One can imagine lots of excited Italians shouting “it’s not a retreat, we’re just advancing in the other direction.” One can barely imagine the intensity of the parley-ing that must have preceded Italy’s bald statement that it would return to India the two marines facing murder charges in the shooting deaths of two Indian fishermen. The announcement reversed an earlier decision by the Italian Foreign Ministry, which basically means Rome gets to eat crow and smack its lips; India is allowed to retire to its corner flushed with self-righteous victory and the temperature of the bilateral relationship gets dramatically lowered.
But why has this happened? Why now, 10 days after the row escalated to levels not usually seen in today’s wired world, where a mobile phone call, an email, a text message can easily explain, assure, soothe?
The office of Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti has issued a statement saying that the marines had themselves agreed to return during a meeting with Mr Monti and other ministers and it was in their best interests anyway. It further said that Italy had received “ample assurances” from Delhi, but it’s not yet clear what they were reassured about. President Giorgio Napolitano added that he appreciated the marines’ “sense of responsibility” and Italy would remain by their side.
Almost no one seems to be saying anything about the whys and wherefores of a case that took India to the brink of violating diplomatic conventions by physically preventing the Italian Ambassador from leaving its borders and had Italy bad-temperedly cocking a snook at Delhi.
One has to wonder if this is one of those instances when the diplomatic arts are used to their fullest, ie when a diplomat says yes he means perhaps; when he says perhaps he means no; when he says no he is no diplomat.
So, perhaps the Italian marines will return to India; perhaps Italy will remain by their side and perhaps India will try them. Will any newsroom remember to ask about the case six months down the line?
For now, at least the unbecoming impasse is over.