Battling virus surge, UK PM calls off R-Day visit; no call on new guest yet

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took this decision in view of the fresh national lockdown in his country, as his government responded to the new, more contagious mutant strain of the novel coronavirus.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday called up Prime Minister Narendra Modi and expressed “regret” that he would not be able to visit India to be Chief Guest for the Republic Day celebrations.

Johnson took this decision in view of the fresh national lockdown in his country, as his government responded to the new, more contagious mutant strain of the novel coronavirus.

Indian government sources said Modi “conveyed his understanding of the exceptional situation and hoped that the UK would overcome Covid challenges successfully”.

Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to working towards deepening bilateral relationship, the sources said.

India has to now look for an alternative Chief Guest for the Republic Day celebrations, which may, however, be truncated on account of the pandemic. Last year’s Independence Day celebrations had been scaled down as well.

An invitation to be Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day is a special honour for a visiting foreign dignitary. New Delhi has been weaving strategy with hospitality while deciding on the Chief Guest. The choice is dictated by a number of factors — strategic and diplomatic, business interests, and geopolitics.

This is not the first time that India has had to look for an alternative guest, as the first choice could not make it. In 2013, Oman’s sultan Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said could not come due to a communication issue, and Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, came instead. Similarly, in 2019, after US President Donald Trump could not come, India invited South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who attended the Republic day celebrations.

A statement by 10, Downing Street — the British PM’s office — said, “The Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Modi this 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 last 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 statement said.

It said the two 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”.

Johnson said that he hoped to be able to visit India in the first half of 2021, ahead of the G7 Summit in the UK that Modi is due to attend as a guest, the statement said.

A statement by the Ministry of External Affairs echoed the British government’s statement. “Prime Minister 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,” the MEA 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 context, and agreed to work towards a comprehensive roadmap for realising this potential,” the MEA said.

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