WASHINGTON: US energy secretary Ernest Moniz has postponed a visit to India and the New Delhi government has ordered the US Embassy to close a club for expatriate Americans as a worsening diplomatic row exposed fault lines between the world’s two most populous democracies.
Furious at the arrest, handcuffing and strip search of its deputy consul in New York last month, India has reacted by curtailing privileges offered to US diplomats. The Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was accused by prosecutors of underpaying her nanny and lying on a visa application.
Nearly a month on, the dispute has started to affect the wider relationship between the countries, with two high-level visits by US officials postponed.
US assistant secretary of state for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal has delayed her first visit to India, which was due on January 6 to avoid it becoming embroiled in the dispute.
On Wednesday, an official of the US energy department said Moniz would no longer travel to India as planned next week, the most serious repercussion yet in the row over Khobragade’s arrest.
She is due in court on Monday after her lawyers failed in an attempt to delay the case. In an order issued on Wednesday, US magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn in Manhattan refused to extend the January 13 deadline by which a preliminary hearing must be held or an indictment filed in the case.
In asking Netburn on Monday to extend the deadline, Khobragade’s lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said it was negatively interfering with plea negotiations with the government. But Netburn ruled that Arshack had only sought a delay of the preliminary hearing and that such an extension would not alter the deadline for filing an indictment.
Both the US and India have said their relationship is important and will not be allowed to deteriorate — Washington needs New Delhi on its side as US troops pull out of Afghanistan and as a counterbalance to a rising China. Millions of Indians have made the United States their home and bilateral trade is worth about $100bn a year.
But the dispute over Khobragade has plunged the two countries into a crisis described by Indian media as the worst since New Delhi tested a nuclear device in 1998.
The aim of Moniz’s trip was to promote trade and investment in the energy sector. The talks usually include discussions of civil nuclear trade between India and the United States.
The energy department official called the energy partnership a key element of the overall strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi.
“In view of the importance of these matters to the overall bilateral relationship, we look forward to holding the energy dialogue at a mutually convenient date in the near future that will permit both sides to deliver concrete outcomes for both governments and our two peoples,” he said.
India and the United States signed an agreement on nuclear energy cooperation in 2009, during the administration of former US president George W Bush, a high point in a relationship that is widely considered to have drifted since.
“I’m a little worried it may spin out of control,” said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the United States who has also served as India’s top diplomat and is now retired.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stressed the importance of relations with India and said the United States “endeavours to always be in compliance with local laws and regulations”.
“We are continuing our conversations with the Indian government ... with the importance of the broad strategic US-India partnership firmly in mind,” she said. Asked at a briefing if the United States was concerned by the Indian action, she said: “As we have concerns we will express them privately.”
India is also preparing to take steps against the embassy school, which it suspects may be employing some staff in violation of visa requirements, a government source said.
Despite an overall improvement in ties since the end of the Cold War, the Khobragade dispute has brought a lingering wariness between the two countries into the open. Over the past year, there has been increasing friction over trade, intellectual property rights and visas for Indian IT workers.