French personal connection

Hollande pins action hope on relationship with Modi

By Our Special Correspondent
  • Published 27.01.16
French President Francois Hollande, President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive at Rajpath to watch the Republic Day Parade on Tuesday. Picture by Prem Singh

New Delhi, Jan. 26: French President Francois Hollande today said he was trying to establish a "personal relationship" with Prime Minister Narendra Modi so that the two could "act" together on common concerns at a time differences are hobbling crucial defence and nuclear deals between the nations.

Hollande's comments on building a relationship with Modi came towards the end of a three-day trip where the two have demonstrated bonhomie at every step - a hug in Chandigarh, a prolonged handshake in New Delhi and an animated conversation at the Republic Day Parade today.

"What I want with Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to establish a personal relationship that allows us to act together," Hollande said during a reception at the French ambassador's residence this afternoon, a little after he met scholars of French and celebrities, including actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, over lunch.

India and France had yesterday failed to break a deadlock on pricing that has hobbled two deals that have emerged as touchstones of their bilateral cooperation in recent years, despite extended negotiations led by Modi and Hollande that spilled over to the lunch table.

Modi had announced India's intention to purchase 36 Rafale jets in flyaway condition from France when he visited Paris last April, and the two nations were hoping to seal an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) during Hollande's trip. But yesterday, the defence ministers of the two nations could only ink a memorandum of understanding declaring their intent to sign an IGA once financial differences are sorted out.

The two countries were also unable to resolve differences over the cost of six nuclear reactors France had agreed to sell India in 2008 for what will be the country's largest nuclear plant in Jaitapur, Maharashtra - a deal that for the past seven years has remained on paper.

By the time Hollande spoke at the reception, the key symbolic element of his trip - the Republic Day celebrations he had come to witness as chief guest - was over, and the French President was three hours away from returning to economic challenges back home.

The nuclear and defence industries in France are both counting on the deals with India materialising soon, caught as they are in a financial crisis. And the French President, both yesterday and today, made no secret his intent to advertise for French products. "These Rafale jets are the very same planes that are fighting Daesh so successfully," Hollande had said yesterday, referring to the Islamic State (IS), after talks with Modi.

Today, he emphasised that he was looking to "serve the French economy abroad" and utilise "employment in our country".

The use of personal chemistry between leaders has long been viewed as a factor in international diplomacy, but Modi has tried to emphasise its role in bilateral relations.

When US President Barack Obama visited as Republic Day chief guest last January, Modi had repeatedly referred to him as "Barack" in an attempt to portray their closeness. US officials too concede Obama considers Modi a friend.

"I'm new in this field, but I think diplomacy is not only about papers and official documents," Modi had said in response to a question after talks with Obama last January. "Personal chemistry between leaders plays a major role."

Modi said "Barack and I" speak on the telephone fairly frequently. But Obama isn't the only world leader Modi has tried to befriend at a personal level.

The Prime Minister has at least twice publicly referred to his Israel counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu as "my friend" - a tag the Israel leader reciprocated in referring to Modi during foreign minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Jerusalem earlier this month.

Modi has also called Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a "close friend" and has made it a point to wish him on his birthday, in Japanese.

But Modi's personal friendship hasn't saved all his friends from political upheavals. Two world leaders who he counted as closest international friends, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and ex-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were pushed out of office this past year.

Abbott was dethroned by his own party, while Harper lost national elections despite travelling with Modi during his trip to Canada just before the polls to try and woo the large Indian-origin community in that country.