A delicate equation

Print edition : February 17, 2001

An assessment of the state of Indo-French relations in the context of the ongoing bilateral dialogue.

DURING the last two years India initiated bilateral "strategic dialogues" with several countries it views as key players in the evolving world order - such as the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Saudi Arabia. These dialo gues, while focussing on security concerns, are omni-directional attempts to give shape and depth to the country's foreign policy.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh during a visit to New Delhi in February 2000.-V. SUDERSHAN

Related to India's national interest, driven not just by day-to-day considerations but by how the country sees the world unfolding, the dialogues imply a mapping out of alliances, arrangements or understandings that will fashion policy and will, down the road, prove beneficial. Most countries now recognise the fact that a strategic dialogue has to go beyond purely military aspects, and include issues such as economics, technology, culture and the environment.

Says Kanti Bajpai of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, now a research scholar at the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank: "It's a return to denser relations with the most important powers of the system. At a critical moment, we will n eed these denser relationships. For instance, already between 1998, when the nuclear tests took place, and Kargil, the next summer, India had begun building relationships with these powers that stood us in good stead during the Kargil conflict and the hi jacking drama. The French, the Russians, the Japanese, the Americans, the Chinese, the Germans, the British, even the Saudis, are going to have to sign off on the issue of India's bid for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat. If getting that seat is on e of India's long-term goals, we have to initiate a regular discussion, develop some social capital. So that when the time comes, at that critical moment, they're going to say yes, we know this country, we believe it has the sophistication, the responsib ility and the interest to be an important player and now should be in the U.N. Security Council on a permanent basis with full veto powers. In a long-term sense what this really means is, will a world order which is going to redefine itself admit non-tra ditional powers like India to the higher council."

OF all the dialogues India has initiated, diplomats point to the Indo-French exchange as the "most fruitful and promising one". The Prime Minister's Special Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, was in Paris in the last week of January for the sixth round of the Indo -French strategic dialogue, with his French counterpart Guy Hererra.

"These exchanges are satisfyingly regular and give us an opportunity to brief the French at the cutting-edge level and seek French support on matters of concern," said Kanwal Sibal, India's Ambassador to France. "In the past there was no regularity of ex changes and the interest generated by high-level political meetings was not sustained. Now the momentum is kept alive. The perception that developed in the aftermath of the nuclear tests - that the Indo-French relationship was particularly special - has been further consolidated. The French are keen to know the details of our initiatives towards Pakistan. The Kashmir situation interests them, as do our evolving relations with China and Russia. They share our concern on terrorism and are worried about th e developments in Afghanistan."

India is seeking a more public reiteration from France, "in multilateral fora outside the bilateral context," of its support for India's bid for a permanent seat in the Security Council. But such a declaration is unlikely, feels Christophe Jaffrelot, the head of Ceri, the Centre for Studies in International Relations, Paris. Jaffrelot is an uncontested authority on the subcontinent having written an acclaimed book on Hindutva and nationalist politics in India and edited contemporary histories of both In dia and Pakistan. "One of the goals India and France share is the establishment of a multi-polar world. We share the view that there should be a balance of power, that middle-range powers should make alliances," he says. But Jaffrelot is hard put to spec ify the issues around which such alliances might be built.

So is there more hype than substance in the Indo-French relationship? Jaffrelot says: "We have the same kind of thinking but then very little common ground and very few concrete achievements. The relations cannot be described as dense; they are sparse. T he French attitude on the U.N. issue has changed in India's favour. It did crystallise during the Indian President's visit here but has also been shaped by the one-on-one discussions between Brajesh Mishra and Guy Hererra. But France will not go further. If it wanted it could help build a coalition in India's favour, intercede on India's behalf with the United States, for instance. But there is little likelihood of that happening."

India is not important enough for France, which already has too many differences with the U.S. - on the question of cultural products, the leadership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the European Union (E.U.) Rapid Reaction Force - to wi sh to add to that burden, feels Jaffrelot.

"The main problem is that there is not much at stake. One of the issues was the nuclear one on which France had very similar concerns. But this issue is not so relevant now. We can't go very far in that direction and selling arms to India would be the mo st important aspect of military cooperation between the two countries. France has just sold 10 Mirage jets to India and there will be more such sales with many purchases in the pipeline." He believes the real change will come when the bilateral economic relationship, which, despite efforts by both governments to stimulate French investor interest, has not taken off. Jaffrelot adds: "So long as French firms continue to invest less in India than Switzerland, this situation will persist. For the moment I d o not see a growth in the economic exchanges, and unless the business relationship takes off, the Indo-French relationship will be a limited one."

With a few exceptions, French businessmen have a generally negative image of India. The French electricity firm EDF pulled out of India recently and meetings between visiting Indian Ministers and French businessmen are usually marked by acrimony and bitt er complaints from the French side.

India does not fall within France's direct range of interests, which are confined to Europe and the U.S. "It is true that France does not pay enough attention to India yet, although there has been some genuine progress. The exchange of academicians, stud ents and scientists may grow, and that will certainly make a difference. The French are only just about beginning to invest in India and these relations will take at least a decade to reach their full potential. This has to happen now, otherwise it will end up unbalanced, like the Indo-Russian relationship, which is very much one-sided."

The sixth round of Indo-French strategic talks were held in Paris on January 31 and February 1.

French defence sources are "particularly satisfied" with the way talks are proceeding for the sale by France of military hardware for the Indian Navy and Air Force. The economic relationship, however, shows no signs of taking off.

Ambassador Sibal agrees that the achievement on the political side is not reflected in the mediocre economic relationship. He sees the French reluctance to invest in India as "a lack of adventurism coupled with a long tradition of public sector companies dominated by inward-looking civil servants." Very few French companies, he says, have an international outlook, and even in cases where it is so, that is concentrated on the U.S. and Europe. This, however, fails to explain the avidness with which the Fr ench have invested in China, Japan and the South-East Asian nations.

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