Donald Trump gives Republic Day a miss but chief guest Cyril Ramaphosa may hold key to boost India-South Africa ties

Cyril Ramaphosa, the President of South Africa, would attend the Republic Day ceremony in New Delhi on Saturday as the chief guest, which is also going to be the last big function before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure gets over. The invitation to Ramaphosa was extended after US president Donald Trump expressed his inability to attend the event citing other commitments.

After Barack Obama (2015), François Hollande (2016), Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (2017) and ASEAN Heads of State (2018), the Narendra Modi government’s choice for the Republic Day chief guest in 2019.

To recap, the chief guest chalice, if you will, was already poisoned when Trump turned down the invitation, stating that taking up a front row seat at Rajpath at the end of January would get in the way of his State of the Union address. The excuse seemed somewhat specious considering his predecessor juggled those two commitments with ease back in 2015, leading to speculation that the decision was linked to tensions between India and US over Iranian oil and Russian defence imports.

Those tensions, if the positive exchanges between Modi and US vice-president in Singapore are anything to go by, seem to be steadily easing, but the damage has already been done.

To revisit the aforementioned chalice, no world leader likes to think she or he is a second choice to anyone. And by indelicately choosing to go public with the information that the White House received and declined the invitation, it was made amply clear (unwittingly or otherwise) by all involved that the chief guest at the 70th Republic Day parade would be a Plan B. We have no way of knowing how many other Heads of State were approached before Ramaphosa, but fortunately, those in the know have kept the list to themselves.

File image of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. Reuters

File image of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. Reuters Then there are the logistics. At any given time, Heads of State generally tend to have their itineraries planned around six months in advance, so it’s likely that Ramaphosa and his administration had to do some amount of rejigging of his calendar. As did India, evident from the fact that Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, that marks Mahatma Gandhi’s homecoming from South Africa, has been postponed from early January to the second half, so as to coincide with the Republic Day celebrations and the Ramaphosa visit, as The Indian Expressnoted.

The optics are also something of which the Modi government will have been acutely aware. Chief guests at Republic Day parades are generally selected on the basis of the sort of push the gesture can give the bilateral and the sort of message it sends out, both within India and to the world at large. The invitees in the past four editions of the parade showcased the importance of the bilateral and feted it: the US, France, UAE and ASEAN were selected for a host of reasons — strategic, technological, economic and from the perspective of the diaspora. For the most part, relations with these countries have improved and appear to be on an upward trajectory.

That 2019 is an election year made it even more important for the government to put on a 26 January show with a cast that sends out the right message to voters.

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