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The French connection
Oui, or our nationhood defined — how the Macron visit could be more than the sum of its parts if we get our embrace right
From solar power to defence deals, Asia-Pacific security to the possibility of France replacing Russia as India’s all-weather ally at a time when Moscow seems recalibrating its position in a fluid geostrategic environment in which some see a new global bi-polarity emerging with the US and China forming the poles, New Delhi has engaged with Paris at an apt juncture. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled out all the stops in ensuring President Emmanuel Macron’s recently concluded four-day visit to India, which had a hectic and by all accounts very productive itinerary, went off well. Indeed, even as you read, the navies of India and France are engaged in a joint bilateral exercise — Varuna-18 — in the Arabian Sea off the Goa coast which aims to enhance operational synchronicities.
Yet, the whole is not in the sum of these parts but dependent on the X Factor, as it were, which is the forging of a state-to state ideological and values-based relationship reflecting the affinity between the Indic and French civilisational ethos. This is a consummation devoutly to be wished as a countervailing force to the narrative of the global triad of multiculturalists, mullahs and Marxists which threatens to reduce contemporary narratives on individual (especially women’s) rights, personal liberty, the agency of nationalism, the role of the nation-state, issues of security related to terror and/or migration and cultural particularities into a communitarian discourse. Worse still, it is a narrative which champions membership of fundamentally illiberal groups and denies, by implication and/or directly, the notion of both an Indian and a French exceptionalism.
India has a similar affinity with Israel given the notion of an exceptionalism that runs through all three civilizational cultures and a common danger to all of them emanates from an ideological architecture that has enabled the arming, quite literally, of the enemies of the nation-state in general and the abovementioned nation-states in particular. The good news is that our engagement with the State of Israel has acquired some depth and is in the process of acquiring the breadth that would make for a lasting alliance, credit for which much go first to PV Narasimha Rao and his team of strategic thinkers in the early 1990s who had the moral courage and intellectual nous to grapple with the changing contours of a post-Cold War world and the, till then under-theorized, radicalization of the ‘Muslim World’ despite those from within the fold who tried then and haven’t, one eye on domestic politics, given up trying even now, to undermine them. Similarly, credit is due to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Jacques Chirac who started the process of a deep engagement between India and France as defined strategic partners in 1998.
India’s French connection is still far from having been explored to its fullest potential, though, in part at least due to the language issue. Now the French establishment has always been as keen as mustard to spread globally the “language of freedom”, as it were, but in Macron it seems to have found a nuts-and-bolts man who has a plan — “plot”, according to the Brit tabloids, god bless them — to bring this to fruition. Speaking a couple of days ago, the French President announced an allocation of millions of euros to double the number of teachers and students learning French in schools worldwide, begin a sustained push in Africa to promote the language across the continent so it is not limited only to the former French colonies there and, post-Brexit, increase its use as the preferred language of communication in the European Union in place of English. Macron’s description of this effort as a “new moment in history”, however, has not gone down terribly well in the Francophone world especially in Africa where allegations of a colonial hangover and French meddling slip easily off the tongue, which is why the President asserted that France saw itself merely as “a country among others” in the French-speaking world.
Macron, who unlike previous French presidents loves to speak English at summits and regularly uses English slogans such as “start-up nation” and “make our planet great again”, makes no apologies for regularly speaking English, saying it has become an international language of business. But he iterates that speaking French is also a way to highlight French “values”. Therein lies the rub.
For India, which has an English-advantage in the modern world albeit the language spoken nowadays is more Queenie Singh’s than the Queen’s (but that’s just this writer being a youngish fogey and aesthete), the promotion of French isn’t what excites us. Equally, we should waste neither time nor resources on the promotion of Hindi globally — all three languages are, as the chips have fallen in world history, merely functional outside national borders though some more than others. (They are rightly cherished at home, of course, and lovers of each of these languages should always be encouraged to pursue them.) If anything, our emphasis should be to ensure that Sanskrit, along with Latin and Hebrew, are promoted as global languages of antiquity which enable access to pre-medieval primary sources and help us understand our cultural origins warts, glories and all.
The X Factor in our French connection is not, and very unlikely to be in the foreseeable future, a common language and we can safely elide Anglo-French competitiveness around which should be the lingua franca of the world. It is the ideas conveyed by the language, which it is fallacious to assume are lost in translation, which are of immediate import.
Professor Bhiku Parekh’s seminal work on the cultural particularity of liberal democracy is now widely accepted as historically evident and the Indian approximation of the same is today a work in progress. But the notion that individual rights can never be trumped by group rights, the imperative of gender equity and an uncompromising adherence to personal liberty all premised on a uniquely inclusive civilizational impulse within an Indic cultural context that India ought to attempt to institutionalise via state instrumentalities will gain immeasurably from a deepening of strategic, security and cultural ties with France.
Within this rubric, practicalities such as an Indo-French outreach in Africa makes a lot of sense given our weaknesses and strengths on that continent are broadly complimentary. Apart from gaining strategic depth including enhancing our energy security, such a move would provide a fillip to economic growth/capacity-building in individual African nation-states while boosting investment opportunities/growth for India and France as well as serve to counter the aggressive push over the past decade by an increasingly authoritarian China in Africa. Leveraging the French connection to deepen both economic and security ties with the EU, and Paris understands our concerns better than most in Europe, must be the other area of focus. Bilaterally, the sky is the limit if the Indo-French entente cordiale is actively transformed into a multi-faceted strategic partnership given the cultural affinity of our respective liberal, inclusive and secular heritages though both India and France, as nations, arrived at them via very different routes. In fact, it is these very values which are under attack from communitarian ideologies.
Nearly three centuries after the Carnatic Wars were fought on the Indian peninsula by the then dominant colonial powers for control over the sub-continent, a conflation of ideas and interests between New Delhi and Paris has come to pass.
(The writer is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer)
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