Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to France had all the razzmatazz which by now we have come to associate with a typical Modi visit: There was an enthusiastic welcome by a sizable section of the Indian diaspora at the airport, warm hugs by his French counterpart, and, in this case, the icing on the cake was his being the chief guest at the French National Day Parade. The participation of the three wings of the Indian military in the Bastille Day parade and the Rafale jets in the fly-past was an additional bonus for the eyes. The French conferred the PM with theGrand Cross of Legion of Honour, their highest award. Thus, Modi was in the illustrious company of Nelson Mandela, King Charles, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a few other global leaders. Modi played his part, meeting French intellectuals, top business people, selling Indian crafts, including khadi weaves, to the head of the world-renowned luxury fashion house, Chanel, who happens to be of Indian origin.
The visit marked the 25th anniversary of the Indo-French Strategic Partnership. Not unlike India, France too prides itself in tending to strike an independent line in foreign affairs, often even a nuanced but divergent stand from the official EU line. As for disagreeing with the Americans, France has struck its own independent line very often on key foreign policy issues. For instance, engaging with China on Ukraine. Thus it was that while members of the European Parliament expended their lung power on concerns about the violence in Manipur and the divisive policies of the Indian government, they being entirely unmindful of the racist carnage in their own backyards, Modi and President Emmanuel Macron further consolidated the ties between the two nations proud of their ancient history and culture. The on-going Russian assault on Ukraine figured prominently in the talks between the two leaders. Modi offered to use his good offices to try and end the armed hostilities if the circumstances warranted. Though neither leader mentioned China openly, the strategic relationship between the two countries was underpinned further by a conscious decision to build a strong bulwark of defence against an expansionist bully which torments all its neighbours. This brings us to thesubstantive business conducted on the visit. The purchase of 26 Rafale Marine fighter jets for the Indian Navy — earlier 36 Rafales were acquired for the Indian Air Force — was approved by the Defence Acquisition Council on the eve of the Modi visit. The Navy currently relies on the Soviet era MiG 29Ks for the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, again Soviet-built and India-refurbished. Some of these aircrafts will have to be retired in a decade. With an additional aircraft carrier, the Navy needs more deck-based fighter jets. Rafale Marines fit the bill perfectly though reports suggest even Boeing's Super Hornet was considered before the DAC settled on the French offering, given the ease of operability and availability of maintenance and spare parts, etc.
Another key item on the defence shopping list was the Scorpene submarines. Three additional Scorpene submarines are to be procured under the Indian category and built by the Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd. MDL has already built six Scorpene-class submarines using Frenchtechnology under a $3.75 billion deal signed by the UPA Government in 2005. There were other decisions such as Indian students studying in France getting five-year work visas, but, without doubt, the substantive business was the purchase of the Rafale Marines and the Scorpene submarines. Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi mocked the effort to beef up India’s defences against a threatening China, now sitting menacingly at our northern border, when he sought to undermine Modi’s visit with the remark that he would not have got the invite to the Bastille Parade without the major defence purchases. Clearly, maturity and age have little connection in the case of the Gandhi dynast.