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’Betting on India is a Shortsighted Strategy for France’

Friday 9 June 2023, by Christophe Jaffrelot

The French government has just announced that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be the guest of honor at the Bastille Day Parade. This comes at a time when India is moving towards a form of government that can be described as electoral autocracy. While Indians are called to vote at regular intervals, the competition between the parties involved in the legislative process is no longer fair.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or People’s Party of India, not only receives unprecedented media coverage during election campaigns, but also record-breaking funding. The BJP’s 2019 campaign budget is estimated at more than €3 billion, money that has allowed it to flood the public space through television and social media. This spending was made possible by new rules for political funding that make donations from individuals and companies very opaque.

Above all, Indian democracy is literally put on hold between elections. Parliament is just a rubber stamp, judges are reduced to nominating supreme court candidates who are acceptable to the government, which otherwise blocks their appointment. The electoral commission, which organizes the polls, formulates its decisions in line with government expectations, anticorruption agencies, such as the one responsible for enforcing the laws on information, are headed exclusively by BJP loyalists, and the same goes for the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s FBI).

Opponents are intimidated or oppressed. Journalists are pursued, NGOs are deprived of external funding, intellectuals are subjected to state surveillance, and politicians are arrested on charges of tax evasion. Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi was even sentenced to two years in prison for defaming Modi, forcing him to resign his seat in the National Assembly, where he had denounced Modi’s collusion with Indian oligarchs, particularly Gautam Adani.

Nationalist militias

In addition to these attacks on the rule of law, India is tipping into xenophobia, with Muslim and Christian minorities gradually reduced to second-class citizens, as shown by the discrimination against Muslims in the labor and housing markets. Above all, these minorities are the target of violence, with Hindu nationalist militias linked to the ruling party acting as cultural police on the streets.

So why make Modi the guest of honor at the Bastille Day Parade, and play into the hands of a man who derives much of his popularity in India from the idea that he has "made India great again"? The Indian media report in detail on his frequent visits to world leaders. For France, it is certainly not a question of celebrating the political affinities of the two countries. No one outside India thinks of celebrating "the world’s largest democracy." Rather, this invitation aims to strengthen the strategic partnership between France and India in the name of national interest, as values are no longer a guiding principle of Western diplomacy, despite the rhetoric. President Biden, the architect of the Summit for Democracy, has also just invited Modi to Washington for a state visit.

But how do we define the national interest here? First, it is probably a question of using India to counterbalance China in the Indo-Pacific. However, this argument has its limits because India is concerned with not alienating China and is not ruling out doing business with it. Indeed, it is doing so in the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), designed explicitly to challenge Western dominance, as Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar explains in his 2020 book, The India Way (HarperCollins Publishers India, 2020).

This book also shows that New Delhi no longer adheres to the international order established in 1945 on the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Its refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a country it has never traded much with, because of oil sales – shows the limits of its adherence to international law. India’s distancing from UN multilateralism – reflected in many BRICS communiqués – has been elevated to philosophy by Jaishankar through the notion of "plurilateralism," a realpolitik that establishes variablegeometry partnerships and even bilateral ties with countries that have nothing in common, going as far as playing one off against the other.

Defense industry customer

If France and India do not meet on the basis of principle, do they have other interests in common? New Delhi has justified its attitude towards Russia by arguing that it is dependent on Moscow for the supply of arms, a legacy of the Cold War. Does France want to help India free itself from this dependence by selling it new weapons? Since the 1980s, exports of Mirage and Rafale aircraft and Scorpène submarines have enabled New Delhi to diversify its sources of supply and France to open up new markets. These arms sales, which make India one of the main clients of the French defense industry, are undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind the Franco-Indian relationship.

Arms contracts are useful to France to maintain the capacity of its companies to invest in research and development, and thus ensure a high quality of defense. They also help to contain the trade deficit. But will selling arms to India keep it away from Putin’s Russia? In order to implement its "plurilateralism," New Delhi wants a multipolar world in which Russia is a pillar.

Betting on India accordingly carries no guarantee where China and Russia are concerned, and selling arms to it would be primarily a matter of commercial interest. Doesn’t this short-term strategy merit public debate (at least in Parliament), so that the opinion of those who see a long-term risk is taken into account? In the United States, the idea that Washington is wrong to "bet" on India (to use the phrase of Ashley Tellis, a researcher at the Carnegie Foundation) is at the root of increasingly intense debates, which include the risk that India will not make good use of the weapons it imports.

And even if we were to conclude from such debates that this is a reasonable bet, should we hijack the symbol of the French Revolution by making Narendra Modi the guest of honor at the Bastille Day Parade?

Christophe Jaffrelot is director of research at CERISciences Po/CNRS and president of the French Political Science Association, author of "Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy" (Princeton University Press, 2023).