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Space pact on Modi's Paris plate

New Delhi, April 6: India and France are planning to ink a pact for joint interplanetary exploration when Narendra Modi visits Paris on Friday, marking New Delhi's second foray into a space hunt beyond the moon after the Mars Orbiter Mission.

The agreement will be a key diplomatic outcome of the Prime Minister's France trip at a time space cooperation has become a foreign policy priority with him, two senior Indian officials independently told The Telegraph.

A French embassy spokesperson said he would not like to comment.

Modi and French President Francois Hollande will also discuss defence and nuclear cooperation, the Indian officials confirmed, requesting anonymity.

Some of the details of Modi's April 9-11 tour are likely to be announced by both nations on Tuesday. Apart from Paris, he will visit armament-manufacturing hub Toulouse and Neuve Chapelle, site of a memorial to Indian soldiers who died in World War I.

"Using space research and its benefits diplomatically - that's a priority for the Prime Minister," one of the officials said.

"And the pact with France, apart from underscoring our space ambitions, will also be symbolically loaded."

Modi's visit coincides with 50 years of bilateral space cooperation that, in its initial years, saw France agree to transfer technology to India for rockets and offer technical assistance in building the Sriharikota launch pad.

In recent years, India and France have bolstered their space research through a series of joint projects including the 2011 launch of the Megha-Tropiques, a climate-monitoring satellite.

Following the Mars mission's success, Modi is expected to underscore to Hollande that India is no longer a junior partner but an equal in its space relationship with France.

In the defence cooperation talks too, India will avoid any commitment on buying Rafale fighter jets, which France has been pushing for years, officials said.

Instead, Modi and his team will try and steer the conversation towards another of his pet themes - defence manufacturing by French companies in India.

"We will tell them that what we want is co-production of defence equipment in India," the second Indian official said. "That will be the thrust of the defence dialogue."

France had last year agreed to an Indian proposal to circumvent New Delhi's controversial nuclear liability law by using a government-sponsored insurance pool that would cover any accidents involving French reactors in India.

Areva, the French nuclear firm, and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited are now finalising a techno-commercial agreement that will detail the price tag of the reactors.

America's decision to accept the Indian government-sponsored insurance pool, during President Barack Obama's January visit, has further eased any residual French concerns about the liability law.

"There are no remaining policy impediments with France," the second Indian official said. "And after the US deal, they are even more confident, happier."

But it is the space pact that could best help Modi's efforts to project India's regional prowess in territory where it has over the past two years been increasingly trying to catch up with China.

Over the past few years, China has dug into its deep pockets to offer finance, technology and infrastructure to several Asian nations, including some in India's neighbourhood such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives.

Under Modi, a worried India has stepped up its outreach in space diplomacy. Modi has offered an Indian-made satellite for all South Asian nations -- a project that foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has discussed with his counterparts during a series of recent visits to the region's capitals.

That India succeeded in its Mars mission at its first attempt while on a shoestring budget -- when China has failed - has raised India's credibility as a provider of space technology in the neighbourhood, an official involved with New Delhi's space diplomacy initiatives said.

"A second such interplanetary mission will only help further," the official said. "It projects India even more as belonging to the big league, and it helps us keep an edge over our rivals."


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