Monday, 30th October 2017

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R-Day plan to host Hollande

Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to invite French President Francois Hollande as chief guest for the coming Republic Day, a visit that might see a breakthrough in negotiations that have held up India's direct purchase of 36 Rafale jets.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 28.10.15
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Hollande

New Delhi, Oct. 27: Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to invite French President Francois Hollande as chief guest for the coming Republic Day, a visit that might see a breakthrough in negotiations that have held up India's direct purchase of 36 Rafale jets.

Hollande is expected to accept the invite, months after Modi visited France in April and announced that his government would circumvent an earlier tender to directly buy Rafale planes "off the shelf", a deal that could cost India more than $5 billion.

Negotiators from both countries have been locked in talks over reducing the effective cost of the deal through an offset agreement, under which the seller agrees to purchase another product from the buyer to sweeten the pact.

Only in recent weeks, officials said, negotiators had edged towards an understanding that France could invest 50 per cent of the cost of the Rafale jets India purchases into "Make in India" defence initiatives, after direct political intervention on both sides.

Such an arrangement would also help Modi counter criticism that he had jettisoned his own domestic manufacturing drive in agreeing to the direct purchase of the French jets in April.

The invitation to Hollande, experts said, would also underscore the uniqueness of India's strategic relationship with France, the only major western nation that did not condemn the 1998 nuclear tests and, in fact, supplied key weapons to New Delhi during the 1999 Kargil war.

"It's been a tried and tested strategic relationship since 1998," Ummu Salma Bava, professor of European studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told The Telegraph. "And this (the invitation) is in keeping with the gains that have been made, including in the recent past."

The plan to invite Hollande follows a pattern Modi appears to have established.

With the India-US nuclear deal stuck over New Delhi's nuclear liability law, Modi had agreed with US President Barack Obama to fast-track negotiations, and then invited him as chief guest to the January 26 ceremony this year.

It was after their meeting here on January 27 that Modi and Obama announced a "breakthrough" in the stalemate in the form of an insurance pool that Indian companies would create to allow US suppliers to dip into, in the event of an accident.

A repeat - with the deal on Rafale jets - can't be ruled out, the officials hinted.If Hollande accepts the invite, he will become the first French President to visit India twice in one term. The French leader, who came to power in 2012, had visited New Delhi in February 2013.

The decision to invite Hollande also reflects the continuation of a legacy.

Hollande, if he comes, would be the fourth French leader to be chief guest at the R-Day ceremony since 1976. Jacques Chirac has been chief guest twice - in 1976, as Prime Minister, and in 1998, as President.

President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, in 1980, and President Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2008, were also chief guests.

Every French President since d'Estaing has also visited India, some like Francois Mitterrand (in 1981 and 1989) and Chirac (in 1998 and 2006) twice. But Hollande will be the first to visit India twice in a single term.

Modi and Hollande, who met in New York last month on the margins of the UN General Assembly, are expected to meet again in December - in Paris - on the sidelines of the UN's climate change conference that the Indian Prime Minister wants to attend. Modi is likely to hand over the formal invite to Hollande at the start of the climate summit.

Modi's December visit to Paris would also mark the first occasion that an Indian Prime Minister has travelled to France twice in a single year.

Hollande wasn't the only candidate India considered for chief guest at the 2016 Republic Day.

Other leaders whose names were discussed as possible chief guests within the corridors of the ministry of external affairs were British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.