DELHI/ LONDON: Weeks ahead of the January 26 Republic Day celebrations, at which he was going to be the chief guest, UK PM Boris Johnson Tuesday cancelled his visit to India citing fresh lockdown in England and the rapid spread of the new Covid strain.
Both sides played down the development with Johnson reiterating his “keenness” to visit India in the near future in a phone call to PM Narendra Modi and the latter expressing his understanding, according to a statement issued by the Indian government, of the “exceptional situation” in the UK, while conveying his best wishes for the quick control of the pandemic.
While Johnson again thanked India for its invitation for him as the chief guest of the forthcoming Republic Day, his decision has left India with hardly any time to look for a new guest for the likely curtailed celebrations this month. ToI has learnt that India may not have any guest at all for the Republic Day parade this year, assuming the parade will still happen. In that case, this will be the first time since 1966 that there will be no invite to a foreign leader for R-Day.
The name of the R-Day guest is generally finalised and announced months in advance. The only time it got delayed in recent times was in 2018 when the suspense ended only in early December with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa accepting the invite for 2019 celebrations after it was declined by President Donald Trump.
India had recently announced that it would resume limited flights to UK from January 8. England though went into new and complete lockdown Monday after a fresh surge in Covid cases.
Modi said he looked forward to receiving Johnson in India at the earliest opportunity after normalisation of the situation.
Modi and Johnson also reviewed ongoing cooperation between both countries, including in the area of making Covid-19 vaccines available for the world, said the government in its readout of the conversation.
“They reiterated their shared belief in the potential of the India-UK partnership in the post-BREXIT, post-Covid context, and agreed to work towards a comprehensive roadmap for realising this potential,” said the government.
Johnson is widely expected to visit India before June 2021, with sources suggesting it will now be in March, assuming the pandemic in Britain can be brought under control.
A Downing Street spokesperson told TOI: “The UK remains fully committed to our bilateral relationship with India, and we will continue to work closely together in the coming months to develop our ties in a range of areas, including trade and investment, health, security and climate change.”
In his phone call to Modi on Tuesday, Johnson said he hoped to be able to visit India in the first half of 2021, and ahead of the UK’s G7 Summit that Prime Minister Modi has confirmed he will attend as a guest. The date of the G7 summit has not yet announced but it will not be held before June.
The Downing Street spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Modi on Tuesday morning to express his regret that he will be unable to visit India later this month as planned.
“In light of the national lockdown announced Monday night, and the speed at which the new coronavirus variant is spreading, the Prime Minister said that it was important for him to remain in the UK so he can focus on the domestic response to the virus. The leaders underlined their shared commitment to the bilateral relationship, and to continuing to build on the close collaboration between our countries – including in response to the pandemic. “
It is understood that India and the UK were due to announce an Enhance Trade Partnership – a trade agreement that is somewhat less than an FTA – had Johnson attended India for Republic Day. The agreement will reduce trade tariffs and regulations and ease market access for each country.
“It would have been signed by someone at a ministerial level, like the commerce minister. Johnson would not have signed it in India, but the announcement would have taken place around the same time. The work on it will go on as this is part of the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals,” an Indian government source said. “We don’t know exactly when it will be signed as the text is still being produced. But the announcement, as will others, will all be postponed until the UK PM actually visits India. But trade talks will continue and we will continue to progress the enhanced trade partnership and commerce minister Piyush Goyal is set to meet international trade secretary Liz Truss soon.”
Vishwesh Negi, Minister (Political & Extradition and Press & Information), at the High Commission of India in London, told TOI: “The bilateral and multilateral cooperation between the two countries is on and will get further intensified, be it when India begins its two-year tenure as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council on January 1, be it working on security and defence, a stronger trade and economic relationship, migration and mobility of the citizens of both countries, there are very intensive institutional dialogue mechanisms under a bilateral and multilateral framework already happening and the outcomes of these will flow into the major deliverables when the UK PM visits India in the near future.”
There is speculation one of the other announcements could be that the UK reveals it will join the informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia and India, known as Quad.