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India, Italy can still reconcile, and should

March 13, 2013 13:19 IST

'Indian diplomacy should be allowed a free hand and politicians should step aside.'

'It is difficult to see that happening, but it can happen -- and it should in the spirit of a mature democracy,' says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

The detention of the two Italian Marines in India for over a year following the killing of two Kerala fishermen has snowballed into an impasse in India-Italy relations, which threatens to cascade to crisis proportions unless carefully handled.

Is there scope for a way out of the impasse? Yes, there is.

Does South Block have the competence and professionalism at the diplomatic level to navigate the way to an amicable solution? Again, the answer 'is'.

However, Indian diplomacy should be allowed a free hand and politicians should step aside. It is difficult to see that happening, but it can happen -- and it should in the spirit of a mature democracy.

The pre-requisite of the situation is two-fold. First, we should accurately fathom the Italian motivations.

Second, of course, the government and the ruling Congress Party should tackle the domestic political repercussions with equanimity and in a spirit of damage control instead of locking horns with the Opposition parties in futile one-upmanship.

Those who drag in the Indian judiciary and the 'due process of law' etc into this affair are less than honest, even hypocritical.

Let me share a State secret as a former bureaucrat serving in South Block. The Indian judiciary has never ever been an obstacle for Indian foreign policy or the pursuit of creative diplomacy.

If anything, the judiciary has been a constructive participant as far as Indian diplomacy is concerned.

There is a glaring incident when the then government in New Delhi overnight snatched suspected terrorists from the long arm of law and delivered them to the Pakistani security operatives in Kandahar, but the judiciary calmly watched.

Therefore, anyone who twists the present affair as an Italian 'insult' to our judiciary is merely grandstanding.

To begin with, it is important to realise that the Italian government has actually paid back to us in the same coin by refusing to send back the two Marines.

For this stunning reality to dawn on us, we need to recall that the Marines never surrendered to Indian police, but were enticed to come ashore from their ship in the high seas, ostensibly for a decent conversation with the Kerala state government representatives.

Thereafter, the Kerala police took them into custody summarily after a unilateral determination by the powers-that-be in Thiruvananthapuram that India has full jurisdiction to put the Marines on trial.

No one cared two hoots for international law or bother to factor in that the prerogatives of another sovereign State were in the crosshairs.

Put plainly, the Italian Marines were ambushed.

Why did the Kerala government take an extreme step of this sort? There were three reasons.

First, the Piravom by-election, which had grave implications for the stability of the Congress-led United Democratic Front government, was round the corner and in the surcharged political atmosphere in the state, there was a perceived political compulsion to take a hard line so that the Opposition would not exploit the issue.

Second, Congressmen generally get goose pimps when they hear the word 'Italy' which they associate with their party president, and Kerala Congressmen are no exception.

Again, the temptation was to be more loyal than the king by taking a tough stand to ward off any allegation on the score of the Italian Marines.

Third, the state government and police didn't have the necessary knowledge of international law or the practice of diplomacy. From their experience, once an FIR (First Information Report) is filed, the Italian Marines would have no option but to subject themselves to the 'due process of (Indian) law.'

They overlooked that this matter involves another sovereign country, which is also a major regional power in the Western world.

In retrospect, diplomats in South Block were compelled to abdicate their responsibility after being overruled by their political masters in New Delhi, who were in turn held to ransom by the Kerala politicians, especially Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.

In terms of the Italian motivations, there has been a remarkable consistency in their stance. One, they were clear-headed all through that this issue should not impact negatively on the traditionally close, friendly relations between Italy and India.

Two, they wanted a joint investigation to establish the facts regarding the killing of the Indian fishermen so that the competence of either country to put the Marines on trial could be first determined and a way forward could be mutually agreed.

Three, most important, since the Indian side insisted on a criminal trial, they sought -- and probably expected -- a speedy trial.

Clearly, the Italians have come a-cropper. We rejected out of hand the idea of joint investigations and unilaterally decided that the Marines should be tried in India. This was important for the Congress party's 'image' in Kerala.

Ironically, the Supreme Court, as always, played a constructive and helpful role all through, keeping in mind that a delicate situation is at hand that there could be far-reaching consequences for India's national interests.

The Supreme Court's consent to allow the Italians to go on parole can be seen in this light.

More important, the Supreme Court ordered two months ago that a special court should be constituted to try the Marines. Quite obviously, the intention was to facilitate or ensure a speedy trial.

Again, the government faltered in constituting the special court and the Supreme Court last week even censored the government over the inordinate delay.

The government seems apprehensive that the Opposition might exploit the constitution of special court as a gesture toward Italy.

Regrettably, an extreme sensitivity crept into the handling of the matter because the country involved is ITALY and Congress President Sonia Gandhi happens to be an Indian of Italian origin.

In fact, in a similar case involving the American navy, no one in the Opposition -- neither the BJP nor the Left parties -- made it an issue when the government brusquely put it on the backburner.

What stands out all through is that the government has handled the issue primarily through the prism of electoral politics in India. Unfortunately, things have come to a pass today where it is increasingly alleged that national honour is involved.

To be sure, the Italian approach needs careful analysis. Significantly, as soon as the new government was formed in Italy, Rome revived its proposal for mutual consultations at the foreign office level.

This communication was received in South Block over a week ago and is apparently yet to be replied.

Certainly, an interim reply would have helped.

Be that as it may, since no reply was forthcoming from South Block, Italy followed up with the stunning intimation that the Marines do not intend to return to India.

What is intriguing is that this second communication has been transmitted when over ten days still remain for the timeline of the parole of the Marines to lapse.

Conceivably, an amicable way can still be found. But we need to honestly introspect whether there was anything wrong in the Italian contention that the facts on the ground should be established first before the legal proceedings were initiated.

If the answer is in the affirmative, why shouldn't we accept the Italian proposal to enter into discussions at the diplomatic level?

Second, the far bigger challenge facing the government is to muster the political courage to stand above the din of electoral politics and deal with the issue from the perspective of the country's national interests.

It is false pride to interpret that national honor is at stake here. There is no such thing involved here.

The Italians are seeking a mutually acceptable solution through calm discussions. The Supreme Court will never block such an effort, either.

Meanwhile, any precipitate action on our part at the diplomatic level at this point will be injudicious. The imperative need is, once again, to rise above the compulsions of domestic politics in India.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former ambassador.

M K Bhadrakumar