12/20/2013 03:09 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

The India-U.S. Diplomatic Crisis That Didn't Have to Be


The United States and India are embroiled in a high-profile diplomatic crisis that threatens to weaken the bilateral relationship. Last Thursday, India's Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade was arrested on charges filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York for visa fraud and false statements made in connection with her housekeeper's visa application. The complaint alleges that Ms. Khobragade paid her housekeeper well below minimum wage.

This is not a trivial incident, but it shouldn't have mushroomed into the crisis it has become. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal told the Times of India that the State Department alerted the Indian Embassy in September to Ms. Khobragade's alleged non-compliance with U.S. laws, thus giving New Delhi an early opportunity to address the issue. The State Department also says that U.S. Marshals followed standard procedures, including a strip search, during the arrest. Such treatment of a diplomat charged with visa fraud predictably raised eyebrows and may raise broader questions of parity about how the United States expects its owns diplomats to be treated.

Even in light of these sympathetic considerations, New Delhi's reaction to the situation has been disproportionately antagonistic, apart from the summons of U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell to receive India's formal complaint about the arrest. India's political leadership -- in both the ruling coalition and the opposition -- took the gloves off, apoplectic at the indignity of a female diplomat being subjected to a strip search and "humiliated" in front of her children. In an unusual clarifying statement, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara explained that Ms. Khobragade was in fact not arrested in front of her children, was given two hours to make personal calls, and was searched privately by a female officer.

His statement was no doubt intended to respond to a deluge of comments from Indian politicians. National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon called Ms. Khobragade's treatment "despicable and barbaric." Kamal Nath, a minister in the ruling coalition government, said India would not tolerate being treated as a "banana republic." D. Raja, the national secretary of one of India's Communist parties, said the incident unmasked American hypocrisy on human rights norms. And senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha outdid them all by suggesting that India use a recent Indian Supreme Court decision criminalizing gay sex to arrest the same-sex partners of American diplomats.

In an effort to defuse tensions, Secretary Kerry and the U.S. State Department have expressed regret personally and publicly. Although Washington hasn't pressed this point in its statements, it is troubling that India's leaders have largely glossed over the reason for Ms. Khobragade's arrest -- the apparently actionable information that she had committed fraud in order to pay her housekeeper less than U.S. minimum wage. New Delhi has instead focused its efforts on transferring Ms. Khobragade to India's U.N. Mission in order to ensure her diplomatic immunity, at least going forward. And Indian diplomats have defended Ms. Khobragade on the grounds that her salary did not allow her to hire a housekeeper.

Long-standing Indian sensitivities about the respect accorded to India and its diplomats are certainly contributing to this crisis. But there is also evidence that, despite some anti-American protests, many Indians take the alleged violation of law seriously. The online comments sections of some Indian newspapers reveal plenty of posters who are unhappy with the alleged conduct of Ms. Khobragade. Many of these commenters have criticized what they call a commonplace Indian practice of abusing domestic help and asked why Indian diplomats seem to think that they can continue these "standard" practices in other countries.

If some Indians are adopting a balanced view and zeroing in on one of the most central issues at play, why have India's leaders done the opposite? The answer, in large part, is that they perceive this "crisis" as an opportunity to curry domestic political favor during election season. But it's far from clear that the Indian public is going to stand up en masse to applaud these efforts.

What some leaders in New Delhi have done, though, is to signal to Washington that India doesn't value the countries' strategic partnership as much as the United States might have hoped, or that India takes the close relationship for granted. New Delhi's willingness to exploit a serious, but not catastrophic, diplomatic incident for political gain at Washington's expense will produce caution and suspicion in the United States. Despite the public relations pounding New Delhi has meted out, Washington has tried to mend fences and make clear that it values a "mutually respectful" bilateral relationship.

The countries enjoy strong commercial and political ties and have many shared economic and security interests. It would be a shame if this week's spat were to seriously erode good will between the two nations. So far, New Delhi has rejected Washington's expressions of regret and demanded an "unambiguous" apology. New Delhi should stop escalating the crisis, accept Washington's olive branch, and issue more measured responses. This is a crisis that never should have been, and it should be resolved as quickly as possible.