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A tale of two presidents

- Hollande's visit to India is more important than Obama's was

The contrast between the presence of the French president, François Hollande, at the Republic Day celebrations and a similar visit last year by Barack Obama, president of the United States of America, is emblematic of how misplaced India's public perceptions are of where its core interests lie. Without an iota of doubt, France represents the most important diplomatic relationship for this country at its present stage of growing up. Here are a few examples that cover a large expanse of India's foreign engagement. Fifteen years ago, Capgemini - a pioneering company founded by the legendary entrepreneur, Serge Kampf, in the French city of Grenoble in 1967 - employed a mere hundred Indians. As Hollande and the prime minister, Narendra Modi, reflect within a few months on their decisions made in New Delhi this week, Capgemini's work-force in India would have crossed one lakh men and women.

Aadhaar is now a household word in India. Even the poorest of the poor, who may still not have the national identity card, have heard Aadhaar mentioned at some point. Aadhaar, which is fundamentally changing the way transactions of all variety in daily life are being conducted, would not have become a reality without help from a French company, Safran Morpho, founded in 1924 under its original name of Sagem. This company uniquely developed for India's "unique identification number" project the necessary biometric technology: it was one of the biggest challenges of its kind in the history of the human race, registering over a billion people under one scheme.

In these times of terrorist threats all round when even one's own shadow can be suspect, Safran Morpho helps keep India safe. It supplies explosive, narcotic and threat detection systems for this country's major airports. It also helps secure the Indian air force, the ministries of home and external affairs in addition to public sector undertakings which have a security component, such as the Electronics Corporation of India Limited in Hyderabad. When Hollande told Modi in a conversation in Chandigarh on Saturday that one in every three Indians is able to telecommunicate because of a Safran Morpho subsidiary, Syscom Corporation, the prime minister thanked the visiting president for the parent French company's role in helping to run the national rural employment guarantee scheme and the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna.

It is an irony in political terms that Modi, who is attempting to transform manufacturing in India into a national mission with his "Make in India" slogan, is finding that Bihar, where his party recently got a thorough drubbing, is forging ahead significantly in creating factory jobs. It is a French company, Alstom Transport, which will manufacture 800 electric locomotives for Indian Railways at a new plant it will build in Bihar's Madehpura. To start with, jobs are guaranteed there over the next ten years that it will take to supply these locomotives. Investment in this project is estimated at Rs 19,800 crore. Alstom Transport was the first firm to offer foreign direct investment in rail projects after the government liberalized foreign direct investment in the railways.

Similarly, after the Modi government raised permissible FDI in the insurance sector from 24 to 49 per cent, France's AXA was the first to respond. It immediately applied to the government to enhance up to the new limit its stake in the joint ventures with the Bharti group, bringing in fresh foreign capital.

There has lately been criticism that the National Democratic Alliance government is neglecting public health and is insensitive to the welfare needs of the poor. In pharmaceuticals, even the previous United Progressive Alliance has been under pressure from big pharma to dilute India's self-reliance on medicines for those who cannot afford the high cost of vaccines and drugs. Therefore, it is refreshing that last month, Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical giant, announced that it will manufacture an injectable polio vaccine in Hyderabad, not only for domestic use, but also for export. For such activities, Sanofi made Shantha Biotechnics an Indian affiliate of the parent French company in 2009. For those unfamiliar with Sanofi, it was originally the multinational, Hoechst, which has been operating in this country since 1956.

Notwithstanding such an impressive French record in helping India meet its vital needs, Hollande's visit did not generate even a fraction of the public interest that Obama's visit generated at this time last year. Weeks before Obama was to arrive for last year's Republic Day celebrations, everybody who thought of himself as 'important' left no stone unturned and went to incredible lengths to secure an invitation to attend President Pranab Mukherjee's banquet in honour of the US president.

The pressure on Rashtrapati Bhavan was so intense that Mukherjee's staff had to shift the banquet from the usual ornate and historic hall to a new facility, which was far less impressive but many times larger. State banquets, by their very nature, cannot be carnivals, so invitations for the Obama dinner had to be limited. Those who were disappointed then tried for invitations to the president's traditional "At Home" on January 26 so that they could get a glimpse of Obama, even if they could not get to shake his hands and those of the First Lady.

The listing above of Indo-French engagement is only a partial enumeration of how important Hollande's visit is. The strategic nature of Indo-French relations has been dwelt upon in this column in great detail since France was the only big power - not even Russia, initially - to support Atal Bihari Vajpayee's decision as prime minister in 1998 to conduct the Pokhran II tests, which eventually ended India's nuclear winter. For that reason, it deserves no repetition.

It was commendable that the foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, made it a point to emphasize on Monday that "France is the original strategic partner of India. It was the first country to be so designated. We have very close relations with them in defence, nuclear energy, space..." It is a sad reflection on the state of strategic thought outside the government in this country that until the foreign secretary said so, none of the pundits who become highly voluble at a passing mention of the White House thought it necessary to mention the unique nature of political relations between New Delhi and Paris.

Similarly, when history was made at Tuesday's Republic Day parade with a foreign military contingent - French - marching along with Indian soldiers, none of the live television commentators, most of them retired high-ranking military officers, could explain its context, history or relevance. For Mukherjee, although he is now out of active policy-making in Rashtrapati Bhavan, this must have been a moment of intense satisfaction. As defence minister in the Manmohan Singh government, it was he who opened up India's military to greater international engagement that went beyond routine joint military exercises or goodwill port calls by naval vessels.

It is worth remembering with Hollande in our midst that India is today in the club of developed-cum-emerging nations, the Group of Twenty, because of what the French initiated in 2003. On a balmy June morning that year, thanks to the far-sighted and out of the box invitation of Jacques Chirac (then president), Vajpayee tentatively took his seat at a meeting of eight industrialized countries, collectively known as the Group of Eight, at the historic Hotel Royal in the resort town of Évian-les-Bains on the banks of Lac Léman. Chirac's invitation set in motion a train of events that culminated in the creation of the G-20, of which India is now a full member.

With rare exceptions like the nuclear deal, the Americans only make promises that are short on delivery. But it is the French who either deliver for India or show how what they cannot deliver themselves can be realized.

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