Indian politics is in a tailspin, thanks to the flight of two Italian marines, previously on trial for allegedly shooting dead two Indian fishermen from the southern state of Kerala in the Indian coastal zone a year ago. The death came during a dispute between a fishing vessel and an Italian naval vessel protecting an oil tanker.
The Italians contested that the incident happened outside of Indian jurisdiction but the Indians were not impressed and went ahead with the arrest and trial of the two marines.
But after the Italians were granted permission to go home to vote in Italian elections, having returned from a previous trip to Italy, they stayed at home and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed the Indians on March 11 that they would not be returning.
This was seen as a serious diplomatic affront, especially since the Italian ambassador to New Delhi had pledged they would return. It is also the most serious political and diplomatic crisis between India and Italy since the Italian company's AgustaWestland chopper deal ran into a corruption scandal after Italy's own investigations last month.
The Indian media has gone on a rampage, hauling the UPA government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, widely perceived to be controlled by the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, widow of Rajiv Gandhi and chairperson of the UPA as well as the president of the ruling Congress party, over the coals.
The entire Indian opposition has cried foul, and has put the government in the dock for its various alleged sins of omission and collusion.
The political signals are quite clear. Sonia Gandhi herself is on trial too. She needs to respond to these questions clearly and as soon as possible. The issue will inevitably be exploited by her political rivals if she does not.
The most damaging point is that the UPA government is being seen to have conveniently looked the other way in the Italian marines case and allegedly facilitated their escape by tweaking the Indian judicial process as a quid pro quo in the Agusta chopper scam.
The insinuation is that Gandhi helped Rome over the marines issue in return for the Italians assuring that India's first family doesn't get singed by the Agusta corruption heat, as it did in a previous scandal involving Sweden over a quarter of century ago.
This is because a reference to "the family" has surfaced in Italian records in the Agusta chopper case and has been reported by the media. According to these reports, part of the Agusta deal kickbacks was meant for "the family," though no one knows which family is being referred to. Many are assuming it refers to the powerful Nehru-Gandhi clan.
Gandhi would do well to set the public record straight, because she herself and her family are being tarnished.
To make the matters even more critical, Gandhi and her family have maintained a complete silence over the issue. In fact, Gandhi has not said a word about the issue of the Italian marines since the episode started more than a year ago.
This silence can prove to be politically suicidal for Gandhi, She needs to speak up. More importantly, she needs to prove what she has been claiming all these years that she is an Indian first and an Italian later.
Sonia Gandhi needs to win the Indian daughter in law versus the Italian daughter debate. Her political detractors, and there are far too many, are waiting for the ideal opportunity to strike. Silence may sometimes be golden, but not when the clock is ticking.
The author is a New Delhi-based political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org