India's new ambassador to the United States S Jaishankar arrives in Washington DC on Tuesday amid a rocky phase in US-India ties caused by the Khobragade episode. A familiar hand in the capital's sub-continental circuit because of his central role in the US-India civilian nuclear deal and other initiatives, Jaishankar is expected to hit the ground running soon after Christmas break to extricate his beleaguered junior colleague Devyani Khobragade, charged in New York with visa fraud in connection with bringing a domestic assistant from India.
Moving forward the nuclear agreement and elevating US-India ties to the next level, not resolving a Nannygate boondoggle, is what this pedigreed diplomat would have expected while coming to Washington DC. Instead, he is having to first deal with public outrage in India and disquiet among the New Delhi bureaucratic elite, where the fact remains that Khobragade's methods form the template many officials use on foreign postings to bring domestic assistants.
So, besides extricating Khobragade from the jam, he also has to quickly oversee rewriting the ground rules of bringing domestic personnel to make sure they are in compliance with US laws. It helps that he has had a previous stint in the embassy in Washington DC (as First Secretary in 1985-1988), and two postings on the Americas desk of the external affairs ministry in New Delhi, and so knows the background and the build-up that has led to this horrendous diplomatic mishap, seen purely through a legal lens by mid-level officials of the state department and US law enforcement.
Jaishankar succeeds Nirupama Rao, during whose tenure the whole affair came to a boil, before spilling over just after she demitted office, leaving the newly arrived deputy chief of mission Taranjit Sandhu holding the can. Rao has been pilloried by some of her own former colleagues for allowing the issue to fester and get out of hand. But in a series of tweets, the former ambassador, who will be returning to US in January as a fellow at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said "the incident has created a deep crater in the bilateral relationship and we in India have reason to protest as we have done."
"The legitimate question we ask is did not the US weigh the disastrous consequences of their moves in this case? Was the much vaunted defining partnership btw the two countries so inconsequential that US decided to treat whole case as routine?" Rao asked, pronouncing rather dramatically that the relationship is now in ER (Emergency Room), the trauma surgeons need to wake up and cool thinking on both sides was needed to defuse the situation.
"Tit for tat butter for fat cannot solve matters. Diplomacy can't be conducted in an amphitheater. Neither government's hand should be seen to be forced. Say no to hyperventilation," Rao advised.
Cool head and clear thinking, besides being low-key and non-demonstrative, is what Jaishankar is known for among his peers. In fact, he is just coming off one of the hottest portfolios in MEA, the ambassadorship in Beijing, where he navigated some difficult moments, including tricky issues relating to border incursions and stapled visas.
He was on the short-list to be named foreign secretary because of his what many consider an exemplary record, but the government preferred to go by seniority in naming Sujatha Singh for the post. The Khobragade spat erupted even as Singh concluded her maiden visit to Washington DC as foreign secretary.
The Washington posting was in a sense meant to recognize Jaishankar for his exemplary work on the US-India portfolio, something that also involves familial connections. He is the son of India's strategic guru, the late K Subrahmanyam, jocularly dubbed ''Bomb Mama'' but more seriously regarded as the "Bhishmapitamah" of India's nuclear doctrine that constantly challenged and pushed back against US-laid down red lines. One of his brothers, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, is a distinguished historian, currently holder of the Navin and Pratima Doshi Chair of Indian History at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Another brother, S Vijay Kumar, is a secretary in the government of India.