Choosing the Republic Day chief guest: continuing principle, changing preferences

In receiving Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono here on Monday, India is maintaining the tradition of inviting the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations on the basis of the nation's diplomatic priorities.

What has changed, however, is the nature of India's preferences. Nothing illustrates the continuity and change in India's Republic Day choices than Yudhoyono. The chief guest at the first Republic Day celebrations in 1950 was the Indonesian President Sukarno.

If the spirit of anti-colonialism Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a strong champion of Indonesian independence from the Dutch turned Delhi to Sukarno in 1950, the choice of Yudhoyono six decades later has had everything to do with Jakarta's growing economic and strategic importance for Delhi.

The ideology of third world solidarity made the leaders of the developing world the biggest single group among the Republic Day invitees over the years. The current emphasis, however, is on building strategic partnerships with pivotal nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America while deepening the engagement with great powers.

In the Nehru years, the chief guests were an eclectic bunch. Some of Nehru's choices look surprising in retrospect. He invited the Governor General of Pakistan, Malik Ghulam Muhammad, as the chief guest in 1955. Three years later, Chinese Defence Minister and the top revolutionary general of the People's Liberation Army, Marshall Ye Jianying, had the honour. In the 1950s, India's bilateral relations with Pakistan and China were not congealed in mutual hostility and distrust.

Having decided, somewhat controversially, to keep the British link alive after Independence, Nehru hosted Queen Elizabeth as the chief guest in 1961. As India drifted closer towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the British link steadily eroded. More than two decades later, in 1993, India received Prime Minister John Major who had much empathy for India and was one of the first Western leaders to back India's economic reforms in the early 1990s.

As India's foreign policy became ideological and its non-alignment acquired a tilt towards the Soviet Union, Delhi began to host a number of leaders from the Eastern bloc. These included leaders from Russia (1960, 1968), Bulgaria (1969) and Poland (1977). By the time India received Vladimir Putin in 2007, India had successfully rebuilt a strategic partnership with post-Soviet Russia.

France, given its efforts to construct an independent foreign policy, had more interest in India than other Western nations. Not surprisingly, it is the most featured country in the Republic Day celebrations. French leader Jacques Chirac came twice as Prime Minister in 1976 and as President in 1998. Valery Giscard d'Estaing came in 1980, Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008.

Over the decades, the third world leaders hosted by India came from Cambodia (1963), Tanzania (1971), Democratic Republic of Congo (1973), Zambia (1975), Mexico (1981), Nigeria (1983, 2000), Argentina (1985), Peru (1987), Vietnam (1989), South Africa (1995), Brazil (1996 and 2004), and Algeria (2001). These included historic figures like Nelson Mandela and forgettable dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko.

Most of these visits in the earlier decades were about political symbolism rather than economic or strategic substance. That began to change over the last decade. As India began to focus on energy security, it turned to leading oil producers. Nigeria's Olusegun Obasenjo came in 2000, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami in 2003 and Saudi King Abdullah in 2006.

After India broke out of its prolonged nuclear isolation in 2008, it hosted Nursultan Nazarbayev, who presides over one of the world's largest uranium reserves, in 2009.

As India looked east and sought economic integration with Asia, it received Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1994, who talked about a "mild India fever" in Southeast Asia. Last year it hosted South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and this year the focus is on Indonesia. As it focused on emerging powers, Brazil's Lula was hosted in 2004.

With immediate neighbours as an enduring focus, India has hosted the King of Bhutan thrice (1954, 1984 and 2005), the King of Nepal (1999), the Sri Lankan Prime Minister (1974, 1988), the Maldivian President (1991). Given the deep bonds with the diaspora in Mauritius, its leaders have been chief guests thrice (1972, 1990, and 2002).

In the end those who have not yet made it are perhaps as important as those who did. No US President has come for Republic Day celebrations. Nor has a Japanese premier. Among the neighbours, the big missing ones are Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. So is an elected PM from Nepal.

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