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Clean Khobragade mess, MEA should now put its own house in order – The Economic Times

Devyani Khobragade is back and bidding fair to being a launch-pad for a family political career under the tutelage of an ambitious parent. India-US relations lie in tatters with little expectation of a revival any time soon. The Indian outburst against the diplomat’s treatment threw the US. There was nothing when former presidents or sitting ambassadors were patted down by US security officials at airports. It is well known, goes the US understanding, that Indians treat their servants like slaves, without human rights or fair wages and for inhumanly long hours. Indians are bleeding hearts when it comes to a rich female diplomat but ignore the plight of the underpaid, overworked servant. American commentary has burned through newsprint and cyberspace about how this rising country juxtaposes a bright and growing middle class with grinding poverty. Oh, and let’s not forget that old Draupadi vastraharan story, which is apparently why otherwise sane Indians went ballistic. All arguments intended to highlight one thing – Indians really have no business protesting against the treatment of a diplomat. Yes, there are many Indians who ill-treat their domestic servants, just like there are innumerable instances of Americans or Europeans or others mistreating their servants and workers. None of this has any bearing on the present case because Sangeeta Richard was not treated improperly or paid poorly. It is about an overweening interest in getting the Richard family over to the US by some ‘sympathetic’ US officials. The ensuing mess flows from this one fact. Whatever MEA’s private opinion about Devyani, the Indian system had to stand up for her particularly when there was no wrongdoing. For the same reason that the US stood up for Raymond Davies in Pakistan, India had to protect its officials for its own credibility. But having emerged on the other side of the looking glass, the Indian system needs to do some serious housekeeping. First, junior diplomats do not need to take domestic helps to the US or European countries. The government can pick up the tab for cleaning services, child care, entertainment etc, but diplomats must learn to live without servants abroad. Pay a maid in the US at the prevailing rate – it’s cheaper than taking a servant along. For this, the external affairs ministry (MEA) should change its service rules. The other option is to bring domestic servants under government employment , putting them in a different visa category. The finance ministry opposes that for good reason. Second, it is very important to work out a set of rules for diplomats, their immunity status or mission security, with the US. The informal ‘wink-nod’ arrangements with the State Department just do not work. The US is a legalistic society, so put it all down on paper with built-in reciprocal arrangements . The US has been reluctant to have this conversation all these years – the Khobragade affair is a good place to start. The US has already used the issue to unveil a strategic plan to register domestic workers of foreign diplomats in the US for trafficking and other abuses. India should use this to put its own house in order. The State Department and the US embassy in New Delhi dropped the ball on Khobragade – but so did the MEA. This issue should have been nipped in the bud months ago, particularly when the US Trafficking Act of 2000 makes it easier for Indians of all stripes to be eligible for this status, whether warranted or otherwise. The Indian embassy in Washington and South Block have some answering to do here. New Delhi needs to set up systems that can manage the relationship better, anticipate and solve problems in advance. A closer look should be given to how many supposedly rare ‘trafficking’ visas are issued to Indians. The numbers are shocking: more Indian families get trafficking visas to join their ‘trafficked’ spouses and parents than any other country. Nobody denies there are huge trafficking issues in India. The home ministry just needs to understand this better by interviewing those going to the US on trafficking visas. India and the US conducted a bilateral conversation on trafficking that, like many other bilateral initiatives, has fallen silent. Neither Barack Obama nor Manmohan Singh is particularly interested in the bilateral relationship. Nor is Susan Rice or Shivshankar Menon. But we cannot let a vital relationship like this fall prey to competing negligence. As envoy to China, S Jaishankar led the Indian team to put India-China ties on an even keel, and in a previous avatar was India’s lead negotiator for the nuclear deal, acknowledged as the only high point in the UPA decade. A top-notch negotiator, Jaishankar has a more challenging job as he steps over the broken china in Washington. His primary task will be to put back on course a strategic partnership gone awry. The first ice-breaker happened on Tuesday with a lunch meeting with William Burns. During the Khobragade crisis , Jaishankar and foreign secretary Sujatha Singh teamed up effectively, which bodes well for the future because it will be Sujatha’s job to rally South Block to ensure MEA goes beyond hurt egos and ‘diploutrage’ . There is a time for anger. But now is the time to move on India’s interests. Of those there are many.
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