R-Day: Bhutan King steps in after Oman Sultan says no

FP

In a major diplomatic embarrassment, the Sultan of Oman has turned down New Delhi's invitation to be the chief guest on Republic Day, forcing India to fall back on the always friendly King of Bhutan to fill in.

While much of the blame is being laid at Oman's door, sources said there was also a "goof-up" at the Indian end because the invitation was finalised after obtaining informal confirmation through diplomatic channels.

Officially, Muscat's position is that Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has prior commitments around January 26 due to which he will not be able to honour the invitation. This came as a surprise to the Indian side, which was under the impression that all ends had been tied up in advance.

Sources said the message South Block got from its mission in Muscat was that the Sultan had given his consent. This is routine practice as formal invitations are sent only after an assurance of acceptance is obtained.

Subsequently, when the official communication was sent, Oman politely regretted. New Delhi is now trying to figure out if the informal confirmation was based on an assurance from a credible authority or not.

The embarrassment has been more upsetting to New Delhi because of the diplomatic investment it has been making on Oman in recent years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Muscat in 2008, resulting in ties being upgraded to a strategic partnership.

Such was the emphasis on delivering India's commitments during the visit that a monitoring committee was set up by the PMO to take stock of follow-up action. The Sultan himself studied in Pune in his early years and his father was a product of Mayo College, Ajmer.

In this backdrop, the Sultan's eleventh hour regret is expected to be looked at more closely. For now, New Delhi turned to Thimphu, which rarely lets India down. The young King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, who did a course at the National Defence College, agreed to accept the honour.

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