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Mar 31, 2013 at 08:52pm IST

Italian government has been very sensible: Khurshid on marines row

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid says India knows how to take pressure when it comes to its foreign policies. While speaking to Karan Thapar on Devil's Advocate, Khurshid called the Italian government sensible in connection with the marines row.

Below is the full text of the transcript:

Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. With India's foreign policy increasingly buffeted by domestic and regional politics, is the government able to contain, perhaps even repair the damage? That's the key issue I should discuss today with India's External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.

Mr Khurshid, whether one looks at India's relations with Sri Lanka or Italy, Bangladesh or Pakistan, increasingly it seems domestic politics is casting a baleful influence over the relationship. Are you as External Affairs Minister concerned about this?

Salman Khurshid: Well this is my job, isn't it? We have to make sure that in a democracy, particularly when you have a pluralistic democracy and people in a federal situation pulling in different directions, you have got to factor that in. And then ensure, despite that, you have an overall consensus. That's the challenge we have and that's the challenge we'll deliver on.

Karan Thapar: One aspect of this challenge is that increasingly an impression is being created that the government in Delhi is not in full control of its foreign policy and that domestic and regional influences are pulling you in different directions and undermining the coherence of what you are trying to do.

Salman Khurshid: Please tell us one thing on which we would have feared off our path of consensus. We have delivered on every position that we believe is important for India and the interest of India has been kept secure. It doesn't matter how much pressure we feel at different points, we know how to take that pressure.

Karan Thapar: But look at your relationship with Bangladesh, politics in Kolkata and Mamata Banerjee's objections often derail things like the Teesta water sharing agreement. Look at your relationship with Sri Lanka where positions adopted by the Tamil parties in Chennai affect that relationship. It looks increasingly that when it comes to foreign policy, the tail is wagging the dog.

Salman Khurshid: Not really at all. But you can't in a democracy say that foreign policy is to be conjured from nothing, out of a vacuum. It is based on a collection of competing claims within the country and the aggregate of those claims become the national claim. And, therefore, to think that somebody is asking for something in particular which may seem like a departure from a national consensus is part of democracy.

Karan Thapar: Except that when Mamata Banerjee has a veto over the Teesta water sharing agreement or whether it is signed or not, when Chennai politics has a veto over whether cricket teams can play in Chennai or whether the government is forced into agreeing to resolutions against a particular country or whether you have take a particular position against Sri Lanka. It looks to people as if India's foreign policy is not determined by principle but by short-term political expediency.

Salman Khurshid: But what is the end result? Don't go by what happens and what is demanded, it is the end result that matters and there are no vetos. But I think it is important that we take everybody on board, there is nothing wrong in persuading our colleagues or persuading state governments to move forward with us, to pause, listen to them and try and persuade them.

Karan Thapar: You asked what is the end result, the end result is that India's foreign policy is not establishing India as a major regional player, so much as it is diminishing India's standing in the eyes of the neighbours, who now are expected to make allowances for the attitudinal positions we are forced to adopt under pressure from small regional parties.

Salman Khurshid: Certainly not. I think all our partners know that they have, just as we have, that they have pulls and pushes in their own democracies and that we have to find ultimately a resolution both domestically and internationally. And, I think the positions that we have taken for decades on end, are positions that we maintain. If anything, India's position has been applauded and appreciated repeatedly.

Karan Thapar: Let's test that confidence with specific reference to India's present relationship with Sri Lanka. How do you, the External Affairs Minister, response to the resolution passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly asking the New Delhi government not to consider Sri Lanka as a friendly country, to impose economic sanctions and more importantly to push at the United Nations for a resolution that would call for a referendum on Eelam.

Salman Khurshid: See I take it on board that there are very strong feelings on Tamil Nadu, not just other parties but our own party members have very strong feelings. And we have taken those feelings on board and these feelings are not entirely out of sync with what many other people in the world think. At the same time, we do believe that ultimately the negotiation that we have done with Sri Lanka, the dialogue that we have with Sri Lanka and the effort that we have made for rehabilitation in Sri Lanka is equally important.

Karan Thapar: You say you have taken the Tamil Nadu Assembly resolution on board and you say it is in sync with the feelings that many people have even within your own party.

Salman Khurshid: Not all of it but a lot of it.

Karan Thapar: That's what I want to ask. Are you for instance considering declaring the country unfriendly?

Salman Khurshid: No.

