Will Joe Biden Attend The Republic Day Parade?

Will Joe Biden Attend The Republic Day Parade?

If Air Force One indeed touches down at Palam next month beating all the odds, it should be considered a triumph of New Delhi’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

SNM AbdiUpdated: Tuesday, December 12, 2023, 12:48 AM IST
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US President Joe Biden | X

The uncertainties clouding United States President Joe Biden’s visit to New Delhi for Republic Day celebrations is a dead giveaway of the current state of India-America relations. So far, there has been neither acceptance nor any response from the White House to the invitation extended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Biden to be the chief guest at India’s biggest national event next month. The suspense in India at this juncture over Biden’s visit is perfectly understandable.

Importantly, the suspense has deepened after Washington called out New Delhi for trying to kill a US national — Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun — on its soil, and US federal prosecutors have started legal proceedings against an Indian citizen, Nikhil Gupta, and an unnamed senior Indian government intelligence official for their involvement in what the Americans are officially and repeatedly calling a “lethal plot”.

All eyes on Joe Biden

There is already speculation that Biden, who apparently conveyed his displeasure over the murder attempt to Modi face-to-face at least once before US authorities filed a criminal case in a Manhattan court in New York, might decline Modi’s invitation using the State of the Union address which US presidents deliver in January, as an excuse. Even if scheduling reasons are cited to justify Biden’s absence at the Republic Day parade, it would still be a big snub from the world’s most powerful man as another US President, Barack Obama, did fly to India in January 2015.

As things now stand, Biden — whom Modi and India have gone out of their way to court — accepting Modi’s invitation would be a miracle of sorts. Miracles do happen but not too often, I’m afraid. If Air Force One indeed touches down at Palam next month beating all the odds, it should be considered a triumph of New Delhi’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy which would easily restore the equilibrium in bilateral relations between the world’s oldest and biggest democracies.

Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher A Wray is in New Delhi on a two-day visit, his first to India after he became director in 2017 — and the first visit by the FBI boss in 12 long years. Hence it would be extremely foolish to underestimate the importance of Wray’s trip. He will no doubt discuss several pending cases with Dinkar Gupta, National Investigation Agency director, and other senior Indian security officials, but the Pannun ‘hit job’ — which is clearly casting a dark shadow on Biden’s visit — certainly tops Wray’s agenda in India.

India vs US

The US side is openly saying from day one that it has taken the assassination bid “very seriously”, and gone to the extent of characterising it as “transnational repression”. At the same time, the Americans have welcomed New Delhi’s decision to institute a high-level probe to get to the bottom of the sordid affair. India, on its part, has also said that it does not have a policy of carrying out such killings. But US officials are publicly demanding that those found guilty by the probe are held accountable — which is saying politely that they must be brought to justice; essentially, punished.

Wray would naturally want to see the results of India’s investigation into what the US is calling a “lethal plot”. Even if the probe is not over and conclusions reached yet, the FBI director is bound to ask the Indian side to share its preliminary findings with him. As it is, Wray already knows whatever there is to know about the “lethal plot” as it was the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration which jointly penetrated and foiled it. What the US side is least interested in at this stage is evidence against Pannun, which Indian officials will be obviously most interested in presenting before Wray! All things considered, Wray’s visit is inextricably linked to his President’s. If we don’t satisfy Wray, the chances of Biden’s visit would inevitably diminish, resulting in a major diplomatic headache for India.

Unfortunately for India, the reported assassination bid on Pannun in New York has direct links with the murder of another Sikh separatist, Hardip Singh Nijjar, in a Vancouver suburb, and both feature in the indictment in the Manhattan court which has unexpectedly complicated India-US relations. After Nijjar’s murder, allegedly by Indian government agents, was flagged by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the US threw its full weight behind its North American ally and told New Delhi to cooperate with the probe into Nijjar’s killing. Both cases are now weighing on Biden and he will factor them in while taking a call on going to India.

Ashley Tellis, a friend of India who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that India is unlikely to get away lightly. Without mincing his words, he has said that “it would be a mistake for New Delhi to conclude that India’s importance to the US strategy for balancing against China gives India the latitude to unilaterally target US citizens.”

For India, much more is at stake than merely having Biden as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade on January 26. The government is keen to schedule a Summit of Quad leaders in New Delhi the following day on January 27. If Biden decides to give India’s Republic Day celebrations a miss, will the planned Quad Summit still take place? And if Biden drops out, will Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese still take the trouble of jetting to New Delhi? So, an awful lot is riding on Biden’s state visit to India.

The author is an independent, Pegasused reporter and commentator on foreign policy and domestic politics.

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