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Hollande visit gainful, Rafale or no Rafale

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The French President was in India to take the next big step in the Rafale deal, but does this mark an end to the tortuous process for the mega purchase? The final contract hasn’t been made. Promises must be kept this time

How is one to assess the state visit of a foreign dignitary? After following for two days, the visit of President François Hollande of France in Delhi earlier this week, it was the question I asked myself.

In December 2010, when former French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to India; after the ritual signatures of agreements at Hyderabad House, while travelling in the bus taking us back to the Press room, a Press councellor to the President was grilled by the French journalists, they wanted ‘figures’. The official took his pen and started adding ‘figures’ and triumphantly announced ‘17 billion euros’.

The bulk of the then total was related to the ‘Jaitapur deal’ for two EPR nuclear plants from Areva of France. More than five years later, many projects, including the EPRs have not yet manifested (though the joint statement during this present visit mentions the possibility for six nuclear plants in Jaitapur).

The moral of the story is that  there is often a gap between ‘signed agreements’ and the reality of few years later. Things often take more time than expected in India. This raises the question of the ‘Rafale deal’.

Let us be clear, President Hollande did not come to India to discuss the change of climate with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though the Paris conference, for which France worked hard for several months, has been an example of fruitful collaboration.

Neither did the French President come to ride to Gurgaon in the metro to inaugurate a International Solar Alliance (with India as one of the main pillars). He also did not spend three days in India to promote Chandigarh, the first ‘smart city’ in India, built by the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Mr Hollande came to India to take the next step in the Rafale deal.

Fourteen agreements were announced at Hyderabad House after the talks between the Indian Prime Minister and the French President. Listed first was a memorandum of understanding between India and France for the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft; it was signed by Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defence Minister and Manohar Parrikar, his Indian counterpart.

Does this mark the end of the tortuous process for the mega deal?  No, though the initial Request for Information had been announced in 2001, 15 years ago! Six years later, a complex Request for Proposal was issued by the then Defence Minister AK Antony, who added new clauses and ‘complicated’ the issue. Five years later, Dassault Aviation was selected for supplying 126 planes (with transfer of technology to Hindustan Aeronautics) to the Indian Air Force.

Realising the difficulty of the project and to avoid going back to the starting blocks, last April in Paris, Mr Modi opted for 36 planes off-the-shelf. On Monday, commentators were quick to point that the process had not come to a conclusion.

Mr Modi and Mr Hollande did not agree on the final contract which should include not only the price of the planes, the cost of their maintenance, the required armament, the training of the pilots and mechanics etc, all this still needs to be finalised. Mr Hollande said it would be done in ‘a few days’; some of his collaborators spoke more prudently of ‘a few weeks’, while Dassault, the constructor announced ‘four weeks’.

Will it go the way the 2010 EPR framework agreement between Areva and National Thermal Power Corporation Limited went or will the promises be kept this time? Though the price offered by Dassault and what India is ready to pay still has a wide gap, both sides seem determined to finalise the project as soon as possible. From the Indian side, the IAF immediately needs these two squadrons (while praying for a third one!) and from the French side, though Dassault’s position is radically different from one year ago, being in a better position to negotiate, with an order book full after Egypt and Qatar selected the fighter plane (and with Saudi and Malaysia ready to sign), the French firm would like to conclude the deal.

The big change is that after the visit, Mr Modi and Mr Hollande are determined, and this should help to finalise the price and other technical details (according to some sources, there could be an option for 18 more planes); it then could get done during the following months, if not weeks.

Several members of the French delegation (including a senior Minister) privately admitted that Mr Modi is ‘different’ from his predecessors; he is a doer ‘with whom we can talk’. The Prime Minister used his personal charm, not only when he went to receive Mr Hollande in Chandigarh, a symbol of the India-French collaboration, but also when he invited for the first time since independence, foreign troops to participate in the Republic Day parade; these troops were French soldiers of the 35 Infantry Regiment, who had recently participated in the Shakti-2016 joint exercises with the two Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Army in Bikaner, Rajasthan. The 35 Infantry Regiment is one of the most decorated units of the French Army, presently associated with the seven Armoured Brigade. Its 1,200 men and women are famed as the best infantry troops in France. The way the contingent of 76 were cheered by the on Rajpath on the Republic Day, was telling.

Another point of closeness is that France, like India, has lately been a victim of terrorism. As the French Government was recovering from the November 13 horrific attack and commemorating the killings of several journalists of Charlie Hebdo, the symbol of the French liberté of expression, attackers from the other side of the Indian border, stepped into the Pathankot air base and created havoc for nearly three days.

A joint communiqué after the meet at Hyderabad House affirmed: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President François Hollande strongly condemned the heinous terrorist attacks that have struck many parts of the world recently and expressed their shared anguish and outrage at the loss of innocent lives in Paris, Bamako, Beirut, Tunis, San Bernardino, N’Djamena and the Lake Chad Basin Region, Kabul, Gurdaspur, Istanbul, Pathankot, Jalalabad, Jakarta, Ouagadougou and Charsadda.”

Both leaders affirmed that such terror attacks were an attack on the whole of humanity and foundational human values. But more powerful, for the first time, Pakistan was expressively and strongly named: “Stressing that terrorism cannot be justified under any circumstance, both leaders asked for decisive actions to be taken against Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Mohammed,  Hizbul Mujahideen, Haqqani network and other terrorist groups such as the Al Qaeda.”

This is indeed a serious basis to take the 1998 strategic partnership to a much deeper level, and in a few months time, the Rafale deal should be the cherry on the cake of a successful visit and a new deeper partnership.

 
 
 
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