Massimiliano Latorre (left) , Salvatore Girone
New Delhi, Dec. 30: India is secretly negotiating a "road map" with Italy to end four years of bitter diplomatic battles riddled with betrayals and threats over the arrest of two Italian marines.
The deal New Delhi and Rome are negotiating will require each to agree to key requests of the other, over a case that is both emotionally and politically sensitive in both countries, three senior officials told The Telegraph.
But the negotiations will in no way interfere with the legal aspects of the case being heard at the Supreme Court here and at the Hamburg-based International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas (ITLOS) and will not attempt any out-of-court settlement, the officials said.
If the deal is finalised, the Indian government will not object to any Italian plea before the Supreme Court to allow Salvatore Girone, one of the two marines arrested for shooting dead two Kerala fishermen off India's coast on February 15, 2012, to return to Italy. Massimiliano Latorre, the other marine, is already in Italy. (See chart)
But Italy will first need to commit to withdrawing objections to New Delhi's membership to four key export control regimes - the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group.
Italy, a member of all four clubs that control the world's trade in nuclear supplies, high-end missiles, chemicals that can be used for weapons and "dual use" technology - which can be used for military purposes - had in September vetoed India's membership application to the MTCR.
How the marines case led to a bilateral stand-off
Feb. 15, 2012: Shots fired from the Italian merchant vessel Enrica Lexie kill Ajesh Biki and Valentine, two Indian fishermen who were sailing in their skiff off the coast of Kerala. The Italian vessel is intercepted and forced to dock at Kochi
Feb. 16: Massimiliano Latore and Salvatore Girone, two Italian marines on the Enrica Lexie, are charged with murder
Oct. 17: Italian foreign minister Guilio Terzi accuses India of “subterfuge” in leading the Italian ship to Kochi without informing the captain that the marines will be arrested
December: Court allows the marines to return home for Christmas on the condition that they return. They do
Feb. 22, 2013: The Supreme Court allows the marines to return home to vote after ambassador Daniele Mancini files an affidavit committing to their return
March 11: Italy refuses to send the marines back
March 14: The Supreme Court bars Mancini, the Italian ambassador, from leaving India till the marines return. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warns Italy of “consequences”
March 26: Terzi, the Italian foreign minister, resigns over criticism of his handling of the case
April 2: The Supreme Court withdraws its order barring Mancini from leaving India
Feb. 8, 2014: India announces the two marines will be charged under an anti-piracy legislation but will not face capital punishment. Italy protests
Feb. 24: India says it will try the marines under laws less stringent than the anti-piracy legislation
Sept. 12: The Supreme Court allows Latore to return home for treatment for a stroke on the condition that he return to India. The apex court gives further extensions to allow Latore to stay in Italy
March 14, 2015: India calls off a planned summit with the EU after Brussels delays finalising dates
July 18: Italy approaches the Hamburg-based International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas for a resolution of what it insists is an “international dispute” because the shooting occurred outside Indian waters
August 24: The Hamburg tribunal asks the Indian Supreme Court to stop proceedings till it determines jurisdiction over the case but also dismisses Italy’s demand that Girone too be allowed to return to Italy
Sept. 30: Italy vetoes India’s membership application at the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
Rome, under the deal being negotiated - which Indian officials are carefully calling a "road map" - will also need to withdraw its diplomatic pressure on the European Union against expediting trade deals with New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit Brussels in the first half of 2016 for a summit with the EU not held since 2012, lending urgency to the negotiations.
Finally, Italy will need to commit before the Supreme Court that if the international tribunal hearing the case decides in India's favour, the marines will return here to stand trial.
"Where we can do things without compromising the authority of the Supreme Court or the integrity of our legal system, we should try and find a resolution," former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who was earlier involved in informal parleys over the case with then Italian deputy foreign minister Stefano di Mistura, told The Telegraph. "After all, Italy is a major country, India is the economy the world is eyeing, and both are losing from the current crisis."
The dispute was originally focused around Italy's refusal to accept that the shooting occurred in Indian waters and that the Indian legal system would apply. Rome continues to argue that the incident took place in international waters.
But ties began to spiral downwards sharply after Italy violated a commitment to the Supreme Court here.
In January 2015, European Union foreign policy chief and former Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini criticised in the European parliament India's actions against the marines. Two months later, the EU dithered on finalising dates for a visit by Modi to Brussels, pushing an angry India into cancelling the trip.
"Ever since Mogherini took charge of the EU's foreign policy, it became clear that she was influencing the group's approach towards India, and the delay over the PM's dates was symptomatic," Rajendra Jain, the director of European Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said.
Politically, the case is sensitive in both countries. In Kerala, which goes to polls next year, the Congress state government has faced criticism from its opponents every time the earlier Manmohan Singh government at the Centre, also led by the Congress, tried to demonstrate any flexibility in resolving the dispute.
Like in India, the case has sparked emotional expressions in Italy.
In October 2012, Italian Formula One team Ferrari decided to fly the Italian Navy flag on its cars while racing in the Indian Grand Prix, as a show of support to the marines. And ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Italian football federation brought out two player jerseys with "Latorre" and "Girone" printed on them.
"For the Italians, this is a major emotional issue," Sibal said. "The idea that the marine can't return home is hard for them to accept."
But the pitfalls of allowing the relationship to stagnate are also increasingly becoming evident to both nations, officials said.
Italian shoe makers, for instance, are looking to set up manufacturing bases in India with its cheaper labour - a move that would also fit perfectly in with Modi's drive to encourage domestic manufacturing. But the companies are holding back on investments because of bilateral tensions.
With the international tribunal ordering both sides to desist from legal measures against each other till it decides on jurisdiction, the timing may be right for a thaw, said Jain.
"There's nothing either side can do against the other at the moment anyway," Jain said. "And I sense that things may be cooling down as a result."