Washington, Feb. 17: If Arun Kumar Bal, the officer designated by defence minister A.K. Antony to co-ordinate New Delhi’s follow-up to bribery allegations in the VVIP helicopter deal, loses his way in Rome this week, he is unlikely to get much help from the Indian embassy there.
Worse, Bal and the inter-agency team accompanying him to ferret out information from the Italians on allegations that have created waves in the global armaments market cannot expect any wisdom from the most obvious fountainhead in their task: the Indian ambassador in Rome.
India has no ambassador in Rome.
The post has been lying vacant for two months. A new head of mission has been designated, but an official at the embassy told this newspaper that he will not arrive in Rome until the second week of March at the latest, according to the current plans in the external affairs ministry.
It is understood at the time of writing that Bal and his team were to board their flight for Italy tonight but Rome objected to them arriving in their country for investigations about a domestic company. After filing additional papers, they are now expected to leave New Delhi in the early hours of Tuesday.
The roadblock created for the flight of a high-level official team is reflective of the bad blood that exists between the two governments as a fallout of the detention of two Italian marines.
Given the frigid relations between Italy’s foreign ministry and South Block over the year-long detention of the marines following the fatal shooting of two fishermen off the Kerala coast, Rome is unlikely to be in any hurry to arrange Basant Kumar Gupta’s presentation of credentials to President Giorgio Napolitano even if he were to rush to his post to aid the Indian investigators.
Until credentials are formally presented to the head of state, to whom an envoy is accredited, he is only an ambassador-designate and will not be given official appointments or permitted to conduct the business of state, except in the US where such a worldwide convention is ignored.
Italy, which prides itself as having one of the oldest diplomatic institutions in the world, from the Kingdom of Sardinia, is especially a stickler for such diplomatic formalities.
For Bal and his team, the unlikelihood of help from their embassy in Rome if they lose their way in Italy stems from another problem, which has already left its mark on India’s ability to make any progress in Antony’s year-long efforts to investigate media reports about the alleged bribery: a shortage of Italian speakers at the mission.
A fact-sheet issued by the defence ministry on Thursday spoke of “inherent difficulties” at the embassy in Rome that came in the way of Antony’s efforts initiated in February last year itself to probe media reports at that time of “unethical dealings” in the helicopter procurement.
It is clear from the fact sheet that the defence ministry does not want to get into an ugly blame game and finger-pointing but is relying on euphemisms to explain the sequence of events.
Ravi Shankar, the chargé d’affaires ad interim in Rome, is fluent in French and has previously served in Francophone countries. But he does not speak Italian.
Curiously, Gupta, the ambassador-designate, is also a French speaker who does not know Italian. Both men would be assets for Bal and his team if something were to go wrong in future in the substantial arms business that India does with France. But not for now.
The previous ambassador in Rome, Debabrata Saha, now retired, was trained in Bahasa Indonesia and did not speak Italian. The deputy chief of mission during Saha’s tenure, Saurabh Kumar, is a Chinese speaker who was sent to Rome as punishment after he took the rap in Beijing for problems which were not of his making.
Apart from the ambassador, the post of a minister in Rome has been vacant for more than three months and a replacement, to be assigned from the Indian Administrative Service, has not even been finalised.
At least two other officers in this relatively small mission are in the process of packing their bags at the end of their posting. All of which point to the embassy functioning at a capacity far below its optimum to be able to put its best foot forward in any effort to get to the bottom of any muck in the helicopter deal. Or to substantively assist investigators being sent from New Delhi.
For reasons that can only be surmised, the mission in Rome has received the short shrift in successive years and India will have to pay a price for it at a time when the set up ought to be in ship shape for a challenge such as the emerging bribery scandal.
For that reason, the weekend decision to engage an Italian lawyer directly, in effect, bypassing the embassy and the external affairs ministry makes sense.
Someone well-versed in local requirements could avoid the fumbling that happened over an year which has delayed any meaningful understanding of the intricacies of what has gone wrong with the helicopter purchase.