The bafflement of the American authorities is understandable. Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat arrested in New York for lying on her maid’s visa application form, was caught bang to rights. She paid her maid barely a tenth of the wages she had stated. If she had been found guilty she could have faced 10 years’ jail for visa fraud, five more for making a false declaration. As a mere consular official she was entitled to no diplomatic immunity outside her official duties. Why are the Indians making such a fuss?
Yet Ms Khobragade’s arrest has led to the biggest rupture in US-Indian relations in years. And the ill humour persists. Ms Khobragade has been expelled, India expelled an American diplomat, Alicia Muller May, in return. Senior Indian officials have refused to meet a visiting US congressional delegation. Security has been stripped from the American embassy in Delhi.
Americans are entitled to wonder what the hell is going on. There is a one-word answer: elections.
Ms Khobragade is a Dalit, from a formerly “untouchable” sub-caste. Her ancestors swept the streets, but Ms Khobragade has made it all the way up to the top of Indian society.
Because of their long history of struggle against oppression, Dalits are hyper-sensitive to perceived humiliation, which inevitably reminds them of their lowly roots. And they have become a political force to reckon with, their “vote bank” amounting to 15 per cent of the population.
India holds general elections in May, and with the Congress Party-led coalition in trouble there is everything to play for.
So when Ms Khobragade was handcuffed and strip-searched by US Marshals in New York, the Republican Party of India, rooted in the Dalit community, quickly saw the potential. As the Indian journalist Anand Teltumbde put it: “Taking [up] cudgels on her behalf… served two important electioneering objectives… appealing to the masses by invoking patriotic sentiment and appealing to Dalits by showing concern for their honour.”
The other political parties competed to demonstrate high dudgeon over the case, sending bilateral relations into a tailspin. No party could afford to seem indifferent, at the risk of being punished at the polls.
This interpretation of the kerfuffle was vindicated this week with the news that Ms Khobragade’s father Uttam plans to offer himself as an election candidate in his native village, whose sitting MP belongs to the biggest Dalit-based party. He clearly expects to sail into Parliament on the wave of righteous indignation.
Meanwhile, life for Delhi’s American community has suddenly become rather grim. In retaliation for Ms Khobragade’s ordeal, the government ordered the closure of the American Club – the backbone of expat life. And according to the New York Times this week, “Indian diplomats have peppered American officials [in Delhi] with a blizzard of questions and demands in the hope of uncovering similar violations [to Ms Khobragade] by American diplomats”.
It is improbable that American officials will be dumb enough to admit it, but it would not be surprising if some malfeasance turned up: given the byzantine and sometimes predatory nature of Indian bureaucracy, Americans in New Delhi are no more likely to tell the local authorities the whole truth and nothing but the truth than their Indian counterparts in the US. American sanctimoniousness has really come round and bitten them on the ass.