New Delhi: Known for his penchant for springing surprises, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced via the microblogging website Twitter on Friday that he had invited US President Barack Obama to be chief guest at Republic Day celebrations—an invitation that Obama accepted.

Analysts described the development as a coup for Modi and a testimony to the fact that India-US relations are regaining momentum after hitting a trough just about a year ago. This will be the fourth US presidential visit to India in 15 years and the second by Obama, who travelled to the country in 2010.

“This Republic Day, we hope to have a friend over…invited President Obama to be the 1st US President to grace the occasion as Chief Guest," Modi said on Twitter on Friday.

The confirmation that Obama had accepted the invitation and would be coming to India in January also came via Twitter.

“@ invite of @narendramodi President Obama will travel to #India in Jan 2015 to participate in Indian Republic Day celebration as Chief Guest," said the post on the account run by Obama’s National Security Council (NSC), which was retweeted by the Indian foreign ministry.

“This visit will mark the first time a US president will have the honor of attending Republic Day, which commemorates the adoption of India’s constitution," a White House statement put out online by NSCPress said. “The President will meet with the Prime Minister and Indian officials to strengthen and expand the US-India strategic partnership."

After Modi’s visit to the US in September, his first in nine years after being denied a visa when he was Gujarat’s chief minister, the Prime Minister had invited Obama in a phone conversation to be chief guest on 26 January, foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in a statement.

Modi’s invitation to Obama is a “major coup", former foreign secretary and ex-ambassador to the US Lalit Mansingh said, adding that it was a powerful symbol of the India-US strategic partnership. “It is hugely important and significant that this is the first time that India has invited a US president to be the chief guest at its Republic Day celebrations," he said.

As diplomatic moves made by the six-month-old Modi government go, this is bigger than the “coup of sorts" that Modi pulled off when, in a surprise move, he invited leaders of all South Asian countries to his swearing-in ceremony on 26 May, said Mansingh. That was the first such invitation extended to South Asian heads of government by an Indian leader.

Chief guests for India’s Republic Day “are chosen from countries that are strategically important to India", Mansingh said.

In the past, the guests have included heads of state or government from India’s immediate neighbourhood, members of the UN Security Council like France and leaders from the developing world like Indonesia and Brazil. The message that the choice of guest sends out is that “the country is itself strategically important for India", Mansingh said.

“So the message I see in this is that India regards the US as its principal strategic partner and it is number one in our list of priorities," he added.

The move also signals that the frostiness that had crept into India-US relations over a series of issues including the civil nuclear deal, the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade over charges of alleged visa fraud, the lack of economic reforms in India and complaints of protectionism by both has well and truly disappeared, said Mansingh.

“That Obama is willing to come to India at such short notice shows that the US thinks India is an important partner in which it is willing to invest time. It signals a restoration of US confidence in India that had dwindled on account of many issues," he said.

It demonstrates that “great drop in sense of American confidence in India" has been restored by Modi during his September visit to Washington, he said.

India would have in the past sounded out US administrations on attending Republic Day celebrations, but “obviously there would not have been any assurance of acceptance", which is why it would not have been made public, Mansingh said.

“US presidents are executive heads of government and they do not like spending time on ceremonial events. Obama saying ‘yes’ shows he is a bit more relaxed being in his second term as president and not having the pressure of running again," he said.

Ties between India and the US, once known as “estranged" democracies given that they were on opposite sides during the Cold War, began to transform after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the US emerging as the world’s only pre-eminent power. Exploring the possibilities of engagement was the dominant theme of the 1990s, but the relations were reshaped by the landmark visit to India in 2000 by then US president Bill Clinton.

Drawing a parallel with the March 2000 visit of Clinton, also in his second term and one that was seen as the turning point in India-US ties, Mansingh recalled that ties that had plummeted to a low following India’s 1998 nuclear tests and the US imposing punitive sanctions on India, were not only restored, but taken to newer heights by the visit.

“This (Friday’s) announcement shows that relations are not only recovering, but promising to bounce to much higher levels in Obama’s second term," he said.

Symbolism aside, at the core of the acceptance of India’s invitation lies the economic promise that Asia’s third largest economy offers, said Mansingh. “The US economy is yet to recover, Japan has gone into recession, the Chinese economy is slowing and its population is ageing," he said. “India on the other hand is showing promise, with estimates suggesting 6% growth in the coming years."

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