What is noteworthy about French President Emmanuel Macron’s just-ended visit to India is that it underlined the value of a relationship that has evolved incrementally but impressively since the 1980s, with an accent on the totality of the strategic spectrum, as has just become evident. It had no downs along the way, only ups. When the world turned against New Delhi after the Pokhran-II nuclear test, Paris kept its composure. It also showed no hesitation in supporting India’s case for permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
There is some irony in that a Francophile leader, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the architect of the Indo-Soviet Treaty on Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, basically a security pact to act as a counterweight to American threats in order to bolster Pakistan, had proposed defence ties with France in the 1980s to balance this country’s wholesale reliance on the Soviet Union for defence wares. This had happened when the Cold War blocs had not dissolved.
And now, when post-Communism Russia is conceiving its strategic and tactical positions in a manner different from the past, New Delhi has just signed with Paris agreements in areas like defence, nuclear energy, strategic “vision” to offset potential moves by another neighbour (this time China, rather than Pakistan) in the Indian Ocean region, exchange of military logistics and supplies, and space.
In some of these fields such as a strategic vision for the Indian Ocean and military logistics, India has also reached agreements with the United States. However, the agreements with France signed during President Macron’s visit have immediate relevance in two fields in particular. One, due to France’s former colonial possessions in the Indian Ocean it has naval facilities that can now be accessed by India on a reciprocal basis as a counterpoint to rampaging Chinese tactics to corner as much of the Indian Ocean region as possible to extend its military reach.
Two, the agreement on six reactors for the Jaitapur nuclear complex in Maharashtra, important for India, should face fewer practical difficulties than nuclear deals with the US over civil liability issues. President Macron called the purchase of 36 ready-to-fly Rafale fighter jets by India the “heart” of the strategic relationship. This suggests that military commerce matters more to France than logistics and other issues which are of no less value to this country, and Paris will work hard to sell 36 more Rafale fighters, although the first lot of purchases has run into pricing controversies in India. Mr Macron tried to assuage Congress president Rahul Gandhi on this score. Possibly, it’s on account of this background that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held back from ordering a fresh lot of the French fighter. Nevertheless, 14 agreements worth $16 billion were signed, and that’s good going. India has also gained by the French connection.