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April 01, 2014

US Ambassador’s Resignation Could Improve India Ties

by Anjana Pasricha

The resignation of the U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell could pave the way for improved ties with India. Observers hope the veteran diplomat's departure will reset ties that have been rocky since the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York.  

Powell's resignation came as no surprise in New Delhi. Reports about her imminent exit had swirled in the Indian capital for weeks following a rough patch in ties between the two countries.
 
In  Washington Monday, U.S. State Department spokesperson, Marie Harf, denied reports that Powell’s resignation is linked to a recent diplomatic spat. Harf said the diplomat is retiring after a distinguished career.
 
“It is in no way related to any tension, any recent situations. There’s no big behind-the-scenes story here,” she told reporters.

Clean slate
 
​ ​​In New Delhi however, analysts saw it as a move by Washington to wipe the slate clean [reset relations] on the ugly row over the arrest and strip search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York. They say it also sets the stage for doing business with a new Indian government, which will be in place by end of May.
 
Khobragade has returned to India but her arrest last December on charges of underpaying her nanny has not been forgotten in Delhi.   
 
Upcoming election
  ​​However the bigger problem looming in bilateral ties is the U.S. approach so far to the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi. According to polls he could win enough votes to form a new government after elections conclude in mid May.    
 
It was during Ambassador Powell’s tenure that Modi emerged on the national political stage and became a serious challenger to the Congress-led government.
 
Modi had been barred from traveling to the U.S. and several Western countries for not doing enough to stop the 2002 religious riots that killed 1000 people, mostly Muslims in his Gujarat state. But several European countries built diplomatic bridges with him last year.
 
Powell held her first meeting with Modi only six weeks ago.  Analysts in New Delhi describe her move as “too little, too late.”
 
Chairman of the Center for U.S and Latin American studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Chintamani Mahapatra, says Washington has been slow in reaching out to Modi.
 
“There are certain issues which could have been handled in a slightly better way. 2005 was the year when he was denied a visa and it is 2014, almost eight years plus have passed and no serious steps have been taken yet, although Powell met him. This is not the language if they want to really reset the button. That is why I think Washington is making a subtle move and trying to have a new kind of interaction with potentially a new government in Delhi," said Mahapatra.
          
Powell will leave her post by the end of May. Observers in New Delhi hope that the new ambassador will be a “political heavyweight” and not a career diplomat like Powell.
 
“This gives an opportunity for the U.S. administration to start a process by appointing an important person as an ambassador who can restore the strategic partnership between the two countries and interactions will be more cordial and friendly rather than exchange of bitter words," said New Delhi observer Mahapatra.
 
Other observers say diplomatic and trade tensions during Powell’s tenure escalated following a period of drift in ties between the two countries as both the Obama administration and the Indian government failed to tap the relationship’s potential.