In a way, President Nicolas Sarkozy'S visit to India was a mini media coup de boule. Even the most austere newspapers, without a famous (or infamous) page 3, covered the French president's visit, speculating on a daily basis if the fiancee would be in the presidential plane (or later join him) for a darshan of the Taj Mahal.
In this sense, the presidential visit was a great success; whether or not orchestrated, Sarkozy's trip got it hundred-fold more publicity that Francois Mitterrand's in 1982 and 1989 or Chirac's in 1998 and 2006.
Now there is another criterion to judge the success of foreign trip by a head of State: It is the billions of dollars of contracts signed. On this account President Sarkozy's visit to India lags far behind his visit to Beijing two months ago (contracts worth 20 billion euros were signed). That is probably why his Elysee palace office had termed the visit 'more political than economic.'
The main outcome of the State visit seems to have been that both sides reemphasised the importance of the strategic partnership: 'To enhance their strategic dialogue, both countries will hold regular consultations between high ranking officials of their respective foreign ministries on issues of mutual interest,' says the joint statement.
But this strategic partnership is not something new. It was put in place after President Chirac's visit in 1998. At that time it was quite unique, though today India has 'strategic partnerships' with all and sundry.
For the past 10 years, the partnership has helped institutionalise a dialogue by putting in place structures like:
A Strategic Dialogue at the level of the national security advisers provides both sides an opportunity to review the evolution of the overall global security situation (17 rounds have been held so far).
A High Level Committee for Defence at the level of defence secretaries, works through its three specialised sub-committees, dealing with issues related to defence cooperation.
A Joint Working Group on Terrorism has been established to cooperate in the fight against terrorism.
Not new also is the position of Paris about the expansion of the United Nations Security Council and the G8. Sarkozy reiterated in strong terms French policy: 'I do not see how we can wait and wait for the reform of the Security Council... We have to increase the seats and India has to be a member," and it would be India's 'rightful place'. The joint statement confirms that 'the G-8 needs to be expanded over time to G-13 including India.'
France might be 'India's best friend' as the French president put it, but the fact remains that the share of France in India's foreign trade is today only 1.8 percent -- awfully low as the British would say. Though Sarkozy declared that he would like at least 1,000 small and medium size companies to enter the Indian market, it is easier said than done.
In this context, the last minute absence of Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, in Sarkozy's entourage is most regrettable. The pretext was that the largest fraud ever was detected in the accounts of the prominent bank Societe Generale leading to a loss of 4.9 billions euros. Her presence in France cannot change the wrong-doings of a junior trader, while if she had come to India, it would have given a strong signal that Paris means business.
The personality of a French president who does nothing in half measures led many observers to expect a greater and perhaps out-the-box new impetus to the bilateral relations. Many thought his energy would translate into a new dynamism in the relations between Paris and Delhi. But was it possible in the present circumstances?
His trip came hardly two months after the regrettable and unexplained cancellation of the purchase of 197 helicopters by the Indian Army from the French-based European consortium Eurocopter. If it has not affected the rapport between the two nations, it has definitively hampered the contract 'tally'.
The annulling of the Eurocopter deal was a pointer to the unfortunate way things are planned in the land of Bharat. It is only after a soldier dies that someone starts thinking that coffins are urgently needed. Coffins are then quickly purchased, but soon the CAG enters into the picture and objects: 'Illegal! The three statutory quotations were not obtained and field trials not conducted.' It becomes a major scam and the ministry decides to draft new rules and regulations, more rigorous to avoid future scams. The new rules are so stringent, that hardly any deal can pass through the net.
Even if Dassault, the manufacturer of the famed Mirage fighter planes offered to sell 40 of its new generation Rafale fighters to New Delhi, it is doubtful if a 'fast track' deal can go through the net of the defence ministry's procurement policy.
Another deception is the last minute cancellation of the presidential visit to Mumbai or Bangalore. This could definitely have brought some substance to the visit and planted seeds for future collaborations.
Added to this, one fails to understand why Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was invited to Paris a few days before Sarkozy's arrival in Delhi. It was an unnecessary and ill-timed gesture, although Paris does not equate India and Pakistan anymore.
Before Sarkozy's visit, I had gone through all the clippings of previous presidential visits. One article in Le Monde attracted my attention.
Written before the 1989 Mitterrand visit, it quoted an Indian businessman dealing with France: 'You are able to demonstrate true solidarity (with India); sometimes strike great commercial 'coups', but between these sudden initiatives, you don't work, you let the links loosen. This is the quality and the flaw of the French.'
I thought that was exactly what would happen. Sarkozy, the dynamic president, would pull out a 'coup', return to France and forget about India. Now, he has come, but pulled no rabbit out of his hat (not even his fiancee), though he seems to have been touched by India and its people: "C'est fantastique", he said about his visit to the Taj.
So why can't the relations between India and France bloom without a media 'coup' or immediate large contracts. In any case, the conditional agreement on the civilian use of nuclear energy will hopefully translate into win-win contracts in the months to come. A day before the visit, Le Monde wrote, 'India, an El Dorado for French atomic energy.' With the comrades willing, France could make of India a land without power cuts. Will the prime minister have the courage to go ahead, call the Communist bluff and sign a deal in Vienna? It is another matter!
Tail end: About the usual turban interlude, my information is that this 'serious' problem in France concerns less than a dozen Sikh students. Further, an enquiry by a French newspaper two years ago had revealed that the fathers of these students were mona (cut-hair) Sikhs. Having lived more than thirty years in India, I believe that one has to respect the laws, the customs (and also the difficulties) of the country where one has chosen to live. Why should senior leaders like L K Advani intervene in this matter?