The stage was set a week before French President François Hollande arrived in India Sunday, with a threatening letter sent to the French consulate in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, better known as Bangalore.
The letter, “signed by al Qaeda,” suggested Hollande drop his plans to visit India. “If he comes, his life will be under threat,” it stated simply.
Security was promptly tightened, especially since Hollande is the guest of honor at India’s January 26 Republic Day parade, which is always a cause for heightened alerts across the country.
The French president was barely into the second day of his India tour when al Qaeda’s upstart jihadist rival, Daesh (also known as the Islamic State group or ISIS or ISIL), put the militant Islamist threat back on the agenda.
In a video released late Sunday, Daesh claimed to show the nine jihadists who carried out the November 13 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people. Titled, “Kill wherever you find them,” the video in French and Arabic threatened the usual against France and others “in the ranks of the kufr (unbelievers)”.
Predictably, the issue of the latest Daesh video came up at a Monday morning press conference in New Delhi and predictably, Hollande responded with a defiant, "Nothing will deter us, no threat will make France waver in the fight against terrorism."
Hours later, India and France had signed an agreement on the long-delayed purchase of 36 French Rafale fighter jets. In a nod to the tortuous negotiations over the deal, Hollande noted that “some financial issues” are yet to be resolved. But both sides were confident they would be resolved “as soon as possible”. Or at least that’s what the joint declaration said.
There’s no business like the defense business
Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his shock April 2015 announcement in Paris that India planned to buy 36 “off-the-shelf” (or fully assembled in France) aircraft, French and Indian officials have been locked in serious wrangling over a host of niggling details.
French officials, speaking off-the-record, groan about India’s “dictateur du coup de tampon” -- or dictatorship of the rubberstamp -- which is rich given the infuriating richness of French bureaucratic procedures.
Critics in India have slammed the idea of an overpriced acquisition of French jets for the Indian Air Force, which is already saddled with multiple platforms making it a logistics and maintenance nightmare.
But then there’s no business like the defense business and there’s nothing like an omnipresent terror threat to push a tricky deal between two countries notorious for red tape.
France has been famously putting its Rafales to use in Iraq and Syria in its “guerre contre Daesh” – or war against the IS group, which has turned into a slogan of the Hollande administration since the Paris attacks.
India of course is no stranger to Islamist terror threats -- the November 13 attacks in the French capital had eerie similarities with the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. So, Daesh, in its role as noncontroversial common enemy bringing governments together, can only help cement the Indo-French ties that bind. It can even be argued that Daesh had a role to play in Hollande’s latest high-profile India visit. Modi, after all, has said he invited the French president to the Republic Day parade (a privilege US President Barack Obama enjoyed last year) in a show of solidarity after the November 13 attacks.
No human rights on the agenda
Official visits by heads of state or government tend to be choreographed affairs with protocol departments and press packs supplied with time tables, talking points, statements and press releases. Sometimes, in the lead-up to such visits, organizations such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch release statements typically urging leaders of industrialized democracies not to overlook the much-overlooked issue of human rights.
Modi, with his track record of failing to end the bloody 2002 Gujarat communal attacks, his deafening silence in the face of rising violent acts against Christian and Muslim minorities, his tolerance of rising levels of intolerance, his association with the sinister, right wing Hindu paramilitary group, the RSS (Rashtriya Sevak Sangh), is a lightning rod for the human rights crowd.
Ahead of Modi’s November 2015 UK visit, for instance, writers and academics signed a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron asking him to urge the Indian leader to "provide better protection for writers, artists and other critical voices and ensure that freedom of speech is safeguarded" in India. A UK-based activist group even splashed a giant image on Westminster of Modi against a logo of the Hindu symbol “Om” transformed into a Swastika with a caption, “Modi not welcome”.
This time though there’s been hardly any hue and cry, with precious few calls on Hollande to mention the thorny issue of human rights during his visit.
That’s just as well because Hollande himself is not looking very strong on the civil liberties front. More than two months after the Paris attacks, the French president is all set to seek another three-month extension of a state of emergency that has its roots in the brutal 1950s Algerian war of independence.
Last week, a group of UN special rapporteurs on human rights issued an extraordinary condemnation of France’s new “tough on terror” measures, blasting the “excessive and disproportionate restrictions on fundamental freedoms” under the state of emergency.
The expanded emergency powers allow the government to impose house arrest without authorization from a judge, conduct searches without a judicial warrant and ban protests that can “disturb the public order”. Most criminologists believe these measures will do nothing to help the war on terror, but could further disenfranchise France’s already marginalized Muslim community.
Hollande’s government has proved just as deaf to human rights alerts as Modi’s administration. Just days after the group of UN experts issued their warning, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stressed the state of emergency will be extended until “the threat is there…until we can get rid of Daesh”.
Given that most experts agree Daesh presents a longterm threat and that the jihadist threat will persist in some other avatar, Daesh or no Daesh, this means we’re looking at an indeterminate prolongation of emergency powers.
The real solution lies in putting existing security laws to better use and tackling how and why France’s disenfranchised youth are buying into a crackpot, nihilist ideology. But that actually takes effort and the French can be long on discourse and notoriously slow on action.
And so, Hollande is not likely to bring up human rights with a leader whose very name evokes images of violent intolerance across the world. Leaders who live in houses under a state of emergency shouldn’t throw stones at others. It takes a Socialist French leader who has fashioned himself into a “war president” to understand a right-wing Hindu politician who has scant regard for minority rights -- or any rights for that matter.
An inelegant 'bromance'
Little wonder then that Hollande and Modi have embarked on a “bromance” that has yielded some rather inelegant moments.
Modi’s last bromance was exactly a year ago, when Obama was special guest at the 2015 Republic Day parade. But at least last year’s bromance had its photogenic moments.
This time, Modi’s affectionate puppy dog assaults on a prim French president have been embarrassing to behold and Twitter has been on a roll over the “uncomfortable” levels of PDA (public displays of affection).
But that’s to be expected between special friends -- and we’re hearing a lot about this special friendship thing. On Tuesday, as Hollande watches the Republic Day parade, we can expect to hear a lot more. It’s business as usual for the business-friendly right-wing Indian leader and his business-savvy Socialist French counterpart. Just don’t expect anything on human rights. That’s so pre-Paris attacks.