India deflects Russia oil ties with huge plane deal

NEW DELHI, 16 Feb 2023:

India’s flag carrier Air India has sealed a historic deal to buy a total of 470 airplanes from European manufacturer Airbus and US-based Boeing, as part of an agreement signed by the Indian government to transform its aviation sector – and placate two of its key western allies amid international pressure over oil purchases from Russia.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the West imposing economic sanctions on the West, India has been under pressure from the EU and the US – due to it refusing to directly condemned the invasion and instead increasing its imports from Russia thanks to reduced prices.

Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyan Jaishankar has repeatedly defended the imports, even as India purchased over a million barrels of Russian crude oil in December – a massive jump from February 2022, when the imports stood at less than 100,000 barrels.

However, the West has continued to try and woo India – an emerging world power – while at the same time trying to undermine its relations with Moscow.

The aircraft deal with France and the US is “certainly one way of deflecting the criticism that India is receiving about oil purchases from Russia,” noted Harsh V Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Program at the think-tank Observer Research Foundation.

In the context of this balancing act in which India is trying to avoid taking sides between the two blocs, Air India is set to buy 250 planes from Airbus and 220 from Boeing.

The airline was a state-owned entity until 2021, when it was acquired by the Tata group after having incurred massive losses and debt.

The plane deal, dubbed “historic” by prime minister Narendra Modi, was welcomed by French president Emmanuel Macron and his American counterpart Joe Biden, who hailed their countries’ deep ties with India.

French-Indian ties have hit a peak in recent times, with the two sides signing several agreements in sectors such as military. The Indian Air Force has recently acquired over 30 Rafale fighter jets, developed by France.

“There is an increasing comfort-level that India enjoys with France and it is also growing with the US,” Pant said, adding that New Delhi was pursuing a policy of not shutting any doors and “diversifying its allies” as much as possible.

The expert opined the plane deal would be extremely profitable for Paris and Washington, helping them maintain sustainable ties with India despite the increased spotlight on the latter’s bonhomie with Moscow.

The bulk purchase of aircrafts by Air India is being seen as an attempt by the airline to acquire a greater international presence by overhauling its fleet with models that can fly longer routes.

The airline had not bought new models since 2005, when it acquired 68 Boeing planes along with 43 Airbus models, according to Indian media reports.

India is witnessing a transformation of its aviation sector, which has grown from 74 airports in 2014 to 147 as of now, Modi said while discussing the deal.

The country is aiming to become the third largest market in the sector according to the PM, with the expansion set to require an increased availability of airplanes.