Italy is not a hyper-power like the US that evokes strong reactions from the man on the Indian street for presuming to rule the world. Nor is it a former imperial power like Britain with whom India has a history of colonial subjugation, or an expansionist nation with which India is engaged in territorial disputes. Yet, over the last quarter of a century, a series of controversies, starting from Ottavio Quattrocchi, the alleged conduit for the Bofors gun deal kickbacks, to the bribery charges in the $750 million AgustaWestland chopper deal, to the shooting down of innocent Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast—all happen to have an Italian imprint.
At a govt guesthouse in Kochi
If there was any chance of Italy fading away from the political discourse in India, then the March 11 decision of its foreign ministry in Rome ensured that it would remain top of the Indian mind and diplomatic matter, at least for some more days to come. That decision had to do with the country’s refusal to send back Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, two of their marines who were accused of killing two Indian fishermen last year near Kerala and for which they had to stand trial in India. In Indian custody since the February 15, 2012, shooting incident except for a brief court-sanctioned leave during Christmas, they were to return to India on March 19—they’d been allowed a four-week leave to cast their ballot in last month’s election in Italy. What came back instead was a slap in the face of the Indian executive and the Indian judiciary, since it was on the personal pledge of Italian envoy Daniele Mancini before the Supreme Court that the duo had been allowed to leave.
“The Italians have thrown us a gauntlet. India has no choice but to pick it up,” former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told Outlook. For the ruling Congress party, the Italian action not only dents the image of India as a rising power on the international stage. It also has serious domestic implications given that the president of the party and the chairperson of the UPA is Sonia Gandhi, an Indian of Italian origin.
The Italian ghost has, in fact, been haunting the Congress for a long time now. Since 1987, to be precise, when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister and Bofors became the monster threatening his government. Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, believed to be close to the family, was widely alleged to have been a nodal point for kickbacks in the deal.
At the central prison in Thiruvanathapuram
Though nothing conclusive was proved about the Gandhis and the alleged Bofors kickback, the scandal was enough to exact a heavy political price from the Congress, costing it the 1989 Lok Sabha election. And the Italian bogey came to be stuck to it ever since, used to full advantage and at the slightest excuse by the BJP and other parties, who have missed nary an opportunity to embarrass the Congress for any Italian link that might emerge. Likewise, Congress leaders and workers over the years have become ultra-sensitive to any mention of Italy or any possible connection, especially in controversy.
Unfortunately, though, the incident happened at a time when Kerala was in the midst of a crucial byelection. A tough stand ensured the Congress-led coalition won the Piravom byelection and boosted its slender margin in the assembly. It also forced the Congress-led UPA government to talk tough and take a stand where it would have been possible to reach a negotiated settlement through diplomatic channels. “When it comes to Italy, the Congress is always on the backfoot,” comments a political observer.
The more diplomatic way is exactly how India handled a similar situation involving Indian fishermen and the US marines off the Dubai coast last year. In July, a US ship opened fire when it saw a fishing boat approaching it at great speed. One Indian fisherman died, while another was injured. The US marines claimed that they had issued several warnings to the boat, but all were ignored. Expectedly, the fishing team denied the American claim.
The incident, though reported widely in the media, did not dominate the front pages for days, nor did the Indian government refuse to hold a joint investigation with the Americans to look into the cause of the firing.
This could well have been due to the fact that the American incident, unlike the Italian one, did not take place on the Indian coast but near Dubai. New Delhi, therefore, was not forced to take a tough stand. The American incident was also discussed only in a few quarters and did not become a domestic issue, pulling in not just the state government, but also other parties at the Centre, all baying for Italian blood.
There’s an explanation for the last: the issue of marines being tried in a Third World country like India had become a talking point during the recent elections. The change in the Italian government’s stand may therefore have been dictated by the angry public mood. But what makes a country allow its envoy to violate his pledge before the apex court of the host country? How does Italy then expect India to take it or its envoy seriously?
There are others who see a more sinister design and connection between the Italian decision and Indian defence minister A.K. Antony’s announcement suspending the multi-million chopper deal. Could this be Italy’s way of pressuring India? “If that is so, then it is much more serious because it amounts to blackmailing India,” says Sibal.
With the Italian PM
Politicians from other parties see an even more dubious game being played out. Former foreign minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha says he was told nearly 10 days before the event that the Italians were not going to send back their marines. “It is being done on a mutual understanding between India and Italy. The refusal to send back the marines creates a diplomatic row between the two sides, which in turn ensures that there is no cooperation whatsoever from the Italians on the ongoing investigation to find out the recipients of the chopper kickbacks,” he told Outlook.
