The most hated man in India is exactly who the country needs right now

Indians are burning flags in protest of a diplomat’s recent arrest.
Indians are burning flags in protest of a diplomat’s recent arrest.
Image: AP Photo/Arun Sankar K
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Perhaps few Americans are as hated in India as Preet Bharara right now. Ironically, he’s just the kind of administrator Indians sorely need.

The great Devyani Khobragade imbroglio of 2013 seems to have all but moved on to that place in the sky where most Indian controversies seem to flit away into after the mandatory fortnight-long news and social media frenzy. (Remember Madhura Honey? Mullaperiyar Dam? The poisoned schoolchildren? And that map of the most racist countries in the world? Don’t worry. Neither does anybody else.)

There is a lingering feeling that many of the details of this case remains unknown to the public. A fog of conjecture now envelopes the case. Was nanny Sangeeta Richard, the subject of Khobragade’s visa fraud, a CIA agent? Khobragade’s father seems to think so. And why didn’t US authorities extend the same procedural courtesies to Khobragade that they had extended to other foreign diplomats charged with similar infractions? There is no doubt that US authorities could have been handled this with far less potential for international acrimony. Why didn’t they?

All that remains are unanswered questions … and Preet Bharara, the US Attorney overseeing the Khobragade case.

This rising star of the US legal system is the subject of much ire and scrutiny in India right now. (That he is an Indian-American only makes things worse.)

Bharara has a remarkable track record of taking on the biggest and baddest of big and bad guys. Bernie Madoff, Rajat Gupta, the Gambino crime family, Bank of America, cannibal policemen, and Republican senators have all fallen foul of Bharara’s commitment to uphold the law.

All this came after a formidable education. Bharara excelled in almost every institution he stepped into: high school, Harvard and Columbia. He also appears to be a good communicator who likes to convey his thoughts with a certain disregard for political correctness. A 2011 New Yorker profile quotes Bharara justifying the use of wire taps to catch insider traders: “When sophisticated business people begin to adopt the methods of common criminals, we have no choice but to treat them as such.”

It is this same attitude that seems to have won him so much Indian venom on the Khobragade incident. After days of outrage in the Indian media, Bharara released a statement on Dec. 19 to clarify his position. “One wonders,” he says, “why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?”

This was a particularly pointed barb in a statement of many barbs.

But what miffed many Indians most was his nonchalant justification of the strip search that the diplomat was subject to. “It is true that she was fully searched by a female Deputy Marshal—in a private setting—when she was brought into the U.S. Marshals’ custody, but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not, in order to make sure that no prisoner keeps anything on his person that could harm anyone, including himself.”

There were suggestions that Bharara was fueled by ambition. That he was hunting for scalps.

What is most infuriating, perhaps, is that Bharara seems to be pushing on with criminal proceedings irrespective of the damage to Indo-US relations he leaves in his wake. Sources told that “anything is possible as Bharara doesn’t give a toss about diplomatic niceties or what India thinks.”

There is a certain paradox in all this Bharara-hate in India. Bharara, it appears, is exactly the kind of public administrator that Indians crave and the country sorely needs: The well-educated, respected—if not particularly liked—public administrator who stands up to the really powerful bad guys, pursues them relentlessly, is driven by a certain sense of morality, uses every trick in the book, communicates clearly, and doesn’t let political pressure from up above puncture his enthusiasm. When the rare such Indian pops up—Sreedharan of the Delhi Metro and Ashok Khemka come to mind—they are immediately propped up on a pedestal, faults and all.

But somehow an outsider doing the pointing transposes black into white, good into bad, and “not giving a toss” to “looking for scalps.” Such is the prism, and hypocrisy, of international acrimony.