The Week (Kallol Bhattacherjee) – So, you have decided to spend the holiday season in New Delhi!” was the light-hearted ‘diplomatic’ greeting reserved for the Italian diplomats during last Christmas and New Year’s eve in New Delhi. Inevitably, the usual laughter followed, as they subtly enjoyed their victory in sending the two marines—Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone—home for Christmas. Indeed, the last four months had seen one diplomatic victory after another for the Italians over India, as they finally smuggled the marines—accused of killing two fishermen off the coast of Kollam in Kerala—home for casting their votes during the February 24-25 polls in Italy.
Protests over their refusal to return and the concerns of the Indian judiciary, which has now barred the Italian ambassador from leaving India, were not anywhere on the horizon as the ambassador, Daniele Mancini, was busy writing poetry. He had planned the ultimate for himself—launching a book of poetry at a big event at the embassy in Chanakyapuri. To advance his English literary debut in India, Mancini rubbed shoulders with Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit at the Delhi Literature Festival on February 9 and 10. He discussed his plans to ship the book to Delhi for an elite reading evening with his bureaucrat friend Wajahat Habibullah. His plans also received blessings from leading lights like Deepa Dasmunsi, of the Congress, who desired that he share the dais with her novelist sister, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu.
The spirit of celebration among the Italian diplomats was so high that they were seen partying at the height of the protests over the gang-rape and murder of a student in Delhi. They were reportedly planning a reading of the ambassador’s works at the embassy, along with Shobhaa De, Kundu and lyricist Javed Akhtar. To top it all, the organisers were also planning to place Mancini next to Sharmistha Mukherjee, the dancer-daughter of President Pranab Mukherjee, at one of the poetry-reading sessions.
With the court breathing down on the Italian diplomat for not being entirely honest with his pledge to return the two marines, the fun time, however, seems to have ended. The Italian embassy in New Delhi, which for the past year had been the spot for parties, great coffee, food and fashion shows, appears under siege as a war of words escalated over the fugitive marines. On March 13, Mancini, an elegant social butterfly, was to launch the book of an Italian candy baron and throw a bash for the finest glitterati in town. But the event’s organisers were told at the last moment that Mancini had changed his mind. The ambassador, however, showed up at the end of the programme. “We are here to stay. We are not India’s enemies,” said Mancini, with trembling hands, to a small group of media people who had managed to break through the barriers the embassy had put up to protect him from tough questions. “I will stay, unless I am declared persona non grata,” he added, with the usual diplomatic flourish. However, a new problem has erupted following the Supreme Court’s order asking Mancini to stay in India and a debate has begun whether the order impedes his diplomatic rights as enshrined in international law.
But “enemy action” had already been committed, as the Rajya Sabha‘s leader of opposition Arun Jaitley pointed out, when Italy refused to return Girone and Latorre to their rightful place in the prison in Thiruvananthapuram. More than the Italian refusal to send the marines back for justice, the extraordinary generosity showered by the Indian authorities on the soldiers is what is being questioned. Girone and Latorre were arrested by the Kerala Police after they shot dead fishermen Ajesh Binki, 25, and Jalastein, 45, on February 15, 2012, in the Arabian Sea. Soon, they complained about the food being served to them at the Central Prison in Thiruvananthapuram. Promptly, the Italian consulate staff, stationed in the Kerala capital, started bringing them pasta and poached eggs. After this, Italy came up with the idea of the Christmas trip, which was followed by another trip to exercise their democratic rights. Mancini, in his sworn affidavit, said that postal ballots were not allowed in Italy and, therefore, the marines had to be physically present to cast their votes. Once the court granted permission, a special plane flew into Kerala and the marines flew back home in the company of senior Italian diplomats and military officials.
Mancini and his staff from Delhi were, however, just playing a small role in the huge effort made by Italy. To that effect, Rome had employed Staffan de Mistura, a Swedish-Italian aristocrat and a friend of the former royal families of Rajasthan and Punjab, with a deep network in international affairs, on a campaign to get the marines back home. While Mistura proposed a middle path, there were other dynamics that were unfolding which made Italy move away from the “middle path” and the “working together” approach, as was suggested by Mancini. However, the two marines could not leave without Mancini’s sworn affidavit, which is why diplomats in the South Block are staring at a snowballing crisis where the status of the Italian ambassador is under a cloud, with leading jurists like Soli Sorabjee accusing him of contempt of court.
