Washington, March 19: The Prime Minister has scrapped a visit to Abu Dhabi next week as a fallout from the Italian marines episode makes it imperative for New Delhi’s foreign policy to walk a tightrope.
Manmohan Singh was to have paid an official visit to the United Arab Emirates on his way to a summit of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries in Durban from March 26. That the visit had been put off was known but not the reason.
The Prime Minister’s Office belatedly woke up to the damaging potential that any meeting he may have in Abu Dhabi at this stage could deepen the current diplomatic crisis with Italy.
In a copycat incident for which two Italian marines were detained in Kerala a year ago, one fisherman from Tamil Nadu was killed and three of his Indian boat mates were critically injured when a US naval ship mistook them for pirates off the Dubai coast and shot at their boat in July last year.
But unlike the Italians who languished in jails in Kochi and in New Delhi for a year without trial, or even formal charges, no American has paid any price for the mistaken identity by their vessel, the US naval ship Rappahannock.
Just like the authorities in Kerala, Dubai officials have insisted that the fatal firing took place in Dubai’s territorial waters and just like the Italians, the US Navy disputed this claim and asserted that their naval ship was in international waters when the fishing boat menacingly approached it, as Washington claims.
For all practical purposes, the Americans have arm-twisted the UAE into putting the incident on the backburner. Unlike in the case of Italy, no one in the UPA government has the stomach to make this an issue with the US at a time when South Block wants to focus its energies instead on preparations for a visit to New Delhi by the new US secretary of state John Kerry in June.
The Prime Minister’s problem in going to Abu Dhabi was a dilemma.
If he did not take up this issue with the UAE authorities, he would have been accused of neglecting an innocent Tamil Nadu fisherman who lost his life and three others who lost their livelihood and are now handicapped, possibly for the rest of their lives, in an incident that occurred in the territory of the Emirates. Singh does not need more problems from Tamil Nadu, where the Dravida parties are already crying foul over Sri Lanka.
Not taking up the issue with Abu Dhabi would also have laid India open to charges by the Italians that India practises double standard when an issue affects the Americans.
If he had taken up the matter in Abu Dhabi with the same earnestness with which he spoke out in public after Italy refused to return the marines to Indian custody, he would have introduced a sour element into his visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister to the UAE since Indira Gandhi travelled to the Emirates more than three decades ago.
Additionally, the Americans would have been unhappy that Singh is not only reviving but also internationalising an incident which they went to great lengths to defuse.
The US ambassador in New Delhi, Nancy Powell, was very prompt in calling foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai immediately after the Dubai offshore shooting to express regret over the death of an Indian. She promised a full investigation. That was eight months ago.
A spokesperson for the American embassy in New Delhi told this correspondent yesterday that “this incident is under investigation by the US Navy and officials in the UAE and that investigation has not been finalised. As the US embassy in Delhi noted after this incident, we offered our condolences to the families of the crew and regrets for the loss of life”.
The spokesperson added that “we continue to co-operate with all authorities on this matter and look forward to providing a full assessment to the government of India.” There was no word, though, on when this would be done.
A senior government source in New Delhi said in response to queries from this newspaper yesterday that a visit by the Prime Minister to Abu Dhabi was being planned en route to the Brics summit. “However, based on the visit of the advance team which visited the UAE, it was assessed that logistical and scheduling issues made it difficult to undertake a visit of the type that was being planned within the small window available.”
The source added that “hence it was decided that the visit could be planned for a mutually convenient time at a later stage.”
When India and the UAE first broached the idea of a visit by Singh, both sides felt that it would be a landmark since a surprising 32 years have elapsed since Indira Gandhi’s historic trip. Italy was not on Indian headlines or television screens then.
The UAE has two million Indians and is a source for the kind of foreign investment that Singh has been scouting abroad for infrastructure and other development. Last year, the UAE soared to the position of India’s second largest trading partner. The UAE is a key to reviving India’s aviation sector with an investment by Etihad airline in Jet Airways on the anvil and similar other ideas up in the air.
Singh’s visit would have been an opportunity for both sides to iron out wrinkles in the bilateral relationship caused by the Supreme Court’s decision to cancel telecom licences to the UAE’s state-owned Etisalat, as part of the 2G investigations.
DP World, the Dubai government’s worldwide ports services giant, has been complaining of difficulties in implementing port projects in India. All of which could have been addressed by Singh at the highest levels.
Considerable work had actually gone into preparations for Singh’s visit next week. Commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma had spent time in the UAE last month in detailed discussions on adding content to a prime ministerial trip before the Italians put a spoke in the wheels of the Prime Minister’s Office.
The PMO sensed the first signs of potential trouble during a prime ministerial visit to Abu Dhabi when all five Indian fishermen who were on the UAE-owned boat attacked by the US, including the injured men, returned to Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu for good last month and began making noises about their fate. Their case stood in sharp contrast to the Italian incident.
Once New Delhi communicated plans to put off Singh’s visit to Abu Dhabi, it was clear that the UAE was displeased at the way it was being treated by India. Last week, in an effort to control the damage, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid rushed to the UAE and explained Singh’s change in travel plans to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.