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NEW DELHI: For the first time ever, as many as 10 heads of state and government participated in India’s Republic Day parade as chief guests marking, as officials here said, a new beginning in India’s ties with Asean, which acts as the fulcrum of India’s Act East Policy.
The parade itself, among other things, comprised 2 tableaux by MEA showcasing India’s shared heritage including its ancient cultural and maritime trade links with Asean. There was the strong maritime connect displayed in the form of boats depicting Odisha festival Bali Jatra and also educational links in the facade of one of the tableaux showing the Nalanda University. The other tableau depicted the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya to highlight India’s Buddhism connect with nations in southeast Asia.
This was the first time that MEA organised a tableau for the R-Day parade. Despite apprehensions to the contrary, the parade started on time with all the 10 Asean leaders arriving at Rajpath within 9 minutes of each other. The MEA described the Asean summit and the presence of the leaders at the parade as a spectacular success not just in terms of substantive engagement but also logistics and protocol.
Talking about the takeaways from the unprecedented Asean outreach on the occasion of 25 years of the relationship, Secretary (East) Preeti Saran said each one of the leaders had appreciated India’s role in ensuring peace, stability and development in the Indo-Pacific region. The leaders sought greater Indian presence in southeast Asia and, as Saran said, expressed admiration for India’s growth story. Singapore, in particular, was said to have expressed interest in India’s move towards a cashless economy.
While maritime cooperation and need for comprehensive action against terrorism were mentioned in detail in the Delhi Declaration, discussions were also held to counter radicalisation in the region.
The summit comprising 10 leaders and their presence at the parade was a logistical nightmare though. As MEA officials said, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj had to personally pay attention to every little detail. Joint Secretary (Asean) Anurag Bhushan said Swaraj chaired 2 inter-ministerial meetings in the run up to the summit.
Swaraj was said to have personally ensured that all the leaders, who were spread over 5 hotels in the city, had their national flags depicted on their room keys. “She also made sure that even their pillows were personalised by having their names inscribed on it,” said an official. Swaraj arranged shawls for some of the leaders at Rajpath who were feeling cold in the enclosure while watching the parade.
“We also had to factor in specific food habits and also allergies to certain fabrics,” said Chief of Protocol Sanjay Verma.
The preparations started almost 2 months ago with officials from the Asean Secretariat arriving here to discuss the arrangements. Indian diplomats with experience of organising such summits were roped in from various missions to help with the arrangements. There was also a Whatsapp MEA group comprising over 150 members for coordination. “Everytime I accessed the group, it would have about 40 messages with all these officials feeding into it,” said Verma.
In the end, there was also protocol to be adhered to in terms of seating arrangements and arrival of the leaders at the parade. On all such issues, decisions were taken in consultation with the Asean Secretariat. “Royalty trumps elected representatives on such issues,” said Verma.
On the sidelines of the summit, in his meetings with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian PM Najib Razak, PM Narendra Modi also reiterated India’s commitment to holding a conference to counter radicalisation in the region.
While the proposal has been discussed for a while with officials of these countries, it is still unclear when it will take place.
Secretary (East) Preeti Saran said both soft and hard aspects of countering terrorism were discussed in the meetings.
Both Razak and Widodo “shared their own experiences and the legislations they have introduced in their own countries”.
“The hard aspects of strict actions to be taken through enabling laws and the software actions in terms of how to ensure that the youth do not go the path of extremism or radicalisation,” added Saran.