Karan Thapar: Are you considering economic sanctions?

Salman Khurshid: No.

Karan Thapar: Would you consider at the UN passing a resolution or encouraging people to pass a resolution, to call for a referendum on Eelam?

Salman Khurshid: No.

Karan Thapar: So, in other words those three critical aspects of the Tamil Nadu resolution, you have rejected?

Salman Khurshid: Long ago. There's no question of accepting them. And that's not the only state that has stake in this. What about the other states, there are many other assemblies, the rest of India is not supporting this. If all of India was to support it, it would have been another matter. But if one state supports something, we are sensitive to their concerns but we don't necessarily have to accept everything they say.

Karan Thapar: You have given me categoric answers. But do you have the support of the entire Cabinet in the position you have taken? For instance, would Mr Chidambaram, who has a sizeable constituency in Tamil Nadu and who expressed different views when it came to the Geneva resolution, express a different view on these?

Salman Khurshid: But I don't think Mr Chidambaram has taken a different view from anybody else in the government on these. But Mr Chidambaram has very strong feelings about how quickly and how effectively we can persuade Sri Lanka to perceive that the objectives are very clear, which Sri Lanka has promised to India and which India is committed to.

Karan Thapar: But does Mr Chidambaram support you and the rest of the government when you say that you will not declare Sri Lanka unfriendly, that you will not impose economic sanctions, you won't press for any resolution in the UN on a referendum on Eelam?

Salman Khurshid: Has he said anything to the contrary? He hasn't. So why should we go into hypotheticals?

Karan Thapar: All right. To what extend are you as a government concerned by the fact that increasingly India's ability to efficiently hold major international sporting events is compromised, if not vitiated, by domestic politics? I am not just referring to the IPL, I am talking about major athletic meets, I am talking about hockey championships.

Salman Khurshid: Atmospherics and security concerns are often build into decisions about sports events or cultural events. But that has nothing to do with the foreign policy. This is not something that would change our foreign policy position or profile but certainly it's a matter that the government would be concerned about or a state government would be concerned about, but ultimately it is a matter of the security and safety of the citizens.

Karan Thapar: It's not directly connected to the foreign policy but it has a very sizeable impact on how India is perceived internationally and on its image of standing. And today you have this peculiar situation where the Shiv Sena won't allow Pakistani cricketers to play in Mumbai, where now the AIADMK and possibly the DMK won't allow Sri Lankan staff or cricketers to play in Chennai. Suddenly, India looks as if it's a country that is not just inhospitable to its own immediate neighbours, even after it has invited them over, but as if it's a banana republic.

Salman Khurshid: Not at all. We are a vast country and there is always a playground available somewhere else and performing states available somewhere else.

Karan Thapar: Absolutely. When the women's team came from Pakistan, they had to play in Cuttack and not Mumbai, as if Cuttack is not a part of India and Mumbai, for some reason, has a right to veto it.

Salman Khurshid: No, it is not a question of veto there. Obviously, many things are factored in like security and safety of the players themselves and also the impact on peace in the area and in the city. And then the decision is taken locally, it's not a decision that is taken by the Government of India. It's a decision taken locally by the local government and they decide what is the best in their interest and in the interest of their citizens.

Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this. Are you concerned that the resolutions passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly, that the decision taken by the Chief Minister not to permit Sri Lankan players and Sri Lankan staff to compete in IPL matches held in Chennai, has cast not just a baleful influence over India's relationship with Sri Lanka, but diminished India's standing in the eyes of the region.

Salman Khurshid: Well, I think our standing and our relationship with Sri Lanka, as indeed with any other country in the region, is far more robust than to be hurt by passing passions.

Karan Thapar: The Sri Lanka High Commissioner has gone on record to say that he is upset with the decision that his players and his staff can't go to Chennai.

Salman Khurshid: I am sure he is disappointed. I think anybody would be disappointed not to be playing in Chepauk Stadium. I would be if I was prevented from playing there. But I think that these are things that we take in our stride, these things are caused by passing passions and I think they should be allowed to settle down, there is no point being provoked.

Karan Thapar: Is there a lasting impact or even a short-term impact on the relationship with Sri Lanka as a result of this?

Salman Khurshid: That's what my assessment and I hope that my assessment is not wrong.

Karan Thapar: Are you worried that as the AIADMK and the DMK compete with each to up the ante, you could see Tamil sentiments spiralling out of control?

