British PM Boris Johnson, who was scheduled to attend the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi as chief guest, has canceled his India visit due to the worsening Covid-19 situation at home.
Citing the need to oversee the pandemic response at home, the UK PM expressed his inability to visit India as the country began its third Covid-19 lockdown on Tuesday.
“In light of the national lockdown announced last night, and the speed at which the new coronavirus variant is spreading, the prime minister said that it was important for him to remain in the UK so he can focus on the domestic response to the virus,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said.
“Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes to be able to visit India in the first half of 2021, and ahead of the UK’s G7 Summit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to attend as a guest,” the statement added.
When it comes to India, a Republic Day invitation as a chief guest is more often symbolic and takes into consideration the strategic priorities for the country. The Indian government had chosen Johnson to consolidate the country’s post-Brexit relationship with the UK with a focus on economic, people-to-people, political, and strategic ties.
With Johnson canceling his visit at the eleventh hour, the question is who could be the next choice for PM Modi to grace the occasion on the nation’s Republic Day?
Experts point to several world leaders, mainly from South Asia and Southeast Asia, depending on the strategic interests of New Delhi, including Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Indonesia.
The experts believe Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa could be the first choice as India’s Republic Day chief guest for many reasons. With India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on a three-day visit to Sri Lanka, there is speculation that an invitation to Rajapaksa could be discussed.
Jaishankar was in Colombo from January 5 to 7 to hold bilateral talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena, according to statements from both the governments.
Extending an invite to Sri Lanka could be an apt choice considering the strategic and diplomatic significance the country holds for India in countering growing Chinese outreach in the region.
With an eye on China, India will look to consolidate its many strategic interests with Jaishankar’s visit. And hence, a Republic Day invite to PM Rajapaksa cannot be ruled out.
The second on the list is Bhutan, a country whose strategic location helps India against China and which it cannot afford to lose. Bhutan has had boundary problems with China too, and many satellite images show the latter transgressing into the former’s territory too often nowadays.
In recent times, despite its overwhelming closeness to India, Bhutan has actively sought to pursue its own strategic imperative and push for its economic agenda, rather than simply acceding to international pressure.
At this juncture, India may try its best to foster good relations with the Kingdom. The two countries share similar interests with India aiding the Kingdom economically for decades. New Delhi may, therefore, extend the invite to the Bhutanese king to attend the Republic Day celebrations on January 26.
It’s not the first time India has had to look for alternatives for chief guests on the country’s Republic Day. In 2019, New Delhi had faced a similar dilemma when US President Donald Trump expressed his inability to travel to India for Republic Day.
Similarly, the Manmohan Singh government had invited the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, as the chief guest for the 2013 Republic Day Parade, which was also turned down.
The third option that experts look at is the war-ravaged country of Afghanistan, where a vacuum will be left once the US withdraws its remaining troops from the country, leaving an open ground for other countries and even the extremist groups to fill the space.
The country occupies a special place in India’s strategic game-plan, where it could partner with the Afghan government to counter Pakistan, along with Chinese expansionist designs in the region.
So the possibility of the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani getting the invite cannot be ruled out as well, especially when it’s been a long time since a leader from the country has been invited to the special day.
The next on the list is Nepal, which has been reviving its relationship with India after some setbacks last year. The country’s foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali is due to visit New Delhi on January 14 to attend the sixth Nepal-India Joint Commission meeting with S Jaishankar.
China has been trying for many years to get this small country under its influence offering investment promises in infrastructure, defense, and many other sectors.
Even the Indonesian President could be a prospective invitee. Indonesia’s unique location in the Indian Ocean gives it a special significance, and with India wanting to finalize many strategic and business deals with the country, the Indonesian President could get a surprise invitation to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day functions.