Donald Trump gives Republic Day a miss but chief guest Cyril Ramaphosa may hold key to boost India-South Africa ties

Editor's Note: This piece was published on 15 November 2018. It is being republished in the light of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa attending tomorrow's Republic Day parade in New Delhi as the chief guest.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the President of South Africa, will be attending the Republic Day ceremony in New Delhi on Saturday as the chief guest, which is also going to be the last big function before Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tenure gets over. The invitation to Ramaphosa was extended after US president Donald Trump expressed his inability to attend the event citing other commitments.

After Barack Obama (2015), François Hollande (2016), Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (2017) and ASEAN Heads of State (2018), the Narendra Modi government's choice for the Republic Day chief guest in 2019, as reported by The Indian Express, is an interesting — make of that word what you will — one.

To recap, the chief guest chalice, if you will, was already poisoned when Trump turned down the invitation, stating that taking up a front row seat at Rajpath at the end of January would get in the way of his State of the Union address. The excuse seemed somewhat specious considering his predecessor juggled those two commitments with ease back in 2015, leading to speculation that the decision was linked to tensions between India and US over Iranian oil and Russian defence imports.

Those tensions, if the positive exchanges between Modi and US vice-president in Singapore are anything to go by, seem to be steadily easing, but the damage has already been done.

To revisit the aforementioned chalice, no world leader likes to think she or he is a second choice to anyone. And by indelicately choosing to go public with the information that the White House received and declined the invitation, it was made amply clear (unwittingly or otherwise) by all involved that the chief guest at the 70th Republic Day parade would be a Plan B. We have no way of knowing how many other Heads of State were approached before Ramaphosa, but fortunately, those in the know have kept the list to themselves.

Donald Trump gives Republic Day a miss but chief guest Cyril Ramaphosa may hold key to boost India-South Africa ties

File image of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. Reuters

Then there are the logistics. At any given time, Heads of State generally tend to have their itineraries planned around six months in advance, so it's likely that Ramaphosa and his administration had to do some amount of rejigging of his calendar. As did India, evident from the fact that Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, that marks Mahatma Gandhi's homecoming from South Africa, has been postponed from early January to the second half, so as to coincide with the Republic Day celebrations and the Ramaphosa visit, as The Indian Express noted.

The optics are also something of which the Modi government will have been acutely aware. Chief guests at Republic Day parades are generally selected on the basis of the sort of push the gesture can give the bilateral and the sort of message it sends out, both within India and to the world at large. The invitees in the past four editions of the parade showcased the importance of the bilateral and feted it: the US, France, UAE and ASEAN were selected for a host of reasons — strategic, technological, economic and from the perspective of the diaspora. For the most part, relations with these countries have improved and appear to be on an upward trajectory.

That 2019 is an election year made it even more important for the government to put on a 26 January show with a cast that sends out the right message to voters.

And when Trump declined, a number of options loaded with significance, as this article points out, could have been considered.

As it stands, Ramaphosa will be the first South African to grace the occasion since 1995 when Nelson Mandela — who had tipped Ramaphosa as a future president back in the day — was the Republic Day chief guest. It is highly unlikely that Ramaphosa's presence at the Republic Day parade will do very much, if anything, for the BJP's 2019 election campaign, so let's not even look for tenuous links between the president's participation in April's 'Gandhi Walk' in Lenasia (a township near Johannesburg) and the average Indian voter.

On the other hand, there are definite foreign policy gains on offer. It's worth recalling that there has been no standalone State visit by a South African president to India since former president Jacob Zuma's visit in 2010. His 2012 and 2016 visits were organised in order to attend the BRICS Summit. Modi last made a standalone visit to South Africa in 2016. In July this year, he visited the Rainbow Nation for the BRICS Summit (meeting Ramaphosa on the sidelines), after stopping over in Rwanda and Uganda.

The difference between a State visit and a summit visit is as stark as the difference between a multi-format bilateral cricket series and participation in a T20 World Cup. Sure, you'll interact with most members in the latter category, but there's no sustained and focussed interaction as in the former category. And a Republic Day visit falls very firmly in the first category. It may be recalled that it was Obama's 2015 visit for Republic Day that saw the signing of the critical India-US Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region.

By largely restricting India-South Africa relations to multilateral fora, the two countries have risked becoming distant and New Delhi has allowed greater space to Beijing.

India's foreign policy has evolved over the course of the past four years and the country, consciously or otherwise, sees itself less as one of the developing nations and more as one that is rubbing shoulders with global superpowers. As a result, groupings like BRICS are slowly losing significance in India's scheme of things. A standalone visit will provide the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of South Africa to India and allow officials and leaders from both sides to discuss a variety of subjects without the limitations imposed by a meeting that occurs on the sidelines of a summit, and find ways to arrest the gradual decline of the bilateral. That Ramaphosa's team was happy to accept the invitation at such late notice also indicates that Pretoria still retains a deal of warmth towards New Delhi.

Due in part to cultural, historical and economic factors, South Africa has been an important partner for India. Additionally, it also serves as a gateway to Africa, a continent that has been the beneficiary of limited and sporadic outreach from the Modi government. As a result, China has been quick to act and expand its African footprint. Having the South African president at the Republic Day parade and signing off on important agreements and MoUs — on matters strategic, economic and cultural — will also send a message to Beijing that New Delhi is still part of the game. It will also send a message to other African partners like Nigeria that Africa is more than just an investment destination for India. As it stands, relations are largely about investment, loans, and a handful of developmental agreements.

Finally, that Ramaphosa will be visiting India 125 years after the birth of Mahatma Gandhi adds a nice little touch of symbolism to things.

If all goes well, a Plan B chief guest could actually turn into a turning point for India-South Africa relations and perhaps in time, ties with the whole continent.

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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 11:29:00 IST

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