The visit of the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, last month was an opportunity that was squandered by India, dashing hopes that the visit would be used to transform a bilateral relationship which is critical to New Delhi’s goals of becoming a global power. But neither South Block nor the prime minister’s office, which takes a special interest in relations with France, is to blame. It was tragic — perhaps comic — that an impression gained ground in New Delhi even before de Villepin landed in the capital that the big issue he was coming to sort out was the unhappiness among Sikhs, both in India and France, caused by the new French requirement that religious apparel has no place in public schools. That farcical impression was reinforced when the visiting minister met Tarlochan Singh, chairman of the minorities commission, and Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, representing the Shiromani Akali Dal. Caught up in all this, Indians were largely unaware of the lengths to which de Villepin, well acquainted with Indian sensitivities during his posting in New Delhi as a diplomat a decade ago, had gone to accommodate those sensitivities in planning his visit.
Most foreign visitors to India do not care about the preference on the part of Raisina Hill that when they visit New Delhi, it is better not to club that trip with a journey across the border to Islamabad. At the very least, officials in New Delhi rationalize, such a policy would encourage India’s efforts to break the hyphenated relationship with India and Pakistan that many countries have crafted since British rule ended in the sub-continent. The Americans, except in some recent instances mandated by Washington’s growing agenda in Islamabad and logistical convenience, made it a point for decades to go out of their way to visit India and Pakistan as part of a single itinerary, reinforcing the notion that America’s equation with India and Pakistan is a zero-sum game.
De Villepin’s decision to combine India and Afghanistan in a single trip was a gesture of deep sensitivity — for which the French are, of course, famous — that was regrettably lost on the Indians. It was a remarkable gesture since de Villepin journeyed all the way to south Asia again last week to talk to the Pakistanis en route to Japan.
The improvement in relations between India and the United States of America in recent years has fostered the dangerous notion in influential sections of the Indian society — members of parliamentary committees dealing with foreign policy, strategic analysts, the media and influential elements in the government which have had limited exposure to diplomacy — that nothing else matters much now that Indians and Americans are friends.
In Washington, this columnist routinely comes across visitors from India, mostly public servants, who unquestioningly accept the American line on foreign policy and relations with India. Unfortunately, there has been no effort in South Block to correct this distortion by presenting MPs and other influential visitors to the US with a contrary view — an Indian view. The result is a clear lack of enthusiasm, spread across the Indian establishment and in the popular imagination, about the importance of relations with countries such as France, Russia or Brazil. Contrast this to the public enthusiasm about the historic visit of Nikita Khrushchev to India in 1955 which laid the foundations of an enduring Indo-Soviet engagement, and it is easy to understand why India’s ties with countries such as France are not realizing their full potential.
India’s relations with the US are, no doubt, extremely important. But those in India who harbour the notion that this relationship is important to the exclusion of everything else, ought to take a close look at the events in Haiti which led, this weekend, to the unceremonious exile of its president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The Americans were unwilling to do anything in Haiti, for better or for worse, for weeks and weeks, as the situation deteriorated and many lives were lost to so-called resistance fighters, who were nothing more than criminal gangs with known histories of murderous rampage. Then the French decided to act last week.
De Villepin called for a transitional government, indicated that Paris was willing to join an international police force and coordinated his diplomatic efforts with CARICOM, the 15-nation Caribbean Community, and the Organization of American States to find a solution. After the Iraq fiasco, which bore out the prophetic warnings of the president, Jacques Chirac, about the inadvisability of going to war, the Bush administration is understandably very sensitive about the French.
Alarmed at the possibility that the French may steal a march over the US in its own backyard, the White House suddenly decided to do something about Haiti. Even with allowances for presidential campaign politics, the Democratic front-runner, John Kerry, was truthful when he said that President George W. Bush “always makes decisions late after things have happened that could have been different had the president made a different decision earlier”. Kerry’s likely vice-presidential running mate, John Edwards, said that Bush “has ignored Haiti the same way he has ignored most of the countries in this hemisphere”.
Indian journalists ask visiting leaders a question, almost by rote: do these leaders support India’s permanent membership in the United Nations security council' The question has become so commonplace that it has become almost meaningless. But that should not obscure us to the reality that Chirac was the first major world leader to unequivocally support India’s case for permanent membership. Buttressing that point, de Villepin often uses his favourite quote from André Malraux that “chance for India is a chance for the whole world”.
France was the first big power with which India instituted a strategic partnership. The year was 1998: shortly after the strategic dialogue was announced, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government tested nuclear weapons. Instead of shrinking away from the partnership, France decided to deepen it. Indeed, if it were not France’s steadfast support for India after the Pokhran tests, the course of events in India could have been altogether different. It is doubtful if Britain, the US and Germany, even Russia, would have come round to de facto acceptance of India’s nuclear status. In that case, it is even doubtful if Vajpayee could have survived the intense international pressure to roll back the nuclear programme or even remained prime minister.
It would be a big mistake to assume that because the Bush administration does not pressure India on the nuclear issue, because Bush and Vajpayee are committed to a strategic partnership, the road to India’s membership of the nuclear club is now smooth. Or that India’s emergence as a great power can be realized by the snapping of two fingers, as the president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, would sometimes have us believe. Indeed, New Delhi will face a big challenge in this context, this year, as negotiations progress on its desire to join the 40-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which regulates transfers of nuclear equipment, material and technology. Indians should not forget for a moment that France and Russia are the two strongest supporters within the group for New Delhi’s admission to the NSG.
There are many other aspects of India’s potential rise as a global power for which French support will be imperative. Because India and France share a world view, Paris is the only big power that New Delhi can depend on for support, in the same way that Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi depended on the Soviet Union. This requires transforming the growth of Indo-French relations from a bureaucratic or ministerial effort into a mass movement. De Villepin’s visit could have been a starting point in this effort, but the opportunity was not utili- zed because the people of India were not alerted to the possibilities which such an opportunity would have offered.