.S. is too important to jeopardize over such a minor incident. India gains far more from closer ties with the U.S. than it loses, not just in terms of government-to-government, military or trade relations, but in the people-to-people contacts and immigration flows that have underpinned a great deal of innovation in the Indian economy. To fall into a fit of pique at perceived U.S. arrogance is short-sighted and counter-productive.
4. There are other battles more worth fighting.
Indians have not mustered anywhere near the same degree of outrage about other cases where their fellow citizens have run afoul of the law overseas. Nineteen Indian fishermen spent nine months in jail in Iran for unwittingly violating its territorial waters, before diplomatic pressure secured their release. After a riot among migrant workers in its Little India district, Singapore deported 24 Indian national with hardly a peep from Indian diplomats or media. The focus on Khobragade in India has largely obscured the plight of her maid; indeed, Bharara was roundly scorned in India as an Uncle Tom for even bringing it up. Whatever the facts of this particular case, the manner in which India’s upper- and middle-classes view and treat the great mass of their impoverished countrymen deserves more scrutiny and self-reflection.
5. Don’t listen to the loudmouths.
The mouth-foamers on cable TV, and thepetty retaliatory actions of the Indian government, naturally get all the attention. But to Indians’ credit, this whole affair has started a refreshingly spirited discussion online about just these sorts of issues — questions about the rights of the poor and the rule of law, the cravenness of Indian politicians, the poor state of India’s foreign service, and the readiness or not of the country to play a greater role in the world. India doesn’t need lectures (or blog posts) from the U.S. about the feudal nature of its society or its depressing diplomatic immaturity, it needs an internal conversation. It is encouraging that one seems to have begun and, hopefully, will continue well after Khobragade’s plane has landed in India.
(Nisid Hajari is a member of Bloomberg's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)