Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascent to power has not just brought about a more frenetic form of Indian diplomacy but has also resulted in what may be called “personalised diplomacy”. Modi believes that taking time out with global leaders and investing in personal relations makes a difference in relations between States. To his credit, he has made enormous efforts to cultivate global leaders and leverage it to India’s benefit. Who can forget “chai pe charcha” with former US President Barack Obama at Hyderabad House in 2015 when Modi was relatively new to the game of global diplomacy. After eight years of non-stop interaction with world leaders, I would single out two leaders with whom Modi has struck a really close and trusting relationship. One is obviously the Japanese leader Shinzo Abe who has since retired from political life.
The other leader is the French President Emmanuel Macron. In June 2017, as I was packing my bags for retirement after 36 years in the Indian Foreign Service, I got a call from the then foreign secretary and the present External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar informing me that the PM will be making a visit to France shortly to meet the newly elected French leader Emmanuel Macron. This was brilliant on the part of Modi because Macron was a completely unknown quantity at the time and Modi was one of the first overseas leaders to visit him in Paris after the latter’s election. Macron had stormed into the French presidency, much like Modi when he became Indian PM in 2014. Since then, the two leaders have met on numerous occasions, and it is fair to say they get along like a house on fire.
The strategic convergence between India and France is not skin-deep. It is based on the fundamental conviction of both countries in a multipolar world and in the concept of strategic autonomy. More importantly, France has stood by India through thick and thin, beginning with 1998 when India conducted nuclear tests and the entire world was ranged against us. Since then, India and France have deepened their strategic partnership to such an extent that there is really no outstanding problem or irritant in the relationship today.
The visit by Modi to France on May 4 will not just be to congratulate Macron on his stunning re-election but also to survey the international strategic landscape and take stock of bilateral ties. The war in Ukraine will certainly figure in the discussions. France, of all countries, should be able to understand where India is coming from on this issue. Modi has met Putin umpteen number of times and Macron has spoken to Putin for several hours on the phone. Indeed, if there are two major leaders in the world today who are capable of picking up the phone and talking to Putin, it is Macron and Modi. Can they jointly explore, even tentatively, how to bring this horrific war in Europe to an end?
Bilateral defence ties are in fine fettle and France has largely stuck to the promised delivery of Rafale aircrafts to India. The challenge here is to move from a buyer-seller relationship to an investor-investee one by making defence equipment in India accompanied by a transfer of technology. Again. France has done this before (think submarines and light helicopters) and is well placed to do so in the future, such as making military engines in India for combat aircraft. France is a preferred partner in the Indo-Pacific and there is now a blueprint for cooperation in this field in the form of a Joint Strategic Vision for cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region concluded by both countries in 2018. The shared concerns of India and France go beyond maritime security, ensuring respect for international law by all states, freedom of navigation and overflight, fight against organised crime and combating climate change. One important development is the idea of Franco-Indian joint patrolling in the Indian Ocean. The joint naval exercises in the form of Varuna have proceeded apace and moves are afoot for mutual and complete maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean region.
Space has always been central to the strategic partnership of our two countries. Again, for the first time, the two countries concluded a Joint Vision for Space Cooperation in 2018. The vision document talks of bringing societal benefits of space technology, situational awareness in space domain and cooperation in satellite navigation and related technologies. As for nuclear energy, the two leaders must review progress in the joint construction of the world’s largest nuclear park in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. The project has stalled a bit and it could do with some political impetus.
Apart from the above traditional areas, discussions between the two leaders may dwell on newer areas of cooperation such as connectivity, climate change, cyber-security and science and technology. In these important areas, the two leaders will be briefed by officials about progress made so that roadblocks, if any, can be tackled.
It is important to remember that France holds the rotating presidency of the EU till the end of June this year. In this regard, two issues will be of cardinal interest to India. One, Modi must brief Macron on the FTA and the Investment Agreement that India is negotiating with the EU and persuade Macron to weigh in favourably with the Brussels bureaucracy and other stakeholders. Two, it would be useful for Modi to hear first-hand about France’s assessment of the Sino-Russian axis and EU’s own choppy relations with China. Macron will doubtless be interested in hearing our assessment of the situation in Ladakh and the state of Sino-Indian ties such as they are.
The PM’s visit to France on May 4 is a crucial one. I fully expect the M&M jodi (Modi and Macron) to interact warmly with each other and reinforce their “dosti”. The two leaders may as well sing in unison: “yeh dosti hum nahin todenge”.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 4, 2022 under the title ‘The tango in Paris’. The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to France. Views are personal