So where do India and Italy go from here?
“We should have a graded response,” advocates former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. “Depending on the Italian response and if they stick to their decision, then ultimately we can recall our own charge d’affaires and ask the Italian ambassador to leave,” says Mansingh. This can be followed up with a cancellation of all political and official delegations to and from Italy and a blacklisting of Italian entities from participating in Indian projects.
Indications suggest that India is not likely to take the Italian decision lying down. But will the tough diplomatic steps be enough to deal with the evolving scenario? More importantly, as the country gets into election mode, will it satisfy the domestic audience? A lot depends on how the Congress deals with the situation—and how it is seen to be doing it. For, there is always the risk of the ‘Italian connection’ remaining a perpetual handle in the hands of its detractors.
Catch Me If You Can...
All At Sea
Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 25 March 2013
10 Unanswered Questions
Apropos Abuso di Fiducia (Mar 25), the Italian marines may be back now, but we really must analyse how this fiasco came about in the first place—starting with the SC when they bought that Italian baloney sandwich. And to think we still have pretensions of being an “emerging superpower” and an “aspirant to the UN Security Council”.
Arun Maheshwari, Bangalore
There can only be two explanations for the situation India had found itself in, gross ineptitude or high-level collusion. Or was it a combination of both?
Ashutosh Kaul, Toronto
One almost got a sense of deja vu, because Quattrocchi and Warren Anderson were allowed to dodge the Indian justice system the same way.
K.R. Narasimhan, Chennai
The larger question for me is whether the SC is really serious in prosecuting the marines. Why did it take so long to file a chargesheet? I don’t think anyone on India’s side was serious about the issue at hand. The rumour that everything was pre-arranged now seems truer than ever.
As long as Sonia Gandhi continues to be high priestess in Delhi, Bofors, AgustaWestland and other sundry European pirates will always have a few balls juggling in India.
George Jacob, Kochi
The dead fishermen’s families have been paid off with blood money. Now let’s see what farce the trial turns out to be.
S.S. Almal, Calcutta
The whole episode shows up our august judiciary. How the lordships get hoodwinked, especially if the parties concerned are in Italian suits.
H.C. Pandey, Delhi
What is this cross-wired connection we have with Italy? From the ’80s on, always in the news for the wrong reasons—even for little things like a former Indian PM letting his Italian relatives holiday on one of our ‘no foreigners allowed’ islands.
G. Anuplal, Bangalore
This refers to your cover story on the Italian marines controversy (Abuso di Fiducia, Mar 25). Baying for the blood of the two Italians is patriotism gone wrong. The fishermen, for all we know, might or might not have been guilty, and the two marines might have had the threat of Somali pirates in mind when they shot them. This was just an unfortunate incident. In the circumstances, the best way to solve the crisis is to recover heavy compensation from the Italian ship-owners. However, now that the crisis is somewhat under control with the return of the marines, I hope the matter will be adjudged according to Indian law, and to the mutual satisfaction of all parties involved.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
UPA must be commended for bringing back the culprits. It is a resounding slap on the face of conspiracy peddlers.
The Govt.of India , as per reports in media ,has assured Italy - Mariners under the charge of killing two Indian fishermen, will not face death punishment nor would they be sent to prison. One fails to follow as to what for they have been summoned ? Does this mean- they are not guilty. Then why this much hue and cry was created. Was it a case of just political or jujdicial ego?
Irrespective of whether there's some politics behind the scene or not, it is nice to see that the Indian Government is so assertive in trying to do justice to those dead fishermen. If only we could show such aggression towards countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka who have either killed or captured hundreds of Indian fishermen illegally in our waters, our government wouldn't end up looking like a hypocritical muppet that it is.
Every other day we have some local Dada hacked and a few guys who surrender in a Local Court,they are granted bail after 15 days in Judicial Custody.
Given that ,wonder why these 2 guys are being treated differently,
Given the way cases are tried ,when are these 2 going to know there fate.
"India also assured Italy that marines will not be liable for death penalty as the case does not fall in rarest of rare category. India gave the assurances after Italy sought clarification regarding conditions applicable to the marines on their return," Khurshid said.
Mr Khurshid not you but the SC has to decide whether death penalty to be imposed or not.
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