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India-Italy spat: Government needs to be smart not angry in diplomacy

Two Italian marines, serving time in India while they awaited trial for allegedly killing two Indian fishermen, went to Italy on a four-week voting holiday and refused to come back. The Italian government, for good measure, sent a missive to New Delhi to say let’s find a “friendly” way of resolving this matter but our boys will stay home. The UPA boys are stumped. Kerala’s CM hotfooted it to Delhi in a belated attempt to show he was doing something.

In Kerala, where they were picked up, the Italians, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, had been kept in a guest house, not in dingy prison cells. After the Supreme Court decided the case should be tried by a special court in Delhi, they stayed at the Italian embassy. The only constraint was that they had to report to the police periodically.

Meanwhile, the government dithered on setting up the court, which was also supposed to rule whether India had jurisdiction at all, a key Italian demand. Instead, the government was magnanimous enough to allow the marines to go home for Christmas to be with their families. The Italians tried their luck a second time — could they go home to vote?

The Supreme Court said yes. Italians, incidentally, are allowed to vote long-distance. Why, then, is it surprising that the undertrials have decided to extend their stay indefinitely? Indian legal eagles are frothing at the mouth about disrespect of the Supreme Court. Some basic fact-checking could have prevented it.

India could still conduct a trial and convict the marines in absentia. They would then become fugitives from Indian justice. At the very least, a lookout notice by Interpol or a similar international policing organisation could be issued. This means that if they step out of Italy — they are marines, for god’s sake — they run the risk of being arrested on foreign shores and deported to India. Instead, we will vent spleen by packing off the poor Italian ambassador and downgrading diplomatic ties. The marines will still stay in Italy.

In recent months, as the UPA government has floundered internally, many of our international partners have not hesitated to knock us around. The Maldivians are doing it to us in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese are cutting off the Brahmaputra. They are building Gwadar in Pakistan, Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, knocking in Maldives and Seychelles and, of course, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is close behind, openly blocking imports from India, specially automobiles. India’s ties with Sri Lanka are going south rapidly. Later this month, if India votes against Sri Lanka for human rights abuses during the war against LTTE, that would worsen. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is bidding fair to becoming an elected dictator, but let us not play the Tamil card. There are more effective ways of making Rajapaksa see sense.

However, New Delhi is openly fuelling ethnic nationalism as a politically expedient tool, just because they believe it is a way of keeping the DMK in the UPA. It had disastrous consequences in 1984. Today, we seem to be forgetting that LTTE was the most dangerous terrorist group in the world, and that India played a silent, but significant, role in its ultimate demise.

Closer home, Pakistan continues to inflict their regulation thousand cuts on India, but this never seems to be the impelling factor for action. Ask anyone in government and they will retort, “You advocating war?” There is no alternative to engagement with Pakistan, they say, as they parry loving couplets with Pakistani politicians.

Between Munich and war lie innumerable possibilities. For us to exploit them, we need to stop functioning in silos. We don’t need to be loved by others, we just need to be effective.

So, if Chuck Hagel thinks we are financing trouble for Pakistan, smirk and stay quiet. We need to educate ourselves on the importance of a sensible foreign policy because it affects our internal politics. Gosh, where did we put that plan?

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