NEW DELHI, Dec 1: Ties between India and the U.S. had never looked better than they did in June, when President Joe Biden honored Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a pomp-filled state visit.
The relationship was among the most consequential in the world and "more dynamic than at any time in history," Biden declared as he stood next to Modi at a press conference.
Those ties could now face their biggest test in recent years, after U.S. prosecutors this week accused an Indian official of directing a plot to assassinate a prominent Sikh separatist leader living in New York City.
As the case unfolds in a New York court, rather than behind closed doors, the two governments may struggle to control the narrative and the fallout, even though it was unlikely to cause more serious long-term damage, experts said.
"They are going to try people (in court). That will pose problems � Quite obviously, things are not going to be the same," said G Parthasarthy, a retired Indian diplomat.
But more damningly, it's the second such accusation in months, following Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's allegations that the Indian government may have been linked to the killing of a Sikh separatist near Vancouver in June.
According to an unsealed indictment released Wednesday, U.S. officials became aware in the spring of a plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American citizen who advocates for the creation of a sovereign Sikh state. India considers him a terrorist.
The plot, which was foiled by U.S. officials who set up a sting, emerged just days after the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, and was meant to precede a string of other politically motivated killings in the United States and Canada, according to the indictment.
Under the indictment, Nikhil Gupta, 52, an Indian national, faces charges including murder for hire. The Indian official was not charged or identified by name in the court filing, which described him as a "senior field officer" with responsibilities in security management and intelligence.
The goal was to kill at least four people in the two countries by June 29, and then more after that, prosecutors contended on Wednesday.
"The US allegations certainly bolster Canada's case from the vantage point that that incident can no longer be viewed as a one-off," said Derek Grossman, an Indo-Pacific analyst at the RAND Corporation.
Both Biden and Trudeau are said to have raised the matter with Modi when they met at the Group of 20 Summit in September in New Delhi.
India's reaction to the two cases has differed sharply. With Canada, it exchanged harsh words as it refuted claims that Trudeau made publicly after returning to Ottawa, with both sides expelling diplomats.
With the U.S., New Delhi's response has been more cooperative.
India's foreign ministry said this week it had set up a high-level committee to investigate the U.S. accusations, adding that the alleged link to an Indian official was "a matter of concern" and "against government policy."
"India's response to Canada was anger, denial, and defiance. Its response to the U.S. was mild and subdued," said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia institute at the Wilson Center, a think tank. �AP