The Elysee Palace, it would seem, has no faith in astrology. If its present occupant, Jacques Chirac, had faith in soothsayers ' like politicians in India and elsewhere in the Orient ' they would have doubtless convinced him that this is an inauspicious time to visit India. Few state visits to India have taken place under such trying circumstances as that of Chirac this week.
Yet, the irony of his three-day trip to India is that the Elysee Palace did not need occultists to tell those who planned Chirac's visit that as an event which had historic potential and as a public relations effort, it was the wrong time for him to travel to New Delhi.
India is in the throes of an obsession with George W. Bush. Eight years ago, it was Chirac who broke with the presidential custom in New Delhi since independence that visiting heads of state would stay at Rashtrapati Bhavan as guests of their Indian counterpart. The French insisted during that visit that Chirac preferred staying at hotels during overseas trips. India's protocol officials, who take pride in their arrangements for official hospitality, were miffed. Perhaps Chirac cannot be blamed for wanting to get away for a while from an official residence, howsoever appealing, after making a nearly three-century-old model of classical elegance his home for 11 years.
But every hotel owner and hotel worker in New Delhi ought to be grateful to Chirac for breaking away from Rashtrapati Bhavan and staying at a place of his choice. He started a trend, which was picked up by several subsequent VIP visitors to India, including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Junichiro Koizumi, giving rare prestige to the city's hotel business. And yet, this week, it was Bush that the capital's hoteliers had their eyes on ' not Chirac, whom they ought to think of as a patron of sorts, at least in prestige, for their business.
What is true of the hotel industry in this regard holds good for the rest of Indian society. The fact of the matter is that America's supporters, apologists and lobbyists in the Indian media, think-tanks, corporate boardrooms and the government believe that if Chirac's visit had been allowed to take place smoothly and without any challenge, the French president would have stolen a march over Bush and that the Americans would have been left picking up the crumbs after what Chirac and prime minister Manmohan Singh had been able to do together.
Let no Indian forget that after the 1998 nuclear tests, the hope in Washington was that India had shot itself in the foot and that New Delhi had got into a hole from which it would have trouble getting out.
'Disaster' was the most frequent word that was used in Washington to describe Pokhran-II. Many of those in New Delhi who have been trying to shape Indian public opinion this fortnight by putting down the Chirac visit and slandering Indo-French ties are the very people who then echoed Washington's dire predictions about the fallout of India's decision to come out in the open as a nuclear weapons state.
They know what France and India can do together: post-Pokhran-II, Chirac defied Washington's effort to isolate and punish India and broke the unity among the permanent members of the United Nations security council against the Indian bomb.
The morning after the May 11, 1998 nuclear test, there was only one foreign delegation in New Delhi. It was led by Bertrand Dufourcq, who was then secretary-general of the French foreign ministry. If it were an Australian or a Canadian delegation ' or, for that matter, an American team ' it would have simply cancelled the talks with the Indians and walked out. But Dufourcq not only stayed, he also did not condemn Pokhran-II.
Within a few days, Brajesh Mishra, who was then principal secretary to the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was in Paris, his very first stop abroad after the nuclear tests, on a trip that took him to London and Moscow as well. Chirac met Mishra on a day when all of France was observing a national holiday and, in a long talk, brought up the question of helping India in civilian nuclear programmes at a time when much of the world was talking of sanctions against New Delhi.
Civilian nuclear cooperation with India is now a household idea, thanks to the July 18 agreement between Bush and the prime minister, Manmohan Singh. But let us not forget that it was Chirac who first brought up such cooperation at that meeting with Mishra in early June 1998. What Indians should recognize and respect about French offers of nuclear collaboration is that they have been consistent, even under a prime minister who came from a party which was in opposition to Chirac.
France has not changed the goalposts in negotiations with India to win popularity contests domestically or internationally. They said in 1998 that it was necessary on India's part to get the Nuclear Suppliers Group to accept it as a partner, and that New Delhi should work on Washington to change the way the Americans were looking at India's nuclear policies and practices. The French have at no time given an impression that they will turn their backs on international non-proliferation obligations, which Paris has committed to uphold. At the same time, they agreed to explore working with India globally and regionally as part of a strategic dialogue, long before the Americans were even willing to talk to anyone from New Delhi, post Pokhran-II.
Eight years later, the French are still leading the way in integrating India into the global nuclear network. This week, Chirac blazed a new trail in concretizing the scope of peaceful nuclear collaboration with India by outlining what is possible in any agreement in this regard. What Chirac and Singh agreed at their Monday summit is exactly what India and the United States of America will agree on once the impediments in the way of their White House deal in July are ironed out, hopefully, this week. Chirac's statements and declarations in New Delhi have strengthened India's case with the Americans ' and the NSG ' to be treated as a special case, somewhere between the nuclear weapons states recognized under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and those countries which are required to be non-weapons states in perpetuity under the NPT.
There is a school of thought in Washington which views Paris as an interloper in what the US is seeking to do with India. And this school of thought has powerful adherents in India ' even in the Union cabinet ' who believe that strong Indo-French relations can only be at the cost of India's links with America. They have done their bit to vitiate the atmosphere in the run-up to Chirac's visit by their gratuitous comments on the Arcelor issue.
The controversy over Cl'menceau, the ship which was obviously carrying environmentally dangerous substance, played neatly into the hands of those who were looking for ammunition to discredit Chirac's visit only days before Bush's arrival in New Delhi.There is, however, more to the charges in the Scorpene submarine deal than what meets the eye ' and that touches on the country's maritime defence and security.
Few of those in the armaments business are saints. And every worthwhile journalist in New Delhi has been approached, at one time or another, by rivals with files full of documents about wrongdoing by some other company trying for the same arms contract. As any astrologer would have told Chirac, the stars over India are now favouring Bush and have worked up all these issues to his disadvantage. And yet, it remains clear that once the dust has settled over the Bush trip, both India and France will recognize that Chirac's visit has brought about a quantum leap in Indo-French relations in the long haul.