Modi On The Champs Élysées, Portrait Of Realpolitik (Circa 2023)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the guest of honor for the July 14-Bastille Day celebrations in Paris, a choice that has benefits and risks for both France and India, two medium-sized powers cultivating their relative independence.
PARIS — India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Paris on the Champs Élysées for France's July 14th Bastille Day celebrations. His presence and invitation by French President Emmanuel Macron would provide enough material to write an entire thesis, as the subject embodies all the facets and contradictions of our times.
The Indian leader is everything, all at once: the intolerant, "illiberal" Hindu nationalist, the bulwark against Chinese expansionism, the non-aligned figure of the global South in a changing world, from an emerging country with 1.5 billion inhabitants and unlimited economic opportunities.
Depending on which face you prefer, you may be shocked or delighted to see India and its Prime Minister in the VIP gallery in Paris on Friday, watching a parade of Indian soldiers who came for the occasion — a return of sorts, as Indian soldiers were present to help defend France during World War I.
Clearly, France has opted for a close relationship with Modi's India, and this choice has both advantages and constraints.
A few months ago, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, head of the family-owned Indian conglomerate Tata attended the launch in Paris of a France-Asia Foundation, and in a few powerful words, praised India's strengths. We can do anything China can, he said — so you can do it with a friendly country, concluded the powerful CEO, who embodies the Indian economy better than anyone else.
France has one advantage in the eyes of Indians: it is not America.
This is obviously the big argument for India today: Apple has set up a second iPhone production line there, after its operations in China. The investments diverted from Beijing because of political risk are split up between several Asian countries, including India. Having fallen behind its great Chinese rival, India is trying to offer the same advantages, but not without some difficulty.
Macron's no-reservations welcome for Modi at the French presidential palace on Friday
Better to be close
But it is mainly on the diplomatic front that India is making its mark, with its "multi-alignment," a formula that means it can abstain on Ukraine at the UN, take part in the BRICS club with China, chair the G20 this year, and strengthen its ties with the U.S., including in arms and technology.
France has one advantage in the eyes of Indians: it is not America. As a result, New Delhi announced Thursday the purchase of 26 French-made Rafale fighter jets and three French submarines. Both Paris and Delhi benefit from this, as medium-sized powers cultivating their relative independence.
Modi has made himself essential.
But there's still the not-so-hidden face of Narendra Modi: it's not good to be a Muslim or a Christian in India under this Hindu nationalist. Opposition leader Rajiv Gandhi has been deprived of civil rights, and journalists and members of civil society are under pressure.
Of course, there are still elections to be held, and Modi's party may lose regions, as it recently did in Karnataka — but as India specialist Christophe Jaffrelot points out in the French daily Le Monde, "Between elections, democracy is literally put on hold."
So should France have close relations with India? Yes, of course. Was it necessary to offer Narendra Modi a VIP stand at France's Bastille Day ceremony? In the past, there have been guests on July 14th whose invitations were later cause for serious regret: including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
But in a world that has become dangerous again, the Indian Prime Minister has made himself essential — so essential that his dark side is forgotten.
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