Other than the US and our one-time colonial master, the UK, elections in other parts of the world do not get much space in the Indian media. For a very good reason: most readers (or viewers) couldn’t care less, even though the average educated Indian often happens to be better informed on geography than the average American presidential hopeful. So it was surprising to see the amount of interest that the recently-concluded presidential elections in France managed to generate back home.
Well, not all that surprising, really, since Nicolas Sarkozy, the man who will now preside over the Fifth Republic as its sixth president, was talking about something which concerns all of us — our country. Probably for the first time since independence, India had become a poll issue in a major Western nation.
In a television interview, Sarkozy said that his aim was to ‘prepare’ France for the emergence of new powers like India and China. Sarkozy feels that France’s moribund economy, which has been lagging even its slowing Euro zone counterparts, is in no shape to face competition from the newly emerging economic superpowers, without a drastic change in its work ethic.
Despite unemployment running at around 8 per cent, and public debt touching 66 per cent of its GDP, France has stubbornly hung on to a 35-hour work week, and a mammoth public sector.
Sarkozy has promised to change all that. His call to voters, “Work more to earn more”, has clearly found favour with the French electorate, though it is something which is taken as a given in India or China. In fact, the ‘Chindia’ factor was stressed repeatedly throughout the campaign.
So should India be worried? After all, one of his poll promises was to hike import tariffs against countries like India and China, which he accused of ‘socialist dumping.’
I don’t think so. All elections generate a fair amount of rhetoric — Uttar Pradesh is a good example — but once the dust settles down, it is back to business.
Which France has got down to with amazing speed. Barely a week after the polls, the governor of the Bank of France (its central bank) was in Mumbai, along with a heavy-weight delegation of businessmen. The NYSE-Euronext exchange has already offered Indian corporates the chance to list globally at rates less than even the London-based Alternative Investment Market.
So, while there may be some symbolic duty hikes, but it is clear that France wants to seriously engage with India on the economic front. This is something which French businessmen have long recognised, but its political establishment is only now making it a core part of its foreign policy.
I wouldn’t be surprised if India crops up more often in future elections in foreign lands.
R Srinivasan is a National Business Editor