NEW DELHI – President Obama is traveling about 7,500 miles to be the guest at a parade here. But it’s not just any procession.
Obama will attend India’s annual Republic Day parade, a stunning, hours-long spectacle that showcases India’s culture, military, states and federal programs.
The parade, held Jan. 26, celebrates the adoption of the Indian Constitution – the day that India became a republic. (It’s not the same as Indian Independence Day, which is in August.)
Each year, the Indian government invites a different foreign head of state to be its special guest. Last year it was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“It’s India’s most important formal invitation to offer,” said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The unprecedented invitation to Obama, which officials said came as a surprise, would have been unheard of a few years ago as the relationship between the two countries stagnated. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office in May, sees the relationship with the United States as one that is good for both India and his ambitions, despite personal and political tensions. Modi was denied a visa by the U.S. government in 2005 due to alleged violations of religious freedom. Modi offered Obama the invitation after the men met in Washington in September.
“I think President Obama was personally honored to receive that invitation,” White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said. “ I think he sees this as a potentially transitional if not transformational moment for the relationship, because we have a very strong and clear indication from India’s leadership that they want to elevate” our cooperation and relationship.
Obama will be both the first U.S. president to attend the parade and the first to visit India twice while in office. The invitation from Modi also underscores how the men both use social media — Modi put the news on Twitter and the White House publicly accepted via the network.
Obama was also scheduled to visit the Taj Mahal, but shortened his trip to travel to Saudi Arabia, where he will pay respects to the family of the late King Abdullah, who died last week.
Obama should expect to see quite a show filled with pomp and military precision. President Pranjab Mukherjee presides over the parade. It will start with Modi laying a wreath at India Gate to honor members of the military who were killed, followed by a 21-gun salute and the national anthem. The parade proceeds down Rajpath, a ceremonial boulevard, and ends at India’s war memorial. It’s an elaborate spectacle combines elements of a U.S. inauguration, a Russian victory parade and the Trooping of the Color in London, said Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution.
Members of the military will march in formation, a nod to India’s military power and as Modi wants to jointly develop weapons with the U.S. Madan said the Indian border security’s camel contingent— kind of like a cavalry unit but with camels — marches each year.
There will be dances by individuals and groups and elephants marching. A few dozen floats will roll down the wide boulevard; typically they come from one of India’s states. Others showcase government programs — it would be like having a float for Obamacare in the annual Rose Bowl parade.
Indian media is reporting that one theme this year will be Modi’s “Made in India” campaign, which aims to turn India into a global manufacturing hub.
Portions of the parade are open to the public, but require tickets. Needless to say security is going to be extremely, extremely tight. According to the Wall Street Journal, cellphones, food and even remote controlled car keys won’t be allowed on the parade route. Tradition dictates that India's president and the visiting head of state travel together to the parade, but this year reports are that the Secret Service would rather have Obama travel in his own car, an armored limo known as The Beast.
Madan said this trip shows that the relationship between the two countries is getting serious.
“It’s India finally taking the us home to mom and saying here, this is the person I go talk to very quietly usually. I wouldn’t understate the symbolism,” she said.