No spouses, no live food counters, no freedom fighters and no free interaction with VIPs. When Rashtrapati Bhavan hosts the At Home function on the evening of August 15, these are among the restrictions that will be in place in a new protocol-wrapped ceremony that is being held against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The plan under consideration involved keeping the guest list to a maximum of 90 — down from the normal gathering of 1,500 dignitaries. And the Independence Day event will last barely an hour; it usually lasts two-and-a-half hours.
“There will be minimum celebration for the sake of holding the event. We have applied a logic while selecting the limited number of guests, but as a large number of dignitaries cannot be called, the selection might still look like random, ” explained a Rashtrapati Bhavan official who asked not to be named.
As a result, ministers of state are unlikely to be invited, and even all cabinet ministers may not get a chance to enjoy Rashtrapati Bhavan’s hospitality on August 15. “Apart from the Prime Minister, the members of the cabinet committee on security (defence, home, external affairs and finance) and a few senior cabinet ministers will be invited. The list of ministers may not go beyond 10,” added the official.
Similarly, representatives from the judiciary may be limited to Chief Justice of India Sharad A Bobde, Delhi high court’s chief justice DN Pateland a few senior judges of the Supreme Court. In the past, all Supreme Court judges and many Delhi high court judges used to be invited to the event.
The list of bureaucrats may also to be pruned with only the cabinet secretary and a few senior secretaries being invited. “Last year, at least 70 secretaries with their spouses came for the event. This time no spouse will be invited,” said the official, adding that fewer than 10 key diplomats will be invited.
While Rashtrapati Bhavan officials have almost finalised the guest list, the catering remains tricky. If live counters are involved, it would mean a lot of staff in the Rashtrapati Bhavan Convention Centre—the venue for the At Home—increasing the risk of infection.
“We are still discussing how to serve food or if at all food should be served. Live food stations are risky affairs, so there is talk of simply placing food packets and water bottles at every seat for the guests,” said the official.
The Union home ministry, responsible for the programme, plans to invite some doctors and nurses to stand in for their colleagues leading India’s fight against Covid-19. According to the official, they will be given special seats—close to the area for the VVIPS. A large area will be designated for President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former presidents Pranab Mukherjee and Pratibha Patil, former PMs Manmohan Singh and HD Deve Gowda. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president JP Nadda and Congress president Sonia Gandhi will also sit there, maintaining strict social distancing norms. Other guests will not be allowed to enter that area.
Freedom fighters, another regular feature of the At Home function, are unlikely to be called as they are too old to be exposed to the threat of the virus.
At the entrance, guests will be greeted with digital infrared thermometers, sanitisers, and even masks. If a guest’s mask looks inappropriate, he or she will be provided with N 95 masks. “A senior minister who came to meet the President recently, had to change his mask at Rashtrapati Bhavan,” said a second Rashtrapati Bhavan official who asked not to be named.
Kovind’s secretariat is also bracing for the eventuality where at least some invitees express their inability to attend the function due to Covid-related issues. “Many of the dignitaries are senior citizens. We fear some may opt out, taking abundant precautions. We have no plan to fill up their seats with other guests,” said thesecondofficial.
The convention centre has been chosen to avoid holding an outdoor event in the monsoon. It will be divided into various sections and guests will be requested to stick to their area. Usually, the president and the Prime Minister go around the venue to greet the guests. This time, they will perform their duties with a distant namaskar.