The visit of the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade is similar to a State visit, but given the ceremony involved, it is the highest honour that we can accord to our guest in protocol terms. The Chief Guest is given the ceremonial guard of honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan, he attends the reception in the evening hosted by the President of India, he lays a wreath at Rajghat, there is a banquet in his honour, a lunch hosted by the Prime Minister, and calls by the Vice-President and the External Affairs Minister.
The centrepiece of the visit is that he accompanies the President, flanked by the horse-mounted President’s Bodyguards, to the saluting base on Rajpath from where the President reviews the Republic Day parade. The visit is full of symbolism — it portrays the Chief Guest as participating in India’s pride and happiness, and reflects the friendship between the two peoples represented by the President of India and the Chief Guest.
The government extends its invitation to a Head of State or Government after careful consideration. This process commences almost six months ahead of Republic Day. There is a range of issues that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) considers, the foremost among which is the nature of India’s relationship with the country concerned. Among other factors are political, economic, and commercial relations, the neighbourhood, military cooperation, prominence in regional groupings, or past association in the Non Aligned Movement, in which newly independent countries united in a common struggle against colonialism, apartheid, and the domination of the developed countries.
India’s emotional attachment with the NAM countries remains strong, while developmental imperatives such as trade, technical knowhow and financial cooperation have opened up new vistas and opportunities for closer relations with other countries. All these considerations often point in different directions. Choosing a Chief Guest, therefore, poses a challenge.
The MEA, after deliberations, seeks the Prime Minister’s approval, after which Rashtrapati Bhavan’s clearance is sought. India’s ambassadors in the concerned countries then try to ascertain discreetly the potential Chief Guests’ programme and availability for Republic Day. It may well be that the high dignitary has an unavoidable engagement at that time, such as a session of Parliament or an incoming State visit.
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After this laborious process, the territorial divisions in the MEA work towards meaningful talks and agreements, while the Chief of Protocol works on the details of the programme and logistics. The CoP explains to his counterpart from the visitor’s side the detailed programme which, for the Republic Day ceremonies, has to be followed minute-by-minute with military precision. Some discussions on timings and the meetings may take place, but there is no flexibility with regard to the Republic Day ceremonies and their schedules.
All aspects of the visit are gone through, such as security, logistics, medical requirements, if necessary, with the active cooperation of the concerned Departments of the Government of India and the governments of the states which the Chief Guest may visit before coming to New Delhi, or after Republic Day. In my experience, there has been no Chief Guest who did not — for whatever reason — adhere to our protocol requirements or programme timings.
Immediately after Pokharan II, there was a lull in state visits to and from India, but this period did not last long thanks to some astute and quiet diplomacy by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh. Soon, the floodgates opened, and we had visits numbering almost double the previous such high.
During state visits, it has happened that the VIP, due to health reasons, has been late for engagements, or has been unable to walk through the Tri-Services Guard of Honour. During the monsoon, there is a constant threat of rain, and every contingency needs to be thought of, alternative arrangements made, and rehearsed to perfection. But in spite of all precautions, on rare occasions, some errors do occur.
For example, the Americans, as is their tradition, brought their own cars for the movement of President Bill Clinton. The American drivers were shown and familiarised with the routes, and they did several dry runs. On the day itself, after the ceremonial welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan, we saw that the turning radius of the cars was big, and our horse cavalry was in the way. The commander of the President’s Bodyguards was, however, very alert and commanded the formation to fall back five steps. They did this complicated manoeuvre with such precision that instead of looking discordant, it all seemed a part of a natural sequence.
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On one Republic Day, the ADC of the Chief Guest attempted to accompany him for the inspection of the guard of honour. But in our practice, only the commander of the Tri-Services Guard accompanies the visitor, and the insistent ADC had to be physically restrained by officials present at the spot.
The Chief Guest for Republic Day is decided on the basis of other countries’ interest and the Guest’s availability. A natural corollary is that the visitor should be happy and satisfied with the visit, and that it is comfortable. The media party accompanying him would be reporting in their country on every aspect of the visit. For good relations between the two countries and their further development, it is necessary that the guest’s nation perceives the visit as having been successful, and that their Head of State has been shown all courtesies and given due honour.
In the modern world, visual coverage is of great importance, and the programmes and protocol keep this in view. The various Chief Guests and their ambassadors in New Delhi have been profuse in their praise for our ceremonies and the protocol we accord. Our hospitality reflects our traditions, culture, and history.
Ambassador Manbir Singh, a former Indian Foreign Service officer, was Chief of Protocol from 1999-2002