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The nuclear issue will be the focus of attention as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] embarks on a 7-day visit to Paris and New York City in the second week of September.
The choice of nations cannot be more serendipitous. France [Images] has a history of backing India's endeavours in various areas, including nuclear, while the United States is a recent partner in India's nuclear aspirations, especially with the agreement on nuclear energy between the two countries.
External Link: Nuclear Suppliers Group
This agreement, which has raised hackles in India, has also been having a fall-out in the United States.
US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has virtually given a wish-list for India to comply with, and Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh's defence of Iran's nuclear programme has irked US Congressmen-- whose endorsement is necessary for the India-US nuclear deal to go through -- no end.
"There is no ambiguity in our stand," Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told a media conference called on Friday to announce the prime ministerial visit.
"India is against any proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and no one is exempt. Iran or any other nation should adhere to the commitments they have undertaken, and questions should be resolved through discussions, not confrontation. We have not left any ambiguity."
Asked if these were irritants between the two nations, Saran said they were differences, not irritants.
About the ire over Natwar Singh's remarks, the foreign secretary told the media, "Don't go by media reports. That statement was never made."
Asked if France could be counted upon to work on the Nuclear Suppliers Group in the context of the US-India deal, Saran said, "In terms of liberalising the environment, France is ready to play its part. We are very appreciative of their support on these issues."
It is evident that hurdles to the nuclear deal can stem from the United States, not the administration but its establishment.
Small wonder, then, that Saran devoted a considerable part of his media briefing to dwell on Indo-French relations, which have endured over decades.
The high value that India attaches to this relationship was reflected at the press conference. 'Strategic partnership', 'significant partner', 'very important partner' were words used at various times to describe France.
Strangely, given this closeness, the prime ministerial visit comes after a gap of seven years.
"But the dialogue has continued in the meantime at the highest levels," Saran clarified, at various other fora, like the G8 Gleneagles summit in July this year.
Dr Singh will pack in a lot over September 11-13 in France. He will have meetings with President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominic Villepin, while Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy will call on him. However, no meetings have been fixed with the Indian community in the French capital.
"France has been an important trade and investment partner," Saran said, pointing to the bilateral trade that amounted to Euro 2.9 billion in 2004, a growth of 25 per cent.
"But we can do much more," and boosting trade will be a "major theme" during the PM's trip that will include a meeting with French CEOs.
Surprisingly, then, Finance Minister P Chidambaram is not part Dr Singh's entourage.
Asked about the possibility of defence deals being struck on the trip, Saran said defence cooperation was a very important component of the bilateral relations. A number of items were being negotiated, and the outlook is very positive he said.
France, the foreign secretary noted, always backed India in international fora on issues of mutual interest.
France also was a co-sponsor of the G4 framework resolution seeking, inter alia, permanent membership of the UN Security Council for India.
An important partner in the context of G8 and the European Union, France provided access to cutting edge technology, and has been very amenable to India's interest in avionics, electronics and space.
On the French school scarf ban law, which incensed the Sikh community since it amounted to a ban on turbans as well, Saran said the issue has been taken up strongly with the French government, and "some via media has been found."
Arriving in New York City on the afternoon of September 13 for the 60th plenary of the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Singh will be the co-host of the launch the next day of the UN Democracy Fund, which was initiated by the US last year and was supported by India.
President George Bush [Images] will play host and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will also be present.
There will also be a host of bilateral meetings, notably summits with the other IBSA nations-- the three-nation bloc comprising India, Brazil [Images] and South Africa.
Singh will also attend a Non-Aligned Movement meeting hosted by Malaysia, the current chairman.
Meetings have also been scheduled with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Vladimir Putin [Images] and South African President Thabo Mbeki.
But the one that will get maximum eyeballs will be the dinner Dr Singh will host for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf [Images] on September 14, in the context of the steadily moving peace process between the two nations.
September 15, the prime minister will address the UNGA plenary session. Later that day he will meet community leaders at a reception hosted by the Indian Ambassador to the US Ronen Sen.
Even after Dr Singh's return, Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh will stay on, and continue the talks with his counterparts from other nations.
Notable among these are a trilateral meeting with Russia [Images] and China. India has also offered to host a standalone meeting of the three nations, Saran said.
Among Natwar Singh's other engagements are meetings with foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council, the African nations, and the Asian Cooperation Dialogue.
He will also attend a lunch hosted by the Council for Foreign Relations, and also delivery the inaugural lecture at Browne University's India program.
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