Indian diplomat at heart of row with US urged to stand for parliament

India's Deputy Consul General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, attends a Rutgers University event at India's Consulate General in New York, June 19, 2013. An Indian political party has urged the woman at the centre of a diplomatic storm in the U
India's Deputy Consul General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, attends a Rutgers University event at India's Consulate General in New York, June 19, 2013. An Indian political party has urged the woman at the centre of a diplomatic storm in the United States to stand for parliament, highlighting how public outrage has turned the case into a battleground for votes ahead of next year's election. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - An Indian political party has urged the woman at the centre of a diplomatic storm in the United States to stand for parliament, highlighting how public outrage has turned the case into a battleground for votes ahead of next year's election.

Dr Devyani Khobragade stands accused in New York of fraudulently obtaining a work visa for her housekeeper and paying a fraction of the minimum wage.

Furious that one of its foreign service officers had been handcuffed and subjected to a strip search like "a common criminal", India on Tuesday removed security barriers outside the United States embassy in New Delhi and withdrew some privileges accorded to American diplomats.

Politicians, including the leaders of the two main parties, refused to meet a delegation of visiting US lawmakers.

"Because of the election, they will try to outdo each other," said Ms Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst and a former political editor of Indian Express newspaper.

"They don't want to be seen as weak on the issue when the mood in the country is one of huge anger about this." The regional Samajwadi Party offered to put Dr Khobragade up as a candidate in the election, due to be held by May, in one of the parliamentary constituencies in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, whose voters could swing the outcome.

"Whatever happened with her is condemnable," said Mr Azam Khan, the state's urban development minister, according to media reports. "If she returns to India, we are ready to give her a ticket for the 2014 polls." Seizing on the fact that Dr Khobragade was a lower-caste Hindu, the leader of a regional party that champions the rights of millions at the bottom of India's social hierarchy, accused the government of reacting slowly because of her caste.

"If this woman was from another caste, the central government wouldn't have delayed taking action for so long,"said Ms Mayawati, head of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh.

Competition for the votes of low-caste "Dalits", who account for about 16.5 per cent of the population, is intense.

"Had it not been for the election, or had she come from an upper caste, this would not have gained mass appeal. It's a very competitive time and all the parties have to show a pro-Dalit face," said Dr Ajay Gudavarthy of the politics department at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.