How Indian exchequer is paying dearly for Modi's vanity fair

It seems the US and France hit upon the perfect strategy to win billion-dollar defence contracts from India

PM Modi with French president Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris, 13 July 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)
PM Modi with French president Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris, 13 July 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)

Ashis Ray

When Narendra Modi raised a toast with the current incumbent of Élysée Palace, President Emmanuel Macron, to celebrate the silver jubilee of the India–France partnership (diplomatic relations between the two countries were upgraded to the ‘strategic’ level in 1998), he should have been grateful to his predecessors—Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh—who solidly developed the relationship over decades. But gratitude doesn’t come easy to India’s current prime minister.

The proximity between the two nations is indeed the envy of countries aspiring to replicate it, including the US and Britain, perhaps even Russia. New Delhi can today count on Paris to bail it out in tricky situations at the United Nations more than on any other nation, including Russia. Cooperation between Indian and French agencies is second to none in the realm of intelligence sharing and patrolling the Indian Ocean against the threat posed by China.

In economic terms, France too has benefitted significantly from the tie-up. Airbus aircraft have increasingly dominated Indian skies, with the multi-airline privatised Indian aviation sector (created by the liberalisation of 1991)—especially the most successful services, Indigo and Air India—demonstrating an inclination for these models.

The French nuclear power generation company Areva has also made inroads into India, given the push to opt for clean energy. In Manmohan Singh’s time, India chose Rafale combat planes for the Indian Air Force (IAF) over the British bid with the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Yet, to go by BJP propaganda is to believe that no Indian before Modi was invited to be a guest of honour at the Bastille Day Parade. Fact check: Dr Singh was extended the honour in 2009, and contingents of the Indian armed forces marched at that event as well.

French intellectuals, politicians, human rights organisations and leading media such as Le Monde were unsparing in their criticism of Macron inviting a man who is systematically dismantling democracy and freedom in India for an occasion synonymous with Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Economist Thomas Piketty and ex-diplomat François Zimeray in a newspaper article implored Macron to ‘encourage [Modi] to end repression of civil society, assure freedom of major media and protect religious liberty’ in India.

Even the French government- controlled France 24 TV news channel proclaimed, ‘Arms, not democratic values, on parade as Macron hosts India’s Modi on Bastille Day.’

The entente cordiale between India and France may be strategic, but it is also transactional. And the largesse is quite one-way vis-à-vis financial gains, running into billions of euros in favour of France. The advanced western European country has stringent anti-corruption laws. But French governments have often been accused of turning a blind eye to the bending of rules in national interest.

A French prosecutor accepted a complaint from a local NGO, Asso Sherpa, to investigate alleged wrongdoings by Stateowned Dassault Aviation in clinching the contract to supply Rafales to India. The charge was four-fold—that it had: 1) paid money to a middleman to win the deal; 2) used unlawful methods to obtain information about the Indian defence ministry’s negotiating team’s top-secret calculations; 3) profiteered with the price and 4) chosen Indian businessman Anil Ambani’s company with no experience in aircraft manufacturing as its Indian offset partner.

First, Modi scrapped the agreement for 126 planes struck by Dr Singh’s government—a number the IAF reportedly needed and perhaps still does—to place an order for only 36 fighters.

Second, according to his interlocutor President François Hollande, he insisted on Ambani as the offset partner. Last but not least, by acceding to a French demand to delete the standard prevention-of-corruption clause in Indian defence contracts (instituted by Rajiv Gandhi), he left India with no leeway to take action in the event that Dassault used a middleman.

The French government has, indeed, stubbornly refused to respond to the prosecutor’s notices, again citing national interest. Media reports prior to Modi’s visit already indicated Dassault was about to abandon Ambani as an offset partner.

In the event, more questions should arise about Modi’s controversial, if not corrupt, role to insert his crony into the deal at the expense of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, a public sector undertaking.

New multi-billion orders for 26 naval versions of the Rafale as well as three more Scorpene-class submarines for the Indian Navy were announced as Modi met Macron. But these were inexplicably omitted in a revised joint statement.

Assuming that the Indian Navy genuinely needs such hardware, two questions arise. The first concerns India’s ballooning loans under Modi. The second is the diversion of resources to defence at possibly the expense of poverty mitigation, education, health and other pressing issues. A military industrial complex has been pursued by Pakistan since 1958. Look at the result!

The US, too, rendered to Modi what he desperately cherished but had not been granted for nine long years—a state visit, which some of his Congress predecessors were extended almost immediately upon entering office. Coincidentally, the US is laughing all the way to the bank with the Indian government’s orders for armed drones as well as engines for India’s ‘Made in India’ light combat aircraft Tejas.

PM Modi with US president Joe Biden at a state dinner at the White House, 22 June 2023
PM Modi with US president Joe Biden at a state dinner at the White House, 22 June 2023

Both Indian and American members of the public protested in no uncertain manner in both New York and Washington against Modi’s visit, highlighting the fact that he had been banned from entering the US for nearly a decade.

Within days of Modi leaving Washington, the US State Department’s undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights Uzra Zeya was in Delhi when she tweeted addressing ‘civil society leaders’, leaving no one in doubt of her administration’s alarm at the state of affairs in India, especially the circumstances in Manipur.

The office of the Indian prime minister has never attracted the kind of attacks it has during Modi’s tenure. In diplomatic circles in London, it is being asked why Britain has not secured any of the munificence the US and France have.

The answer is: not only did a London magistrate consider arresting Modi when he visited the United Kingdom in 2003 for being ‘directly responsible’ (as per a British investigation) for the 2002 Gujarat riots, but the UK has not yet deemed it important to invite him for a state visit.

Then, have the US and France hit on a magic modus operandi to increase their bounty out of India’s exchequer? Pamper the pariah, the megalomaniac, give him umpteen photo-ops to plaster across social media and win billions in defence contracts?

In the case of the US, the factors of China and Russia also admittedly compel it to woo India. Modi was dazzled by the US ever since his first visit there as an RSS pracharak (propagandist) in the 1990s. Consequently, he didn’t need any convincing in this direction. His first foreign policy move in 2014 was in fact to dispense with India’s post-Cold War multi-alignment and tilt towards Washington.

The sophisticated aircraft and engines, submarines and drones are meant to be deterrents, weapons to maintain peace, not to go to war. What the Americans and French may have overlooked is that Modi has shown great cowardice in dealing with China. He has yet to even admit after three years that Chinese troops are entrenched in territory deemed to be on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control.

So, will he really manfully stand up to Xi Jinping as at least the US authorities seem to think he will? There is so far no evidence to suggest he will.

Jawaharlal Nehru had nothing to offer from a newly independent India; yet US presidents would wait on airport tarmacs to receive him. Such was his global stature. When the world went into economic meltdown in 2008, it turned to the expertise of Dr Manmohan Singh—and world leaders such as US president Barack Obama and British prime minister Gordon Brown listened with rapt attention at a 10 Downing Street dinner. Modi has never commanded that respect.

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