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Marine trial shrinks elbow room in Italy

Washington, Feb. 16: On the first anniversary of the fatal shooting of two fishermen off the Kerala coast this week, the two Italian marines who have been in custody since then must be wondering about the poetic justice, as they see it, of India being in the dock now over an armaments bribery scandal that may take politics in both countries into uncharted waters.

Even though defence minister A.K. Antony, true to his long reputation for honesty, has vowed to clean the proverbial Augean stables in the AgustaWestland helicopter deal, last year’s shooting and the precipitous deterioration in Indo-Italian relations have ensured that there will be no room for any diplomatic wiggling in the months ahead when Giuseppe Orsi, head of Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland, goes on trial in Milan.

The trial will throw up a lot of dirty linen, more because of Italy’s election-spurred and surcharged political atmosphere than anything to do directly with New Delhi. But some of the dirt will stick on unpredictable sections of the Indian political class, especially with Lok Sabha elections on the horizon.

Behind the scenes diplomatic manoeuvres could have moderated the fallout from the Finmeccanica case, although not avoided altogether, since Italy has the reputation of having an independent judiciary, which has made many top politicians in that country bite the dust in the past.

In March 1992, for instance, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s external affairs minister Madhavsinh Solanki asked the Swiss foreign minister, Rene Felber, to go slow on bank investigations into the Bofors scandal.

Solanki, who had no previous experience in diplomacy, however, made the cardinal mistake of putting down the gist of what he discussed with Felber into an aide memoire and handing it over to the Swiss. Even then, if it were not for his enemies in the government, who leaked the discussions, Solanki may not have had to resign his post the following month.

When this correspondent was working in Dubai, Indian diplomats there used to privately concede that they would tell authorities in the emirate not to repatriate Win Chadha, an accused in the Bofors case, even as they delivered written requests for his extradition. Naturally, the Dubai government went by the oral advice of the diplomats in person and not the written requests.

When stockbroker Harshad Mehta alleged that he had paid a bribe of Rs 1 crore to Narasimha Rao, a critical alibi that saved the then Prime Minister was a written assertion by J.N. Dixit, then foreign secretary, that Rao was in South Block meeting a Pakistani delegation at the precise time when Mehta claimed to have delivered the money in a suitcase to Rao at his residence.

It is inconceivable that Dixit would have made that assertion without informing, by way of double-checking with, the Pakistanis who met Rao. That courtesy would have ensured that the Pakistanis did not contradict such an assertion, which in this case was also borne out by files and minutes in South Block.

The year-long detention of two Italian marines, who have become a cause céčbre in Italy and reason for immense anger towards India, has killed any chances that the Italian government would show any diplomatic accommodation towards India as in the above instances while the AgustaWestland scandal unfolds further.

The irony is that although the helicopter bribe scandal was nowhere on the horizon a year ago, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) was at that time against taking an uncompromising line with the Italians that would close negotiated options in the case against the two marines.

But the Congress-led government in Kerala, fighting for its life in a crucial by-election to improve on its wafer-thin majority in the Assembly, decided that an emotional approach rather than diplomatic options was politically expedient in the case.

Kerala’s chief minister Oommen Chandy insisted on day one that the two Italians would be tried for murder in a court in the state. But the very first MEA statement spoke of then minister S.M. Krishna’s hope that “the issue will be satisfactorily resolved” when he urged his Italian counterpart in a telephone conversation to persuade the crew of the merchant vessel with the marines, Enrica Lexie, to “fully co-operate with the concerned Indian investigating authorities.”

Kerala’s director-general of police then made an astonishing statement that notwithstanding where the fatal shooting took place, either in Indian territorial waters or international waters, Indian laws will prevail.

The Supreme Court, which was subsequently approached by the Italian government, has now ruled that Kerala has no jurisdiction to try the marines and that the case should be moved out of the state to a special Indian court to be tried under international maritime law. But the decision has come too late to preserve conventional diplomatic niceties between Rome and New Delhi at a time when these would have helped elsewhere.

At internal meetings in South Block at that time, there were voices which favoured Italian foreign minister Giulio Maria Terzi di Sant’Agata’s suggestion to Krishna for a joint investigation by the two countries into the incident. Accepting it would not have closed the options.

But narrow political considerations prevailed and now the very politicians who advocated against what professional diplomats advised may have to pay a price that may be a repetition of the fallout of Bofors all over again, even if to a limited extent.

Politics may not be the only casualty of the failure of diplomacy in dealing with the Italians and taking a purely legalistic view of the shooting. As someone who once donned the uniform, BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s caution in extending the benefit of doubt to retired Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi is a reflection of disquiet within the ranks of servicemen and ex-servicemen over trial by media of defence personnel.