India’s strong-arm diplomacy show weakness

New Delhi's retaliatory measures to Indian envoy's arrest in New York is bluster that betrays its insecurity, observers say.

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NEW DELHI // The return of Devyani Khobragade to India marks an end to a month of bilateral bitterness.

Although tension over the arrest of the former deputy consul general in New York will ease in time, India’s display of reactionary diplomacy will be remembered longer.

The Indian government, facing declining popularity ahead of a general election due by May, responded to the issue with displays of grandstanding. While it reached out to the US state department through official channels, it also visited its ire upon US diplomats stationed in India.

Security barriers around the US Embassy in Delhi were removed, and the embassy’s permit to import liquor was revoked. The embassy-run American Club, with its restaurant, bowling alley and other facilities popular with expatriates, was effectively shut down by restricting its operations, and the American Centre in Delhi was instructed to stop screening movies without censor board certification.

Officials from the external affairs ministry were reported as saying that they were merely correcting overreaches of privilege on the part of the US Embassy. But the timing of the moves spoke plainly about India’s attempt to strong-arm the US into returning its diplomat.

The kneejerk reactions continued on Friday, when India asked the US to withdraw a diplomat at the New Delhi embassy of equivalent rank to Ms Khobragade.

Ms Khobragade, who is married to a New York-born Indian-American, was arrested on charges of defrauding visa officers when she made a fraudulent declaration on a visa application to bring a maid from India to work at her New York residence.

Although Ms Khobragade was indicted by a grand jury on Thursday, the US state department granted her diplomatic immunity that allowed her to leave the country.

What angered Indians the most the case was the way Ms Khobragade was arrested, which was seen as humiliating. She was arrested and then strip-searched while in custody. US officials say strip searches are common practice.

“The case goes beyond the dignity of one diplomat,” said Sreeram Chaulia, an international affairs expert at Jindal School of International Affairs in New Delhi told the Associated Press. “India made its point, which is that you can’t take India for granted.”

Commentators in both the US and India have criticised New Delhi’s actions towards a country that it does US$100 billion (Dh367bn) in bilateral trade with.

The Washington Post, in an editorial on Tuesday, said India’s “bullying measures have ranged from the petty … to the irresponsible.”

Nisid Hajari, a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board, wrote that India needed to focus on larger priorities, as befits one of the US’s largest diplomatic partners: “To fall into a fit of pique at perceived US arrogance is short-sighted and counter-productive.”

Mukul Kesavan, a columnist for India’s Telegraph newspaper, noted the US’s ham-handed treatment of Ms Khobragade, but also lampooned India’s “faintly comic attempts at punitive reciprocity … Indians do shrill petulance better than they do manly truculence, so I don’t see the American state department trembling any time soon.”

India has achieved its short-term goal of securing Ms Khobragade’s release. But in attempting to appear strong, it may actually have done exactly the opposite.