Bastille Day welcome for Modi as France courts India
July 11, 2023 08:42 PM
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is guest of honour Friday for Bastille Day celebrations in France, the latest Western power to court the world's largest democracy and its booming economy.
President Emmanuel Macron's red carpet welcome comes weeks after Modi was given the rare honour of a White House state dinner in Washington -- a city he was once banned from visiting.
That visit saw deals on arms sales, semiconductor investment and space cooperation, breezing past human rights concerns over India's Hindu nationalist government and accusations of rising religious intolerance towards the country's Muslim minority.
Further strategic and economic tie-ups are expected in Paris, which is seeking to broaden its engagement in Asia alongside other Western nations to check growing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
Modi's visit alongside Indian troops joining the annual Bastille Day military parade, marks "a new phase in the strategic partnership between France and India", Macron's Elysee Palace office said in June.
Both countries have "a shared vision of peace and security, especially in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific region", the statement added, using a term used by the US and its allies for the Asia-Pacific region.
Modi, who greeted the French leader with his customary bearhug during the latter's first state visit to India in 2018, said on Twitter last week that he was "looking forward to meeting with my friend President Macron".
"The India-France Strategic Partnership holds great significance for global good," he added.
India is already a customer for French arms, including Dassault's Rafale fighter jets, as it seeks to modernise its forces to match potential future threats from its northern neighbour.
The urgency of New Delhi's task has been heightened by simmering disputes with Beijing over the countries' immense Himalayan frontier, the site of a 2020 clash that killed 20 Indian and four Chinese troops, and sent relations into free fall.
Modi is set to announce the purchase of another 26 Rafales for use on the INS Vikrant aircraft carrier, as well as three Scorpene-class submarines, according to reports by the Tribune news website in France and the Hindustan Times newspaper in India.
- Balancing game -
India has also become a vital market for Western companies, with its swelling middle classes helping the country's economy to become the fifth-biggest in the world, surpassing the size of former colonial ruler Britain's.
Many European and American businesses including US tech giant Apple are also ramping up production in India to mitigate the threat of supply chain disruptions from China.
India's rising economic clout has dovetailed with diplomatic assertiveness as its leaders relish the country's newfound prominence on the global stage.
This year, India is hosting the G20 summit for the first time and Modi has used the meeting to burnish his image at home as a steward of national power and prosperity.
Modi has struck a fine balance between historic ally Moscow and its new Western suitors, declining to criticise last year's invasion of Ukraine while India snaps up discounted Russian oil.
At the same time, his government has been enthusiastically welcomed into closer security cooperation with the West through the Quad alliance, a grouping that also includes the United States, Australia and Japan, and is seen as another countervailing force to China.
Modi attended a cricket match at a stadium bearing his name in March with visiting Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese, who likened the charismatic Indian leader to rock musician Bruce Springsteen at a rousing Sydney reception two months later.
"It is to do with containing China," said Manoj Joshi, a New Delhi-based author and geopolitical commentator.
"China is becoming a difficult market... and in terms of size and strength of its economy, India is a very good fit".
- Rights concerns -
But last month's enthusiastic welcome to Washington from US President Joe Biden saw minor ructions when several lawmakers boycotted Modi's joint address to Congress, citing his human rights record.
Rights groups say India's 200 million Muslims have faced increased discrimination and violence since India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014.
Modi himself was once subject to a US State Department travel ban over 2002 religious riots during his tenure as chief minister of western Gujarat state that killed around 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.
He has denied any responsibility for the violence and subsequent government probes have cleared him of culpability.
His government has also been accused of stifling independent media, with India falling 21 places to 161 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index since he took office.
Indian offices of the BBC were raided by the tax department in February, weeks after the British broadcaster was hit with a barrage of government criticism for airing a documentary questioning Modi's role in the Gujarat riots.
The ruling party denied the raids were politically motivated, while diplomats in London and Washington demurred from criticising them.