French President Francois Hollande’s presence as the chief guest at India’s 67th Republic Day parade marks another chapter in the growing strategic ties between New Delhi and Paris. What was even more significant about the Republic Day parade was the participation of French troops—the first ever by a foreign contingent since Independence. Some have argued that it marks the emergence of France as India’s most trusted international partner. Despite the positive signals emanating from Hollande’s visit, what remains painfully apparent is that both sides are yet to fulfill the growing potential of deeper military and economic ties. And nothing symbolises that unfulfilled potential than the Rafale deal. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited France last April, the real source of the media focus was on the high-profile medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal between the two nations. Nine months later, both sides have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the MMRCA deal, but the financial component of the deal is yet to be finalised. With every passing government, what is apparently clear is that many high–profile defence deals often come unstuck due to bureaucracy.
Back in 2007, India had floated a global tender to buy 126 modern combat planes to boost the Indian Air Force’s offensive capabilities and assessed the deal to be about $12 billion. Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the Rafale fighters, won the bid emerged as the frontrunner for the contract in January 2012. However, by 2014, the cost of these 126 Rafale fighter jets had risen to approximately $22 billion. Fast forward to April 2015 and Prime Minister Modi settled for an off-the-shelf purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets instead of the original order for 126 jets, which would have also entailed co-production. Such a deal had put an end to the hopes for technology transfer in defence manufacturing—an element central to the development of India’s indigenous defence industry under Prime Minister Modi’s Make in India initiative. Without taking into account for the fact that the IAF had projected a requirement for the MMRCAs way back in 2001, it has taken the Government of India approximately eight years from floating a tender to signing a MoU. Suffice to say, defence deals of this nature do indeed take a very long time. Even Prime Minister Modi, who has been at the centre of India’s revitalised push for greater defence diplomacy and global security engagement, has been unable to climb over the bureaucratic hurdles of his own government. Beyond the Rafale deal, however, the NDA government has understood the need for deepening Indo-France ties, given the current global scenario.
Both sides have been easy targets for major terror attacks in recent times. Hollande was unanimous in his assertion that France would “never forget India’s support” after the horrific terrorist attack in Paris last year. In the joint statement, both sides reaffirmed their desire to establish new ways of cooperation in fighting terror. Moreover, both sides had specifically called for “decisive action to be taken against Lashkar-e-Tayibba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the Haqqani Network and other terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda”—a marked departure from previous joint statements. Along those lines, both Hollande and Modi urged Pakistan to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Pathankot and Gurdaspur attacks and the 2008 Mumbai attack. In a situation where China, Russia, and the USA continue to maintain uneasy ties with the Pakistani military establishment, France has made a clear choice in favour of India. It has also supported India’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Suffice to say, France has always made an attempt to establish closer ties with India. For example, when India conducted its Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998, France played a significant role in limiting international sanctions. In fact, France spoke against the international condemnation and the subsequent sanctions on India. Since the nuclear tests in Pokhran, Paris has also played a key role in pushing for India’s integration into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In 2008, both sides had signed an MoU for establishing six nuclear reactor units at Jaitapur in Maharashtra way back in 2008. Fast forward seven years, and both sides are yet to work out the modalities—reminiscent of the problems that have dogged the Rafale deal. The joint statement during Hollande’s recent visit asserted that discussions on the nuclear deal will be sped up. However, as we’ve seen with the Rafale deal, such intentions may not necessarily push the deal over the finishing line. Continuing on the question of unfulfilled ties, both nations had set a target of €12 billion in annual bilateral trade in 2008. Despite the intentions to raise the volume of bilateral trade between both nations, it still stands at a little under €8 billion, according to data in 2014. It is safe to argue that there has been enough of political bonhomie on both sides to propel bilateral relations forward. However, bureaucratic red tape and various exigent circumstances have always stalled its progress.