Indian media reported on April 1 about the sudden resignation of the first lady US Ambassador to India, Nancy J Powell, a career diplomat. It came as surprise to many but not to all as during her tenure the India-US relations plummeted to its lowest levels due to the mishandlings of events by career diplomats and civil servants of both sides. These do not appear to be attributable to political leaders of either country though political leadership of both countries failed to intervene in time for course corrections.
Mishandling of the visa case of Shri Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, underestimating his political popularity as the leading Prime Ministerial candidate of India, and mishandling of Devyani case were among others causes which hastened Powell”s bumpy exit from India.
The resignation story as being made out by the US sources does not appear to be convincing as a career diplomat is not required to “resign” near the time of his/her retirement, though one may ask for a preparatory leave to retire if frustrated or if asked by the government. Resignation on the eve of retirement is a bit strange and self contradictory. Secondly, in case of normal retirement of a career ambassador the host government and the diplomatic corps knows it in advance, local media also knows it in advance and routine farewell dinners in honour of the outgoing ambassador are held by many ambassadors friendly to him/her. A number of other customary lunches and dinners are held in honour of outgoing ambassadors. Nothing of such events has so far been reported.
In order to cover up her departure as “routine and planned” a US Embassy New Delhi statement said. “Powell announced in a US mission town hall meeting March 31 that she has submitted her resignation to President Obama and, as planned for some time, will retire to her home in Delaware before the end of May.”
The US government also tried to play down significance of her
resignation asserting that Powell”s resignation is not related to any tension or any recent situation, “Ambassador Powell’s sudden resignation does not indicate any realignment of American ties with India, the US has said, also pointing that there is no big behind the scenes story” that led her to quit. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on March 31, “All rumours and speculation about Powell’s retirement are false” when asked about Powell”s announcement in New Delhi that she has sent her resignation to President Barack Hussein Obama.
Powell joined the Senior Foreign Service of the USA in 1977. She served as ambassador to many countries: Uganda, Ghana, Nepal and Pakistan. She served as US Ambassador to India from April 2012 to March 2014. Earlier she had served as US Consul General at Calcutta [1992-93] and later as Minister Counsellor at the US Embassy in New Delhi [1993-95].
Despite such rich diplomatic and consular experience, she failed to follow standard diplomatic protocol to keep out of domestic controversies such as issue of US visa to Shri Narendra Modi, elected Chief Minister of Gujarat. It was improper on the part of US authorities to have treated Shri Modi guilty of any allegation and in denying Visa before being held guilty of that allegation by a competent Indian court of law. In doing so, perhaps the US authorities were following the spirit of the Prevention of Communal Violence Bill 2011 prepared by the UPA government of Dr Manmohan Singh in which every Hindu shall be presumed to be guilty of crimes alleged by minorities till proven innocent. As we know so far there is no court judgment against Shri Modi.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 7, 2012 Ambassador Powell had said India will be “a leading security partner of the United States in the 21st century,” adding “our relations are firmly grounded in a set of shared democratic values and an increasingly shared strategic vision of both the opportunities that can promote those values as well as the threats that can undermine them.”Except usual diplomatic verbose in diplomatic communications and
making a plethora of subcommittees, Powell failed to improve Indo-US ties to above particularly. When one recalls in the first week of December 2013, the Foreign Secretary of India, Mrs Sujatha Singh was there in Washington on Foreign Office consultation but she was not given any inkling of impending arrest of Devyani, India”s Deputy Consul-General, New York. A few days later on the initiative of US Department of State, Devyani was arrested and the US Embassy issuing trafficking visa to relatives of Devyani”s domestic assistant as well as free air tickets which indicated disconnect at. It is being said to restore smooth relations at working levels US may withdraw more of its officials from India.
The Indian officials failed to convince the US side that under the two Vienna Conventions the US domestic laws do not apply to disputes between India based persons of the Indian diplomatic and Consular Missions. Indian officials ought to have firmly conveyed that if the US laws applied to disputes between two India based persons, Indian laws too would be applied to US based persons of the US Embassy and Consulates in India. It is good that some of the non-reciprocal facilities unilaterally granted by India to US diplomats and consular officers have been withdrawn. Total reciprocity should be observed in all such matters. Various statements posted on website of the Indian Embassy Washington on Devyani incident show that the very legality of US actions against Devyani was not seriously questioned by India. In my view arrest of Devyani was totally unlawful being violative, among others, of the Articles 40, 41 and 47 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963. For example, the Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Consular relations provides double protection to a consular officer against arrest and detention. It reads: “Consular officers shall not be liable to arrest or detention pending trial except in grave crime and pursuant to a decision by the competent judicial authority.” The question is whether complaint of wage dispute against Devyani which is essentially a civil matter can be allowed to be treated as a criminal offence and, that, too in the category of a grave crime. Yet second time indictment of Devyani on the motion of the US Department of States has further complicated the matter.
The bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement was signed in October 2008 but still there has been no progress on ground though the Defence trade has shown significant growth in recent years with total acquisitions crossing USD 9 billion. Total bilateral trade in goods was about USD 65 billion in 2013. Cumulative foreign direct investment from the US during April 2000 to March 2013 was only about USD 11.6 billion which is very low compared to India holding US treasury bills of USD 58.9 billion as of October 2012. There are various points of convergence between India and the USA and sky is the limit to expand the Indo-US relations both horizontally and vertically. Departure of Nancy Powell is a sure signal that the US wants to deal with the new Indian Government with a clean slate at working levels of diplomats. It is a good signal.
(Writer is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer of the 1971 batch)