Matters strategic and political

Print edition : February 17, 2001

On issues relating to India's strategic dialogue with France, Christophe Jaffrelot, Kanti Bajpai and Jean-Luc Racine (of the Maison des Science de l'Homme in Paris) spoke to Vaiju Naravane. Excerpts:

In the short span of three years the Indo-French rapprochement, while not being dramatic, has been very significant. There was a very strong Franco-Pakistani link for a considerable length of time. Even after the military coup in Pakistan, Augusta submar ines and other armaments were delivered to Pakistan by France. So there was a very strong pro-Pakistan lobby. In 1999 there was a counter Indian lobby and India's lobbying efforts really hurt Pakistan in 2000. This rapprochement was consummated by the pu rchase of 10 Mirages by India. The so-called pro-Pakistani lobby has been more or less neutralised and this is the new and most interesting development in the Indo-French relationship.

The pro-Pakistani lobby in the French government and defence forces was due largely to personal equations and contacts. The Pakistanis sent their soldiers abroad for training whereas the Indians never do that. Because of this man-to-man contact, French G enerals trusted their Pakistani counterparts more than they did the Indians.

Several factors coalesced to change that view.

First, there was Pakistan's evident inability to pay for more arms purchases. That was a very strong argument. Then there was the coup, the reality of Kargil and the Taliban factor. At the same time, India was stepping up its efforts to establish a genui ne dialogue, and while economic relations did not take off - they are still on the back-burner - a definite warming of relations took place. So this is the kind of context in which you have to look at the Indo-French dialogue.

When French firms will realise the real potential of India is difficult to predict. For the moment India does not have a good image among French businessmen. Peugeot has pulled out, and so has EDF. The French are reluctant to approach India because they still see the world divided up along former colonial interests. The second factor is that of the preponderant Indian state - the delays, the corruption - which the French find extremely disconcerting. There is another problem, which is that of infrastruc ture - the roads are a nightmare, there is uncertainty over power, goods cannot be cleared or machinery gets held up at ports. I think infrastructure is going to become the key issue over the next few years. That is something the state has to provide. Th en there are adverse signals being sent by developments like the re-negotiation with Enron.

In addition, we don't have the kind of Indian diaspora that would be able to roll back the reluctance of French firms. In countries like the U.S. or Britain, Indians are in a position to put pressure on the government and even invest themselves. Here, ba rring a few professionals and artists, the Indian community finds itself at the lower end of the social scale. If India's relations with the U.S. have changed so dramatically over the past couple of years it is because of the Indian community there and t he weight it carries. For this to happen here, France must import highly qualified Indian labour and has to forget fears of the decreasing influence of the French language. France is finding it very difficult to lower the protectionist barriers it has er ected around French.

I think France is an interesting power, from the Indian perspective. It is precisely because France is part of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), is an ally of the U.S., is part of the non-proliferation structure, that it is interesting. It's par t of that and yet, very often and very clearly at times, it articulates rather different perspectives and policies. For example, on the whole issue of proliferation and India's nuclear tests, it's essentially part of the club, but it's had a different po int of view on sanctions.

Ultimately, if they did go along with the sanctions and did not really stray, it was because nobody can stray very far in a world order dominated by a superpower the size of America. I don't think we should kid ourselves in India. Even we don't stray on most issues although we have strayed on the nuclear issue. But what makes the French interesting is that they do stray enough to serve as a kind of interlocutor for a country like India. We can get a different perspective on Western approaches and even o n the U.S. France, while remaining an ally of the U.S., has always found a way of managing its differences with the Americans - sometimes very fractiously - and something like that is perhaps what India needs. I see the French somewhat as interlocutors, sometimes as an interesting reference point, a model in the way that they conduct themselves. On a number of issues - proliferation, economics and globalisation - they've voiced their concern very strongly. Now we have differences with the French as well . Their general opposition to importing cultural products is not something we are excited about; we are rather closer to the Americans there. But still, French concern about globalisation is one we share, both economically and culturally. On nuclear issu es, on globalisation and on how to deal with the Americans are the three areas where the French talk a language or represent something that's interesting to us.

Within India, France is not a controversial power and so when we talk to the French we have no baggage so to speak. That's the case with Russia too.

We feel comfortable with the French. There is something about the French, their intellectualism, which appeals to Indians. We like that more than the tremendously pragmatic, cut and dried, very direct American approach which fuddles us.

The French also represent other interesting things for Indians - a great civilisation. We think of ourselves in the same way - a long history, a lot of giving to the world. France is one of the miracle countries of the Second World War - it managed to co nvert defeat into victory. It has also fashioned a policy of reconciliation with its former enemy Germany, which is an interesting issue for us in India since we're confronted with a problem with China and Pakistan.

Coming to the Indo-French dialogue in particular, I think eventually France would be keen, just as the Americans would be, to sell civil nuclear energy to India provided this is done within the framework of international constraints. Once these norms are respected there will be no more obstacles; on the contrary, there will be competition between countries that have the technology, such as France and the U.S. As far as France's existing alliances are concerned, neither NATO nor the E.U. prevents any cou ntry from establishing a dialogue or exchanging views with third countries.

India's isolation following the nuclear tests of May 1998 is now clearly over. So it seems that the dialogues try to meet a need to redefine the type of engagement to which India should subscribe - even informally. Not many countries feel that India will sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And if India is to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it will probably do that not only after a national consensus has emerged but also after discussions are held with certain key countries, p articularly those of the P-5. The very fact that India is now a nuclear power is also the cause for negotiations with a number of countries for the sake of bilateral security, as in the case of India and China where two nuclear neighbours exchange views about their respective confidence-building measures (CBMs) and so on. So here too it is part of a greater game.

The third element is much more a political matter than a security matter. It is a quest for multi-polarity. Faced with America's hyper power, Paris has realised that there is room for a redefinition of the balance of power in the coming world order. Pari s feels that India now has a place of its own in this emerging world order.

There is, however, definitely a feeling in Paris that greater trust and understanding between the two countries will lead to better trade and other exchanges. France lags behind other European countries in the matter of trade with India. There is a great discrepancy between excellent political relations and poor economic ties. Paris genuinely feels that we need a more well-balanced world order and that India has a role to play in that. France has openly endorsed India's bid for a permanent seat on the U .N. Security Council.

On the question of whatever happened between January 1998 and April 2000 to make Paris change its position on this issue, France is not the only country to have made the leap. Secondly, it is also perhaps the result of the strategic dialogue. There is de finitely a better understanding of the two countries' perceptions. It is a recognition of India's nuclear status.

Despite the progress made by India, its economic strength continues to be relatively weak, with a share of global trade that is still below 1 per cent. So we are talking of a period of transition.

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