The worry is that the use of diplomacy to spring a fugitive in a politically-sensitive case may not end with Michel.
The extradition of Christian J. Michel, a British national, by India from Dubai early last week, on December 4, has aroused great public interest within the country. More significantly, it gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi ammunition for his electioneering on December 5, the last day before the campaigning closed in Rajasthan, where the BJP faced serious anti-incumbency according to pre-poll estimates.
Mr Modi used Michel to tar his party’s principal opponent, the Congress, based mostly on innuendo and presumptive guilt when the accused’s interrogation had barely begun. While seasoned politicians surmised it was too late to derive any political mileage, most voters having already made up their minds, the government’s frantic attempt raised a number of questions about electoral propriety and the inadvisability of dragging in foreign nations into our domestic politics.
After all, in the United States, almost ever since President Donald Trump’s victory, an investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller is under way into possible Russian government efforts to interfere with the American presidential election. Mr Trump had been referring to his opponent all through the campaign as “crooked” Hillary. Was it illegal to contact the Russians for material on her? As per US election law, part (a)(1)(A), it shall be unlawful for a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to “make a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value…”. Seeking damaging information from Russia on Hillary Clinton is being construed as having value that could interfere with the US election.
The extradition of Michel falls into a different category as it is the Indian State which is pursuing a fugitive through legitimate legal processes to unravel possible bribes in a defence contract. But the counter-argument can be that considering Michel was already under detention in Dubai, he could well have been surrendered by the Dubai authorities two days later, when voting would have ended in the crucial state elections in the Hindi heartland that will possibly cast a huge shadow on the Lok Sabha polls next year. This in no way would have affected India’s graft-bursting zeal. This again raises the question of whether India too needs laws that disallow such blatant use of law-enforcement actions for political point-scoring in the middle of actual electioneering, while a code of conduct is in place. Naturally this would not cover situations where the escape of a fugitive is anticipated.
The worry is that the use of diplomacy to spring a fugitive in a politically-sensitive case may not end with Michel. What is to keep a future non-BJP government in a possible inquiry into another contentious defence deal from approaching another foreign government for information in lieu of promised future contracts or threat of cancellation of existing deals. But to return to l’affaire Michel, as India’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in 1999-2003 I oversaw the beginning of collaboration in deporting to India of terror-related fugitives starting in 2002. Although by then the extradition treaty between India and the UAE was already in operation, the method chosen by mutual agreement was, as the fugitives were Indian nationals, to bypass the extradition proceedings altogether and simply deport them to India. The Michel case, however, needed proper legal proceedings as he was a British national and was wanted on bribery charges in a defence deal. After the Dubai court approved the extradition, the matter was in the hands of UAE federal authorities as extradition is a quasi-political act, with foreign offices normally needing to sign off before actual transfer. Thus, the timing was deliberate and by mutual choice.
However, India would have needed to negotiate at two levels. Dubai, an emirate having its own ruler and judicial system, had to conduct the extradition trial, but Abu Dhabi as the federal authority took the final call on actual implementation. Past experience dictates that individual emirates tend to be transactional and weigh their own benefit in obliging a foreign interlocutor. In the present case, it appears that New Delhi’s prompt action paid off in apprehending Sheikha Latifa, the rebellious daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, who is the Ruler of Dubai and vice-president-cum-Prime Minister of the UAE, somewhere in the Arabian Sea and returning her despite her protests to Dubai. Separately, Prime Minister Modi had made two visits to the UAE and hosted Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed as chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations last year, although he is neither head of state nor head of government. Mr Modi also made an exception, unprecedented for an Indian Prime Minister, to receive at the airport in person a mere crown prince of an emirate.
In turn, Abu Dhabi, dubbed “Little Sparta” by the US defence secretary, has been playing an ambitious role in tandem with Saudi Arabia in the region and beyond, which is becoming contentious even in eyes of the American Congress in the make of the Jamal Khashoggi murder. To foil Iran, which is stitching a regional alliance of Shia powers, the UAE wooed India to wean it away from Iran. Thus, on the Michel issue, the interests of Dubai and Abu Dhabi converged. They may or may not have understood the domestic implications of their move in India. It, however, again highlights the need to place the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) under an independent Lok Pal, who is of such eminence, which clearly the Central Vigilance Commissioner is not, that his actions are above political interference. A similar misstep by the director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, days before voting in the US presidential election in 2016, when he let it be known that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was under investigation, may have cost her the election. The Rajasthan election results may still go in favour of the Congress, but in case they do not the stink of a “foreign hand” will linger over them, as it does over Mr Trump’s victory.