By Tara Kartha:
Presumably, there is much scratching of heads in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. With the President of the United States apparently signing off from attending the Republic Day parade, there is the ticklish question of who can be invited in his stead. Ticklish, because first, it is rather late already, and Heads of State usually have their calendars full at least 6 months ahead. Second, no Head of State likes to be a second choice, even if he’s replacing the President of the United States. And third, the choice matters particularly in an election year, when the Bharatiya Janata Party will want to polish up its image and put a nice gloss over the whole event. Difficult indeed.
In such a situation, what should Delhi do? In an ideal world, foreign office mandarins should turn to the Russian president, who has been in the news due to the politics that has surrounded India’s buy of the S-400 missiles, both within and outside the country. Moscow might even like to display the missile system during the parade, thus pretty much rubbing the noses of sundry US Congressmen in the mud. New Delhi of course, may not want to go quite so far, but could put a publicity spin on the issue itself. Putin is the “beau ideal” for a Republic Day parade. Much of the equipment on display will after all still have a Russian tag, given the fact that India is still very much dependent on Russian military industry. The trouble of course is that he’s only just been here, with the 5 October joint statement covering almost every field. There’s little else to add to that. The S-400 deal has already been concluded, but there is the dangling carrot of a 110 fighter aircraft that are to be bought. That’s a deal most Heads of State would willingly fly several times over to polluted Delhi for.
A second, and probably more strategic choice would be the Head of State of Vietnam. That would be a ‘return gift’ of sorts to China, given that the political instability in Sri Lanka seems to have a strong Chinese signature. Consider that the Chinese ambassador hastened to congratulate Rajapaksa practically on the heels of the announcement of his being handed the prime ministership. China dislikes the increase in Indian influence in Vietnam, and recently protested Hanoi’s call to India to invest further in oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.
Vietnam’s relationship with China is a highly sensitive issue. In June, protests against the setting up of Special Economic Zones turned violent, upon fears that such zones would be dominated by Chinese investors. Hanoi is also not loath to use the “India card” to get a little wriggle room when convenient. Again, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was part of the ten guests of ASEAN who were the chief guests last year. India could instead invite Acting President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh. The president in Vietnam is a largely ceremonial post, but here’s the advantage. The president is a woman. At a time when the #MeToo revolution has singed the government, (and others) it would give a good signal to have a woman taking the salute.
Given the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a chief guest from Nepal seems to also suitably strategic, given the long arm of China in that State. Kings of Nepal have been chief guests at the Republic Day functions in previous years, and in recent months there has been some reaching out to Maharajadhiraja Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, the last king of Nepal who reigned till 2008. A Nepali prime minister has never been invited, which might be something to do with protocol or snobbery, or both.
Bangladesh is to go for elections by December, making an invite to the current and gutsy prime minister impossible. A more likely invitee could be the new Maldives president Ibrahim Mohammad Solih, who ousted the highly unpopular and violent Abdullah Yameen. This will be a nice reach out to a country whose strategic importance is only likely to increase given the new focus on the Indian Ocean, more particularly maritime security. The days when we could take Maldives for granted are long over.
Certainly there are others. In the “neighbourhood first’ policy however, it is probably downright impossible to invite Imran Khan, even though a Pakistani was saluted many years ago. Governor General Malik Ghulam Mohammed was the chief guest the very first time a parade was held at Rajpath in 1955. Imran would certainly have a large fan following in a cricket mad country, and personally, would probably give up his private jet to attend, but some things are just not possible. Besides, it might confuse the original chief guest into thinking that India and Pakistan have turned best buddies. And that would never do.
(Dr Tara Kartha has spent 17 years at the National Security Council Secretariat, which sits at the apex of India’s national security architecture. At the NSCS, she worked on terrorism and other security issues relating to the neighbourhood, and held special charge of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), among other responsibilities. Earlier, she was at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) for eight years, where she authored her book, Tools of Terror: Light Weapons and India’s Security. She was also a consultant for the UN Non Governmental Expert Group on Small Arms and Light Weapons, and a resource person for the National Defence College (Delhi) and College of Combat (Mhow), in addition to being a member of the Council for Security and Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), and Pugwash (India).)