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Invited with eye on pragmatism

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Wednesday. Picture by Prem Singh

Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is the chief guest at the 63rd Republic Day celebrations this year. She is the third head of government from an Asean country to be the chief guest at the parade in as many years.

Strategic, diplomatic and business interests generally dictate New Delhi’s choice of the chief guest. Shinawatra this year, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last year and Lee Myung Bak in 2010 as chief guests at the parade is consistent with India’s “Look East policy”.

New Delhi’s business and strategic co-operation with Asean countries has grown manifold in the last decade. An invitation to Shinawatra to be the chief guest at the parade is an attempt to further consolidate ties with Asean and also Thailand with which India has age-old religious, political and commercial links.

Hosting of South Korean President Lee in 2010 was driven primarily by commercial interests. South Korean companies have the largest foreign direct investment in India. Indonesian President Yudhoyono was hosted both for commercial and strategic interests as India tries to secure its interests in the Indian Ocean region.

The choice of chief guests, particularly in the last decade, reflects India’s confidence in its ability to establish good bilateral relations with all countries based on mutual benefit, notwithstanding their allegiance to any existing or potential superpower or grouping.

In 2009, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan was the chief guest at the parade. The Central Asian republic has one of the largest uranium deposits in the world, something that New Delhi needed for its nuclear reactors. The two signed a civil nuclear agreement during the visit.

Similarly, India signed a civil nuclear agreement with France in 2008 as it hosted President Nicolas Sarkozy as the chief guest at the parade that year. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the chief guest in 2007 when Moscow promised to construct four more nuclear reactors in India.

In 2006, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was the chief guest at the parade in what was a strategic effort from India to get close to West Asian countries not just for their oil but also to attract investments from cash-rich Arab companies. King Jingme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan was the chief guest in 2005. It was New Delhi’s turn to thank him for personally leading his army in 2003 against the Ulfa militants hiding in Bhutan. Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was the chief guest in 2004 as the two emerging nations, along with South Africa, put in place their trilateral Ibsa grouping.

Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami was invited as the chief guest in 2003, President Cassam Uteem of Mauritius in 2002, Algerian President Abelaziz Bouteflika in 2001 and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2000 as India tried building closer ties with important West Asian and African nations.

New Delhi’s choice of chief guests in the 1950s, 1960s and much of the 1970s betrayed its proximity to the Soviet Union as also an attempt to remain neutral by promoting the Non-Aligned Movement (Nam). Chief guests for the parades in the 1980s and the 1990s saw India try to engage developing South American and African countries but also focus on Western European countries with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the weakening of Nam.

Not that the choice of chief guest at the parade has always helped India strengthen its ties with the country of that guest. It didn’t go according to plan most famously in 1965. Pakistan’s food and agriculture minister Rana Abdul Hamid was the chief guest at that year’s parade. Within 10 weeks of this, Pakistan sent its forces into Kashmir, leading to several skirmishes. The neighbours soon declared hostilities, which culminated in what is now known as the India-Pakistan war of 1965.

Hamid wasn’t the first Pakistani politician to be the chief guest at the parade. New Delhi hosted Governor-General Malik Ghulam Mohammad as the chief guest in 1955. It was the first peace overture after the bitterness of Partition and the battle over Kashmir in 1948.

Similarly, Chinese marshal Ye Jianying was the chief guest in 1958 but that did little to prevent China from sending its army into India in 1962 and handing New Delhi a humiliating military defeat.