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How Jacques Chirac played a key role in improving strategic ties with India

Yoginder K Alagh
Jacques Chirac, French nuclear technology, French world, India, Nuclear Test Ban negotiations, energy sector, Indo-US Technology Agreement, SCADA

The Late French President Jacques Chirac was the Republic Day Guest in 1998, and I was asked to accompany him. We were interested in access to French nuclear technology, particularly the Fast Breeder Reactor. The French were the global leaders in the area. But we had not signed the Treaty, which Dr Manmohan Singh would do later. During his visit to India in 1998, Chirac was very clear on the importance of India in the French world view. On trade and energy, he was totally clued up. In fact, at the time, he shared the view of the US democratic government on India's strategic importance. It may be recalled that, in 1997, Madeleine Albright was to sign a technology agreement with me as the science and technology minister, but was called back on some urgent domestic issue. Eventually, the US signed its first official S&T Agreement, providing for government-to-government collaboration. The then US Ambassador had signed the Indo-US Technology Agreement with me. The US did, however, have reservations on India's stand in the Nuclear Test Ban negotiations. Chirac took a more sympathetic view on India's stand, and this was the leitmotif of his visit as the Special Republic Day guest in 1998. The French were reportedly keeping in touch with the Indian private sector companies on the issue of the VVER, or water-water energetic reactors, and the Prime Minister had to categorically deny this in the Lok Sabha.

Chirac, in fact, was very clear that France would strengthen its collaboration with India in the energy sector, including nuclear energy when India signed the Test Ban Treaty negotiations. His science and technology minister had spent time as a geology student in the Narmada valley, and knew of my work on planning the Sardar Sarovar. The French were always sympathetic towards the project. In fact, the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems for the main canal were designed on the pattern of the Canal de Provence in France. President Chirac met Indian industrialists at the Oberoi in Mumbai, while I was there as a representative of the government. He talked about the deep cultural links between the two countries: the cinema links with Satyajit Ray, the famous French social anthropologist Louis Dumont (he described India as Homo Hierarchicus-the only society that had the hierarchy of man as a value system), and the American rural specialists settled in Paris the Thorners. He also emphasised on the poor economic relationship, which needed to be remedied. He mentioned the Maison des Sciences de l'homme and its India connections. And he was clear-headed on the partnership that the two countries were to forge on energy, agro-based development, education and skills, including cooperation in development planning (to the best of my memory, the great French econometrician Edmond Malinvaud was their planning chief).

The discussion with India's corporate czars was lively and Chirac was pleased with the meeting. As we were coming out, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, then a minister in the Maharashtra government, was coming from the other side with the usual entourage. I was a trustee of the Pravara Educational Complex run by my dear friend and his father, Balasaheb Vikhe Patil. Radhakrishna greeted me by touching my feet and I introduced him to the President, who was tickled by the traditional Indian greetings.

The President and I were aboard his official plane from Mumbai to Delhi when he gave me an understanding of his worldview on Asia, particularly China and India. Apart from the French hospitality, I was struck by his clarity on the role of both countries and that they would have to be at the core of Europe's relations with Asia. He again went back to the need to understand the low level of Indo-French trade and the need to work on the bottlenecks: information, language, company links and practical steps needed to transform the relationship. These views were incorporated in the Indo-French Strategic Relationship Agreement he signed a couple of days later in Hyderabad House in Delhi.

The author, a former Union minister, is an economist