Salman Khurshid: Hopefully not out of control but certainly it's a matter, as I said to you, that we have to factor into our decision making. We have to let things calm down. There are some serious concerns and there are concerns, part of which are reflected also in concerns of our colleagues. You mentioned some of our colleagues and I think we owe it to them that those concerns be factored in and those concerns be addressed.

Karan Thapar: Next big flush point on the relationship with Sri Lanka will be whether India participates in CHOGM, which is to be held in Colombo this year. You are under great pressure from the Tamil parties that you must not go, more importantly you are under pressure to ensure that the Commonwealth doesn't even hold the CHOGM meeting in Colombo. How are you going to handle that?

Salman Khurshid: Well, there are different opinions. Within CHOGM, a lot of people who feel that because it was the decision of the heads of governments, we should stay by that decision. There is certainly a move by Canada, which is to the contrary. So, I think it is not for me at this point to speculate about what the decision would be.

Karan Thapar: I am not asking you to speculate what the decision taken by the Commonwealth as a whole will be. But as India's Foreign Minister I am asking you to indicate to the Indian people which way your mind is moving. Are you in favour, at this moment, of CHOGM going ahead in Colombo or are you are veering towards the belief that perhaps for a variety of reasons it shouldn't be held in Colombo?

Salman Khurshid: I think we will take a thoughtful decision on this, we have to keep in mind the overall interest of Commonwealth, we have to keep in mind the concerns of our people and we have to look at what is the right thing to do. So, I am not going to give any indication right now which I think will be unfair if I was to give. Let's just wait for the right time and the right decision.

Karan Thapar: The important thing that you are saying is that at the moment you haven't really made up your mind and you have an open mind.

Salman Khurshid: At the moment there is a decision of the heads of the governments that that is where the CHOGM event will take place. But because you are asking me this question, I am saying that I am not in a position today to respond to this question because it has to be something that will be decided in due course of time.

Karan Thapar: I understand. So, at the moment, as things stand today, the decision to go ahead with CHOGM in Colombo is one that the Indian government endorses?

Salman Khurshid: No, there is no question of endorsing. This is a decision that was taken by heads of governments together, and one government alone can't change it. It has to be changed, if at all, through the rules of the game that exist within the Commonwealth nations together. India alone cannot change the rules of the game.

Karan Thapar: Is India keen to try and change it?

Salman Khurshid: Whether India is keen or not is not something that I am going to tell you, but I can certainly tell you who is keen. Canada is keen and they have reached out to other countries but I do know there are a lot of other countries who are not responding to Canada's approach.

Karan Thapar: All right minister, we leave the audience to work out the nuances of what you are saying. You are not giving away anything but you are suggesting at the moment, as things stand, you have an open mind on the issue.

Now, let's come to the manner in which the government handled the Enrica Lexie affair and the case of the two Italian marines. The Italian government is convinced that the principle determining factor on the Indian side was the local Kerala government politics. Would you deny that?

Salman Khurshid: It may have been in the backdrop but what we took was a clear cut decision and the rule of law prevails in our country. The Supreme Court made an order, we followed and complied with that order, so did the Italian government. They enjoyed the benefits of an order made by courts of our country twice. And its the second time when there was a question mark on complying and we just said very clearly and categorically that there is no question of not complying with the Supreme Court order.

Karan Thapar: I'll tell you why many people, and not just the Italians, believe that your government's policy on this issue was determined by local Kerala politics. It's because clearly the incident happened more than 20 miles away from the coast of Kerala, clearly outside Indian territorial waters, despite that you insisted that in fact Indian jurisdiction must apply and the matter mustn't be handled either by arbitration or international tribunal. And people say the reason for that was that there was a critical by-election taking place in Kerala and it was essential for the UDF that it retained that seat. As a result of which Kerala politics and Kerala emotions dominated over cool, calm analysis.

Salman Khurshid: There was no cool and calm analysis involved in this at all. It was an ordinary police function as far as the Kerala government was concerned, which proceeded then with the adjudication through a court of law and the courts took up a position, the Supreme Court finally overturned that position and said that the trial must take place under the jurisdiction of the central government. So, where do we come in? It's the court that is taking, clearly under the Indian system, a final view of what should happen.

Karan Thapar: Now, last week on this very programme Staffan de Mistura, the Italian Deputy Foreign Minister, said that the Enrica Lexie had been lured by deception into Indian waters. How do you comment on that?

