France offers a welcome breather for India as New Delhi walks a diplomatic tightrope between US and Russia

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In situations such as the ongoing Ukraine war, where India finds it hard to stand by its traditional friend Moscow, owing to complicated circumstances, it cannot also be seen as travelling with the US the whole hog

N Sathiya Moorthy February 09, 2024 20:10:35 IST

France offers a welcome breather for India as New Delhi walks a diplomatic tightrope between US and Russia

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with chief guest French President Emmanuel Macron during the 75th Republic Day parade, at the Kartavya Path, in New Delhi, on 26 January, 2024. PTI

Between them, US President Joe Biden and rival Republican Party’s Nikki Haley seem bent on pushing India closer to France for a balanced relationship in the western world that has all the ingredients of strategic stability, both in the bilateral and multilateral contexts. That is if one were to leave out India’s Russia relations, which many believed were rocky but became sort of rock steady all over again owing to the Ukraine War, where the long American arm was seen all over the place.

Yes, Nikki Haley, 51, is not even Biden’s likely rival in the US presidential polls in November.  She did not mean to question, challenge or rebuke India, either. Instead, by claiming that India was moving closer to Russia than the US, implying that the Biden presidency did not inspire confidence not only in New Delhi, but also in Tokyo and Seoul, Canberra and Wellington, Halley was only targeting the incumbent back home. But her choice of India, and not any of America’s NATO allies, for example and her choice of words, gave the impression that she was trying to convince a certain section of Republican voters that she was all American, and not Indian.

It has to be front-runner and former president Donald Trump. Halley is trailing the Republican primaries and polled lower than their kind of NOTA in Nevada, but that does not make sure that Trump’s name will be on the ballot. Indications are that at some point, either the Republican Party bosses or American courts could make it embarrassing for Trump’s name to be on the ballot.

Halley seems hoping for that day and is persisting in the primaries precisely for this reason. Maybe, like a typical Indian-origin woman that she is, Halley is hoping for ‘sympathy votes’ or ‘survivor’s votes’, first in the primaries and later in the presidential poll. Of course, there is a long way to go this time than any time in the past.

Disappointment for India

Biden kept India waiting and eventually turned down the invitation to be the chief guest at the annual Republic Day celebrations. Information about India’s invitation having spread after a time (generally it is kept secret until accepted – which again used to be a formality), Biden’s avoidably-delayed rejection was a disappointment for India. It is not known how the Indian-American supporters of Biden and the Democratic Party feel about it.

Obama did hard-selling business in an election year and took back orders for Boeing, which he said would ensure 20,000 Americans did not lose their jobs. Biden was constrained by domestic perceptions, both inside the Democratic Party and outside.

Maybe, Team Modi too thought that having Biden would be a high-profile commencement to the ruling BJP-NDA’s campaign for the Lok Sabha polls in the summer. To an extent, it compares with the ‘Namaste Trump’ show that India put out for the US President of the time, in February 2020 amid the farmers’ rally in New Delhi.

The Ahmedabad rally in particular was only a mirror-image of the Trump show for the Indian prime minister, ‘Howdy Modi’ in Houston months earlier in Houston, Texas.

Different cuppa

This is as far as India’s American relations go. Of course, there are the larger State-to-State strategic ties on all fronts, from security exchanges to defence procurement to information-sharing in scientific areas wherever needed. Yet, there are still deep-seated American doubts and suspicions about India’s leadership, whether it was Indira Gandhi in the Nixon era or Modi now in Biden’s time.

In comparison, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is much more popular in India — as only Indira Gandhi was before him – than Biden is in the US.  That may explain some of Biden’s tentativeness but there is a history of Democrats playing the human rights card more against India than even Republicans, except Nixon during the Bangladesh War, when the situation was different.

But India-France relations are a different cuppa. There has been political and strategic stability in their government-to-government ties, whoever is the ruler in New Delhi or Paris. Thus, the non-BJP government procured Mirage from France and the Modi leadership could obtain Rafale fighters decades later.

There were no hiccups in the two procurements. The French government of the day did not have to point fingers at Parliament as successive US presidents have been habituated to cite the Congress as an excuse to propose heavily one-sided proposals, whether on political ties, economic cooperation or defence supplies.

Typical French grace

There was more to bilateral business with India in Paris than in Washington – where people would find ways to make India feel small at every turn and also as a follower in the US camp than being an equal partner. With France, it has been different, all through. Suffice it to point out that France did not join the US-led western sanctions on India after the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests, which the US in particular found to be offensive and arrogant.

It was France and only France. That has not changed since. In the post-Cold War era, US wants clients for out-sourcing its global concerns that have moved away from Moscow to Beijing, New Delhi, Seoul, Tokyo and Canberra, all fitting the bill. France did not, or does not play its global games that way. It has been looking for partners and partnerships that last longer regardless of changing political leadership that is a part of democratic polity the world over.

This should explain why and how it did not hurt the personal dignity and national pride of French President Emmanuel Macron and his institutionalised diplomatic advisors when asked for him to be the chief guest at the R-Day parade this year after US’ Biden had turned it down after making India wait for long. In the past, abiding friend Bhutan was the only abiding nation that India had approached in times of such diplomatic embarrassment. France was ready to put itself in Bhutan’s place, though comparisons should end there.

By accepting the Indian invitation to be the chief guest at this year’s R-Day fete, France and not just President Macron have displayed typical French grace. However, the occasion also provided both leaders and their governments an advanced schedule to complete businesses that they might have otherwise put off for another day – all of them, follow-up action on decisions that they had arrived at when Modi was the guest of honour at the annual Bastille Day parade with Macron playing host.

If you’re not my friend…

For India, France is increasingly becoming a neutral territory compared to the US on the one side and Russia on the other which are daggers drawn at each other. Between the two, it is Washington, and not Moscow that has been reminding India constantly of its diktat of the ‘if you are not my friend, you are my enemy’ kind.

Yes, India did get the opportunity to assert its strategic independence in procuring Russian oil since the commencement of the Ukraine war, defying US-led western sanctions. America squirmed but accepted the Indian decision as a fait accompli about which it could do nothing.

However, India is also beginning to learn the price of its alliance with the US. Unilateral American positions on things that do not affect either America or India directly and its uncompromising positions as with the Ukraine war first and the continuing Gulf conundrum have exposed the limitations of New Delhi moving too close to Washington.

There, all allies of the US are handed down a fait accompli and are expected to fall in line. Possibly, India is the only nation that defied the US on the Ukraine war front and is seemingly weighing its options on developments in Gaza and the Gulf.  And India did it with grace and poise – by standing firmly on its feet and uncompromisingly so.

In situations such as the ongoing Ukraine war, where India finds it hard to stand by its traditional friend Moscow, owing to complicated circumstances, it cannot also be seen as travelling with the US the whole hog. In such a scenario, France, for instance, could be a Western, European and West European friend that New Delhi can count on.

France too has its positions on international issues but unlike the US it does not expect or insist on India to side with it wholly and whole-heartedly. That is saying a lot for bilateral relations between India and France, and their approaches to multilateral issues and concerns – with the guarantee that New Delhi can count as much on Paris’ veto in the UNSC as Moscow, which confidence Washington is yet to give India!

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to Rediff.com since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University