The last time President Sarkozy visited India was in January 2008; he was then unmarried. Most of the coverage of his visit related to his romance with Carla Bruni and ‘his return’ to India to witness a full moon at the Taj Mahal with her. But this time there are serious diplomatic issues to be discussed between France and India, which have enjoyed an old and dependable strategic partnership, signed during Jacques Chirac’s visit to Delhi in 1998.
Sandwiched between the trips of Presidents Obama and Medvedev, as well as Premier Wen Jiabao, Sarkozy’s three-day visit to India can only reinforce the bilateral partnership, particularly in the field of civil nuclear cooperation and defence.
When we asked Ranjan Mathai, India’s ambassador to France about his expectations for the summit (the first after Manmohan Singh attended the French National Day in Paris in 2009), the ambassador explained that the July 2009 short trip had been important not only because the Indian prime minister was the chief guest at the Champs-Elysées parade, but “it helped us to review certain very important issues, particularly civil nuclear cooperation, defence issues and the strategic and political dialogues.”
Mathai pointed out that the French and Indian leaders had also met in Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago) in November 2009, in April 2010 in Washington and then on the occasion of the recent G20 Summit in Seoul. Three face -to-face encounters happened in one year for two personalities with seemingly opposite character traits but who deeply appreciate each other.
In September 2008, France was the first country to sign a civilian nuclear deal with India. In this field, Mathai confirmed that negotiations were progressing smoothly between Areva and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL): “There are issues related to the cost or the technical aspects of the project, safety, etc. to be sorted out. If one looks at the entire picture, we have made substantial progress. Hopefully in a few weeks, we will reach some conclusions. Then, a techno-commercial contract has to be finalised, but this will take a little more time.”
Not only has the 9900-MWe Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project now received environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, but the Nuclear Liabilities Bill has been passed by the Parliament. Paris believes that it is an important step forward in clarifying issues as the liability issue is for both sides a complicated question and the responsibilities between the ‘supplier’ (Areva) and the ‘operator’ (NPCIL) need to be clearly delineated. It is a long and necessary process.
The fact that a decision on the purchase of 126 medium multirole combat aircraft is around the corner is probably not foreign to the visit of all these heads of state to Delhi (Obama is bidding for his F-16IN, Medvedev for the MiG-35 while Sarkozy is pushing for the Rafale). In an interview for the Indian Defence Review in October, when we asked Hervé Morin, the French Defence Minister (he was replaced by former prime minister Alain Juppé in a major reshuffle in November, but French policies remain the same) about ‘the contract of the century’, he answered: “We have a long-standing military cooperation (with India). When India desired to diversify its military relations in the early 1980s, France responded and a relationship of trust was built, especially with the Mirage 2000s.” The minister pointed out that “whether it concerns her candidature for a permanent seat at the Security Council or the amendment of regulations for civil nuclear energy exportation, India knows that it can count on France’s support.”
Paris had given its support long before Obama gave his emotional speech to the Indian Parliament. Defence has always been a key component of the partnership. During a recent visit to Delhi, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, the French Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), quoted Kautilya: “An unfailing ally is one who receives and provides help because of old bonds, friendship and generosity”.
He explained that India and France not only “share similar ideals of freedom, democracy and cultural diversity”, but the two countries also have common objectives, namely “a safer world, a better managed Indian Ocean and a more stable Afghanistan.” The French defence minister spoke more concretely about “the supply of strategic equipment (fighter aircraft, submarines), and also state-of-the-art technology for the entire gamut of the Indian armed forces’ requirements,” he added “our own history has made us extremely sensitive to India’s desire to favour local production and develop the defence industry.” Today, the main ongoing joint project is the manufacture, under French licence, of six Scorpene submarines at Mazagaon docks near Mumbai.
Apart from the long pending modernisation (known as ‘refitting’) of the Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fleet, two joint development projects are in the pipeline: the Maitri project for a surface-to-air defence missile system, and the Kaveri fighter aircraft engine. The supply of reconnaissance and observation helicopters may also materialise during President Sarkozy’s stay.
The visit to India of Jean-David Levitte, the ‘sherpa’ of President Sarkozy, during the second week of October was hardly noticed in Delhi. Monsieur Levitte is a very powerful man.
He came to India to prepare President Sarkozy’s visit, but also to inform the Government of India of the serious terrorist threats faced by France (several French hostages are held up by terrorist outfits in the Sahel region, Somalia and Afghanistan). Both parties find that the joint air and naval exercises are of great value to increase mutual understanding. Economy is also an important aspect of the relationship.