On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson dialed his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to convey his inability to visit New Delhi in the wake of the new strain of COVID-19. Though he has expressed his keenness to visit India in near future, Johnson’s withdrawal has put South Block in a spot as he was also the chief guest for the upcoming Republic Day parade. 

The last minute cancellation has left hardly any time to look for a new guest. This means that the Republic Day parade at Rajpath may happen this year without a chief guest. It would be the first time since 1966 the parade would not have a foreign leader. In 1966, no invitation was sent to any foreign leader as the new government headed by Indira Gandhi was sworn-in on January 24, after the sudden demise of Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri on January 11.

According to an official at the ministry of defence, the main organiser of the event said time was limited to initiate the process of sending fresh invitations and making necessary arrangements. “Moreover, the invitee nation may not like to be a ‘filler’ for the event,” the official said, adding that the final call will be taken by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Exploring the possibility of inviting another guest, a second official said an invitation to Bangladesh would have been relevant  as the country is celebrating its 50 years of liberation. Also, a military delegation is already taking part in the event. India and Bangladesh have planned a series of events for the golden jubilee celebrations.

A similar situation cropped up in 2013, when the chief guest from a west Asian nation refused to attend the event. Then, the king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Wangchuck, gracefully accepted India’s last minute invitation.

Explaining about the process of selecting chief guests for the Republic Day parade, an MoD official said it starts about six months ahead and the ministry of external affairs recommends the name to the prime minister and the President’s office. 

The chief guest visit is equivalent to a state visit, where he/she not only gets ceremonial guard of honour at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, but also attends the evening reception hosted by the President of India.

Republic Day celebrations will be a low key affair this year. For the first time since its inception, the Republic Day parade at the historic Rajpath will culminate at the National Stadium instead of Red Fort and the number of spectators has also been reduced drastically.