Before his fate unfolds next week in the apex court of India, Mancini earned the rare distinction of being the first European diplomat in recent times to get an earful from Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai. On March 12, Mathai made it clear that the letter stating Italy’s refusal to return the marines was “unacceptable to India”. Though Mancini referred repeatedly to “working together” to find a solution to the stalemate, sources in the external affairs ministry suggest that the next few days are going to be critical and escalation could be a possibility, if Italy refuses to return the marines.
New Delhi-based Italian journalist Maria Grazzia Coggiola, however, blames both sides for bringing the issue to this pass, as the political relations between the countries are tenuous, despite strong business and military ties. “At such moments, we need leaders of both sides to lift a phone and speak to each other. But neither Italy nor India has courted each other’s political leaders in any significant manner,” she said. She also hinted that there is always a fear among Indian leadership circles that getting cosy with Italy might be politically expensive for the Congress in view of its president Sonia Gandhi‘s Italian origin. Commentators are also worried about the negative impact of the crisis on Italy-India military deals, many of which are vital to India’s military needs and to Italy’s struggling economy. One of the conspiracy theories doing the rounds in Delhi is that after the AgustaWestland scam, the Italian government has been unhappy over the news of upcoming probes and queries into the dealings of other Finmeccanica subsidiaries like Selex Galileo and Ansaldo STS.
“The Italians have earned a bad name over the years, though they are among the most cautious arms suppliers to India,” said Air Commodore (Retd) Jasjit Singh. He said that given the tremendous pressure on the Italian economy to perform well in the coming days, the government cannot put up with any more bad news from its large defence manufacturing sector. “Probes on companies like Finmeccanica may not appear as much to the Indian public, but they do have a political impact on the Italian democracy,” he said. As a result, the Mario Monti government, Coggiola said, will soon be replaced by a Centre-Left government led by comedian-turned-radical politician Beppe Grillo and Pierre Luigi Bersani. Wisdom lies in preventing an escalation of the crisis, she said, as Monti’s right-wing government is trying to bandage Italy’s bleeding economy by hyping nationalist tendencies. Sources in the external affairs ministry have pointed out that “all options are on the table” if Italy refuses to hand over the marines. But some sound a note of caution before a complete diplomatic shutdown hits India-Italy ties. “Finmeccanica also assists India in building the indigenous aircraft carrier. So we have to keep our long-term interests in view while convincing Italy about the need to respect its own pledge before the court of law,” said Commodore (Retd) Uday Bhaskar.
A widespread implication on India-Italy ties can, nevertheless, be expected after External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid promised to execute the Supreme Court’s directive to prevent Mancini from leaving India, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused Italy of violating international diplomatic principles by moving the two marines from India. Stefano Pelle, South Asia COO of the Perfetti van Melle group, told an audience in Mancini’s presence that (like him) Italy, too, was going to stay in India and get bigger with time, hinting on the Italian interest in Indian markets. However, such sweet talk cannot remove the fact that Italian diplomats have made a mockery of the Indian diplomatic machinery by whisking away the marines from Kerala. Some suggest that the real implication of the refusal to send the marines back entails the non-serious image of India in the world, a follow-up humiliation after the developments in the Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal, where Indian diplomacy failed to delive
Having absorbed the blow from Italy, India is in damage control mode and there are talks of a high official being sent to Italy for negotiations to prevent the crisis from maturing further. There are not too many options available to India, except the diplomatic one, said Aryama Sundaram, senior Supreme Court advocate. “Unfortunately, we do not have an extradition treaty with Italy. So there is no way to bring them [the marines] back here,” he said. “At best we can issue a red alert notice for them among countries that we have an understanding with.” Sundaram stressed that Mancini had never been summoned by the Supreme Court, but had himself approached it to seek relief for the marines. “When you wilfully subject yourself to the jurisdiction of a country and give the court an assurance, how can you claim diplomatic immunity for reneging on your word? He has himself waived off his immunity,” he said. However, Mancini’s fate will decide more or less the path India’s ties with Italy will take, and if a tit-for-tat diplomacy will crowd out bilateral ties. “An ambassador-level fallout can quickly spread to other European countries and can have an adverse impact on India’s defence ties with them,” said Sunil Kumar Agarwal, of the National Security Secretariat. “Extreme caution is needed so that our diplomats, who were caught surprised when the two marines were whisked away, do not push India into a bigger international crisis to hide their mistake of not keeping a sharp focus on Italy’s intentions as far as the marines were concerned.”
