Khobragade, not Modi: Why Nancy Powell resigned


Namaskar, my name is Nancy Powell… I am delighted to be returning to India where I have lived and worked in Kolkata and New Delhi.. I am anxious to reconnect with old friends and revisit my favourite places”, said an optimistic ambassador designate in a YouTube video message to India, shortly before she was scheduled to take over the diplomatic mission. She was the first woman ambassador the US had sent to India and holds the prestigious title of career ambassador.

Now here we are, barely two years later, where in a sudden decision the veteran diplomat has submitted her resignation to US President Barack Obama.

Powell, who made a brief statement, did not elaborate on her reasons but said that her decision was “planned for some time” and that she would retire by the end of May in the eastern US state of Delaware. But what went wrong? The two reasons being offered are Devyani Khobragade and Narendra Modi. US diplomats came under criticism for not responding more quickly and forcefully to calm the furor after Khobragade’s arrest. In India’s eyes, Powell’s tenure never recovered from Khobragade’s treatment. India took retaliatory measures against the US embassy, including removing the ambassador’s exemption from airport security searches. Many Indian officials felt Powell had mishandled the case, which was related to the low wages that Khobragade paid a domestic worker. Both the Indian government and opposition saw the arrest as US hypocrisy and arrogance. In response, India clamped down on alleged legal infractions by the embassy, including the visa status of teachers at the American Embassy School, an institution central to the lives of many expatriate employees of US corporations in Delhi.

According to a report in India Today: It was a series of diplomatic cables sent on behalf of US ambassador Nancy Powell that led to her being forced to resign by the US State Department, which didn’t want to be saddled with the Nancy legacy for doing business with a new government in New Delhi. Top diplomatic sources said that Powell-authorised cables during diplomat Devyani Khobragade arrest row described the Indian position as weak and that it will not escalate the matter as the country was in an election mode, the reverse happened because of elections round the corner there was an unprecedented Indian anger and response which dipped the relationship to an all time low.

A US congressional aide said Powell had found it difficult to arrange meetings with Indian officials since the incident. “She was there at a fairly tough time, when political churn on both sides made it difficult to do anything big in the relationship. So, with elections coming up, it’s a natural time for the US to start anew with a new government,” the aide told AFP on condition of anonymity. “I think it’s fair to say that she’s been caught in a negative news cycle about India-US relations and, irrespective of why she resigned, the appointment of a new ambassador at a time of electoral transition in India could have positive benefits,” said Milan Vaishnav, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. According to this report in India Today, Powell had been criticised for being absent from Delhi — ostensibly on treks around the country — and the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi had informed the interlocutors in Washington that her conduct was not helpful to the relationship. India Today also claims that “Powell was blamed for not advising the Washington to do business with Narendra Modi” even though she is the one who broke the longstanding chill by meeting Narendra Modi in February. The United States had earlier refused Modi a visa on human rights grounds over the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Despite the controversy in Washington over Modi, most policymakers agreed that the United States needed to reach out to him due to the likelihood he will become prime minister. The two held a wide-ranging discussion in which Modi not only talked about various initiatives of his government and terrorism but also bilateral ties and Afghanistan -– a signal he was looking beyond the western state and preparing for a larger role.

“The United States looks forward to working closely with the government that the Indian people choose in the upcoming elections,” a US embassy statement said, adding Powell also discussed human rights issues with Modi and others. Asked about what rights issues were discussed, diplomatic sources said, “These were spoken about in a general sense, nothing specific was considered”. However, contrary to rumours, there is little to indicate that Powell’s exit has anything to do with the US government’s contentious history with Modi.

It is more likely an attempt to use a new ambassador to reboot a flailing relationship — and to demonstrate India’s importance after high-profile appointments to China and Japan. Persis Khambatta of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said it was important for the United States to replace Powell in a timely manner with “a heavy-hitter” to show it considered India a real strategic partner.

“If India is to be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, we should send out diplomats that send that signal and carry that influence and gravitas that are needed.” Prior to President Barack Obama’s nominating her as Ambassador to India, Powell was Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources. She was the United States Ambassador to Nepal from August 2007 to August 2009. From 2006-2007, she served as the National Intelligence Officer for South Asia at the National Intelligence Council, as the State Department’s Senior Coordinator for Avian Influenza, and as Acting Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Activities, says the US department of state.




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