Selecting the chief guest for the Republic Day parade is no routine affair.
The choice carries either a strong intent or an emphatic reiteration on the part of the government, or both. As India wants to extend commercial and social ties with certain countries, the chief guest is usually picked from a nation that India wants to build – or reaffirm – its friendship with.
The country’s early choices in this regard testified to its non-aligned credentials, preference for Soviet Bloc countries, and a pronounced interest in cultivating an amenable neighbourhood. However, as its foreign policy underwent changes over the years, due reflection was found in its selection of guests. France was the chosen country on five occasions, and Bhutan was represented four times.
The Republic Day parade in 1955 stood out for a couple of reasons. One, the chief guest at the parade was from Pakistan – governor general Malik Ghulam Muhammad – and, two, it was the first time the event was held at Rajpath (after experimenting with temporary venues, such as Ramlila Ground, for years).
The last time the government picked a chief guest from the neighbouring country for the parade was in 1965, when it hosted Pakistan food and agriculture minister Rana Abdul Hamid. The two countries went to war less than three months later.
Here’s a look at Republic Day chief guests over the decades.
India’s first Republic Day guest was then Indonesian president Sukarno, a close ally of former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the halcyon days of the non-aligned movement. They advocated the independence of Asian and African countries together.
The two countries have shared two millennia of close cultural and commercial ties – with the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim faiths travelling to Indonesia from Indian shores. Even the folk art and theatre of Indonesia are based on stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The next two leaders to grace the Republic Day parade were the kings of Nepal and Bhutan respectively.
Chinese communist general Ye Jianying – the chief guest in 1959 – went on to become one of the top leaders of the country in the late 1970s, and its titular head of state from 1978 to 1983.
Jianying was followed by Kliment Yefremovich Voroshilov, a Soviet marshal, in 1960. The next chief guest was none other than Queen Elizabeth, followed by the Cambodian king. Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia were among the chosen countries in the 1960s. Pakistan was picked again, in 1965.
The guest list in the 1970s depicted India’s diverse engagements. While the leaders of Yugoslavia and Poland were obvious choices, the others included Tanzanian president Julius Kambarage Nyerere, French prime minister Jacques René Chirac of France (who later became its president too), Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser, and Sri Lanka’s first woman prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
France, Sri Lanka and Bhutan were picked again in the 1980s. While India increased the number of chief guests from Africa, three Latin American countries – Mexico, Argentina and Peru – also found representation at the Republic Day parade. Nguyễn Văn Linh, general secretary of the Vietnam Communist Party, was the chief guest in 1989
There was a more balanced distribution of chief guest invites in this decade. While South African president Nelson Mandela was the chief guest in 1995, leaders from places as spread apart as Latin America, Brazil, Spain, United Kingdom, Maldives, Mauritius and friendly neighbourhood Nepal were invited on other years. Basdeo Panday, the Indian-origin Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, was the chief guest in 1997.
The guest list continued to show foreign policy priorities of the then government through this decade. As India had identified Iran as its key strategic partner in energy security as well as connectivity plans to central Asia, president Mohammed Khatami was chosen as the chief guest at the Republic Day function in 2003. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the ruler of Saudi Arabia, graced the event in 2006 – and two countries witnessed a considerable turnaround in bilateral ties after that. Russian President Vladmir Putin was the chief guest in 2007, followed by Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev – the head of an important uranium supplier to India – in 2009.
With the exception of 2013, East Asian countries were the flavour of the season in the first four years as India tried to add more heft to its “look east policy” in the wake of an aggressive China. The leaders of South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand were the Republic Day chief guests in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively. The king of Bhutan was the chief guest in 2013, followed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. On many counts, it’s with Japan that India has built its most durable relationship in modern times. Barack Obama turned out to be the chief guest in 2015 – becoming the first US president to do so. It was also the first Republic Day parade to be held after the Narendra Modi government came to power. Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi (a Gulf country that the Modi government has invested heavily in), will be the chief guest this year.
The dynamics of trade volume
So, does representation from a certain country at the Republic Day parade bring in more trade? Let’s take a look:
Bilateral trade between India and Saudi Arabia was $3.4 billion in 2006. The figure rose to $26.71 billion in 2015-16, followed by $ 39.27 billion the previous financial year.
South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2010. Bilateral trade stood at $12.2 billion that year, and rose to $16.2 in 2015-16. It touched $18.6 billion in the last financial year.
Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbayev was the chief guest at the parade in 2009, and the trade volume was $300 million back then. In 2014-15, the bilateral trade volume rose to $1.3 billion.
This turned out to be the exception to the rule. Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra was the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2012. However, instead of an improvement in trade, it has been showing a small yet consistent slump every year since then. Bilateral trade figures fell from $8.87 billion in 2013 to $7.92 billion in 2015-16. It stood at $8.66 billion in 2014-15.
Projection for the UAE
Bilateral trade between India and the UAE is pegged at $50 billion. The UAE is India’s third-biggest trading partner, and the two sides hope to increase the trade threefold in the next 10 years.