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Harsh V Pant: When Europe's leaders come calling

The visits of the French president and the British prime minister to New Delhi should be seen in the context of Europe's ebbing economic power

Harsh V Pant
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This week it’s the French president, and next week it will be the British prime minister, David Cameron. Two European suitors wooing New Delhi almost simultaneously — it can’t get any more glamorous than this. But behind these diplomatic moves lies the hard reality of the shifting global balance of economic power. As the French president was landing in New Delhi, the economic news from the eurozone got even gloomier, with reports that its largest economies, Germany and France, shrank at the end of 2012, leading to a deeper than expected recession in the region. A new dynamic is emerging between Europe and Asia, and India is at the heart of this recalibration.

India was Mr Hollande’s first destination outside Europe and Francophone Africa since assuming the French presidency, sending an unmistakable message of India’s importance. Strong ties with India are now a cornerstone of French and support for strong bilateral ties with India cuts across party political divide. The two nations signed a strategic partnership agreement as far back as 1998 and the relationship is one of the most institutionalised of India’s bilateral relations.The two nations also share a fiercely independent outlook in their foreign policies in which it is difficult to accept a second-tier position easily. There was a reason why India was often described as the France of the Third World.

During Mr Hollande’s trip, where negotiations were concluded in the joint development of a short-range air defence system, negotiations continue on a possible French sale of 197 helicopters to the Indian Army and the $12 billion MMRCA contact to Dassault. France remains an important defence partner for India because it has been willing to offer exceptionally generous level of ‘offsets’ in its defence engagements with India and has been very open with technology transfers. The aim is to move beyond a ‘buyer-seller’ relationship to co-development and co-production of advance defence systems in India.

France is one of the largest suppliers of nuclear fuel to India and energy will be a major driver of France-India ties in the coming years. The contract with Areva, signed in 2010, for six third-generation pressurised water reactors at Jaitapur is facing problems with local opposition to the project brewing after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and differences over Indian’s nuclear liability law.

French support will be crucial as India seeks entry into the global export control regime and Paris has underscored its unequivocal commitment to supporting India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The focus of Mr Hollande’s trip was clearly economic, with more than 60 CEOs accompanying him from France. Economic ties remain stagnant, with bilateral trade hovering around 8 billion euros. Both New Delhi and Paris need to seriously assess the long-term trajectory of their bilateral relationship if they want to preserve the past momentum of their relationship. It is in this context that the aggressive British approach in courting India should be viewed.

When British Prime Minister lands in Delhi next week, it will be his second visit in the past three years. London, under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat dispensation, has gone all out to woo India. India and Britain had forged a ‘strategic partnership’ during former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to India in 2005 and the Cameron government has tried to impart it a new momentum.

There has been a real attempt to jettison the traditional British approach towards the sub-continent in so far as it has decided to deal with India as a rising power, not merely as a South Asian entity that needs to be seen through the prism of Pakistan. David Cameron made all the right noises in India during his last visit in 2010. He warned Pakistan against promoting any “export of terror”, whether to India or elsewhere, and said it must not be allowed to “look both ways”. He proposed a close security partnership with India and underlined that Britain, like India, was determined that groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Lakshar-e-Taiba should not be allowed to launch attacks on Indian and British citizens in India or in Britain. Despite causing a diplomatic row with Pakistan, Mr Cameron has stuck to his comments. More significantly, the British PM also rejected any role for his country in the India-Pakistan dispute.

But since his last visit, there is a perceptible sense that the momentum of his last visit was short-lived. As such, his visit next week should be another opportunity to re-define the terms of engagement in fundamental ways. He will have to reiterate what he said in India last time about Pakistan. Given that the idea that London favours Pakistan is a commonly held perception in Delhi, it will be useful to remind Indians that a page has indeed been turned and Mr Cameron’s comments last time were not a one-off to gain brownie points. In this context, Mr Cameron would do well to recognise India’s role in Afghanistan post-2014, when the Nato forces plan to leave South Asia. This would be an implicit acknowledgement of India’s status as a regional power and its significant stakes in the evolving ground realities in Afghanistan. Finally, Mr Cameron also needs to articulate a new Indo-British partnership at a time of rapid changes in the global balance of power and what role London sees for Delhi in the Asia-Pacific.

As major western powers come to terms with India's growing heft, New Delhi also will have to recognise that it enjoys a lot of goodwill in the West and western liberal democracies genuinely want India to succeed. With this in mind, India should seriously nurture its ties with its European partners. India and Europe will not always agree but it's a sign of mature partnerships when partners can gracefully agree to disagree.

The writer teaches at King’s College, London

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