Italian Marines Row: Present tense,future uncertain

MEA has decided to delay sending Basant Gupta as the next Indian ambassador to Italy.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Published:March 15, 2013 2:04 am

The external affairs ministry has decided to delay sending Basant K Gupta as the next Indian ambassador to Italy in the wake of the review being conducted by the government into New Delhi’s ties with Rome after the latter reneged on its promise to bring back two marines to India to face trial for the killing of two Kerala fishermen.

This decision is seen as logical since any move to expel the Italian ambassador from India,as New Delhi contemplated,could have invited reciprocal action from Rome. However,diplomatic observers are intrigued that India did not have an ambassador in Italy for the last two-and-a-half months during some of the most tumultuous period in ties between the two countries.

India’s previous ambassador,Debabrata Saha,retired on December 31 and after nearly a month of feet-dragging,Gupta was named as his successor on January 29. However,Gupta did not take up the position for six weeks and was expected to join the mission in Rome by mid-March.

These 2-3 months have seen several important developments in the alleged kickbacks scandal in the IAF’s VVIP helicopter deal with Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica,culminating in the arrest of the company’s CEO last month.

Besides,the case of the Italian marines was also on the boil,with the Supreme Court hearing their plea and allowing them to go home to vote in elections.

While the MEA refused to give an official response to queries about the prolonged vacancy in Rome,official sources said there was no unusual delay in the process. A transition period of a couple of months is seen as quite normal in the ministry and sources said that some appointees have taken up to six months to move in as ambassadors after their names were announced. Gupta,they said,was busy wrapping up his work in the Consular,Passports,Visa division,saying his goodbyes and preparing for his new assignment.

However,in Gupta’s case,there was an additional reason for the delay as he was said to be waiting to be promoted to the secretary-rank before he moved to Rome. This promotion came through in early-March and he became a special secretary.

Diplomats in the evening of their careers attach a lot of importance to the secretary-tag as it symbolises seniority and also comes with added social status,especially after retirement.

Although Gupta would have got the secretary-rank even after moving to Rome as ambassador,he was unlikely to get the “secretary” designation as he is due to retire in February 2016 and this was expected to be his last posting.

In that case,he could have only called himself a “former ambassador” and not the more prestigious “former secretary” or both. There are more former ambassadors than former secretaries from MEA.

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