With Boris Johnson cancelling his visit, India has approached leaders of countries in the immediate neighbourhood, but Covid makes the situation uncertain

New Delhi: India is unlikely to have any Republic Day chief guest this year after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Tuesday cited the Covid situation to drop out at the last moment.

If it happens, this will be the first time since 1966 that India will not have any head of state or government as chief guest for its Republic Day parade, top source, requesting anonymity.

An elaborate event, the Republic Day parade showcases India’s military might as well as rich cultural heritage.

India had been “looking forward” to Johnson’s visit despite the detection of a new mutant coronavirus strain in the UK that has also made its way into India.

In the wake of the UK PM cancelling his visit, the sources said, India has approached the leaders of countries in its immediate neighbourhood, including Sri Lanka and Bhutan. However, on account of lockdown measures and other coronavirus-related issues, it could be difficult for any of the dignitaries to travel at this time, the sources said.

Defence sources said it was “too early” to say whether India will or will not have a guest for this year’s parade.

The Highest Honour

Inviting someone as chief guest for the Republic Day parade is considered to be the highest honour accorded by the Indian government to any foreign dignitary. It also turns out to be a crucial diplomatic event since the parade is accompanied by a bilateral summit between the prime minister and the visiting dignitary.

India will be celebrating its 72nd Republic Day on 26 January 2021. Foreign guests for the Republic Day parade are usually given an official invitation by November to allow both sides adequate time for scheduling and preparations.

According to a source, there are chances that Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa or President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could travel to India this year for the occasion. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is currently on a three-day trip to the country where he will be meeting the top leadership. 

Sources said the government is also considering extending an invitation to Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was also the chief guest for the Republic Day parade in 2013.

If no guest is finalised, it will be a first in 55 years. The year 1966 was the last time no one was invited as chief guest for the parade, with no invitations extended in 1952 or 1953 either.

There have also been times when the heads of state or government invited sent another dignitary as their representatives, as Pakistan did in 1955, when they sent Governor-General Malik Ghulam Muhammad to witness the parade. This also happened in 1957, 1958, 1959, 1964, 1965, 1977 and 1989. 

There have also been instances when the confirmation of a chief guest got delayed. In December 2018, US President Donald Trump declined the invitation for the 2019 Republic Day, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was invited to India in his place. 

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was the chief guest last year.