Arrest row punctures US-India love affair

WASHINGTON - India's outrage over the arrest of a diplomat in the United States has thrown cold water on years of sanguine predictions of a blossoming alliance between the world's two largest democracies.

While few expect an end to cooperation on common security interests, experts say the rift has buried any suggestions that India would turn into a bosom US ally along the lines of Britain or Japan.

Since independence in 1947, India has jealously safeguarded its sovereignty and was estranged from the United States until the end of the Cold War.

Since then, the two sides have spoken of a broad alliance between two secular democracies wary both of Islamic extremism and the rise of China.

Secretary of State John Kerry in a telephone call Wednesday with Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon voiced regret over the treatment of Devyani Khobragade, who was arrested last week on charges she paid a domestic worker a fraction of the minimum wage and lied about the salary on a visa application.

Fueling anger in India, the 39-year-old deputy consul general in New York said she was repeatedly handcuffed, stripped and cavity-searched. In retaliation, India took action against US consular officials and removed concrete barricades that had been set up outside the US Embassy in New Delhi.

"I think this clearly illustrates something deeper about Indian ambivalence toward its partnership with the United States," said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Hathaway said that the arrest touched on issues of national pride for a country seen as an emerging power, with Indians saying: "'We aren't simply going to tolerate being treated as a banana republic."

The row comes as US businesses, long a driving force for better ties with India, have increasingly complained about the investment climate in the billion-plus nation.

And while India has been popular with US policymakers across the political spectrum, a congressional aide said that lawmakers were alarmed by the decision to remove barriers outside the New Delhi embassy, especially in the wake of the 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya.

"The perception, especially in the post-Benghazi environment, is that the Indians overplayed their hand. On the US side, India has lost a little sympathy," the congressional aide said on condition of anonymity.

The row comes as India prepares for general elections that must take place by the end of May. Both major parties have supported closer ties with the United States, but experts said it was politically imperative for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take a firm line and deflect opposition charges that he is weak.

The Hindu nationalist opposition's candidate for prime minister, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has an additional incentive to talk tough about the United States as he is controversially denied a US visa on human rights grounds in light of the anti-Muslim riots in his state in 2002.

Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that the election season accentuated the Indian reaction. But, more broadly, the arrest increased strategic mistrust.

"I don't think we can say that this is a one-off and everything is going to be hunky-dory now," Curtis said.

"I think there are some sensitivities that have been hurt and this is an issue that simply isn't going to evaporate overnight."

Karl Inderfurth, who was the top State Department official on South Asia when president Bill Clinton launched the push to reconcile with India, voiced fear that the arrest would strengthen the hands of Indians suspicious of US motives.

Inderfurth sympathized with Indian outrage and said that the State Department, which initially insisted that US Marshals arrested Khobragade in line with normal procedures, was "totally tone-deaf."

"I don't believe this will lead to a longstanding break in relations, but it shows that US officials are still learning about certain social and cultural sensitivities. We've got a ways to go," said Inderfurth, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.