Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has been on a red carpet tour of Western capitals this summer, as NATO powers shower favors on the ultranationalist strongman. The United States and Europe are rushing to deepen ties with a potential counterweight to China and draw the Global South into a more active opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Already last month, India’s premier was greeted with open arms in Washington where he was treated to a lavish state dinner at the White House — and scored a series of investment deals and contracts with US weapons manufacturers.
Modi can expect a similar welcome this month in Paris. On July 14, he will be the guest of honor at the Bastille Day celebrations in the French capital, attending the grandiose military parade on the Champs-Élysées alongside President Emmanuel Macron. “Dear Narendra,” Macron wrote on Twitter in May when the visit was made public, addressing him with the informal tu. Bastille Day is ostensibly a celebration of France’s Republican founding and the bequeathing of freedom, equality, and brotherhood to the world. This year, it’s commemorating cold geopolitical calculation.
Modi is reaping the benefits of India’s position regarding several global fault lines. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he has repeatedly eschewed Western condemnations of Vladimir Putin’s aggression. Sidestepping the G7’s packet of sanctions, India has taken advantage of imposed price caps on Russian crude to import oil in bulk on the cheap, before reselling the surplus to third markets, including even sanctions-committed European countries. With New Delhi slated to host the G20 summit this September, Modi has sought to situate India as the go-to spokesperson of the nonaligned Global South — neither engaged, like China, in a “no-limits” partnership with Russia, nor embedded in a web of relations with the West.
Yet, India’s independent streak somewhat recedes when it comes to the rise of China. New Delhi has proven willing to accommodate the growing network of US-led partnerships in Asia, namely the so-called Quad format in the broader “Indo-Pacific” alongside United States, Japan, and Australia. Initiated in 2007, the Quad was revived in the late 2010s, formalizing security ties between the four powers and serving as the framework for coordinated military exercises.
Like their American counterparts, the French diplomatic corps views Modi’s India as an inescapable partner. One diplomat told me that the idea was to make of Modi an “example” of Southern leadership, a striking characterization for a figure who has embraced the protofascist Hindutva ideology.
Washington and Paris no doubt have similar designs in seeking favor with Modi. But there is also a degree of competition between the two NATO powers. Modi’s visit to France, on the quarter-century anniversary of the Franco-Indian “strategic partnership,” comes as Macron hopes to buff up his claims to represent Europe on foreign policy and act as a bridge between NATO and the Global South. This is an artifact of Gaullist “nonalignment” during the Cold War, an independent stance that remains an article of faith in some ruling circles.
One of the selling points for Macron’s idea of European “strategic autonomy” is that it would provide a palliative to the heavy-handedness of the Washington Consensus and the United States’ leadership of the West. But this has thus far failed to materialize as anything beyond Macronist bluster. In late June, Paris hosted some forty countries to address the North-South divide, specifically debt burdens and decarbonization financing. It yielded little in concrete effects or policy commitments.
As a photo op, Modi’s invitation to Paris recalls the welcome granted to Donald Trump for the 2017 rendition of France’s national holiday. In tune with his own hyperpersonalization of public life, Macron’s conceit was that he could nurture a connection with Trump, at a time when European leaders were scrambling to calibrate relations with the United States’ brash and unpredictable new president.
“He has a limitless faith in his own capacity to convince people,” says Arnaud Le Gall, a France Insoumise MP on the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Le Gall is skeptical of Macron’s ability or even willingness to pursue genuine nonalignment for France and Europe. “One week he’s an Atlanticist, the next we hear him put on his Gaullist hat.”
Rhetoric aside, Macron’s attempts to cozy up with Modi are a matter of short-term calculations — and cash. The two spoke online in February to seal a major civil aviation contract, with India purchasing two hundred fifty jets from Airbus to the tune of €34 billion. This had the French-based aerospace consortium edging out US rival Boeing, which obtained the purchase of two hundred twenty airliners.
Franco-Indian ties are particularly strong in the domain of military hardware, with New Delhi emerging in the last decade as one of the key markets for French arms exports. According to a March 2023 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, France is now second only to Russia in arms sales to India, the world’s largest weapons importer.
Snubbed when the US, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia formed the AUKUS pact in late 2021 — leading to Australia’s abandonment of a deal to purchase submarines from France — French defense contractors and foreign policy planners want to make sure that they don’t get cornered out as the United States deepens defense partnerships elsewhere in the region.
Le Gall and France Insoumise are not categorically opposed to military ties with India — but warn against the metamorphosis of strategic autonomy into a pure camouflage for an export-hungry French arms industry.
“We shouldn’t think that strategic autonomy is just a question of the solvency of our defense industry,” Le Gall told Jacobin. “It’s not so much the real needs for our national defense that are taking precedence as the search for export markets.”
French arms suppliers, who represent one of the country’s key export industries, could be about to get another boost from New Delhi. After 2016’s €8 billion sale of thirty-six Rafale jets, France’s Dassault Aviation is now said to be on the cusp of sealing another major deal with India. (The 2016 sale has long been the object of corruption investigations: just this week, Mediapart revived allegations that major figures in François Hollande’s government, including then economy minister Emmanuel Macron, resorted to shady fiscal dealings to secure the support of Indian subcontractors.) One French source informed of the new round of talks, who requested anonymity, confirmed to Jacobin that the two countries were in advanced-stage negotiations for the sale of a new tranche of Rafales, this time to equip Indian aircraft carriers.
“In terms of operational capacity for the Indian armed forces, this is a change of scale. This sale is about power-projection capacity, which is extremely important,” the source said. “Up to this point, India’s security doctrine revolved around defending its land borders. India’s posture is changing as it positions itself as a decisive power in the broader Indo-Pacific region.”
Whoever says “Indo-Pacific” is above all talking about China. Of recent minting, the so-called Indo-Pacific is an amorphous geopolitical space said to stretch anywhere from the most isolated islands of the Southern Pacific up to Alaska, or from the Horn of Africa to Japan. As the international relations scholar Isabelle Saint-Mézard argues in a recent book, the term is coded language for the geographic zone in which Western policy planners hope to structure their competition with China, specifically when it comes to averting Beijing’s potential to dominate maritime zones in a region with most of the globe’s crucial commercial arteries.
India, as of this year the most populous nation on earth, is a linchpin of this strategy. And with so much said to hang in the balance, it’s no surprise that Modi has had so little to fear in the way of finger-wagging from either Joe Biden or Macron over his atrocious record on human rights and democratic norms.
While Modi has weakened the architecture of the India’s secular state, emboldened street gangs with ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have launched violent pogroms against the country’s Muslim minority. The rival Congress Party is a shell of its former self, but the arrest and sentencing of its leader, Rahul Gandhi, this spring on spurious defamation charges was the latest assault on the country’s political opposition, one year before elections that will have Modi seeking a third term in office. Independent journalists, and even the local BBC outfit, have faced harassment and intimidation as media barons aligned with Modi increase their control over the country’s press.
“We can’t cut ourselves off from a country with 1.4 billion people, with the position that it has in regional and global politics,” Le Gall maintains. “But the problem is that we’re going much further than that. We’re giving Modi an enormous symbolic gift. We’re welcoming someone who’s slipping into protofascism.”
But if genuine diplomatic engagement is one thing, it seems that short-term calculation, viewed entirely through the prism of Russia and China, is what’s driving the Western charm offensive toward Modi. In their rush to find a regional anchor, NATO powers are embracing perhaps the most powerful far-right politician in the world.