New Delhi: India’s invite to President Donald Trump to be the next Republic Day chief guest has been formally turned down, with the United States taking the cover of the president’s state of the union address.
India had first sent a formal invitation to the US for Trump to watch the parade on Rajpath in April this year.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had confirmed in August that the invitation was for India’s Republic Day, but noted that “no final decision has been made”. The question to her was itself prompted by leaks in the Indian media that Trump had not only been invited but had also accepted, thus adding another feather in the cap of the Modi government.
However, within a few days of Sanders’ comments, Indian officials started to talk-back the specificity of the invitation for Trump, insisting it “wasn’t date-specific”.
While a sense of the White House’s disinterest was apparent in August, the formal rejection of the invitation was provided only in September.
The Times of India had first reported on Saturday, October 27, that the US had conveyed its formal regrets to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval recently.
However, the report was removed from the website on Sunday afternoon. It was replaced with a one-line explanation: “This story has been removed due to inadequate information.”
Indian officials had been dampening down expectations about getting Trump to watch the parade, especially after foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale visited Washington in August for talks in the run up to the first edition of the ‘Two-Plus-Two’ dialogue.
The new format of high-level talks between India and the US were earlier supposed have taken place in July but had been postponed as secretary of state Mike Pompeo had to travel to North Korea.
It is learnt that the letter was handed over personally to Doval during his visit to the US last month.
The justification provided for not finding time in Trump’s busy calendar was the State of the Union (SOTU) address, which would take place in either the third or the fourth week of January.
The timing of address has, however, not been an obstacle in the past.
Former President Barack Obama had in 2015 given his SOTU address on January 20, before travelling to India to become the first US president to be chief guest at the Republic Day parade.
Indian officials had considered the ‘Two-Plus-Two’ dialogue in September as highly successful, with defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and US defence secretary signing the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA).
However, several sticky issues – from trade, immigration and sanctions on Russia and Iran – continue to be pin-pricks in the relationship.
South Block sources indicate that a Trump visit is still possible in the early half of 2019.
India had already started to look at alternatives to Trump several months ago, since there was a view that the long public event may not be suitable for the temperament of the US president.
A possible replacement for Trump is Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, who has already agreed to be the chief guest for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) in Varanasi from January 21 to 23.
The PBD is usually held around January 9 to coincide with the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return from South Africa to India. However, the 2019 diaspora jamboree was postponed, as the Indian government claimed that participants wanted an opportunity to also attend the Ardh Kumbh in Allahabad.