The Republic Day Parade this year will have no Guest of Honour. This is happening for the first time in 55 years. The last time there was no Chief Guest at the Republic Day Parade was in 1966, as on January 11, 1966, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had passed away in Tashkent and Indira Gandhi assumed office as Prime Minister on January 24, 1966, and there was hardly any time left for going through the formalities.
Free India’s First Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru started the tradition of inviting a Guest of Honour at the Republic Day Parade. The Guest of Honour is at the level of Head of State or Government of another country. This has been the practice, ever since India became a Sovereign, Democratic, Socialist and Secular Republic on January 26, 1950, when the nation adopted the Constitution.
Perhaps this is the first time when despite diplomatic scrambling, the nation missed having this year a Guest of Honour at the Republic Day Parade.
For this year, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was the choice for extending the invite to be the Guest of Honour at the Republic Day Parade. With the new strain of Corona Virus in Britain taking the shape of yet another pandemic, he was forced to opt out of participating in the Republic Day festivities in India.
Hurriedly, an Invite was sent to President of Republic of Suriname, Chandrikapersad Santokhi. But he, too, could not confirm his participation, apparently owing to the short notice.
This is the second successive year when the Modi Government finds itself diplomatically in an embarrassing situation. In 2020, too, for the Modi Government, the first choice for the Chief Guest at the Republic Day Parade was the outgoing US President Donald Trump. After weeks, Trump declined the Modi Government Invite.
In a tizzy, the Ministry of External Affairs was in a scramble. After considerable effort, Brazil President Jair Bolsanaro confirmation to be the Chief Guest in 2020 was obtained.
There were precedents in the past of not having a Guest of Honour at the Republic Day Parade only thrice, when exigencies did not permit the same.
For instance, owing to the First General in 1952, which spilled over into 1953, there was no Guest of Honour at the Republic Day Parade in 1952 and 1953.
Similarly, there was an exigency in 1966, with a quick sequence of events. Following the India, Pakistan War in 1965 and Tashkent Agreement on January 10, 1966. Unfortunately, the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away on January 11, 1966. And Indira Gandhi was sworn in Prime Minister on January 24, 1966, when there was hardly any time left for working on it.
Otherwise, every year, customarily there has been a Chief Guest at the Republic Day Parade over the years since 1950.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru organized the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1949, which led to the Bandung Summit of Asia and Africa, along with Indonesian President Sukarno.
So for Pandit Nehru, Indonesian President Sukarno was the obvious choice for being made the Guest of Honour at the First Republic Day Parade in 1950. In 1951, the then Nepal King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah was the Guest of Honour.
R Day Parade
Credit goes to the First Prime Minister of Free India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who conceived of the idea of staging the pageantry. The festivities last three days, concluding with the Beating Retreat on January 29, signaling the troops returning to the barracks.
The tradition is to invite Head of State or Government to join the national celebrations. The idea of holding the Republic Day Parade is not only to display the Defence capabilities, but also to showcase the cultural diversity, pluralism and the civilizational ethos of the Independent India.
The Guest of Honour normally arrives on the eve of the Republic Day and goes on to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day Parade the following morning. In the evening, the President hosts the At Home on the lawns of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The next day, formal bilateral meeting is held between the visiting dignitary and the Prime Minister, after which the dignitary returns to his country.
Guests of Honour
In keeping with the Indian role as leader of the Third World, providing leadership to the Under-Developed and Developing nations, focus has been on inviting leaders from Asia, Africa and Latin America, with whom India always stood in solidarity.
Apart, India did take care to invite leaders from the Developed World like Britain and France, as well.
During the tenure as Prime Minister of P V Narasimha Rao, key leaders were invited. These included British Prime Minister John Major in 1993 and Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1994. In 1995, P V Narasimha Rao invited South African President Nelson Mandela, who, drawing inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, had helped free his country from the shackles of Colonialism and Racism.
This time round, Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kant is set to become the First Woman Fighter Pilot to take part in the Republic Day Parade this year. On display will be the newly-acquired Rafale jets from France.
For the first time, the Republic Day Parade, starting from the gates of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and will conclude at the National Stadium, instead of at the Red Fort.
Total number of participants has been restricted at 25,000. Children are being prohibited from being part of the spectators, owing to the pandemic.
The number of participating children and folk artists has been restricted to 400 compared, to over 600 last year. The decision has been taken in wake of COVID-19 pandemic. Besides, only 4,000 tickets being sold to general public.
Owing to the Farmers Agitation, there is tight security vigil. Photo identity cards have been made mandatory for purchase of tickets, as well as for the entry to the venue of the ticket-holders.
Venkat Parsa is a senior journalist and writer based in New Delhi