By Kallol Bhattacherjee
In the event it is necessary to do so, notice may be served on petitioner No. 1 through its ambassador in New Delhi. Let notice be served on Mr Daniele Mancini separately, in view of the undertaking given by him on affidavit on 9th February 2013, on behalf of the Republic of Italy.” With these words, the Supreme Court of India expressed its displeasure at the government of Italy and introduced a new element in the crisis over the fugitive marines.
Following a nuanced study of Articles 28 and 29 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, in view of the intervention by the apex court, questions are being raised about whether the ambassador is free to leave in case Italy appoints a new ambassador to India. However, the judicial intervention has shown that the legal approach can be explored to compel Italy to send back the marines.
Though Italy had used the legal route to smuggle out the two marines and is now refusing to return them, the fact remains that the court, in the case titled ‘Massimiliano Latorre and Others vs the Republic of India and Others’, had also spotlighted the government with the last sentence of the order, which said: “The learned ASG is unable to tell us today as to whether the procedure for constitution of the Special Court directed to be set up by the Central Government, in consultation with the Chief Justice of India, has been initiated or not. In the event steps have not been taken to constitute the Special Court, as directed, the Central Government is directed to do so, without any further delay.”
The order did not leave any doubt about who was lackadaisical in providing the infrastructure for the trial of the two marines. However, having lost a valuable opportunity, the government is now trying the multilateral forum. According to government sources, India is in the process of engaging the European Union to put pressure on Italy. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the EU would arm-twist a key member and champion of the EU spirit.
The other legal-diplomatic option is to heighten tension with Italy by declaring its ambassador persona non grata, citing his affidavit as a dishonourable act.
By Syed Nazakat
The marines row has happened at a time when India’s ties with Italy are already under strain. The Italian government, by refusing to share details about its investigation in the Finmeccanica case, despite repeated requests from India, has put Defence Minister A.K. Antony in a spot. If the government decides to reduce or snap relations with Italy, Finmeccanica, the second largest Italian industrial group, could become the immediate target.
Finmeccanica and its subsidiary AgustaWestland are under the scanner for the kickbacks allegedly paid in the VVIP helicopter deal. If the company is blacklisted, it would be banned from operating in India for five to 10 years. Over the years, Finmeccanica has increased its presence in India by developing crucial partnerships with Indian defence producers like Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd, Bharat Dynamics Ltd, Bharat Electronics Ltd, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, and the Tata Sons group.
Whitehead Alenia Sistemi Subacquei (WASS), one of Finmeccanica’s subsidiaries, is selling Black Shark torpedoes for Indian Navy’s Scorpene submarines. This big-ticket deal is in its final stage, and Antony said in Parliament last week that the government had not taken a final decision about it. Ansaldo STS, another subsidiary of the group, is developing Indian Railway’s protection and warning system. The company is engaged in a massive project that includes Kolkata Metro and the Delhi-Agra rail section.
Some 400 Italian companies are located in India, either through subsidiaries or joint ventures with local companies. Italian exports to India have almost doubled in the last few years. The bilateral trade stands at around 7.2 billion euros, which makes Italy India’s fourth largest trading partner among the EU countries.
With constantly increasing foreign direct investments (FDI), Italy’s market presence in India is all set to grow. “We had strong connections in the past, but somewhere in between a time came when we were not so close,” Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini told reporters in Kolkata. “We have to revive our ties and increase joint venture and investment in the coming years as we aim at doubling our trade with India by 2015.”
But now, all the business and bilateral ties hinge on the ongoing diplomatic row. Italy’s refusal, first to share details about its investigation, and now to send back the marines may win the Italian government brownie points back home, but has created a major international controversy. This becomes even more significant because of a public perception that the current controversy is an outcome of a deal involving the Italian marines issue and the AgustaWestland chopper deal that went awry.