PRIME minister Narendra Modi will take his push to turn thriving India into a major manufacturing and investment hub to the eurozone’s two biggest economies this week on his maiden visit to the continent.
Modi flies out on Thursday (April 9) to France, whose government is desperate to save a troubled $12 billion defence deal, before heading to Germany to inaugurate one of the world’s biggest trade fairs.
He will end his trip in Canada, home to a large Indian diaspora.
While New Delhi’s close ties with Moscow may limit the areas of common ground on geopolitical issues, the trip represents a perfect opportunity for Modi to tout India as a place to do business.
“I look forward to visit France to seek greater French involvement in our Make in India Programme, including in the defence manufacturing sector,” the prime minister wrote on Facebook before his departure.
Modi launched the “Make in India” campaign last year as the centrepiece of a project to rewrite the country’s reputation as a tricky place to do business - beset by bureaucracy, corruption and a stringent tax regime.
The government has already relaxed rules for foreign investors, eager to create work for the millions who enter India’s job market each year.
But India is currently ranked 142nd out of 189 countries in a World Bank “ease of doing business” global league table.
And the continued uncertainty over a deal for India to buy 126 Rafale fighter jets from the French company Dassault Aviation is seen as symptomatic of the challenges confronting foreign companies.
Dassault won the right in 2012 to enter exclusive negotiations to supply the jets, with experts saying a final deal could be worth more than $12 billion.
But after tortuous negotiations lasting for over three years, there are now new questions about its cost, although Dassault’s boss Eric Trappier recently insisted the deal was “95 percent finalised”.
French President Francois Hollande confirmed to reporters on Tuesday that he and Modi “will have discussions” about the Rafale deal while stressing he did not want the issue to define their relationship.
There are also hopes the visit will revive another delayed deal with French nuclear giant Areva, still awaiting the go-ahead to install six reactors in Maharashtra, five years after a bilateral civil nuclear accord.
“It is really good if it happens during this visit. If not, it will happen later,” French ambassador Francois Richier said on Tuesday (April 7).
Modi then heads to Germany where he and Chancellor Angela Merkel will jointly inaugurate the giant Hannover Messe trade fair on Sunday (April 12).
The following day, the two are due to tour the fair in the northern city of Hanover before Merkel welcomes Modi with military honours in Berlin on Tuesday.
Modi is also set to meet economy minister Sigmar Gabriel and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Germany is India’s largest trading partner in the European Union, with bilateral trade amounting to some €16 billion ($17.4 billion) in 2014.
While Modi was quick to meet US President Barack Obama and Asia’s top leaders after his election in May, it has taken him nearly a year to travel to Europe.
However KG Suresh of Delhi’s Vivekananda International Foundation think tank said it was significant Modi had chosen to visit the EU’s powerhouses ahead of Russia.
“Russia remains an old friend but obviously (the trip) reflects the pragmatic approach of the Modi government and its economy-centred foreign policy,” Suresh said.
“The ideals of the past are no longer the guiding principles. The government’s vision is to emerge as a powerful economy.”
Sujit Dutta, another Delhi-based analyst, said the visit reflected Modi’s overriding desire to fuel the resurgence of India’s economy, which is forecast to grow more than eight percent this year.
“The principal goal for Modi is to enhance the manufacturing base back home and give impetus to growth,” said Dutta, a Jamia Millia Islamia university professor.
Trade between India and the EU as a whole has grown from €28.6 billion in 2003 to €72.7 billion in 2013, and both sides are keen for the upswing to continue.
“India-Europe trade ties have been fraught with differences in the past and the two sides will look to smooth out the creases this time around,” said Dutta.