[President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chief Guest of Republic Day, President of France Francois Hollande arriving at saluting dais, at Rajpath, on the occasion of the 67th Republic Day Parade 2016, in New Delhi on January 26, 2016.]
New Delhi: Over the years, the Republic Day parade in the national capital has come to be associated with an equal mix of military precision and a glimpse of the country's diverse cultural heritage and so it was on Tuesday - except that everything this year was rather business-like and minimalistic.
The display of military prowess was without flourish. President Pranab Mukherjee took the salute from an enclosed podium on the magnificent Rajpath boulevard as the chief guest on the occasion, French President Francois Hollande, looked on at the passing men and machines of the services.
For the first time, a contingent from the French 35th Infantry Regiment - elements of which had served in India in 1781-84 - was given the honour of leading the marching contingents and it performed with panache, preceded by a pipes and drums band and saluting in a rather unusual style with the right hand held straight across the chest.
The celebrations began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi - dressed in a brown bandgalla suit and sporting a saffron Gujarati turban - driving to the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial to the Unknown Soldier at India Gate and laying a wreath in honour of the countless Indian soldiers who have died in battles since World War I.
Modi then drove up to the saluting base to receive Mukherjee and the visiting French president.
The President's Bodyguard presented the national salute, the tricolour was unfurled and the national anthem was played to set the tone for a rather poignant moment - the posthumous presentation of the Ashok Chakra, the country's highest gallantry award in peacetime. It was presented this year to the widow of Lance Naik Mohan Nath Goswami of the Parachute Regiment, who laid down his life while fighting terrorists in the Kashmir Valley last Septmeber.
The emotion on Mukherjee's face was visible as he presented the medal and the citation to Goswami's widow.
The French contingent apart, there was much that was different this time around. The armoured element was bare-boned - just the T-90 Bhishma main battle tank and the BMP infantry combat vehicle - the marching contingents were fewer, as were the massed bands.
Then, instead of a marching continent of ex-servicemen, there was a tableau dedicated to them in the first part of the parade, an army dog squad with handlers made an appearance after 26 years, and the camel-mounted troopers of the Border Security Force brought up the rear of the parade's military element.
Still, there were the perennials, most notably soldiers of the Parachute Regiment trotting down in quick time in full battle gear, tableaux and marching contingents of the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, and also a representation of the central paramilitary forces like the CRPF and the Assam Rifles.
There was, of course, the stirring martial music: “Jai Bharati”, “Galaxy Riders”, “Desh Hamara Anmol Hai”, “Vijay Bharat”, “Deshon Ka Sartaj Bharat”, “Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja” and “Assam Rifles Ka Sipahi Desh Ka Shan Badhaye”, to mention just a few.
But, in another break with tradition, the young recipients of the National Awards for Bravery came up towards the end, followed by the children's pageant, a daredevil motorcycle display by the Corps of Signals, and a grand flypast by fighters, heavy-lift transports and helicopters of the Indian Air Force.
In between all this were the tableaux, 23 of them, representing 17 states and six central ministries, showcasing among others the government's flagship Digital India and Swachh Bharat initiatives.
The tableaux, presenting India's varied historical, architectural and cultural heritage, came as a welcome relief as they showcased the country's progress in different spheres. What particularly caught the eye were floats from Goa, Gujarat, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam but one surely what the Central Public Works Department offers year after year - fully fabricated out of flowers and depicting a variety of themes.
Vice President Hamid Ansari, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, the three service chiefs, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, cabinet ministers, a host of dignitaries and a group of women achievers seated in a special enclosure were on hand to witness the hour-and-half long parade.
As the event ended, the stands quickly emptied out, with many perhaps wondering what Beating Retreat ceremony on Saturday, the precision display by the massed bands of the three services which brings the Republic Day celebrations to a close, would have in store.
(Vishnu Makhijani can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)