History is replete with instances where realpolitik becomes a casualty of hubris. When we invoke pride and principle, we forget that pragmatism is the gold standard of diplomacy. The Enrica Lexie case is an example.
India’s attempt to exercise criminal jurisdiction over state officials was unlikely to succeed without Italy’s consent. Yet, both sides won points – Italy over jurisdiction and immunity and India over freedom of navigation and compensation.
How did the dispute impact the relationship?
As the media went into overdrive in both countries and foreign minister Giulio Terzi resigned, nationalist passion blindsided diplomacy. Italy and India have no common borders or conflict of interests. Yet the cycle of retaliation threatened to derail ties.
Relations hit turbulence when, in 2013, Italy refused to honour a promise for the marines to return after voting in an election. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called this “unacceptable,” warning of “consequences.” The Supreme Court barred Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini from leaving India. UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon stepped in, calling for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. Italy chose de-escalation by sending the marines back.
Basant Gupta, India’s ambassador to Italy at that time, tells me “high- level contacts were frozen,” and no meetings of the Joint Commission or of defence officials took place. His own departure for Rome had been deferred, and Italy twice recalled its ambassador. In 2015 Italy blocked India’s admission into the Missile Technology Control Regime. It took a 2016 visit to Rome by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to soothe feathers.
With the crisis going into high gear, the EU stepped in. In 2014 Federica Mogherini, the newly-appointed EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs became the activist. The EU Parliament criticised India for detaining the marines without charges and violating their human rights. The 13th India-EU summit, due in 2015, was postponed at the EU’s behest, and was held only in 2016.
Ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Italian Football Federation released two t-shirts with the marines’ names. Ferrari displayed ensigns of the Italian Navy on cars competing in the 2012 Indian Grand Prix, prompting the Ministry of External Affairs to protest this was not in “the spirit of sport.”
Was there lasting damage to ties?
Nations grandstand, but interests put pause on hardline positions. “I had no problems. They were very nice to me at a personal level,” Gupta tells me. The Italians recognised the importance of the Indian envoy as an interlocutor. To avoid travelling to India, colleagues of the two marines had no other option than to appear at the Indian embassy in Rome to give testimony via video conference.
This episode shows how difficult it is to dismantle the pragmatic pillars of a relationship lacking a fundamental clash of interests. Once the dispute went into the multilateral legal domain, the Italian tone softened. The same Mogherini, speaking to the Economic Times after Kashmir’s internal reorganisation in August 2019, expressed understanding of “India’s security preoccupations.” In 2016, India gained admission into the Missile Technology Control Regime.
Why did the two sides pull back from hardline positions?
Italy is a major nation, due to hold the G-20 presidency in 2021. With GDP at $1.8 trillion in 2018, the nation was the world’s 8th largest economy, the 3rd largest economy in the Eurozone, the 6th largest manufacturing nation and the 8th largest exporter, says Stefania Benaglia, writing for Observer Research Foundation. Such compulsions explain why, even before the crisis had ebbed, Air India launched flights to Rome and Milan in 2014.
Even as the dispute peaked “business continued unhindered,” Gupta asserts, and “trade increased by a billion Euros between 2014 and 2015.” In 2017 trade stood at $8.7 billion, Benaglia says. Italy is India’s 10th largest market, and Italian investments in India between 2000-2018 were $3 billion. Italy regards India among its top five partners for international business. The Indian diaspora in Italy stood at 180,000 in 2018, the third-largest in Europe after Britain and the Netherlands.
Thus, Italy ticks every box in India’s foreign policy preoccupations. If securing international support for the nation’s development is a strategic necessity, Italy is India’s partner of choice. Showing alacrity in fence-mending, India played host to prime ministers Paolo Gentiloni and Giuseppe Conte in 2017 and 2018. Visits by the head of a nation in successive years are unusual, but so were the circumstances.
Besides, if a ruling does, in the end, meet a nation’s objectives, conflict draws down. Even while arguing the right to try the marines, India had never claimed they were guilty. If Italy reneges on conducting the trial, India can refer back to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Even if the judgment had been passed by an Indian court, the marines still might have been allowed to face the sentence in Italy, some speculate.
What are the lessons from this crisis?
When nations draw into nationalism, their actual achievements shift into the shadows. In such pantomime wars, politicians exploit foreign policy for profit. In India, the government could not ignore a charged Kerala, an important state. The Italians perhaps injected excessive emotion into the dispute. Act culturally, strategy suffers. As reluctant nationalism took charge in both nations, the trap had been laid.
Now both sides appear relieved. The Indian government has swiftly asked the Supreme Court to act on the verdict. Italy will be hard put not to meaningfully address compensation. How can it disregard a binding ruling, having gone to court in the first place? India will need to ensure that the trial in Italy is fair and the compensation just.
In this dispute, law was chasing politics. This reinforces what we know – a legal argument can win the case, but a political resolution is the prize. In 2016, when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in the Philippines’ favour by rejecting China’s nine-dash-line territorial claim in the South China Sea, the latter rejected the verdict, calling it “null and void.” In contrast, in 2015 India accepted a ruling by the same court that awarded most of the disputed maritime territory to Bangladesh. The example of Italy resembles that of Bangladesh, where political calculation was primary.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador and, until recently, advised the government of Odisha on sports, as well as being a visiting professor at Jamia Millia Islamia.