Was there something special about French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India? Nothing new; here’s why

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Published: March 26, 2018 5:01:14 AM

Of course, at a more basic level, president Macron's visit has emphasised educational and cultural exchanges.

Emmanuel Macron, Emmanuel Macron india visit, Emmanuel Macron nuclear power, India France tiesIt is not surprising that the great takeaway of French president Emmanuel Macron?s recent visit to India relates to nuclear power. (Reuters)

It is not surprising that the great takeaway of French president Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to India relates to nuclear power. India has an old connection with the French on energy. To begin with, it is important to appreciate that French expertise in energy is at the global frontiers. In economics, for example, French energy economics and the limitations of marginal cost pricing is path-breaking. Some of their best scholars worked in India. Pierre Audinet, now important in the French energy environment setup, studied in Ahmedabad. Joel Ruet did his doctoral field work in India at CDS in Trivandrum and JNU, Delhi. He was a Fellow at the prestigious Ecole de Mines, and his teacher, Pierre Noel Girraud, is the iconic author of the classic L’inegalite du monde, which divides people into settlers—fellows like me settled in Ahmedabad and staying put there, and nomads, people like you, dear Reader, who are ready with a passport, multi-entry visas and tickets, the world is whose oyster.

Well, anyway, the future of the world, according to Pierre Girraud, depends on how we come to terms with each other. French leadership in electricity grids was a part of the foundations of the European Union, and so was Euratom. Electricite de France (EDF) has the tradition and expertise to collaborate in nuclear power. More than two decades ago, during the visit of the then president of France, Jacques Chirac, to India, India signed a strategic partnership with France.  Canada had collaborated with India at Trombay as has the US, at an experimental level. But, after the Pokhran II tests, the Nuclear Suppliers Group made India a pariah. We had to design and construct our own nuclear power plants—and also, of course, our satellites and, more important, the delivery vehicles. Chirac was very positive in his business meeting in the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. On Chirac’s way out, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, then Maharashtra’s agriculture, was coming in.

His father, Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, was a close friend of mine, and I am a trustee of his Pravara Cooperative. Radhakrisha walked over to touch my feet, and it took me some time to explain to the president that he was doing this on account of personal reasons and not because he was a state minister and I was an Union minister. The French, of course, have clearly defined relations in a largely unitary setup. In 1995, EDF was again collaborating with us, and, in fact, since the unbundling of the power sector in India had begun, some ambitious private players tried to get a piece of the pie. GoI strictly forbade that in the nuclear sector. But, France and the former USSR had been the only collaborators for nuclear power in the public sector and in research towards the fast-breeder.

This was on the understanding of India eventually joining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Manmohan Singh pushed India signing the CTBT at the risk of weakening the UPA government. He did not release his understanding with the West to the Left parties, and The very evening they left the UPA, he released the papers. In spite of this, the US did not invest. Fortunately, the Russians and French did. This was a new stage in energy collaboration. The Jaitapur agreement is a distinct step forward not only in Indo-French collaboration but also for India’s nuclear energy sector. It is now quite in order that India and France will work together on that Valhalla of India’s energy self-reliance, the fast-breeder reactor using thorium.

Of course, at a more basic level, president Macron’s visit has emphasised educational and cultural exchanges. The French have an enduring interest in our culture and society, and even when economic exchanges were low, Satyajit Ray and French cinema was a bond. The anthropologist Louis Dumont once described the Indian society as being one of Homo hierarchicus: the only culture in the world which justified hierarchy and the exploited accepted their place in the sun. On the other hand, the Thorners, Daniel and Alice, were building up our understanding of changing rural India. That tradition continues through Christophe Jaffrelot, for instance, being one of the minds on social discourse in contemporary India.

It is extremely likely that French scholars worry more about JNU than we do. When the eminent historian, Bipan Chandra, retired and we were looking for a professor of modern history, across history departments in the world, there was speculation on who would make it. But in the Sorbonne and in the Maison de Science de la Homme, the interest was the most intense. I know the intensity of that interest through friends in France.

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