Reports trumpeted the “long-tradition” of co-operation between the Indian and French forces, and France’s “pride in contributing to India’s defence for over half a century”. More than 10 years later, however, questions are being raised that may take the shine off the deal.
In a commercial court in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, Mr Bhandari, who now lives in Britain where he is seeking political asylum, is suing Thales.
He claims he was promised €20m to help Thales secure the contract, but has only been paid €9m. A source close to Mr Bhandari told The Telegraph he was in a “David versus Goliath” fight and “we know who won that fight in the end”.
The claim – strongly rejected by Thales – comes at a sensitive time for France and its defence industry. President Emmanuel Macron is still smarting from Australia’s abrupt cancellation in September of a $90bn [£66bn] dollar deal with Paris to build a fleet of submarines, opting for a deal with the US and Britain instead.
It caused a major diplomatic rift, with France recalling its ambassadors from Australia and the US, and French president Emmanuel Macron accusing Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, of lying.
Mr Morrison retorted that “we did not steal an island. We didn’t deface the Eiffel Tower”.
France has been trying to deepen its defence ties with India in the meantime.
In September, France’s foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, agreed to promote “a truly multilateral international order”, highlighting the “relationship of political trust between two great sovereign nations of the Indo-Pacific”.
France is keen to sell India more of its Rafale jets, having delivered almost all of the 36 Rafales that India ordered in 2016 – a $9.3 billion deal itself mired in controversy.
On a visit in December, Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, stressed that using the same aircraft was a “real asset and strength”, adding: “I am sure that there is room for new developments.”
India is an “incredibly ripe” market for France, says Francis Tusa, the leading defence analyst. “Can you see France selling submarines to India? Yes, absolutely. Will they sell more Rafales? I would be astounded if they didn’t.”
Le Drian had, Tusa added, “made the Indians believe and understand that France could offer things which India wanted without the sort of overbearing nature of the relationship with the US”.