India says it wants to be a great power. It didn’t act like one this week.

December 18, 2013

The U.S. embassy compound in New Delhi, now free of concrete security barricades. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

In the week since New York police arrested and strip-searched an Indian deputy consul Devyani Khobragade for allegedly lying on her maid's visa application, the Indian government has responded with an escalating and strangely petty series of reprisals. It's not the most consequential diplomatic spat this year or even this month, but it's a revealing indication of how easily India will put aside its long-stated desire to be treated like a great power. Despite running a country that is by every objective standard very big and important, Indian leaders seem to prefer the aggrieved victimhood of a much weaker state.

As part of the official backlash, the U.S. consular staff in India have had their identity cards and airport passes revoked, as have their family members. Indian authorities are checking to see what U.S. consular employees pay their domestic workers (the Indian deputy consul was allegedly caught paying her maid only $573 a month, about a tenth of what she reported paying). The U.S. embassy is also now barred from importing liquor. More seriously, Indian authorities removed the concrete security barriers that protect the U.S. embassy compound. One Indian official has called for police to imprison and "punish" any gay spouses of American diplomats in India.

It can be easy to forget that the government so busying itself with punishing these American diplomats also rules over 1.2 billion Indian citizens. Partly, this is no doubt a play to score some domestic political points: that the United States has arrested and strip-searched a middle-class Indian woman has caused shock and outrage in the Indian media and public. (That a lower-class Indian maid has been mistreated by her Indian employer is treated as neither shocking nor outrageous.) Still, the scale of India's reaction seems to go well beyond just nodding to public opinion.

The most telling reaction may have come from Narendra Modi, a prominent Indian politician who could become the next prime minister and leads a major political party. Modi, among other political figures, has refused to meet with a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation. Unlike, say, the U.S. embassy ban on imported liquor, this is the sort of step that can have non-negligible implications for the U.S.-India relationship, particularly if Modi becomes prime minister.

To be clear, strip-searching a foreign deputy consul is also very bad diplomacy. But the difference is that, barring what would be a very shocking revelation to the contrary, the strip-search was surely ordered by a local police official and not by, say, Secretary of State John Kerry. Had someone called Kerry or President Obama and asked "should we strip search this Indian deputy consul" the answer would surely have been "please don't do that." It's now on Kerry and Obama to fix the damage, yes, but the U.S. mistake here is just of a categorically different nature than an Indian leader going out of his way to deliberately cause offense for the sake of causing it.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter so much whether these Indian leaders are genuinely outraged or just scoring political points. In either case, they've shown that maintaining even the pretense of positive relations with the United States is not a top priority for them. That's certainly valid – there's nothing that requires countries to value foreign relations highly – but it contradicts India's long-stated desire to be treated as the rising power it often claims to be.

Indian leaders frequently talk about getting the rest of the world to recognize their country as a world power, often by comparing their country to China. This status-seeking comes in many forms – a national space program, for example – but it often plays out in India's up-and-down relationship with the United States, which suggests a real insecurity about the bigger role India says it wants.

India has oscillated many times between cozying up to the United States as a global peer and defying the United States to demonstrate its national independence. An example of the former is India's long-running request that the U.S. sponsor it to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, something the Obama administration has hinted it could one day support. An example of the latter is this week's display.

In its relationship with other global powers and particularly the West, India often defaults to playing the role of an aggrieved victim, of a country much smaller and weaker than it actually is. That's what's happening right now with the spat over the diplomat. Punishing diplomats and pulling out embassy security barriers are the acts of a much smaller, weaker country. So is indulging populist sentiment at the expense of national self-interest.

Many Germans were outraged by NSA spying in their country (arguably a more substantial complaint than one Indian diplomat's arrest). And the German government made that outrage heard – but they did it through the standard channels of international relations. Could you imagine German leaders revoking Americans' diplomatic passes, calling for the arrests of gay diplomatic spouses or removing the security barricades from the U.S. embassy in Berlin? Probably not. When Russia arrested a U.S. diplomat under very strange circumstances earlier this year, no one blocked the Russian embassy in Washington from importing liquor.

It's not a divide between developed and developing countries. China, the rising power that India so frequently compares itself to, isn't shy about defying the U.S. but is still much more careful in managing the relationship. Leaders in Brazil, a large and developing country not so unlike India, have reacted severely to NSA spying revelations. But, like in Germany, they've responded with traditional tools of state power. India possesses these tools as well; it's a much stronger and more powerful country than this week's antics would suggest. It doesn't need to block the U.S. embassy from importing liquor to make itself heard.

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