27 JANAURY 2016
Consolidating ties with France
Like many things French, the country’s relationship with India is an understated one. Yet, as President François Hollande wrapped up his three-day visit to India, it would be a mistake to underestimate what the India-France relationship has come to mean over the decades, devoid though it is of the grand claims attached to India’s relations with the big world powers. Russia may be India’s oldest and biggest military supplier, the U.S. India’s newest close defence partner, and China India’s biggest trading partner, but it is France that was India’s first strategic partner. As a result, and through the strategic dialogue institutionalised since 1998, France and India have close ties on counterterrorism. These have been given a boost by the agreement on intelligence-sharing and cooperation on investigations and judicial processes announced during the visit. In fact, Prime Minister Modi described the common threats from “Paris to Pathankot”. On other fronts too, the relationship has held strong. Despite global recrimination over the nuclear tests in 1998, France was the first to re-start nuclear talks with India, and among the first to push nuclear trade with India in later years. While the Rafale aircraft deal has overshadowed much of the discussion on French ties in the past few days, the fact is that France began to supply India aircraft (‘Toofani’, or Dassault Ouragan fighters) as early as in 1953, and has been a consistent supplier since. And over the years, the French space agency CNES and the Indian Space Research Organisation have collaborated closely. It should therefore come as no surprise that Mr. Hollande’s marked the fifth visit by a French leader as Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade, something Mr. Modi referred to when he said India-France relations have “cleared every test over time”.
However, the test that the two sides have not yet cleared is the one in bilateral trade. Despite 10 per cent growth in most years and more than a thousand French companies operating in India, India-France trade hovers around $8 billion, which amounts to half of India’s trade with the U.K. or Germany. A big reason for this is the impasse in India’s economic relations with the European Union, which have been hanging fire for more than a year now; France is more vulnerable here than its neighbours. Mr. Modi’s expected visit to Brussels for the EU summit in the next few weeks could clear the path for greater bilateral ties with France as well, but India must look to other ways to build on this relationship. Some of those will come from the joint ventures and partnerships envisaged during Mr. Hollande’s visit, on infrastructure such as railways, smart cities and renewable energy projects. But much more needs to come from Indian businesses engaging with France, even as the government moves on long-promised reforms to aid exporters. To quote Mr. Hollande at the CEO forum, speaking about bilateral trade: “We must go faster, much faster and even then it’s too slow.”
Politics, impropriety and President’s Rule
It is unfortunate that Arunachal Pradesh, a sensitive border State, should find itself in the throes of an artificial constitutional crisis. After seeking some clarifications from the Union government, President Pranab Mukherjee has approved the imposition of Central rule. The proclamation will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament and the validity of President’s Rule may be considered by the Supreme Court, but it is difficult not to discern a discredited political pattern behind the crisis that led to the current situation. The pattern involves dissidence within the ruling party, the opposition joining hands with the rebels, confusion over the likelihood of a floor test, and the Governor intervening in a partisan manner. It is in similar circumstances that Article 356 of the Constitution has been misused in the past. And it was in such circumstances that the Supreme Court declared in 1994 that the only place for determining whether a Chief Minister has lost or retained majority is the floor of the House. Yet, the country is still witnessing the sad spectacle of partisan politics overshadowing constitutional propriety. It is a poor commentary on the Narendra Modi government that instead of finding ways to facilitate a floor test it has imposed President’s Rule in the midst of an ongoing hearing before a five-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. The Congress in the State is also to blame because, having obviously failed to address the dissidence in its camp against Chief Minister Nabam Tuki, it appears to be avoiding a floor test as it has not sought interim orders to that effect from the court.
Undoubtedly, there is a constitutional impasse because six months have elapsed since the last time the Arunachal Pradesh Assembly met. That itself is a valid ground for Central rule. But it cannot be forgotten that events were manipulated in such a way that the divided legislature never got an opportunity to meet and test the government’s majority. The crisis was precipitated when Governor J.P. Rajkhowa advanced the session scheduled for January 14, 2016 to December 16, 2015, and fixed a motion seeking the removal of the Speaker as the first item on the agenda. In that controversial sitting at a makeshift venue, the Speaker was ‘removed’ and a ‘no-confidence motion’ adopted against the Chief Minister. The Gauhati High Court has ruled that the Governor was justified in advancing the session by acting on his own discretion if he had reason to believe that the Chief Minister and the Speaker were stalling a particular motion. The constitutional question of whether the Governor can summon the legislature on his own and whether he can send a message to the Assembly on what motion it should take up is now before the Supreme Court. An authoritative pronouncement is necessary on this question, but what must not be forgotten is that political processes followed should be rooted in norms of democracy, and not be at the mercy of any discretionary powers of constitutional functionaries.