The first Rafale will be handed over to India "on time, right on schedule, on Indian soil in May 2020. We are on target", the new French envoy to India, Emmanuel Lenain, said in an interview, where the long-time China hand, who served in the U.N., backed India's stand on getting a seat on the United Nations Security Council and its abrogation of Article 370, while calling for a relook at the original deal to acquire not 36 but 126 nuclear-capable fighter aircraft.
Mr Lenain sees the India-France relationship, which he describes as the "strongest partnership possible," growing even more so in the backdrop of a far firmer understanding between the leadership in Paris and Delhi, with France throwing its weight behind India getting a seat at the UNSC high table and working on squeezing Pakistan on its export of terror. Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly cited Pakistan's use of terrorist groups against Jammu and Kashmir as one of the reasons for the more stringent security in that state.
"We support India's right to decide on its path forward," the French envoy said on the Modi government's move to alter the status of Jammu and Kashmir to an Union Territory, adding that "as anywhere else, we want human rights to be respected and we think the sooner the situation comes back to normalcy, the better."
France and Germany are on the same page on this, he said, echoing comments by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during her recent visit to India on the need to return the state of Jammu and Kashmir to a semblance of normalcy.
Interestingly, in a clear rejection of U.S. President Donald Trump's repeated proffer of third party mediation, Mr. Lenain said the issue is a bilateral one with Pakistan, and that both countries should find a resolution through a peaceful discussion following that up with his India-leaning coup de grace - "There is no benefit in internationalising the issue."
But it was on the issue of the longstanding relationship on defence, that was not predicated only on the Rafale fighter jet, that the French envoy made a telling point. Saying it was not the first defence deal between the two countries, the French envoy pointed to the sale to India of the Mirage 2000 fighter jet in 1984, in response to Pakistan's acquisition of the F-16 from the U.S. "We are in India since the 1950s, we are one of the oldest suppliers to India and we have been always there when you needed any sort of equipment because we have the strongest partnership possible," Mr. Lenain said, speaking to this newspaper, in India's defence manufacturing hub, adding that France remains committed to Rs 30,000 crore offset deal to provide 36 Rafale fighters to the Indian Air Force.
These 36 Rafale jets (include two trainer variants) would be fitted with 'Meteor' BVRAAM (beyond visual range air to air missiles), the active electronically scanned (AESA) radar for supremacy in the air, and most important, its ability to carry out nuclear strikes. Induction of Rafale jets to the IAF's fleet would serve as a deterrent to hostile neighbours, because of its capability to deliver nuclear weapons in the event of a war.
France, which was the point of attack by the opposition Congress on the $4.5 billion Rafale deal in a bruising 2018 election campaign, has remained committed to the delivery and training of IAF fighter pilots on Rafale. "We share analysis, intelligence, technologies with your country as much as with any other country," he said. "At various moments we have been very supportive; Like with your nuclear tests in 1998. We were there. A few years later, when you had the operations against Pakistan in Kargil, we were there with French aircraft, Mirage. We made sure that we worked together during the operation. It was another example of this great partnership with India. But Rafale, obviously has been the most advanced technology and this collaboration is a big signal."
On taking the Rafale deal forward, the envoy said: "We already signed a contract for 36 (Rafales); but at one point of time the number was 126. It's up to the Indian government to decide. The discussions for this contract have been going on since early 2001 to be precise and then the Indian government decided what its needs are, and how it shall be procured. The French company offered, as they always do, the maximum part of the procurement under "Make in India". But eventually given the technological aspects, it was decided that the planes would be produced in France but with offsets in India."
The first Rafale was handed over to the Indian Air Force in Bordeaux Merignac, on October 8, when Defence Minister Mr Rajnath Singh travelled to Merignac. "We could have done it earlier, but that was his decision - he wanted to have it on the Air Force Day," he explained.
The first Rafale will fly into Indian territory in May 2020. Why the delay? "Only because between now and May, the Indian pilots and Indian technicians are getting trained on site in Bordeaux. But after that the delivery to India will be very regular - 1 or 2 planes per month and it will be done on time. And in terms of schedule, we couldn't do any better," he said.
Originally, the two governments agreed on an offset requirement of 30 per cent of the deal value to be invested by France in Indian aerospace and defence companies and creation of infrastructure for operating the fleet. The Indian government, however, increased this figure to 50 per cent while evincing interest in procurement of 50-plus Naval variant of Rafale fighters in future.
France and India share concerns over the rising terror graph, reflected in France's tough line on freezing the assets of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, and pushing the Financial Action Task Force on putting Pakistan on the grey list, the ambassador said the asset freeze is decided by the sanction committee of the UN, created by the Security Council of the U.N. Resolution 1267, which he knew all too well, given that he had personally worked on the resolution for three years.
"We faced and we are still facing terrorism. We stand side by side with India on this," he said, adding that on keeping Pakistan on the FATF grey list, when faced with "some countries opposing the move", France alongside several other countries kept up the pressure on Pakistan, giving it until February next year to clean up its act.
Between India and France, "there is a strategic dialogue going on since 1997. The idea is to take up the most strategic issues, which means that your Prime Minister and my President decided to work jointly last summer and adapted a roadmap on two important matters - digital and cyber terrorism."
France's invitation to the Indian premier to attend the G8 summit in Biarritz was at one level, a reaffirmation of the personal chemistry between the French president Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Modi, but equally, it demonstrated how far the South Asian power had come on climate change and bio diversity, issues that affect the first world as much as developing countries, in tackling urbanisation, water sanitation, smart grids, clean transportation.
Economic and business ties are also on the upswing, Mr. Lenain said, with more than 500 French companies employing close to 350,000 people in India. "One of the largest employers in this city is Capgemini - that's close to 1,50,000 employees in India. Trade is lagging slightly behind; it is true that there are some barriers (tariffs) but we are working with the Indian authorities and we can make progress with that, in everybody's interest."
With the French language taught in a slew of international schools in the city, and across the country, the French envoy said his top priority remained people-to-people exchanges. "This year, 10,000 Indian students will be coming to France as they have every year. We have a very ambitious target - to reach the figure 20,000, by 2025. To achieve this, we are going to help universities, colleges, schools find partners in France. Most importantly, students who do enroll in schools and universities will be allowed to stay on in France for two years and work in that country, which makes it easier for young people to find employment in French companies once they are back in India, he said. In a further bid to up tourists numbers from India, Mr. Lenain says "all visas will be delivered in 48 hours soon."