Chirac comes calling

04 Feb, 1998    ·   57

Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee (Retd) reflects on India-France relations on the eve of Chirac's visit to New Delhi

  1. The honoured guest at the Republic Day parade on the 50th year of Indian independence was President Jacques Chirac of France . When many world leaders declined to visit India due to the terminal state of its current politics, France decided to accept and pay homage to India . It was not merely good politics, but also a commitment to India and a determination to chart a new course in mutual relations. For, relations were in fact in a bit of a cloud in the last few years and needed resurrection.



  1. President Chirac made this point repeatedly during his three-day stay. He drew attention to our common civilisational heritage, our strong sense of history and culture and the state of cordial relations that has prevailed between us in the last fifty years. At the same time he bemoaned the lack of substance in this relationship. Mutual trade is minimal, less than half a percent in terms of both export and import of France . French investment too is much less than that of other western countries. Chirac's visit has strengthened the possibility of reversing this trend. In his attempt to resurrect the Gaullist image of France , the President apparently is keen to develop stronger ties with India .



  1. Relations with France were affected in recent years primarily by one factor. It was its military supply relationship with Pakistan . The billion dollar submarine deal and the prospect of a large Mirage 2000 aircraft sale to Islamabad had strained relations between Paris and New Delhi very substantially. With the Mirage deal now virtually off, time is more opportune. The President came with a large business delegation and his first stop was the commercial capital, Mumbai. Prospects of economic and technological co-operation seem bright. The base is so low, that the movement perhaps can only be in one direction, up. Apart from this, three clear issues emerged from the visit.



  1. First, a desire for a strategic dialogue. It is a much-overused term in today's world and needs to be understood in perspective. In this particular case it has both a military and a strategic dimension. The French arms industry is short of orders. It is a leader in a number of high technology defence manufacturing sectors. Primarily among these are electronic warfare, avionics, communications and space technology. Having given up its Pakistani connection, it would look towards India to make up the gap. This perception is exaggerated. Having just concluded the controversial and enormously expensive Su 30 deal with Russia , India 's arms purchase budget will be rather low for some time. But, a larger understanding on strategic issues will facilitate future relationships. India 's record at dialogue on these issues is not very good. A similar dialogue with Germany did not materialise after the visit of its Defence Minister in 1996. The annual scheduled dialogue with the USA was called off at the last minute on rather flimsy grounds. The simple fact is that the emasculated Defence Ministry in India is not organised, equipped or capable of meaningful interactions on strategic questions with western countries. The Indian defence bureaucracy feels more comfortable with ambiguities, negativism, and criticism of other's policies. It is unable to spell out in clear terms its own perceptions, interests and strategies. This restricts the possibility of a genuine dialogue on reciprocal terms between officials.



  1. A more interesting issue was the possibility of co-operation in nuclear energy. France is among the leaders in the world in nuclear energy technology. But, the industry has enormous over capacity and is starved of orders. If the large China market goes to the USA , France would have little option than to look to India . There is enormous possibility for co-operation. But, the hurdles are presently clearly defined. India 's position on the NPT and the CTBT and France's membership of the nuclear supply group clearly lay down the parameters. But, mutual interest, if they are strong enough, may allow evolving an imaginative solution to the issue. There is a distinct possibility of this provided we move carefully.




Finally, Chirac's visit reflected France 's desire for a larger say in the post Cold war world. The Anglo-Saxon domination cannot be very comforting to Paris . While maintaining its clear solidarity with the west and the European Community, France wants to play a larger role and particularly in Asia . For India too it is an opportunity to widen its relationship. The coming years will show whether the promise can indeed be fulfilled.