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NEW DELHI : British Prime Minister Boris Johnson telephoned his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to express regrets for his inability to visit to New Delhi and take part in India’s Republic Day celebrations as the chief guest later this month due to mounting covid-19 cases at home.

A statement from Modi’s office said Johnson “reiterated his thanks for India's invitation for him as the Chief Guest of the forthcoming Republic Day celebrations, but regretted his inability to attend in view of the changed covid-19 context prevailing in the UK. He reiterated his keenness to visit India in the near future."

Modi on his part “expressed his understanding of the exceptional situation in the UK, and conveyed his best wishes for the quick control of the pandemic spread. He looked forward to receiving Prime Minister Johnson in India at the earliest opportunity after normalisation of the situation," it said.

“The leaders reviewed ongoing cooperation between both countries, including in the area of making covid-19 vaccines available for the world. They reiterated their shared belief in the potential of the India-UK partnership in the post-BREXIT, post-covid-19 context, and agreed to work towards a comprehensive roadmap for realising this potential," it added.

The Republic Day celebrations are seen as a high point in India’s diplomatic calendar. Chief guests for the event are chosen with the intent of signalling India’s special ties with the country or New Delhi’s intentions to improve relations with it.

With Johnson pulling out, New Delhi seems to have been placed in a difficult spot, as it would have to look for another chief guest. Speculation is rife that India would invite the head of government of a neighbouring country. In 2013, Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was reportedly invited as the guest of honour after then Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said Al Said cited ill health as his reason for declining New Delhi’s invite. In 2019, India invited South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as the guest of honour after scheduling issues resulted in US President Donald Trump indicating his inability to visit India.

Johnson’s cancellation his India visit came hours after his government on Monday announced a complete lockdown for the 56 million people in England, which could last till mid-February, to cope with a new variant of the SARS-CoV2 virus that has been found to be more infectious that the original strain. Britain, Italy, and Spain, are among the worst affected by the pandemic. Covid-19 infections are spreading at an alarming rate in the UK.

Johnson’s visit was also to be his first bilateral visit after the UK exited the EU on 31 December. The British prime minister had accepted the invitation last month and foreign secretary Dominic Raab had visited India to prepare for the trip.

“The prime minister spoke to Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi this morning to express his regret that he will be unable to visit India later this month as planned," a spokesperson from Downing Street was quoted as saying by news agency AFP.

Johnson’s visit was to set the stage for a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries for which talks have been going on for a while. In his previous avatar as foreign secretary in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet, Johnson had visited India making a strong case for a free trade pact that would be ready for signing when Britain exited the European Union (EU). With uncertainty persisting over the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU till the last minute, India was keen to know the particulars of Britain’s exit before committing to any pact. New Delhi has also been separately negotiating an FTA with the EU, talks for which started in 2007.

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