Prime minister Narendra Modi is on a three-nation tour of Europe, with the visit to France having started on Friday. Over the years, Indo-French relations have quitely gotten stronger and more consistent, avoiding much of the superfluous hype that sometimes surrounds other relationships. India has strategic partnerships with about 12 countries. France was the first country with which India established a strategic partnership, in 1998. A considerable level of expectation has been generated by the prime minister’s visit and is being speculated upon in the media with the list of agenda covering smart cities, high-speed rail, and big business contracts. Of course, lot of hype has been created through debates on the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal between the two countries. Can strategic partnerships be held to ransom by single-ticket projects? The answer is a resounding “no”. French president François Hollande put it very succinctly—“I do not want the Indian premier’s visit to be put in the context of a contract”.
The MMRCA is just another possible commercial deal at the end of a competitive process. Strategic partnerships go much beyond simple commercial deals. Strategic partnerships come into play when countries find congruence of mutual interests and values. Of the dozen or so of such partnerships that India has established, three are of great value and stand at the top of the pecking order: with Russia, the US and France.
Around Independence, our founding fathers decided to follow the Westminster model of governance for India, primarily because we were familiar with it and Britain was the oldest, proven and matured democracy. As a young nation-state, should we have looked towards the two modern nation-states, America and France, to model our political system? This is a moot point that will continue to be debated endlessly.
Coming to the issue of the Indo-French strategic partnership, it was an eloquent testimony to the two nations’ congruence of value systems that France became India’s first strategic partner. France is fiercely protective of its strategic autonomy in international affairs and is an ardent vocalist for a balanced multi-polar international system. This is more or less identical to India’s approach. It is, therefore, natural for the two countries to work in a mutually-supportive manner on many international issues.
At the heart of strategic partnerships lie economic, technological, and defence issues. For a partnership to succeed, it has to be a win-win one. While India supports France on crucial international issues, France has been equally supportive of India on many matters of concern for India.
French support for India during the period of the US-led sanctions, in the aftermath of 1998 nuclear tests, has been invaluable. India and France coordinate well on space and nuclear technology domains. Similarly, France has gained significant businesses in high-tech areas in India. While trade has been growing, it is far short of the potential. This is due to France’s inability to set aside stringent EU regulations that tend to impact adversely on India’s trade.
Defence technology is an area that is of critical importance to India. Strategic partnerships should be leveraged to bridge critical technology gaps. This is where India’s record of success has been quite poor. We have allowed ourselves to be satisfied with licensed production or outright imports and have failed to leverage our huge defence contracts for enhancement of our technological capability. The French are fiercely protective of their defence technologies and would hardly transfer top-level technology nor provide access to their research databases even in a joint development programme. The French firm SAGEM gained immensely when it collaborated with HAL and the IAF in developing the Digital Inertial Nav Attack System for the Jaguar aircraft in the 1980s. India’s gain in terms of technology control was minimal, although the French continued to provide unhindered supplies for our programmes. Similarly, SAGEM went back on a contractual obligation to transfer critical technologies in an INGPS contract with HAL in the 1990s, citing, quite inexplicably, French government regulations. Similar observations could, probably, may exist in other programmes like the Scorpene submarine. The French are staunch supporters for India’s inclusion in the membership of the MTCR and NSG regimes. When that happens, some of these issues may be easier to deal with.
The MMRCA, unlike the fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), is a commercial deal at the end of a competitive selection process. Russia (even when it was the USSR) continues to be a very strong strategic partner for India. In spite of the many benefits of this partnership, defence technology acquisition has remained difficult. The FGFA programme is an inter-governmental agreement that flows directly from the two countries’ strategic partnership. However, much like the past programmes, the FGFA is tending towards a licensed production model with minimal technology gains to India. On the other hand does the MMRCA, a commercial deal, have strategic ramifications? Certainly, if we take into account the technology aspects. Fortunately, these have been factored, within reasonable levels, in the RFP. Going by the track record so far, the French are likely to be extremely reluctant to part with technology. This is where India needs to stand firm. If the RFP provisions, technology transfer and limited design access in particular, are interpreted correctly and complied with in totality, it would be a good step forward in the interests of the two countries’ strategic partnership.
Strategic partnership has many dimensions, and technology is a very critical dimension as it has economic, security, and political implications. Such a partnership can thrive only when both countries work towards a win-win relationship. A single contract or a narrow, company-oriented perspective cannot be allowed to override such a partnership.
The author, a recipient of the AVSM and VM, is advisor (Aerospace Task Group) to Ficci and advisor (strategy) to chairman, HAL, and retired as Air Marshal, Indian Air Force