Almost exactly 52 years to the day the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations was signed, India has become the reason its fine print is being avidly re-read in newsrooms and embassies around the world. Not bad going, in itself, but the reason for this is hardly benign. New Delhi has moved to prevent the Italian Ambassador, Daniele Mancini, from departing the country in connection with the deepening row over two Italian marines charged with the murder of two Indian fishermen.
Mr Mancini dare not move at least till April 2. Today, the European Union warned India that it is in violation of the Vienna Convention.
But violation is not the way India, democratic, peace-loving, rule-bound, generally operates.
So what’s the backstory to the backstory?
Sonia Gandhi. The Italian in a sari. The Madonna in New Delhi. Pick any cliché, howsoever improbable, which ties together India and Italy and it suits India’s relationship with Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born head of India’s governing Congress Party.
She has just made her first public comments on the crisis, condemning Italy for not returning the marines. “No country can, should or will be allowed to take India for granted,” she said on Tuesday in a robust verbal affixing of flag to her sleeve . “The defiance of the Italian government on the question of the two marines and its betrayal of a commitment to our Supreme Court is outright unacceptable.”
It wasn’t quite a barnstormer but almost no speech by Sonia Gandhi can be distinguished by the adjective. She is congenitally quiet; the unspeaking observer; ever the companion, the helpmate. Her leadership role was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. When her husband, a former prime minister and son of a late prime minister was killed, the dynastic Congress Party begged her to be leader. She did, eventually and much is made of her reasons for doing so (staying relevant, staying powerful).
To return to the ongoing India-Italy row though, what’s interesting about it is that it’s almost entirely about domestic politics, which feeds a reflexive hyper-nationalism. And it’s all about Sonia Gandhi’s ethnicity. It’s bad luck that this is playing out in the week that marks 15 years of Mrs Gandhi serving at the helm of the governing Congress Party.
India is more sensitive about anything to do with Italy than any other country. Any sign of softness, any implied partiality is carefully parsed for political incorrectness.
Remember, there was a similar case just last year (the killing of an Indian fisherman just off the UAE coast) but it was to do with the US Navy. The Indian government cheerfully put it on the backburner.
Not so the Italian marines vs dead Indian fishermen case. That is set to run a while.