Political parties open arms for diplomat at centre of U.S. row

NEW DELHI Fri Jan 10, 2014 9:05pm IST

Members of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of ruling Congress party, shout slogans during a protest in front of the U.S consulate in Mumbai December 20, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Members of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of ruling Congress party, shout slogans during a protest in front of the U.S consulate in Mumbai December 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Diplomat Devyani Khobragade, heading home from the United States after she was indicted for visa fraud in a case that has strained bilateral ties, could have a political career for the asking.

Ahead of national elections that must be held by May, parties are preparing to crown her as a hero in a case seen as standing up to the United States and, if she wanted, offer her a political career. It signals how the case has stirred nationalist feelings among many Indians.

There is no sign that Khobragade, 39, is considering politics. Foreign ministry, which fully backed her in her month-long battle against U.S. prosecutors, has said she will be given a new assignment in New Delhi.

But one party based in her home state of Maharashtra said it would talk to her about running for parliament.

"We will be meeting her soon. She is an inspiration to the people of our country," said Mayur Borkar, the spokesman of the Republican Party of India. "We are going to offer her a ticket."

Samajwadi party which governs Uttar Pradesh and is one of India's most important regional parties, has offered Khobragade a seat from the state even though she is an outsider.

"Whatever happened with her is condemnable," said Azam Khan, the state's urban development minister.

A federal grand jury in New York indicted deputy consul general Khobragade on Thursday for visa fraud and providing false statements about payments made to her domestic helper but the officer was allowed to leave the United States because of diplomatic immunity.

Her arrest last month set off protests in India amid disclosures she was handcuffed and strip-searched and demands from the government the case be dropped and an apology given.

A government official said that Khobragade had been transferred to New Delhi and suggested it was too early to determine the nature of her new assignment.

"Let us focus on her return. After her return, the government will think about further action," the official said.

Khobragade would have to quit the diplomatic service if she were to choose a political career. It is not unusual for government officials to enter politics, but most have done so after retirement.

Her father Uttam Khobragade, who has lobbied hard to build support, said Devyani was already in public life and that offers from political parties were common. But he added this was not the best time for his daughter to make long-time decisions.

ASSIGNMENTS

Before New York, Khobragade, who is a medical doctor by training, was posted in Germany, Italy and Pakistan.

Within India's diplomatic service, a posting to old enemy Pakistan is considered one of the most difficult assignments and usually only the brightest officers are sent there, an official said.

Khobragade served a three-year term in Pakistan from 2007 even though the government gives officers the option to move out after a year because of difficult security conditions.

"She didn't have a problem in Islamabad where you would expect to face challenges. This (the row) happened in a country supposed to be a strategic partner," the official said.

Salman Haider, a former top Indian diplomat, said Khobragade's career was unlikely to suffer even though any future assignment to the United States was not on the cards.

"This has been a bruising experience, she would have lots of sympathy," he said. "I would imagine she would be deployed in a manner that would be appropriate with her experience and seniority."

"I think professionally she should come out of it alright."

(Additional reporting by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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