'Kozying up to India

When French President Nicholas Sarzoky landed in Bangalore (now renamed Bengaluru) on Dec. 4, he was flying into the "new India." Indeed, Bangalore is regarded as the masthead of the new India. Home to India’s booming IT sector and knowledge economy, it invokes admiration, envy and sometimes hatred in equal measure. Indeed, it has spawned a term "Bangalored" which colloquially refers to workers laid off since their jobs have moved to India.

Sarkoky has plenty to show for his trip. In Bangalore, he visited the Indian Space Research Organization Satellite Centre where he was briefed on the Megha-Tropiques satellite, which is being co-developed by India and France and is one of the high points of Indo-French collaboration.

Among the major agreements, mention needs to be made of the general framework agreement between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd and French company Areva for building of nuclear power plant units in Jaitapur in Maharashtra Province. Besides this, an 'Early Works Agreement' between NPCIL and Areva was also signed. The proposed 10,000-MWe nuclear project at Jaitapur will alter the nuclear energy scenario in India.

Another agreement on 'Protection of Confidentiality of Technical Data and Information Relating to Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy' was also signed. France and India have been cooperating closely in the field of atomic energy. An agreement between India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and France's atomic energy commission, the Commissariat A L'energie Atomique Et Aux Energies Alternatives was signed.

Sarkozy gladdened Indian hearts when he said that "it would be a scandal if two years from now, the Security Council of the United Nations were not to have space for India." Indeed that was what India wanted to hear, more so after US President Obama during his recent India visit endorsed India’s candidature for the high-table.

The economic links between India and France are also getting stronger. India is one of the few countries to have escaped the global economic downturn and there is a huge Indian middle class of more than 350 million that French companies want to court. The French manufacturer Michelin has invested US$1-billion to set up a radial tire manufacturing unit near Chennai. During this visit, the two countries pledged to double their bilateral trade to €12 billion.

Sarkozy also did his bit for the French fighter Rafael, which is one of the six global competitors for a forthcoming mega Indian Air Force deal for fighter planes. France also offered to cooperate with India in developing a fifth generation fighter aircraft. On the other hand, India has much to learn for cooperation with the French, especially in niche areas like space.

President Sarkozy was in good company on this particular India tour. The recent months have seen a series of international leaders trooping in to India. US President Barack Obama came in the first week of November. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is set to touch down on Dec.15 while Russian President Medvedev’s visit kicks off on Dec 21.

With France assuming the presidency of the G20 and India’s election as a non-permanent member of the UNSC for a two-year period, there are ever increasing opportunities for the two counties to cooperate.

Developments in Afghanistan have a direct bearing on India. During the visit, France and India reaffirmed their commitment to work for peace, democracy and development in Afghanistan. India has contributed massively to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and is wary of the exit strategy of the US and its Western allies in Afghanistan until and unless the situation stabilizes.

However one area where there is plenty of room for improvement is the development of people-to-people ties. In the case of the improved relations between India and the US, the Indian diaspora has played a significant role. The Indian Diaspora in France could do likewise

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flyng out to Europe for the annual EU-India summit to be held in Brussels on Dec 10, a host of issues need to be worked out, especially the much-delayed EU-India free trade agreement. The EU is India’s largest trade partner and France is a very important EU member.

France was one of the countries which helped India get a Nuclear Supplier’s Group waiver on Sept. 6, 2008, ending India’s 34 years of isolation enforced in the wake of its first nuclear test in 1974. The waiver is unprecedented in the history of the NSG since India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

There are plenty more opportunities for cooperation between India and France in the field of nuclear energy. India has been a responsible nuclear power and hence the French, along with many other countries, have had no qualms about carrying out nuclear commerce with India.

However, the nuclear liability bill passed by the Indian Parliament in August 2010 has caused concern among French nuclear companies. Some are of the view that India's proposal to seek legal recourse against nuclear suppliers is not in consonance with international liability laws which deem nuclear operators solely responsible in case of an accident.

With India assuming an increasingly important role in global affairs, President Sarkozy for sure made all the right noises. The momentum in Indo-French ties needs to be maintained for the mutual benefit of both the countries. Although in the recent years India has got increasingly close to the US, it should not in any way preclude India from cooperating with other countries like France. As they say, the more, the merrier.