Salman Khurshid: Well, certainly as I said to you clearly, this was a simple policing matter. And you know that policing is a subject that is a state government's subject. Whatever may have happened, ultimately it was placed before a court of law and not only an ordinary court of law, but it went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Karan Thapar: But the interesting thing is that you have not denied the Italian claim that their shippers were lured by deception into Indian waters.

Salman Khurshid: This was not even said before the Supreme Court either by the Italian side or by the Kerala government.

Karan Thapar: Did the Italians ever mentioned this to you government to government?

Salman Khurshid: Not to my knowledge.

Karan Thapar: Not to your knowledge? So, first you heard of it was when Staffan de Mistura told me this last week?

Salman Khurshid: I would imagine so.

Karan Thapar: Now, this matter is going to go in front of a special court, which is being set up very shortly. If that special court was to decide that in fact the jurisdiction doesn't lie with India, would your government accept it or would you appeal against it?

Salman Khurshid: Do we have a choice but to accept what the courts of the country decides? But the procedure that prevails in our country is that from a court you have an appeal, we obviously have some guidance from the Supreme Court in this matter and ultimately the Supreme Court will take the final call.

Karan Thapar: Except that the Supreme Court has left it completely open to the special court to decide the question of jurisdiction.

Salman Khurshid: So, that's your answer.

Karan Thapar: But you are saying that if it goes against India, you do have a right to appeal?

Salman Khurshid: I am saying the right of appeal, the opinion of the Supreme Court, all these things are legal matters on which we don't have to take a special call. Law will prevail in the normal course. So, let's just wait for what the law does.

Karan Thapar: Now, if the special court were to decide that India does have jurisdiction, if it hears the case and finds the marines guilty and sentences them, will they serve out their sentence in India? Or will you permit them to serve out that sentence back home in Italy?

Salman Khurshid: You know there's a treaty between Italy and ourselves and that treaty has its own implications. I don't need to spell that out to anyone.

Karan Thapar: That treaty does permit them to serve their sentence in Italy?

Salman Khurshid: Well that's your answer but you know it's not for me to be advising anybody. If there's a binding treaty between our two countries, obviously it has its implications.

Karan Thapar: Now, the Italians made it very clear that the reason why they brought both their marines back to India was because they got a specific assurance in writing that the death penalty wouldn't apply in this case.

Salman Khurshid: Clarification, not assurance. I still stand by that clarification, we will share it with the Supreme Court that this is the clarification that we have given. Whoever is talking about this must understand that the law of the land is very clear, it is only in the rarest of the rare cases that death sentence is given.

Karan Thapar: Except that the determination of what's rarest of the rare is not to be made by the government but by the court. And if the court disagrees with the government and decides that this is rarest of the rare, you would have given clarification that would turn out to be false.

Salman Khurshid: Not false, wrong.

Karan Thapar: Well, that's as bad.

Salman Khurshid: No it's not bad. Please understand, if we are going into hypotheticals and speculating about what the courts can do, and might do and will do, let's just stop here because on the 2nd when the Supreme Court reassembles, whatever we have done, whatever we have said in writing, will be placed before the Supreme Court.

Karan Thapar: Absolutely. But at this moment there is a possibility that the clarification you have given could be wrong and therefore this problem might suddenly explode again.

Salman Khurshid: Why don' we wait till the 2nd when the Supreme Court looks at this.

Karan Thapar: My last question. Are you confident that in fact this whole crisis would blow up again at the point at which the special court decides to give a verdict against the marines and either forces them to serve a sentence or forces them to face up to a worse penalty? At that point will you have a bigger problem on your hands?

Salman Khurshid: I don't think we need to speculate about that. I think the Italian government has been very sensible. I think it's been more than fair. It took time to be persuaded about the position that I think they have finally taken but I have no problem in saying that they have done a good job, they have done a fair job at a cost to themselves as indeed there would have been a cost to us if we were to do what we were entitled to do and were obliged to do under the law. And, I think this is how two responsible governments should treat each other.

Karan Thapar: The important thing is and this is my last question, you are complementing the Italian government for doing a sensible and fair job?

Salman Khurshid: Yes, of course I am because they did a fair and sensible job. And I hope that you will compliment us for doing the right thing.

Karan Thapar: Salman Khurshid, a pleasure talking to you.

Salman Khurshid: Thank you very much.

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