France: The new Russia for India?

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After Independence, India under the leadership of Pundit Nehru opted not to align with any big power but to form a 3rd power block of the neutral camp, NAM (Non-aligned movement), or Non-aligned countries. The term Non-Alignment was coined by V K Menon in his speech at the UN in 1953 which was later used by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during his speech in 1954 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

It is rightly said that “Character of an institution is reflected in its leader” or Aristotle rightly said that “State is an individual writ large.” Since pundit Nehru was Fabian socialist because his guru Laski was also a Fabian socialist, the nature of the country and its policies were more or less of socialist nature. From state-led economy to Nehruvian internationalism on the face of NAM was of a socialist character. It would be correct if one says that India was an undeclared partner of the Warsaw camp led by Russia (Erstwhile USSR).

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But these equations got a strategic shift after the disintegration of the USSR. Before it, India had three-fourth of trade with the erstwhile USSR. It forced India to think of new options. PM Indira Gandhi decided to diversify India’s defense ties in the early 1980s, she turned to Paris. Since then India’s defense relationship with France has steadily grown. It got a new dimension under the leadership of President Jacques Chirac who saw India as a power, not a land of snake-charmers.

From Jacques Chirac to Immanuel Macron dynamics of India-France relation has gone much ahead than expected. Recent developments between India and France forced a new one among the Indian strategists whether France can a new Russia for India or NOT? Can it replace Russia in upcoming decades in the field of cooperation with India? The central theme of this article would be understanding and evaluating this debate.

Cooperation against Terrorism

Today, France described India as its “foremost” Asian strategic partner. Increasing the pace of developments between India and France suggest thinking India-France relation through the prism of upcoming decades of 21st century. At global power structure both countries France, like Russia, is a permanent member of the UNSC and has a veto. Things get more coherence over the like-minded attitude of being democratic.

Both countries have a democratic culture. That could be one of the possible reasons to come up for the support of France against terror incidence over cartoon controversy. From the end of France also, cooperation against terrorism has been one of the points of convergence during meetings and discussions.

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France also led the initiative for the implementation of the Christchurch Call to Action to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist online content adopted in Paris last May. Both Modi and Macron also stressed the need to urgently adopt the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT), which was proposed by India in 1996 but which has been lying in limbo due to opposition from the US and others. Terrorism has been a common problem for both France and India. France had condemned the Pulwama attack and directly pointed out fingers against Pakistan. That’s why France is the ONLY country in the P5 group whose relation with Pakistan is not good today.

Nuclear cooperation

Twenty years ago, Jacques Chirac came to India to announce the strategic partnership. During the visit, President Jacques Chirac argued that India’s exclusion from the global nuclear order was unacceptable and must be corrected. It was the time just before the Pokharan nuclear test. Post-Pokharan nuclear test, Washington imposed sanctions against New Delhi.

It was one of the most prominent instances of France solidly backing India came back in May 1998. France was the only country among the P-5 nations to defy the US-led sanctions and stand by India under the leadership of President Jacques Chirac. Then French President Jacques Chirac publicly supported the move and said he rejected the US actions, whose sanctions severed all kinds of aid, barring humanitarian assistance, to New Delhi.

In the field of nuclear energy cooperation, in September 2008, when India was granted a waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which technically allowed New Delhi to go for civil nuclear trade, it was France that once again stood out for India. France was the first country to sign a civil nuclear pact with New Delhi. The Indo-French cooperation on ‘peaceful use of nuclear energy was signed on 30 September 2008, with the objective of establishing the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant.

At diplomatic table

Today France doesn’t hesitate in standing for cooperation with India on the global stage. France supports India’s UNSC membership bid. France has been a continued supporter of India’s claims to permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Except China, the rest of the P5 members have expressed their consent over India’s inclusion in UNSC as a permanent member.

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Post-Pulwama attack that killed 40 Indian soldiers, many countries stood with India and express their condemnation remarks against terrorism. But the way France stood with India with openness was remarkable. He openly condemned the Pulwama attack and asked Pakistan to put an end to terror groups.

France has been instrumental in the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist in the UNSC 1267 Sanctions Committee. For many years, French diplomacy has been relentlessly pleading for sanctioning Azhar. After India’s developments in Kashmir by abrogating some provisions of Article 370 and Article 35A, India got a global consensus.

French President Emmanuel Macron also supported India’s move to abrogate Article 370 by calling it ‘Their sovereignty.’ France opposed a fresh request by a member country for discussion on Kashmir in United Nations Security Council. Apart from these developments, India and France have been unfolding maritime cooperation and the building of the solar alliance.

Space and Defense cooperation

France has been an important player in space cooperation with India. ISRO and CNES (the French space agency) have conducted joint research programs and satellite launches. For e.g. TRISHNA, Megha-Tropiques, etc. France is a major supplier of equipment and components for the Indian space program. In fact. France has been supporting India’s Gaganyaan mission by providing medicinal support to the Astronauts.

The Indian Air Force continues to rely on the French Mirage and is now looking forward to the delivery of the Rafale warplanes. India signed an inter-governmental agreement with France to procure 36 of aircraft at a cost of Rs 59,000 crore.

There is a Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited (DRAL) manufacturing facility at Mihan in Maharashtra, which is a joint venture between India’s Reliance Group and the French aerospace company Dassault Aviation. Earlier, India was heavily dependent upon Russia for defense equipment. Since the time of Indira Gandhi, defense cooperation has been diversifying. France has become a major partner of India for defense cooperation.

Russia: A time-tested ally of India

Russia has been India’s time-tested ally in the past. It won’t be any country to replace the position of Russia. The significance of Russia can be understood from the statement of PM Modi given, “Every child in India knows that Russia is our best friend.” This statement was expressed by PM Modi when he first met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the margins of the BRICS summit in Brazil.

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C Raja Mohan rightly calls that Rethinking Russia’s position in India’s strategic calculus will be heart-wrenching for many in Delhi. New Delhi can’t forget Moscow’s support during the 1971 war against Pakistan, when Richard Nixon sent naval support for Pakistan, it was Russia that came to balance the power structure.

There are some series of events like deepening cooperation between France and India over Military, Diplomatic, Space and Nuclear energy give the positive signal for growing India-France ties. Parallelly, Increasing Russia-China proximity and Russia-Pakistan closeness are widening this gap further. It doesn’t mean that everything is well between India and France.

It also needs to be noted here that France was one of the countries that proved to be a major hurdle for India in concluding the free trade agreement because the French wanted India to lower tariffs for their wine and spirits and dairy products.  Thus, it would not be correct to say France is India’s new Russia or France is replacing Russia but it would be more correct if one says that India got one more reliable and cooperative partner in the global sphere similar to Russia.

Foot Notes

  1. The Indian Express | France: India’s new Russia?
  2. The Print | Macron backing India on J&K shouldn’t be a surprise — the French have always stood by India
  3. Financial Express | Four UNSC permanent members support India’s bid for a permanent seat
  4. The New Indian Express | France condemns Pulwama attack, asks Pakistan to put an end to terror groups
  5. The Economic Times | UN designates Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist
  6. The New Indian Express | France consistent on Kashmir being a bilateral issue between India, Pakistan
  7. The Guardian | Putin and Modi have much in common, say aides ahead of summit
  8. The Economic Times | ISRO to launch its Venus mission in 2025, France to take part: French space agency
  9. The Indian Express | Raja Mandala: Get real on Russia
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