Who says Modi was the only Indian PM to attend France's Bastille Day parade?

Dr Manmohan Singh, among other influential Indians, had also been invited to Bastille Day celebrations in his tenure. How different was his visit from Modi's?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with French president Emmanuel Macron (photo: Twitter/@EmmanuelMacron)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with French president Emmanuel Macron (photo: Twitter/@EmmanuelMacron)

Sujata Anandan

Whoever said Narendra Modi was the first ever Indian prime minister to be invited to the Bastille Day celebrations in the French capital of Paris? Why is social media suddenly rife with this claim?

Is it possible that in the heyday of information technology and Digital India, we are increasingly incapable of searching back in our own history?

Bastille Day marks the anniversary of the French revolutionaries storming the fortress and freeing the prisoners who were held there for conspiring against the king.

Public memory being very short, few senior editors of newspapers and television channels—at the least those who travelled with him to France—seem to remember that Dr Manmohan Singh was done similar honours by then-president of French Nicholas Sarkozy in 2009.

Of course, this year a special band, along with the Navy and Air Force units, has been part of the parade.

That year, in 2009, it was the Maratha regiment that marched down the Champs-Èlysèes—and that was the first time an Indian army battalion had done so—in special boots specifically manufactured for them two months before the event, so that they would not slip and topple on the cobblestones.

The Parisians were rather fascinated at the time with the distinctive marching style of the Indian Army, sharp and precise, very different from the loose, loping gait of their own French troops. India that year returned the compliment as well, and invited the French army to march at our Republic Day parade in New Delhi. But by the time that was accomplished, both Dr Singh and President Sarkozy were out of office.

But why did no one recall this landmark event for the Indian armed forces, who marched for the first time in France in 2009? Perhaps because the BJP IT cell was up to its usual tricks, attempting to rewrite history and pretend once again that this was a first for India, with Modi at the helm and at the centre.

But history can never be obliterated, however hard one may try. The first person to object to editors and journalists failing to recall Dr Singh’s presence at the Bastille Day celebrations was former BJP minister Yashwant Sinha. “I still read many newspapers. Only one of them has said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the guest of honour at the Bastille Day parade and an Indian armed forced contingent had also participated in the parade. Just FYI,” he tweeted.

Shortly thereafter, the English-language French television channel France-24 put out a video of their 2009 interview with the commanding officer of the Maratha regiment—which was the first ever indigenous army unit set up by the British in the 18th century. In no time at all, other reports flooded the internet.

Meanwhile, the BJP IT cell was too embroiled in another controversy over their use of Modi’s Bastille Day presence to promote him as a vishwaguru, tweeting a map of India that showed our sovereign territory as parts of Pakistan and China. They simply did not have the time to take on Sinha and French television channels.

However, perhaps even the Congress spokespersons did not know of this fact, for they too were busy taking the BJP IT cell to task over the map. Only Congress media cell chief Jairam Ramesh tweeted a photograph of Mrs Indira Gandhi with the legendary General Charles de Gaulle, who was then the president of France.

De Gaulle told his aides that he believed "women do not succeed in politics, but this one will,” Ramesh quoted. And Mrs Gandhi held her entire conversation with De Gaulle in pure French.

The recent Indo-French co-operation being celebrated so loudly was started off by Dr Singh with his Bastille Day visit, in continuation of which Modi was invited to Paris this year. But as usual he did not tom-tom that legacy, the accomplishment that began to roll out his red carpet.

As for the Grand Cross of the Légion d’honneur? The BJP IT cell is once again promoting Modi as the first person to receive it, but there have been many, many before him—among them the maharajahs of Patiala and Kapurthala before Independence, then later J.R.D. Tata, Satyajit Ray (he could not go to Paris so the French president came to Calcutta to present it to him!), Pandit Ravi Shankar and, most recently Shah Rukh Khan and Shashi Tharoor!

Other French honours have also been received by many Indians, including—and this tickles my funny bone!—Yashwant Sinha when he was the external affairs minister of India. He was the only Indian bureaucrat cited specially for his contribution to the Indian Civil Service.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron has likely been left with a sour taste in his mouth from all the flak he is receiving back home (and from the European Union in general) for feting a gentleman who has been rather undoing the democracy that Bastille Day celebrates back in his own house...

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