Washington: It’s now official — US President Donald Trump will not be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in January 2019.
“President Trump was honoured by Prime Minister Modi’s invitation for him to be the Chief Guest of India’s Republic Day on January 26, 2019, but is unable to participate due to scheduling constraints," a White House spokesperson said on Tuesday.
“The President enjoys a strong personal rapport with Prime Minister Modi developed through two meetings and several phone calls and remains committed to deepening the US-India strategic partnership. The President very much looks forward to meeting Prime Minister Modi again at the earliest opportunity," the spokesperson said in comments forwarded by the US embassy in New Delhi.
The comments end months of speculation in India that Trump could accept India’s offer to be the chief guest at the event in January. An invite for Trump to visit India was extended in June 2017 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the White House for his first meeting with Trump. It was then turned into an invite for the 2019 Republic Day celebrations.
In August, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had confirmed that Trump received an invite to visit India. “I know that the invitation has been extended, but I do not believe that a final decision has been made," media reports in India quoted Sanders as telling US-based reporters.
But with a crowded domestic calendar — mid-term elections in November and the State of the Union address between 21 and 29 January besides some international commitments — Trump’s visit to India in January was seen as difficult to pin down, according to officials.
Mint had reported on 3 October that given Trump’s domestic pre-occupations, he was unlikely to make it for the Republic Day celebrations, the high point of which was a grand military parade in the heart of New Delhi.
Trump’s refusal has left New Delhi in a rather piquant situation — to look for another chief guest for the ceremony. “If not Trump, it will be someone else. We always have a guest at the event," according to a person familiar with the development.
Guests for the Republic Day are chosen from countries that are strategically important to India, according to analysts. In the past, guests included heads of state or governments from India’s immediate neighbourhood, permanent members of the UN Security Council such as France and leaders from the developing world like Indonesia and Brazil.
If Trump had made it, he would have been only the second US president to be invited by New Delhi to be the chief guest for the event since India became an independent country in 1947. It would have sought to underline how far India-US relations have evolved from the days of intense acrimony in the 1970s — when India was seen as close to then Soviet Union and the US closer to India’s arch rival Pakistan — to strategic partners in the 21st century.
Former US president Barack Obama came to India twice — his second visit was for Republic Day celebrations in 2015.
Trump declining India’s invitation to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations comes at a time when India and the US are engaged in a number of delicate negotiations — from waivers on sanctions that can be imposed on India for buying oil from Iran and the S 400 air defence system from Russia to a special trade package.