Nine months and two major terror attacks (Paris and Pathankot) later, relations between India and France have seen a tectonic shift, with security concerns leapfrogging ahead of other issues. A comparison of the joint statement inked in April 2015 with the one issued on Monday reflects significantly higher priority, and stronger language, accorded to the threat of terrorism.
In April last year, the terror attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo did find an echo in the joint statement, with India issuing a ‘strong condemnation’ of the attacks. But what was conspicuous by its absence in the statement was specifics. This time, there has been a separate joint statement on terrorism, names have been spelt out, and specific areas of concern have been earmarked.
In contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France in April last year was before the United Nations Climate Change Conference (CoP 21), which was held in Paris in November-December 2015. Unsurprisingly, climate concerns were higher on the agenda, in a context where there was more pressure on India than even China to allow the passage of an agreement, as pointed out in this Firstpost article(http://www.firstpost.com/world/cop21-how-pm-modi-steered-indias-elevation-from-spoiler-to-facilitator-in-paris-2544424.html). With the deliberations over the Paris agreement out of the way, it is a new year, and a new story.
In his addresses to the international community, Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly stressed on the need to have a clear definition on who can be termed as a terrorist. The joint statement on terrorism on 25 January appears to echo this sentiment, as it specifically calls for ‘decisive actions’ against the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Haqqani network and the Al Qaeda. It also states that both Modi and Hollande welcomed the adoption of United Nations resolution to take all necessary measures against the Islamic State.
Neither Modi nor Hollande can afford to appear soft on extremist violence, and in fact have much to gain from emphasising the presence of an external enemy. France is yet to recover from the shock of the massive terror attack in November 2015, which killed 129 persons. The attacks will resonate in the presidential election in 2017, when Hollande’s right-wing rivals are expected to raise their pitch on the incident. Prior to the Paris attacks, Hollande was criticized for being a ‘marshmallow’-overly soft on terror, as pointed out in this article in The Guardian. Hollande’s strongly-worded description of the attack as an ‘act of war’ may have changed that perception, but Hollande’s competitors for the presidency are unlikely to let matters rest there.
A possible fallout of the Paris attacks may also have been the specific reference to illegal drugs and cyber security-both of which are suspected to have a connection with the strikes.
In India, too, state elections are increasingly being interpreted as a verdict on the Prime Minister, particularly after Modi campaigned extensively during the Bihar elections. With several major elections coming up, Modi would not let an opportunity to project himself as a leader who talks tough.
In the aftermath of the Conference of Parties (CoP) 21 summit last year, Modi had said that the conference had no winners or losers, and that ‘climate justice’ had won. The choice of the term ‘climate justice’ was significant, as it had reinforced India’s position that work towards environmental protection required ‘common but differentiated responsibilities.’ The statement on Monday also said that the Paris agreement was based on the principles of ‘climate justice.’
The Paris agreement has faced criticism from environmentalists in India, with activists pointing out that the financial targets and emission cuts have not been made legally binding.
Consequently, a significant omission in the joint statement on Monday could be the contentious term ‘intended nationally determined contributions.’
Subsequent to the CoP 21 summit, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar was far more forthright in his views on the inadequate response of developed countries. ‘The actions of developed countries are far below their historical responsibilities and fair shares. We have in the spirit of compromise agreed on a number of phrases in the agreement,’ Javadekar was quoted as saying.
India’s criticism of the stand of developed countries’ role in the negotiations was reflected in the statement, which said that Hollande thanked Modi for his ‘proactive’ role in the negotiations. In comparison to April last year, the language used was significantly more subdued.
Apart from terrorism, the other headline-grabbing point from the meeting between Modi and Hollande was the much-delayed deal for Rafale jets, touted to be one of the big-ticket deals for India. The tone in the joint statement on Monday was significantly more optimistic, as the two leaders ‘welcomed the conclusion of the Inter-governmental agreement’ on the acquisition of 36 Rafale jets. However, there could be many a strategic slip between the cup and the lip, as there continue to be ‘financial issues’ which stand in the way of the finalization of the agreement. Even as of now, there is no specific time-frame mentioned for completing the process, with only a vague statement that the lingering issues should be resolved ‘as soon as possible.’
However, come Republic Day, the delicate ambiguity over the Rafale jets would be overshadowed by the optics of a French military contingent marching at Rajpath, the first time a foreign contingent will take part in the exercise since the year 1950. Relations with France are particularly significant for India, as it was the first country with which India entered into an agreement for civil nuclear co-operation, at a time when much of the world had condemned India after it conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran.
Whether the bonhomie displayed by the French contingent participating in the Republic Day will be an optical illusion will be seen in the time to come.
Modi has referred to Hollande as a ‘special friend’ and has called him a ‘strong leader of a great nation.’ The French President, too, has been effusive in his praise for the Prime Minister. However, as the past experience shows, the extent to which the rhetoric translates into action would depend much on political as well as economic realities.