Back when the two marines were held last February as they stepped ashore to discuss the alleged shooting of two fishermen,not many in South Block agreed with what the Kerala government had done. And,perhaps,for good reason. Yet,as the political dice was rolled,all fell in line, making nuanced arguments about how the marines had done wrong.
There were no clear answers to legal questions,arising out of treaty obligations and especially on jurisdiction issues. Italy cried foul. There were countless phone conversations,then came a special envoy,followed by its foreign minister,all making a case for the marines to be returned. India did not relent from its law-will-take-its-course line.
Despite some strong arguments from Rome,the bottom line was that the marines were in Indian custody and so New Delhi could act the way it deemed fit. This was not a neat way of handling the issue,but then thats how nations outdo each other for their own interests.
The tables have turned. Again,not in a neat way,but the Italians have out-gamed India to change that simple fact on the ground the marines are no longer with India,and the Italians are not going to let that change easily. Rome has calculated its risks,knowing well how far this would go,including the possible expulsion of its ambassador.
And that’s why despite all the brave talk from India,there is no way to punish and pressure Italy just like it could not pressure India whole of last year.
On the question of the Italian ambassador,the government has taken the call to wait for the Supreme Court to rule first.
What else? There is the symbolic and the substantive. You could go slow on issuing business visas,but only to an extent,because at some point the European Union will step in. More substantive could be defence contracts where Italy has made recent gains,particularly with the Navy. But that would be strategically counterproductive.
Put simply,there are not many options now. Those dealing with Italy in the Ministry of External Affairs have some serious thinking to do as to why they could not anticipate this. At the end of the day,Italian officials outdid India and South Block now just has to wait to pay back.
Pranab is a deputy editor based in Delhi