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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.

India has decided to go ahead with a truncated parade to mark Republic Day without a chief guest, people familiar with the matter said.

This will be the first time in over five decades that the Republic Day celebrations, seen as a high point in India’s diplomatic calendar, would not have a foreign dignitary as the chief guest. The last time the parade did not have a chief guest was In 1966 when Indira Gandhi was sworn in as prime minister on January 24 after the demise of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri on January 11. There were two other years when the parade did not have a chief guest: 1952 and 1953.

President Ramnath Kovind will take the salute at the parade this time.

One official said the decision was taken on account of multiple reasons. After PM Boris Johnson publicly accepted India’s invitation, Downing Street had indicated his inability to attend the annual event to mark the adoption of the Indian Constitution due to the rapid rise in Covid situation.

“We did not want to put any foreign dignitary in an awkward situation,” the official said, underscoring that a last-minute acceptance of India’s invitation could be potentially embarrassing for the invitee back home as the head of state would be seen as a replacement. Since 1950, India has twice got replacements after the guests called off at the last moment.

Plus, given the fluid nature of the Covid infection in light of the highly transmissible new variant of the SARS-Cov-2 virus first detected in the United Kingdom, there would be continued uncertainty about the visit right till the end. Since then, there have been reports of new strains that have been spotted in other countries such as South Africa and Japan. The South African variant, like the UK strain, is driving a surge of infections in the country. Besides, the Narendra Modi government also does not want to take chances on the pandemic.

Social distancing protocols due to the Covid-19 pandemic have already forced the government to opt for a truncated version of the parade, the highlight of the Republic Day celebrations that showcases India’s military might and cultural diversity.

The parade will be shorter and end at National Stadium in national capital Delhi rather than the Red Fort. The marching contingents will also be smaller, with 96 participants in each squad that was earlier made up of 144. Also, the number of spectators along Rajpath have been capped at one-fourth of the 100,000 in previous years. Children below the age of 15 will not be permitted at the parade.

The plan to have a marching contingent of the Bangladesh army participate in the parade as part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh is so far intact. This is only the second time foreign soldiers will be marching down Rajpath as part of India’s biggest ceremonial event – the first was the French in 2016. Fifty years ago, Pakistan Army under Lt Gen AAK Niazi had surrendered to the Indian Army paving the way for the formation of Bangladesh