Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday received the first of 36 Rafale fighter jets on behalf of the Indian Air Force at the Merignac air base near the French port city of Bordeaux.

An inter-governmental agreement was signed between India and France in September 2016 to procure the 36 fighter jets worth Rs 59,000 crore. The deal was controversial ahead of the General Elections earlier this year because the Congress alleged wrongdoing and favouritism by the government. Even though the Union minister was officially handed over one of the 36 aircraft, the first batch of four jets will arrive in India only by May next year.

A ‘shastra puja’ [worship of weapons] was also held as the Dussehra festival falls on Tuesday, as does India’s 87th Air Force Day. Top military officials from France as well as senior officials of the jet manufacturer, Dassault Aviation, were present at the handover ceremony.

“This ceremony indeed is a historic and landmark day for the Indian Armed Forces,” Singh said before accepting the jet. “The ceremony signifies the strategic partnership between France and India. It is a symbolic day in so many ways. I am happy that the delivery of Rafale aircraft is on schedule.”

“Today marks a new milestone in Indo-French relations, and new high in defence cooperation...I hope the cooperation between two large democracies will continue to be strong,” Singh said, adding that he was certain the other jets will be delivered on time. “I look forward to flying in the Rafale aircraft. This will be a great gesture and I thank the French defence minister for this.”

“Our air force is the fourth-largest in the world and I believe that the Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft will make us even stronger and will give a boost to India’s air dominance exponentially to ensure peace and security in the region,” Singh said, according to PTI.

He said Rafale translates to “gust of wind” and expressed confidence that the jets will live up to its name.

“It is no coincidence that this ceremony falls on Dussehra and also the Indian Air Force’s 87th anniversary,” French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly said at the event. “It is a reflection of the paramount importance we give to our cooperation with India. This is just the first step of a long journey, as we are committed to meet all needs of the Indian Army. It marks a big day in the history of our industrial cooperation and we remain fully committed to the Make in India initiative.”

Singh, who is on a three-day visit to France, earlier met French President Emmanuel Macron. Both the leaders discussed Indo-French cooperation in defence and strategic ties. “We had a comprehensive discussion covering a wide range of issues,” Singh said on Twitter after the meeting.

The minister welcomed France as an “important strategic partner” of India after the meeting in Elysee Palace. “We have a multi-dimensional relationship with France and the ties are progressing on all fronts,” Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar, part of the ministerial delegation to France, told PTI. “The talks today are part of a comprehensive defence dialogue between the two countries.”

Singh also held discussions with Parly and other heads of defence industry.

Dassault Aviation Chief Executive Officer Eric Trappier said that the history of the India-Dassault relationship began in 1953 with the delivery of Toofani jets to India. “Since then we have had a continuous and unfailing commitment to this country, supported by successive French governments,” he said. “These [Rafale] aircraft, which are on course to be delivered on schedule as per the agreement signed in September 2016, have been created to meet the highly demanding needs of the Indian Air Force, which operates in a very sensitive geopolitical environment.”

In the evening, there will be a annual Indo-French Defence Dialogue between Singh and his counterpart Parly.

Singh will address the entrepreneurs of the French defence industry on Wednesday and is expected to encourage them to participate in the Make in India programme.

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