January 22, 2020
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Pot Calling The Kettle Black

The Indian embassy is accused of trying to influence voters against India-baiting Senators

Pot Calling The Kettle Black

A storm has been brewing for a while between Representative Dan Burton and the Indian Embassy in Washington. The fire-breathing legislator from Indiana—who has become the chief India-baiter on Capitol Hill over the last six years—has accused the Indian Embassy of a breach in diplomatic protocol and of interference in the internal affairs of the US. Even if Burton's allegations are more incendiary than accurate, it has caused some degree of embarrassment to India.

It all began on December 8, when former ambassador Siddhartha Shankar Ray spoke at the Annual Convention of the Indian American Forum for Political Education in Lowell, Massachusetts. Referring to a newspaper advertisement by South Dakota Democrats urging Senator Larry Pressler's defeat, Ray said: "Sisters and brothers, each and every one of you must see to it that this advertisement is proved wrong. Please make sure Larry Pressler goes to the Senate again."

Less than a month later, on January 5, the right-wing Washington Times published a report that Ray had given a "resounding political endorsement to the re-election of Senator Pressler" and quoted Rifat Hussain of the Pakistan Embassy who made some pious strictures about "improper" conduct for an ambassador. Says Hussain: "Diplomatic propriety would demand that an ambassador remain above the fray."

An article about Ray appeared in a largely muckraking West Coast-based Indian American publication, India Post , which criticised the ambassador for dabbling in US political affairs. Asked how the Washington Times could have picked up the story, a diplomatic source said: "All it needs is for some busybody—possibly someone in the Pakistan Embassy—to have sent the Times the India Post story."

The next episode in the serial drama saw Shyamala Cowsik, deputy chief of mission of the Indian Embassy, mass mailing a circular to Indian Americans on January 30. She wrote to remind the community that Representative Robert Torricelli—the Democratic legislator from New Jersey who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Bill Bradley—"has consistently been a strong critic of India" and "the original cosponsor, along with Congressman Dan Burton, of the amendment (H.R. 1425) to suspend development assistance to India." Although Cowsik did not ask Indian Americans to vote against Torricelli, she reminded them that he intends to take up legislation attacking India.

What happened next was not unexpected. A furious Torricelli said he was "very surprised that the Indian government would attempt to intervene in a domestic political contest. This is highly unethical. I've never seen a foreign government do this."

By then, the fat was very much in the fire. With more ammunition to attack the Embassy, Burton wrote to Secretary of State Warren Christopher on February 12, accusing the Embassy of "inappropriate involvement in domestic US politics", of seeking to intervene in election races, and of a "serious violation of diplomatic protocol".

On March 20, Barbara Larkin, Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs at the State Department, replied to Burton. Regarding the "allegations of improper behaviour by the Indian Embassy," said the letter, "we have raised the episodes you mention and have been reassured of India's continued commitment to non-interference in the domestic political affairs of any state".

While Larkin's letter did not go into the specifics of how diplomatic protocol had been breached or if it had been breached at all, it does not deny that a breach occurred.

Outlook spoke to an Administration official who had served in India to find out how he viewed the appropriateness or otherwise of the Embassy's conduct. The official made no bones about it: "A diplomat doesn't do this, that is, urge people to vote for or against a particular candidate. It's one thing for a diplomat to lobby for a bill and quite another to get involved in the electoral process." Does he consider it a breach of protocol? "Yes," he replied uncompromisingly.

But is that not a holier-than-thou attitude? In fact, it is somewhat amusing for an American to accuse any one else of interfering in that country. There are countless documented cases of US interference in the internal affairs of countries worldwide—in Southeast Asia, in Africa, in Central and Latin America. For instance, had the US or its agencies not undermined a government in Nicaragua, propped up an unpopular right-wing dictatorship in Salvador, overthrown a regime in Chile, or plotted assassinations of foreign leaders in Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and the Congo? Without denying that those events had occurred, the official responded: "You're talking about countries where civil wars were taking place and the US intervened to stop communist governments from coming to power. This is a different issue. Here diplomats are accused of undermining the electoral process." 

