For someone who was born and grew up in Delhi, Republic Day has always had a great significance. Having attended roughly 20 parades including nine as journalist covering the event, it is sometimes painful to note how the celebrations have been scaled down over the years. There is no active participation of people and the event has become more or less ceremonial with the overdose of security considerations that are necessary but have contributed in making it less participative.
Gone are the days when people would queue up on both sides of the long route if they were not privileged enough to watch the parade at Rajpath. The marching contingents were cheered all through as they weaved past the circuitous route from Rajpath towards the India Gate Hexagon before going past the Curzon Road (Kasturba Gandhi Marg), Connaught Place, Minto Bridge, Ajmere Gate, Fatehpuri, Chandni Chowk and finally the Red Fort. The route has since been shortened and straightened up.
Apart from the cheering enthusiastic Delhiites, those who got to watch the parade at Rajpath had to reach their respective enclosures braving extremely chilly mornings and even heavy fog at times. The seats would be drenched with dew or overnight rain and the experienced would normally carry old newspapers to soak up the moisture. The people on Rajpath would also carry food packets or packed lunches and participate all the way as the parade progressed. It was normally a great sight to see Prime Ministers. As a little kid I remember seeing Pandit Nehru walking up to the enclosures exchanging greetings with commoners while he waited for the President's horse carriage to arrive with the chief guest.
Indira Gandhi did the same and she freely mixed with people while walking along Rajpath near the enclosures with her bodyguards far behind. Other senior ministers were also visible and more recognisable than they are now in this era of coalition governments. In fact, Rajiv Gandhi was the last Prime Minister whose charisma affected the mood of the crowds for the better. Amongst the Rashtrapatis, I can recall Dr Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain who were perhaps the most dignified. I do not remember seeing Dr Rajendra Prasad though I must have attended the parade as a tiny tot then with my parents.
I was lucky to be at the parade so many times even before I was a journalist since my parents, both doctors, were invariably invited. I recall that the fly past was always the biggest draw as it is even now but what one misses the most is the swagger and majesty of bandmasters as they threw their batons high up in the air while leading bands belonging to the Army, the paramilitary forces and the Delhi police. There are none like the ones we had before. The tableau and the floats were also a big draw as were the tanks and the mighty guns. I remember the Gnat aircraft that was described as the sabre killer and always drew a round of applause for the years it participated with the Air Force contingents.
One can not forget the Victoria Cross winners and the PVC recipients being cheered lustily as they went past and of course the school children and the band from Pilani which was always an added attraction. Few people may know that the RSS also participated as a marching contingent after the Chinese aggression in the parade.
Once the celebrations ended with the balloons being let loose in the sky to fly freely, the lawns around Rajpath became picnic spots. Many while moving towards their cars would also take the liberty to sit in the lawns of the Lutyens bungalows. Once there, people would share a lunch with their family members. The occupants of the house would often send tea or sweets to the visitors who were never allowed to feel that they were not welcome. It was the national spirit.
Things have changed obviously. For some years after Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president was blown off the dais by a tank in his country, the method of the guns rotating towards the president to present a salute has also changed due to security considerations. One misses the commentary of the parade by the likes of Jasdev Singh and before that of Melville D'Mellow and his generation of broadcasters who had the highest standards of communicating in perfect spoken English unlike many in the broadcasting industry now.
Years have taken their toll and people's interest in the celebrations have also gone down though in the evenings, there is a still a lot of rush to watch the illumination of the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the surrounding areas. Security is often cited as a reason but I suspect, it has also got to do with a string of non-charismatic prime ministers and presidents we have had especially after the coalition era started. Occasions like the Republic Day and Independence Day are the times when we can wear our nationalism on our sleeve. But patriotic sentiments and nationalism is slowly diminishing in the consumer-driven society we live in. Jai Hind.