India's Republic Day celebrations this year were unusually representative of its state of affairs. Last year, US president Barack Obama had been the chief guest and there had been fanfare about the resolution of the nuclear liability deadlock; 12 months on, there has been little to show for it on the ground. French president François Hollande's visit — the guest of honour this year — has been relatively subdued by comparison.
Despite 19 deals — including 13 memoranda of understanding — being signed between India and France in several sectors such as space cooperation, food safety, smart cities, renewable energy, and railways, the two big ticket items — the 126 Rafale Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft contract (downgraded to 36 in 2014) and the six EPR reactors for Jaitapur — are still stuck in negotiations.
Much like the promised reforms under the Modi government, progress on the Rafale and Jaitapur deals has followed salami tactics - slice by slice - rather than whole hog. The Jaitapur project was approved in December 2010 and the Rafale deal announced in January 2012. Neither are close to conclusion, let alone fruition.
After his meeting with Indian officials, Hollande announced that he hoped the nuclear sale would be concluded by the year's end. By way of contrast, the Iranian nuclear negotiations started clandestinely in Muscat, Oman, in March 2013 and a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was concluded in July 2015. It is worth bearing in mind that the JCPOA was conducted between six countries, some hostile to each other, on a matter of grave disagreement. By contrast, the Rafale and Jaitapur deals are between two friendly countries with strategic relations working towards similar goals.
It is true that foreign relations are not built on big ticket item deals alone. Strong and sustainable ties are built only through a greater enmeshing of economies, institutions, and people. However, it is the major deals that act as beacons of intent. Sophisticated technologies, particularly in advanced weapons systems, are not traded on a purely pecuniary calculus or Western relations with China and the Gulf countries would have been very much different today. Similarly, the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal was a landmark more for what it heralded politically than its dollar value alone, which has not yet added up to much. India's relations with Japan have blossomed but are still viewed as incomplete because the two states are yet to establish firm nuclear and defence relations. And had Australia refused to sell uranium to India until the latter signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, relations would have been much frostier.
The high symbolic value of certain sectors is sometimes pooh-poohed by some analysts. Particularly in nuclear cooperation, they say, it is this mindset that contributes to more proliferation. This is ridiculous, of course: the symbolism accrued to certain sectors like nuclear and defence does not come from a postmodern construction of values but from an implicit expression of trust between states. A clear example is the US position on potential nuclear proliferation by Iran and the alleged proliferation by Israel. Perhaps something that is genuinely pure symbolism is the Indian contingent marching in France's Bastille Day celebrations in 2009 and French soldiers returning the honour in the Republic Day parade this year.
What ails the discussions between Paris and Delhi is not apparent either. India's hypersensitivity to an informed public sphere means that only sanitised tidbits from bureaucrats of either side are available: basically, it is rumoured to boil down to cost. No matter, the Rafale and Jaitapur deals are important to India for reasons beyond mere symbolism. Indian Air Force readiness hangs precariously and country-wide energy shortages are apparent.
One can admonish the government, suggest steps required to remedy its hurdles, or point out the economic and other losses incurred by its lethargic pace but that has been of little use for the past four years. Delhi needs to realise that it is not just important that reforms and agreements move forward but it is crucial that they do so in a timely manner. In its own neighbourhood, China's rapid rise while India dilly-dallied over core reforms should have been a lesson to Delhi that power is not absolute but relative; there is a cost to the slow and steady approach as the Bharatiya Janata Party gets its house in order...one citizens might not want to pay.