New Delhi: Typical of the United Progressive Alliance regime, it is speaking in two voices on the Devyani Khobragade incident, and with the general elections shortly due, this will badly rebound on the Congress party. The United States, if it needs reminding, is not India, which the United Progressive Alliance has administered shabbily and corruptly for ten years, plundered, and left economically shattered.

Kamal Nath and Manish Tewari have demanded that the United States apologize for the outrage and drop the charges against the former Indian consul of New York. The United States has refused. The external affairs minister who was so far voluble has lapsed into silence. In justification, Salman Khursheed says that talks are on with the American side. He should be aware that the good cop-bad cop routine cannot impress the United States, and at the same time, India will not accept anything less than what the government has promised on the Devyani Khobragade issue.

The United States is not generous with apologies, but it has given in on a few occasions with friendly states, and where the geopolitical demands are compelling. America never apologized for downing an Iranian airliner and killing all its 290 passengers, including 66 children, over the Strait of Hormuz in July 1988. Nor was there the smallest contrition for bombing a Kandahar, Afghanistan, wedding party with seven 2000 pounders in 2002 in which an entire village was obliterated. On the other hand, president Bill Clinton publicly apologized for the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 because the Chinese wouldn’t stand for anything less.

Given this background, this writer is not very hopeful that the United States will succumb to Indian demands, especially in the hawkish way they have been conveyed by Kamal Nath and Manish Tewari today. Kamal Nath was not permitted to become commerce minister again by Manmohan Singh under United States’ pressure so his arrival on the scene is telling, even if as parliamentary affairs minister, he has a role to convey Parliament’s anguish about the incident to the world. With the tough-talking Manish Tewari drafted into the attack, it means the United Progressive Alliance visualizes the Devyani Khobragade affair as a political battle to be fought with the United States, where the foreign ministry is reduced to a post office.

Is this so?

If it is, India should be prepared for a bruising engagement. After having kowtowed to the United States for decades, the other side would be hard-pressed to discover a spine in the Indian government. The withdrawal of special privileges to United States’ consular officers counts for little, because on the reciprocity principle, on which international law sustains, they should not have been extended in the first place. The United States may have issues with the removal of concrete barriers outside its embassy in Central Delhi, but if security is not impaired, there can be no cause for complaint.

The real test will come when India realizes it is addressing a wall, and that the United States is not about to bend. What happens then? Tall promises have been made to Parliament. The country has been thoroughly aroused. It cannot be business as usual any longer. Sooner than later, the government would be compelled to raise the ante. Which means many things, but it could be something as significant as paring the Indian diplomatic and consular strength in the United States, and pressuring America to follow suit here. Would the Manmohan Singh government dare this?

Ultimately, it boils down to one question. Between India and the United States, who needs who more? The brutal answer is that neither needs the other quite as much as is made out, which is why relations between the two giant democracies are languishing. This has been the character of their ties since independence, so it cannot really surprise anyone. India’s rise, such as it is, is entirely on account of its own entrepreneurial genius. But since the United States has huge and growing stakes in the Indian Ocean region, and because global power and economic might have substantially shifted to Asia, America loses more from Indian disgruntlement than vice versa.

If so, then India has an upper hand. But this whole sorry episode should also come as a wakeup call to India in other ways. It should be assumed and accepted as the “tide in the affairs of men” that Brutus speaks of,

        ‘...Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
        Omitted, all the voyage of their life
        Is bound in shallows and miseries.
        On such a full sea are we now afloat,
        And we must take the current when it serves,
        Or lose our ventures.’

The Devyani Khobragade issue is messy, to be sure, but it strikes unambiguously at India’s sovereign honour and pride. The indignities that Devyani suffered are unacceptable, and they have destroyed the friendly basis of India-United States relations. An accredited country representative cannot be put through the horror and shame of a strip search and confined with criminals. India has no choice but to take this is a dismal watershed in relations with the United States. In a few days, this country may have to harden its stance, and there can be no looking back.