Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France was punctuated by two significant decisions – one deft and the other empathetic. The first was the surprise announcement in Paris  that India would  acquire 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France through an inter-governmental process, thereby partially redressing  a critical inventory gap for the Indian Air Force. The second was to pay tribute at Neuve-Chapelle in northern France to the memory of 4,742 Indian soldiers killed in World War I and recall the valuable contribution made by the Indian fauj – the colonial context notwithstanding.

While questions will be asked in India about the speed with which the Rafale decision was taken and the doubling of the numbers – from 18 to 36 – this decision is nonetheless welcome by way of an interim infusion to India’s depleting fighter squadron strength. For the last decade the IAF and the other two services  have  been  blighted by a dysfunctional higher defence apex and inventory levels have been seriously degraded.

The Air Force has been waiting since the turn of the century to acquire a suitable multi-role combat aircraft to replace the ageing MIG series of aircraft obtained from the former Soviet Union during the Cold war decades. Given the scale of the investment, successive Indian governments dithered and the net result was a progressive shrinking of serviceable fighter aircraft and related combat squadron strength.

Immediate relief

The UPA government in its last lap cleared the selection of the French built Rafale for the lucrative 126 aircraft contract but the fine-print and contractual obligations proved to be tangled and contested, particularly in relation to the make-in-India part. The Paris decision is deft,  for it de-links the current acquisition of 36 Rafales  from  the larger multi-role combat aircraft deal. The latter, in all likelihood, will have to be carefully re-negotiated for its long-term strategic underpinning. Here it merits recall that India is also engaging with France over the Scorpene class submarines and the techno-commercial aspects remain discordant.

However, from the Indian perspective,  the Air Force could have gone down the Bofors path – for 25 years, the Indian Army has been seeking a replacement for the 155 mm artillery gun, and this quest remains elusive. The Paris decision, which trumps the torturous Indian bureaucratic maze,  will  provide two much needed squadrons of Rafales, though inducting an eighth type of aircraft will be a logistic challenge for the IAF.

Strategic Cooperation

Concurrently, India and France  can now review the entire spectrum of their security and strategic cooperation that now spans military hardware and civilian nuclear energy, with the potential to extend into the maritime, space and cyber domains. France is an important element  of the composite profile of the European Union along with Germany and both India and the EU have a vested interest in nurturing each other’s political credibility and comprehensive national power.

Thus, while the transactional aspect is relevant, it would be misleading to view the Delhi-Paris relationship only through the fiscal prism.  India and France have a correspondence in their strategic culture and  an innate impulse to cherish their autonomy. As India burnishes its status as a "leading" power, the EU and its  principal interlocutors can play an enabling role. This is the larger vision that should shape the contours of the emerging South Asia-EU relationship.

Whether the Modi-led team will have the strategic perspicacity and politico-diplomatic acumen to innovate and nimbly harness emerging opportunities (a trait that was sorely absent in the Congress-led UPA) remains to be seen.

Empathy for the soldier

The empathetic part of the Modi  visit to France was evidenced in the visit to the Great War  memorial in northern France.  To his credit, Modi has acknowledged the contribution of the Indian military in an earnest and empathetic manner. This was reflected in his Sri Lanka visit also, where he was the first Indian PM to lay  a wreath at the IPKF Memorial for the fallen Indian soldier.

The Indian contribution to World War I was considerable both by way of wealth and blood, though the sub-continent was a British colony. Most Indian have little or no idea about this chapter of Indian history. The most eloquent expression of French gratitude  for the Indian effort is contained in the tribute of Marshal Foch (1851 – 1929), the allied commander in the last phase of the  Great War. At the inaugural of the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial in 1927,  the French Marshal declaimed:
“Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern lands of France and Flanders, how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all of India that we shall watch their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We will cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way - they took the first steps towards final victory."

PM Modi’s visit to this war memorial will strike an empathetic chord with the Indian fauj’ and the collective polity – and hopefully expedite the building of a similar structure in India.

Commodore Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi.