US ambassador to India Nancy Powell resigns after arrest, strip-search row

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 10:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 3:49am

The US ambassador to India has resigned following a row over the arrest of a junior Indian diplomat in New York that pushed relations between the world's biggest democracies to their lowest ebb in more than a decade.

US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denied on Monday that Nancy Powell's resignation was related to ongoing tensions after the December arrest and subsequent strip search of the Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade.

[Powell’s resignation] is in no way related to any tension, any recent situations

Analysts said it was clear the position of Powell, a career diplomat who has held several postings in South Asia and became the ambassador to India in 2012, had become untenable as a result of the affair.

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 Narendra Modi, the opposition candidate who is favourite to become India's next prime minister after elections that end in May, saw the arrest as US hypocrisy and arrogance.

Powell met Modi in February. The meeting ended a decade-long US boycott of Modi and brought Washington's policy in line with other major powers that had shunned him because of deadly religious riots that occurred on his watch, but have now warmed to a man who has overseen fast economic growth in his home state of Gujarat.

However, Powell's meeting with Modi was delayed by two months because of the row over Khobragade, an aide to the candidate said. A US congressional aide said this was a problem Powell had faced in dealing with other officials as well.

"I had heard she wasn't really getting meetings with government officials after Khobragade. And that's an important part of the job. My sense is that would likely only continue with a new government," said the aide.

Harf said: "It is in no way related to any tension, any recent situations ... This is the end of a distinguished 37-year career."

After Khobragade's arrest, officials in New Delhi said India bristled at Powell as soon as she was appointed in 2012, since she was not seen as a political appointee close to the White House.

In an interview in January, one official close to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh described Powell as a "lemon".

The US sees India as a natural ally and a potential counterbalance to China in Asia. In 2010, US President Barack Obama declared that the US-India relationship would be "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century".

Persis Khambatta of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank said it was clear Washington had underestimated the depth of feeling in India over the Khobragade affair.