By Madhav Nalapat
By shooting at and killing two fishermen off the Kerala coast on February 15, two Italian marines have become the hottest issue in a state assembly by-election on March 18 that could lead to the collapse of the Congress-led coalition government in the state.
Should the constituency of Piravom go the opposition’s way, the Marxist-led alliance would have 69 of the 140 seats in the legislature, possibly enough to ensure a fresh election. The dead fishermen have become an emotive issue in the campaign, and the Congress Party is already facing flak over the fact that the Kerala police waited for three days before entering the “Enrica Lexie” and bringing ashore the two marines allegedly responsible for the shooting. Critics of such a lackadaisical police procedure point out that the 79-hour delay has given ample time to the Italians to scrub the ship of evidence and coach the crew on a cover story.
Even given the standards of the Italian Navy, military observers are surprised that a tiny fishing vessel incapable of taking to the high seas could have been mistaken to be a Somalian pirate vessel. There were 11 fishermen on board, nine of whom were sleeping on deck when the other two were shot and killed by the marines. While it’s theoretically possible that a pirate crew would be asleep just before launching an attack on a target a thousand times its size, this seems improbable. As for weapons on board the fishing boat, there were none, which made nonsense of claims that there was sustained firing before the Italians retaliated in kind.
Despite the fishing boat being close to the huge tanker, there was not a single bullet mark on the hull of the ship, thereby indicating that the presumed pirates weren’t just prone to sleep, but were extremely poor shots. Whatever the rationality behind such excuses, the Italian side evidently believes in them, hence its demand that the two marines be released. As a concession, diplomats in Rome have offered a trial of the two in Italy, where the odds seem that their story will be accepted and the men released.
That the Italians have powerful friends within the Indian establishment has become clear not only by the three day delay in arresting them, but by reports that the two accused are lodged not in prison but in the luxury suite of a guest house, where they are being fed pizza, spaghetti and other Italian food procured from a hotel.
The talk in police circles in Kerala is that the two marines will be set free (on bail) soon after the March 18 by-election. Releasing them earlier would be political hara-kiri. However, preserving Congress rule in Kerala seems to be a lower priority for the Italians than getting their boys sprung from the guest house. The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs is in Delhi lobbying for an early release, and will be joined by Foreign Minister GiulioTerzi himself on February 28.