Thursday, February 14, 2013

An all-weather friend of great substance

My article in the Edit Page of The Pioneer this morning.

The India-France relationship may not be particularly glamorous, but it is old and stable. And, these main traits characterise bilateral collaborations, be they in the field of defence, civil nuclear energy or culture

President Francois Hollande of France has scored a point on Mr Nicolas Sarkozy, his rival during the last French presidential election in May 2012. Mr Hollande’s partner, Madame Valerie Trierweiler, will be treated as his ‘wife’ during the President’s ongoing state visit to India. However, Ms Carla Bruni did not get this coveted status during Mr Sarkozy’s short first visit in January 2008 (though she got it in December 2010). It is a good personal start for Mr Hollande, but the Indo-French relations go far beyond society gossip or the often-rigid Ministry of External Affairs’ protocol.
When in May 2012, Mr Hollande, the ‘normal’ Socialist candidate, defeated Mr Sarkozy, the ‘hyper-President’, many asked: Will the new incumbent in the Elysée Palace have a different foreign policy from that of his predecessor? To be honest, one of the main characteristics of last year’s presidential campaign was the total lack of interest in foreign affairs; both candidates were also not too apart as far as France’s foreign relations were concerned. Take Afghanistan: Both Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy agreed to withdraw French troops, and the difference was just on the question of timing. Mr Hollande promised the departure of the French forces before the year-end (which he did), while Mr Sarkozy preferred to wait till 2013.
The relations with India are nevertheless exceptionally important for Paris. It is why Mr Hollande has chosen India for his first visit to Asia, even before visiting the economically powerful (and sometimes scary) China. The relations between France and India may not be as glamorous as with some countries, but they are old, stable and based on trust. For most observers, these are their main traits, whether it is in the domain of defence, civil nuclear energy, space, economic and scientific exchange or culture. ‘The mother of all deals’, the supply of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft to the Indian Air Force, for which the Rafale of Dassault Aviation has been selected, will be at the centre of the visit. Though the negotiations appear to have reached a final stage, the contract will not be signed immediately.
Mr Hollande certainly remembers that on May 22, 1981, the day after his political guru François Mitterrand was elected as the first Socialist President, the French Press announced, “India chooses the Mirage 2000 to modernise its Air Force”. One can be certain that Mr Hollande is keen to follow in the footsteps of his mentor and ensure that the contract for the 126 MMRCA is concluded at the earliest. It is in the interest of both France and India.
The French bird was the star of the Aeroshow 2013 held recently at Yelahanka Air Force Station, near Bangalore. Before the event, news had circulated that Dassault was keen to have a deal with Reliance Industries to build 108 Rafales in India (18 will be directly supplied from France). A communique announced that Dassault and Reliance Industries had signed a partnership, “for pursuing strategic opportunities of collaboration in the area of complex manufacturing and support in India.” During his Press conference, Union Minister for Defence AK Antony clarified that Dassault could not decide on the quantum of work by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd in the Rafale deal, as the Request for Proposals had clearly laid down the parameters under which the deal for the 126 aircrafts would be awarded. Though Dassault was rather mute during the show, the presence of its newly appointed chairman, Mr Eric Trappier, showed the vital importance of the contract for the French side. Union Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid, who visited Paris early January, had told the Press: “We know good French wine takes time to mature, and so do good contracts … just wait a little for the cork to pop and you’ll have some good wine to taste.”
Dassault is perhaps not ready to wait too long for the wine to mature , nor is the Indian Air Force, for which the deal is vital as many of its planes (such as the MIG 21) are soon due to be phased out. Someone noted that if Dassault’s karma is good, the deal may be signed before the summer. The Indian Air Force chief confirmed during his Press conference that the file would be sent to the Union Ministry of Finance sometime in April or May, and if it comes back with favourable notings, the deal may be signed soon after. During an informal talk with the French Air Chief, General Denis Mercier, I asked him to characterise the Indo-French relations. He just said ‘trust’ and quoted the example of the Garuda joint air exercises between France and India. He explained that with very few countries was France so confident to ‘share’, and this translated into meaningful joint exercises.
With Dassault, the collaboration has been long and uninterrupted (not interrupted even after India tested a nuclear device in Pokhran in 1998). The French company supplied the Ouragan (‘Toofani’ for the IAF), the Mystere IV, the Alizé (with Bréguet), the Jaguar and then the Mirage 2000 in the 1980s. During his last visit to India in December 2010, Mr Sarkozy signed an agreement for ‘refitting’ (or modernising) 51 Mirages for some two billion dollars. As a Socialist leader, one issue that Mr Hollande could ‘diplomatically’ broach with his Indian interlocutors is the fact that India seems to still live in the Soviet era where the defence industry has to be owned by the State. If the private sector enters the defence market in a direct manner, it would be a win-win decision for all.
In Bangalore, doubts were raised whether the two mastodons (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Defence Research and Development Organisation) could cope with modern requirements. If Dassault or Safran of France, Boeing or Lockheed-Martin of the US or Rafael of Israel are able to serve their respective states well, why can’t the Tatas or the Reliances do so in India? Will Prime Minister Manmohan and his Defence Minister listen to a Socialist leader?
If President Mitterrand laid the foundation of a solid friendship, the regular dialogue was institutionalised during President Jacques Chirac’s visit in 1998 through a ‘strategic’ partnership. This is still the base of the ‘trusted’ relationship. During the visit of Mr Singh to Paris in September 2008, France was the first country to ink a civilian nuclear deal with India. In December 2010, during Mr Sarkozy’s second visit to India, New Delhi and Paris decided to build two European Pressurised Reactors of 1650 MW each for an estimated cost of about 9.5 billion dollars. A framework agreement was signed but due to the complexity of the project on the Jaitapur site in Maharashtra (and the vital security issues involved), Areva and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India need some more time to reach a final agreement.
While the bilateral economic relations are growing smoothly, a domain which still lags behind is educational exchange. In 2007, Ms Valerie Pécresse, the then French Minister for Higher Education, had announced a target of 4,000 Indian students going to France for higher studies. When Mr Sarkozy visited India in 2010, the target had not been reached; it is still an objective today.
As for cultural relations, they will go on regardless of who is at the helm of India or France. As Mr Hollande will say “Bonjour India”  in New Delhi, for India, a trusted partner has come.
(The accompanying visual is of French President Francois Hollande with his partner Valerie Trierweiler)

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