Choosing R-Day chief guest: Behind the warm welcome, a cold strategy

In an innovation increasingly evident, the government has been weaving strategy with hospitality to decide its chief guest for the Republic Day. So in the 60th year of the republic, as it gets ready to host chief guest and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, New Delhi has given the final environmental clearance to Posco, the South Korean steel giant, to set up a $12-billion steel plant in Orissa. The project is the single biggest foreign investment in the country.

There are other reasons as well for India to extend this year's honour to Lee. South Korea is an influential player in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum where India has a growing stake, because of which New Delhi feels the need for a greater engagement with APEC member countries.

India also signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with South Korea recently to bolster economic ties. CEPA is much more than just a free trade agreement as it includes services in its scope as well.

Lee, however, is not the only Republic Day chief guest who has been invited for reasons more than mere ceremonial. The choice of chief guest every year is dictated by a number of reasons — strategic and diplomatic, business interest and international geo-politics.

There is an interesting sub-text for the visit of every head of state who is invited as the chief guest for the Republic Day. Though the reasons differ from year to year, the choice — either for Republic Day chief guests or for recipients of prestigious awards — is based on some general principles. Most often, the choice is dictated by the usefulness of the person to India, either in the past or in future.

Consider this list of chief guests:

2009: President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan — Kazakhstan is one of the largest producers of uranium which India was seeking desperately to secure fuel supplies for its nuclear reactors. India signed a civil nuclear deal with Kazakhstan during Nazarbayev's visit and the first uranium consignment was delivered soon after.

2008: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France — The two countries finalized their bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement even as India awaited the conclusion of the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

2007: President Vladimir Putin of Russia — During this visit, Russia formally acknowledged India as a nuclear weapons power and offered to set up four more nuclear reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and additional ones elsewhere. Russia also promised support for special waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group.

2006: King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud — At a time when engaging with the Muslim world was being seen as necessary from a strategic angle, India chose Saudi Arabia to begin the process of strengthening its presence in that region. Aware that hardly any Arab money was being invested in its markets, New Delhi wanted to correct that.

2005: King Jingme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan — Bhutan had cracked down on ULFA militants in December 2003, becoming the only country to have demonstrated by action that it would not tolerate any anti-India activity on its soil. This was a thank-you invitation by India.

2004: President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil — This visit was indicative of the growing ties between the major emerging economies of the world. The IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) grouping had already taken off and trade with Brazil had crossed $1 billion for the first time. The two countries have been coordinating even more closely ever since, the most recent example of which was on display at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

2003: President Mohammad Khatami of Iran: India and Iran, at that time, were working on the common objective of bringing stability in Afghanistan. Both countries were supporting groups that were fighting the Taliban. India was helping the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Masood while Iran had been backing the Hazaras. Iran was the one that had offered India access to Afghanistan after Pakistan refused to let Indian foodgrains and other materials to be taken through its territory.

* 2002: President Cassam Uteem of Mauritius — This was in line with New Delhi's plans to reach out to the African countries. Mauritius has a large number of people of Indian origin, including Cassam Uteem himself. Uteem had been President of the island nation for the previous ten years and India wanted to honour his achievement.

2001: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria — This visit had more to do with NAM legacy. Bouteflika was a friendly face for India in Africa and the NDA government under Vajpayee also wanted to use him to convey that it did not discriminate against Muslims.

* 2000: President Olusengun Obasanjo of Nigeria — As a young military officer, Obasanjo had come, rather reluctantly, to India for training. Once here, he fell in love with India. He became a military dictator in 1976 but just three years later transferred power to an elected President. He was imprisoned in the early nineties by another military dictatorship. During this time, India honoured him with the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize which his wife received on his behalf. Obasanjo was released only in 1998 and went on to win the Presidency in elections a year later. India wasted no time in inviting him for the Republic Day the following year.

* 1999: King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev of Nepal — This was in line with New Delhi's policy of a continued engagement with its neighbours. The Gujral doctrine of promoting friendly relations with neighbouring countries was very much still in practice even though the government had changed.

1998: President Jacques Chirac of France — This was a period when India was wooing Western powers for technological and military supplies in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. The US was not warming up enough and the UK was seen to be toeing the Washington line on major issues. France had a more independent thought process and was more willing to do business quietly. France was the only major power not to have criticised the Indian nuclear tests carried out less than six months later.

1997: Prime Minister Basdeo Panday of Trinidad and Tobago — A PIO, Panday was the Foreign Minister when India's then External Affairs Minister N D Tiwari made a trip to Trinidad and Tobago. They decided to open an Indian cultural centre in Trinidad. But it did not go down well with the local population which accused Panday of letting India colonise their country. The cultural centre was put on hold. Panday himself lost the ministership because of other reasons. But when he returned as Prime Minister in 1995, one of the first things that Panday did was to open the Indian cultural centre.

1996: President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil — This was when the idea of closer cooperation between the emerging economies was still taking shape. Till then India had negligible trade with Latin America. Cardoso was also in favour of greater economic cooperation between the two countries. Trade picked up and India also opened a consul in Sao Paulo.

1995: President Nelson Mandela of South Africa — After 27 years in prison, Mandela had just been elected President of South Africa in its first ever multi-racial elections in 1994. And it was only fitting that India invited him to grace the Republic Day next January.

1994: Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore — India had recently become a dialogue partner of ASEAN. So important was Singapore's role in India's engagement with ASEAN that Manmohan Singh, then the Finance Minister, used to often say that New Delhi must never forget the contribution of Singapore which had held India's hand when no one else did.

1993: Prime Minister John Major of United Kingdom — In the wake of the break-up of Soviet Union, India was trying to warm up to the Western powers for its military and technology supplies and Britain was one of the first ones New Delhi had reached out to.

1992: President Mario Soares of Portugal — In 1992, Portugal was celebrating the 500 years of Vasco da Gama's victory over French pirate ships near its coasts and had invited India to become a part of it. New Delhi had initially agreed but later realised that it could be seen as eulogizing the man who laid the ground for Portuguese rule in India. New Delhi, therefore, politely declined and instead invited the Portuguese President as chief guest.

1991: President Moumoon Abdul Gayoom of Maldives — This invite was to honour a long-time friend of the country in a neighbouring country which is strategically extremely important for India.

1990: Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth of Mauritius — Jugnauth was a PIO, originally from Bihar and spoke fluent Bhojpuri. The invitation was a reflection of changing politics.

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