Foreign guests at Republic Day: Change this tradition PM Modi

The third time isn't always lucky. On Wednesday, India will celebrate its 73rd Republic Day, and despite a surge in Covid-19 cases, many of the standard trappings of the day's celebration will be in place: Tableaux from multiple different states will roll down Rajpath, and the country's military will showcase its strength.

But one thing will be missing — or rather five. Though India never formally announced it, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had for the past several months been toiling to get the presidents of the Central Asian republics — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — to visit as chief guests on Republic Day. Now they won't be making it to New Delhi after all. Instead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will host a virtual summit with these leaders on January 27. And Republic Day itself will be held without a chief guest.

In 2020, New Delhi had invited then US President Donald Trump to be its guest of honour on Republic Day. But Trump could only find space in his busy schedule — between tweeting, playing golf and watching TV, he had little time on his hands — for a visit to India in February that year. So the MEA raced to find an alternative, and secured the presence of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as chief guest.

Last year, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had confirmed that he would attend the January 26 ceremony but bailed three weeks before the date. India marked Republic Day without a chief guest — just as it will this year.

Officially, the pandemic has presented itself as a convenient justification for these absences from Rajpath's main dais on the day when India celebrates its Constitution. At the moment, India is battling a spike in cases, likely driven by the Omicron variant of the virus. In 2021, Johnson had announced a nationwide lockdown in January to curb a rise in cases in Britain.

But in reality, India has been stood up not so much because of the virus as because of domestic political challenges that invited leaders have faced. The US Congress was in the middle of impeachment proceedings against Trump in January 2020, and he didn't want to be away from home.

Johnson and his government have lurched from controversy to controversy. At the start of 2021, he faced accusations from some that he had acted too late against Covid-19, while others were opposing strict measures to stop the spread of the virus. It's one thing to sneak out behind your nation's back for a garden party during lockdown — another thing entirely to fly 6,600 km to attend another country's pageant.

And independent of the current wave of the pandemic, New Delhi's efforts to host Central Asian leaders suffered a body blow when Kazakhstan erupted in its largest public protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. Kazakhstan called in Russian troops to quell street agitations. It's hard to imagine how Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev could have left this country at this time. Without the leader of Central Asia's wealthiest nation, a physical summit between Modi and the region's other presidents would have made little sense.

All of which leads to a question that India must ponder: Do we really need a foreign head of state on January 26?

As a newly independent nation trying to find its geopolitical footing amid the Cold War, the presence of global leaders at Republic Day once served as a vindication of the Indian experiment while allowing New Delhi to build crucial partnerships. Presidents and prime ministers didn't meet each other multiple times every year as they do now, on the margins of countless summits.

Today, dozens of foreign leaders visit India every year, and there's very little that's special about the guests invited for January 26. Can anyone argue that Bolsonaro is more valued by India than, say, Russian President Vladimir Putin?

New Delhi wanted progress on a trade deal with Trump, but those calculations weren't really affected by when America's leader at the time visited. India wants to secure a strong economic relationship with post-Brexit Britain, but again, Johnson isn't going to offer Modi any additional concessions if he gets to see an Indian tank roll down Rajpath. And with or without Republic Day, India needs to engage robustly with Central Asian nations at a time when they share many of New Delhi's concerns about a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The Modi government has shown it doesn't hesitate to end traditions, even when they are worth retaining. Unlike the recent, controversial decision to snuff out the "eternal flame" at Amar Jawan Jyoti, ending the practice of inviting world leaders to Republic Day would be a welcome break from the past.

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