As Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his visit in France, he might be wondering why it hasn’t generated more of a buzz, given the range and depth of relations between the two nations. There are cultural similarities between the two countries — both are argumentative, possess an individualistic streak coupled with an ‘I know best’ arrogance, and are preoccupied with gastronomic matters, reflected in the long and inconclusive discussions on the merits of respective regional cuisines. Incidentally, just as the French got McDonald’s to use the baguette instead of the bun, India persuaded them to introduce the McAloo Tikki.
In the post-Cold War period, France was the first country with which India established a ‘strategic partnership’. The only major Western power that described the U.S. as a “hyperpuissance” (hyperpower) and openly espoused the virtues of multi-polarity found a natural ideological convergence with India’s ambitions of seeking strategic autonomy. After the nuclear tests in May 1998, when India declared itself a nuclear state, France was the first major power to open talks with the country. Within weeks, the Special Envoy of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra, was received in Paris by President Jacques Chirac, who not only gave him a patient hearing but also appreciated India’s political and security compulsions. While the India-U.S. nuclear dialogue between India’s then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott attracted greater media attention, the strategic dialogue between Mr. Mishra and his French interlocutor Ambassador Gérard Errera made significant progress behind the scenes. One reason was that the French never talked of “cap, rollback and eliminate” as the U.S. non-proliferation lobby did, but focussed instead on developing an understanding of Indian thinking about the region.
Strategic partnership The strategic dialogue has since been institutionalised at the level of National Security Advisors, and covers nuclear, defence, space and counter-terrorism issues. Since 2010, multinational energy group Areva and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NCPIL) have been in discussions on technical and financial issues pertaining to the reactors to be set up at Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Pragmatically, they decided to set aside concerns about Indian liability law and regulations and instead focus on bringing down the costs of power generation by working with Indian suppliers and contractors. With liability issues having been sorted out during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit in January, it is likely that Areva and NPCIL will sign an Early Works Agreement. One of the lesser known success stories is the 40-year space cooperation between the two countries. From acquiring the technologies of Centaure and Viking rockets and helping set up the Sriharikota launch site in the 1960s and 70s, today the India-France relationship has become one of near equals. Co-development of scientific satellites is the new norm, even as Ariane remains India’s preferred launch vehicle for geostationary satellites while France uses India’s PSLV for its SPOT satellite.
The Rafale aircraft deal has dominated media attention because of the size of the deal, perhaps forgetting that French aircraft and helicopters have been part of the Indian air fleet since the 1960s. The key difference is the focus now on transfer of technology under the new ‘Make in India’ policy coupled with the Offset Policy. This requires investment commitments as well as sharing of responsibility and liability between Dassault and HAL for indigenisation and ensuring quality control and timely delivery. Indian negotiating systems have not been developed to insulate them from political interference, which makes the resolution of outstanding differences time consuming. Leadership and reassurance are required to address the issue.
In recent years, counter-terrorism and cyber security have been added to the strategic dialogue. The French are increasingly concerned about home-grown terrorism, most recently seen in the Charlie Hebdo killings . Internet governance, surveillance by external powers, and the U.S. dominance of the Net are also shared areas of concern that provide scope for convergence. Besides the joint working groups on agriculture, environment, civil aviation, energy, etc., there is a newly revamped CEO’s Forum, expected to submit recommendations to Mr. Modi and French President François Hollande.
Why, then, is there no excitement? First, while the governments share a robust relationship, the business relationships are weak. Bilateral trade languishes at about €7 billion, less than half of India’s trade with Germany. The target of €12 billion set in 2008 remains elusive. French FDI has picked up in recent years, but hardly does justice to the fact that there are more than 800 French enterprises in India. These include industry leaders such as Alsthom, Airbus, Alcatel, BNP Paribas, L’Oreal and Louis Vuitton. IT services provider Capgemini employs over 50,000 people in India and has plans to double this in the next five years.
Business can improve with the right kind of political push. Urban infrastructure planning and development using innovative public-private partnerships is a French speciality that has made companies like Veolia, Alsthom, Vinci and GDF Suez global leaders in water supply and waste management, housing, roads, urban transportation, power transmission and distribution. With Mr. Modi’s focus on ‘smart cities’, there is a natural space in India for such French enterprises. Financial institutions such as Caisse des Dépôts can be nudged with political will to set up a special fund with an Indian entity (State Bank of India, for instance) to focus on select cities. Veolia is already working in Nagpur on water supply management while the Bangalore Metro is likely to get additional French funding.
People-to-people links Second, although Indian writers, filmmakers and artists are welcomed and appreciated in France, there are only about 2,500 Indian students a year compared to more than 25,000 Chinese students. Of the six million foreign tourists visiting India annually, French nationals are less than 2,50,000. The number of direct flights between India and France is less than 20 a week, while there are 80 between India and Germany. French social security laws, long-term student visas, and the facility to work for two-three years to pay off student loans are some of the areas that need to be worked out. These can build a trained cadre of qualified, bilingual professionals who can be absorbed when French businesses explore opportunities in India.
If the two leaders can take concrete steps to strengthen business and people relations, they will find that buzz they are looking for in what has been a dependable strategic partnership.
(Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who has served as Ambassador to France. E-mail: email@example.com )