(The article was originally published by Indian Express on July 22, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France to participate in the Bastille Day parade will be seen as an important milestone in the Indo-French relationship. Bastille Day is celebrated on July 14 every year as France’s national day. On that day in 1789, Parisians rose in revolt against Emperor Louis XVI and stormed the prison fortress, the Bastille, and released all political prisoners.
This revolt precipitated the abolition of feudalism in France leading to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”. It brought France the fame of being the “Les Pays Des Droits De L’Homme” or the “land of human rights”. It gave birth to the concepts of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, which many countries, including India, adopted as sacred principles after emerging as independent republics.
When France and India come together, commitment to this relationship based on shared values too comes into play. Liberty involves nations enjoying freedom from being forced into taking sides and choosing what is in their national interest. It is called “strategic autonomy”. India has steadfastly upheld the principle in its relations with different countries.
During his visit to Beijing in April this year, French President Emmanuel Macron invoked this principle in a media interaction. In an unusually candid conversation, he suggested that Europe was getting caught up “in crises that are not ours” and bemoaned that it was preventing Europe from “building its strategic autonomy”.
Macron went to the extent of calling it “the worse thing” for the Europeans to think that they “must… take our cue from the US agenda”. Later, at a joint press conference with the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the NATO ally went one step further stating, “Being allies doesn’t mean being vassals”.
Strategic autonomy brings India and France closer. The French too do not like being dictated by others. In 1998, when countries in the West competed in imposing sanctions on India for daring to test nuclear devices, France stood out. President Jacques Chirac refused to punish India for the tests and instead gave a patient hearing to Brajesh Mishra, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s envoy. He even said it was an “anomaly” to exclude India from the global nuclear order.
India and France became “strategic partners” the same year. France was the first country to sign the agreement for the supply of nuclear reactors to India in 2008. India-France ties continued to grow in various sectors, “from seabed to space” as PM Modi aptly put it.
Strategic autonomy requires the appreciation of two important principles. Firstly, the world must accept that “multipolarity” is a reality. There is palpable discomfort in sections of the Western intelligentsia in accepting that the world is reorganised into multiple state, non-state and minilateral powers that have emerged as independent poles.
In a multipolar world order, all states command and demand dignity. Thus, the “sovereign equality” of states becomes the second important principle. It is heartwarming that the French leadership described the bilateral relations with India as a “partnership of equals”.
Both the major powers in the world today, the US and China, are used to the politics of allies and followers. China has a historic syndrome called “Zhongguo” or Middle Kingdom. At one time, it was just a geographical understanding of being located at the centre of the world. But it acquired political connotations wherein China assumes the status of a middle kingdom between the heaven above and the inferior states of the world down below.
The US leadership too demonstrates this sense of superiority occasionally. George Bush’s infamous doctrine that “either you are with me or against me” epitomised this mindset.
India is championing the cause of the dignity of the developing world by speaking about the Global South. Even this proposition is not acceptable to some leaders who insist that there is no such thing called the Global South.
Global South is not merely a geographical or economic idea. In the next five to 10 years, at least two out of the four big economies of the world — India and Indonesia — will be from the Global South. It is a mixture of political, geopolitical and economic parameters common to countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Pacific. For example, most countries in the Global South were colonies of the Global North. Anti-colonialism and decolonisation are common denominators for the Global South.
India’s championing of the cause of Africa and its call to invite the African Union as a member of the G-20 is part of its Global South campaign. Parts of Africa have been under French influence. The French government’s focus on West Asia encompasses countries in the Middle East as well as East Africa, traditionally an area of Indian influence. India and France can work together in both regions.
Similarly, India’s role in the Indo-Pacific as a net peace provider can be reinforced through its bilateral engagement with France. While France considered itself a NATO power or a European power, it is equally an important power in the Indian Ocean region. It has island territories like Reunion in the Mascarene Archipelago, Mayotte in the Comoros Archipelago and Iles Eparses in the Mozambique Channel. It has a couple of naval bases in the IOR besides leased ports in Abu Dhabi, Dakar and Djibouti.
PM Modi touched on all these aspects during his France visit although defence and other economic ties were highlighted by the media. On the 25th year of their strategic partnership, the two announced a vision for the future, through “Horizon 2047”.
Horizon 2047 received a boost through Modi’s engagement with the Indian diaspora in Paris. Diaspora activism is not new to the French. The Chinese and North Africans — the Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians — play an active role in French civic life. Modi’s efforts might catapult the Indian diaspora into an activist mode that would help the bilateral partnership achieve its goals of Horizon 2047 faster.