On the Contrary

A Crisis of Opportunism

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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On the flawed characters in the Devyani Khobragade drama
In the latest twist to the Devyani Khobragade saga, a US court recently quashed the indictment against the IFS officer, and a day later prosecutor Preet Bharara reindicted her for visa fraud. If a movie is ever made around the events surrounding Khobragade, it would be interesting to ask who would be the hero or heroine.

It will not be Khobragade, given that she allegedly lied in the visa application for her domestic help to avoid paying minimum wages as per US law. It’s always nice to have a servant but most people don’t have one in the US precisely because of the minimum wage; the reason to lie on the form was to have one cheap. In her first letter to her colleagues after her arrest, Khobragade asked for swift and strict action ‘to preserve the dignity of our service which is unquestionably under siege.’ It is hard to see where the national interest is in all this, unless the future of the country is umbilically connected to IFS officers not washing their own dishes.

The heroine of the drama cannot be the maid, Sangeeta Richards, because she agreed to work at the pay specified, which was much more than what she would have gotten here in India. She realised the rights accruing her after she landed in the US and then allegedly tried to profit from it. If working conditions were tough, all she had to do was return to India. She is divorcing her husband, so it’s an ambition that has come at a price.

The hero is definitely not Preet Bharara. To Bharara, and the creed of public prosecutors in that country, all high profile cases are stepping stones to a career in politics. The only curiosity is the Indian media repeatedly talking about his Indian origins as if that makes him a traitor. For a man who is angling for American votes in the future, Indianness will be somewhat at the bottom of the list of things to flaunt.

The hero is not Uttam Khobragade, Devyani’s father, who seemed for a while to be pulling all his ex-IAS strings to protect his daughter. But along the way, he joined the Republican Party of India and started scouting for a Lok Sabha ticket. He thus tried to turn the crisis into an opportunity. In principle, that is not so wrong, but in the present case, is somewhat distasteful.

The hero is not the Indian Govern- ment. Soon after Devyani’s arrest, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the action ‘deplorable’. After the reindictment, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said the episode was ‘irksome’. From ‘deplorable’ to ‘irksome’ is a long journey for an adjective and it is one made on wings of frustration and cowardice.

For instance, in the initial ploy to even things out, information was demanded from the US embassy here about what American diplomats were paying their maids and tax evasions. What has happened to this information? Did we get it? Why not make it public? The absence of answers means we are presumably back to the golden mean of not annoying superpowers. Khurshid’s statement of irksomeness included a desire to not just maintain relations but enhance them. How can one not admire the imagination that wants relations to improve as a consequence of the Khobragade incident?

The only thing common in all characters in this quasi tragedy is opportunism. The moral of the story is that a little bit of privilege and greed can go a long way to make a fine mess.