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Fool India twice: How the Italians pulled an old French trick

The polli have flown the coop. Italian stallions have fled the barn. Alas, alack, bwah-ha-ha! We are left beating chests variously in rage and despair at this loss of national face. The Italian provenance of this disgrace has spawned conspiracy theories galore, but the truth is that our government is no less foolish when it comes to Europeans of all stripes.

The Times of India reminds us that the latest showcase of cupidity is just a remake of an old French tale:

In 1996, the crew of a French yacht, Galathee, anchored off Kochi coast, was accused of ocean survey espionage and a case was registered against them in Kerala. The Frenchmen aboard the yacht were taken into custody by Kerala Police and the case was given to the CBI. The agency then filed a chargesheet against Francois Clavel, Elle Philippe, a Goan named Furtado. At the behest of the French government, the Union government allowed Francois Clavel of Paris and Elle Philippe of Madagascar to visit their home during their trial. The French government had assured the government on 6 January 1998, that the two would return.

No prizes for guessing what happened next. The two remain AWOL 15 years later, untraceable by the famed Interpol.

The runaway marines. PTI

The runaway marines. PTI

Well, it is somewhat ancient history. Perhaps our dear government just plain forgot about that bit of Gallic duplicity. Except not. Director of Prosecutions T Asaf Ali raised that unpleasant memory while opposing the Italian vacation.  "We knew this would happen and this is why the Kerala government opposed their return," says Ali. "The assurance given by the Italian ambassador was useless. France, too, had given a similar guarantee. Italians have been reiterating that India doesn't have jurisdictional powers to try their marines. This in itself was sufficient to surmise that they would stay back at some point of time."

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...

From the moment of their arrest, the Italian government has worked overtime on behalf of Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, garnering them exceptional treatment even when they were in jail:

Italy had requested that the marines be allowed to have lunch with its defence minister. The government turned down the request, saying the law does not permit it. Earlier attempts by Italian External Affairs Minister Stefan de Mistura to shift the marines to a guesthouse were also turned down. Recently, the marines' request for a television set, too, was rejected. However, the marines have been granted other privileges in the prison on the direction of the court, including exclusive cell, Italian food, special medical attention as well as an hour-long interaction with visitors everyday.

The men were recently allowed to go home to spend Christmas with their families. A misleading act of good faith that may well have lulled authorities into complacency—but begs the question why they were allowed to shuttle in and out of jail at will, then for Christmas, now to vote—Latore and Girone were always "special cases", and their easy-as-pie prison-break ought not to come as a surprise.

Francois Clavel and Elle Philippe absconded scotfree because New Delhi had little appetite  for retaliation: "One reason why the Indian Government is dragging its feet over the extradition is probably the cordial relations India enjoys with France. The support extended by the French Government to India over Pokhran and Kargil is too important to be frittered away."

Fifteen years later, the French ambassador is looking to take the Indo-French partnership with India to  "high dimensions," with a special focus on expanding investments in Kerala. Come back, mon ami, all is forgiven!

Rome, however, may not get off quite as easy.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has termed the current situtation as "unacceptable," a term The Hindu interprets as a signal of his seriousness: "Dr. Singh’s previous use of the term “unacceptable”—following the beheading of an Indian soldier on the Line of Control (LoC)—has led to a virtual freeze of high-level dialogue with Pakistan and impacted initiatives to loosen restrictions on trade and people-to-people exchanges."

In 2013, rising, shining India doesn't need Rome's support quite as much -- or of any Western ally. The UPA government may also have decided to talk tough to defuse the inevitable chatter about the "Maino Connection" -- though it remains unclear why Sonia Gandhi would care about the fate of two strangers just because they are Italian, and demonstrate it in a fashion that would jeopardise the already shaky image of her party.

Whatever the reasons behind their departure, the unpleasant truth is that little can be done to bring the marines back to India. A "virtual freeze" a la Pakistan is possible, but unlikely to be effective since Rome has painted itself into a corner, and has no face-saving way to give in. The will to make unpopular decisions is minimal in a nation that has just emerged from a national election that delivered a political deadlock.

We may have to settle instead for the unlikely consolation offered by Bitti Mohanty who reminds us that it's not just white-skinned foreigners who get to saunter out of jail. The convicted rapist—as opposed to merely accused—went on the lam while on parole to visit his ailing grandmother. Such are the benefits of being the son of a Director General of Home Guards. There is indeed an "open barn door" policy for natives too! The kind with money or connections, that is.