He added: "There would be howls of protest in India if Ambassador Frank Wisner or Assistant Secretary Robin Raphel tried to influence an election by supporting an Indian candidate or party. Why would you expect it to be any different here?"

In case any reminder is needed, Chile, for instance, hardly falls in the category of nations witnessing civil wars. A left wing president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown and killed and the army took over with American help.

A second Administration source was less critical. "Frankly, it wasn't so bad. I don't think it was a big deal," he said. He does not believe the Embassy actions constituted a breach of protocol. "Protocol is based on tradition, it's not codified. Diplomats are expected to keep a distance from the goings-on of a country to which they are accredited. Ray was the first Indian ambassador to recognise the strengths of the Indian-American community. He realised that this was a strong current of sentiment to tap into...we are definitely not condemning Ambassador Ray. We do not deem his actions as interference. The standards of how countries deal with each other are evolving. The behaviour of diplomats is evolving. You have to look at it in that context." 

He added: "We think the ambassador has been very effective in many ways, especially in working the decision-making system. He may have been overzealous and certain actions of his may have undercut his effectiveness. You can't win every battle." What does he think of Burton's India-baiting? "He does raise some valid issues. We agree that there are valid human rights concerns, especially in Punjab and Kashmir, and we share those concerns."

Shiv Mukherji, the Indian Embassy spokesman, defends Ray and Cowsik. "No exhortations of any kind were made by them." He denies that the Administration had spoken to the Embassy about an alleged breach of protocol.

But had the Embassy in fact breached protocol? "They may have been a trifle indiscreet," says a prominent Washington lobbyist. However, whether Ray and Cowsik had crossed the line or not, most experts believe diplomats should stay out of the electoral process and especially out of partisan politics and fund-raising.

This is not the first time the Embassy has stumbled. During the 1992 Presidential elections, Deputy Chief of Mission Lalit Mansingh attended a fund-raiser for then vice-president Dan Quayle, causing a press fur-ore. In 1994, Mansingh's successor Kanwal Sibal and two of his colleagues attended another Republican fund-raiser. 

What is Burton's interest in all this and why is he constantly trying to demonise the Indian Government? Questions put to the legislator's office were met with a stony silence. The conventional wisdom is that Burton gets large amounts of funds from separatist Sikh and Kashmiri organisations. Said a journalist: "Why else would he have become a regular spokesman for disgruntled Indian groups if he wasn't receiving large amounts of money from them?" Whether or not Pakistanis are also contributing to him is unknown. 

How seriously does the Administration take Burton? Is he regarded as something of a weirdo? Said an Administration insider: "We take all Congressmen seriously". Said another: "He is definitely committed." According to a Capitol Hill source, Burton is reported to have declared his strongest allegiance to the Sikh cause, "My feet are set in concrete," he once said, meaning that he is unlikely to be swayed in his opinions about India's alleged human rights violations against Sikhs.

Burton has himself been very deeply involved in the American funding of the Afghan mujahideen, when they were fighting the Soviet forces. He closely worked with the Pakistanis then. Iran has been his other favourite punching bag.

An Indian-American scientist based in Indianapolis, R. Nagarajan, who works for a pharmaceuticals firm, is running against Burton in the forthcoming elections. He said: "Burton has $1 million in his campaign chest. Running against him is like running against Goliath." Nagarajan alleges that Burton is getting his money from Sikhs and Kashmiris and castigates the press for "not getting to the bottom of this to find out if Burton is breaking any Federal Election Commission laws." 

He claims he has seen many Sikh names on a list of donors to Burton's campaign. As opposed to Burton's reported $1 million, Nagarajan has raised only $18,000. He says Indiana voters deserve better than Burton. "Why is he being returned to Congress when he is focussed on India, not Indiana? Why is he fighting the battles of Sikhs and Kashmiris instead of fighting the battles for Indiana?"

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