India taking a leadership role in the Commonwealth can revitalise grouping, make the UK relevant again

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) of 2018 got underway in London on Monday. But it's on Thursday that the heads of 53 governments will get into the business end of things, with the official opening of the CHOGM Summit to take place at Buckingham Palace and the formal meetings between leaders to follow shortly after.

Narendra Modi's appearance at the CHOGM is the first by an Indian prime minister in nearly a decade — with the last one being Manmohan Singh at Port of Spain in 2009. The 2011 edition in Perth was boycotted by Manmohan on account of Australia's reversal of the decision to export uranium to India. New Delhi also gave the 2013 event in Colombo a miss after taking note of the charges of massive human rights violations against Tamils by Sri Lanka. In 2015, Modi sent External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Malta in his stead.

In 2018, the story is a bit different. India is being wooed aggressively by the UK — evident in the fact that Modi was the only head of government to be offered two bilateral meetings with British counterpart Theresa May and an audience with Queen Elizabeth II — ostensibly to revive and rejuvenate a grouping that has arguably lost all relevance it may have once had. Before delving deeper into India's role in this ragtag group of nations, it's worth examining the concept of the Commonwealth.

What is the Commonwealth?

Let's take a quick look at how the grouping's official website chooses to describe itself:

The Commonwealth is one of the world’s oldest political association of states. Its roots go back to the British Empire when some countries were ruled directly or indirectly by Britain. Some of these countries became self-governing while retaining Britain’s monarch as Head of State. They formed the British Commonwealth of Nations.

In 1949 the association we know today – The Commonwealth – came into being. Since then, independent countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific have joined The Commonwealth. Membership today is based on free and equal voluntary cooperation. The last two countries to join The Commonwealth — Rwanda and Mozambique — have no historical ties to the British Empire.

India taking a leadership role in the Commonwealth can revitalise grouping, make the UK relevant again

Narendra Modi meets Prince Charles ahead of the CHOGM 2018. PTI

The lofty Charter of the Commonwealth speaks of "shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law", "respect for all states and peoples", "consensus through consultation", "promotion of international understanding and world peace" and so on. Unfortunately, while noble in sentiment, none of this provides a concrete understanding of what the grouping stands for today. The Independent sums up the Commonwealth succinctly by saying, "Considering that it confers no trade privileges, has no influence on defence or economic policy, no executive authority and no sensible budget to play a global role it remains a talking shop at best and at worst a costly junket."

Groupings like the G20, G7, BRICS, NATO, SCO, BIMSTEC, EU, ASEAN, SAARC and so on are in place for a reason. Whether or not a grouping that brings together countries — with the exception of Rwanda and Mozambique — with a shared colonial history as its raison d'être should exist in this day and age is a question that requires greater exploration. For now though, this bloated debating society is here to stay.

So where does India fit in?

In his 1946 book The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru was critical of the notion of the Commonwealth, writing:

"The aim of British policy to have a closer integration of the commonwealth and empire is understandable in the peculiar circumstances in which Britain is placed today. But against it is the logic of facts and world tendencies, as well as the growth of dominion nationalism and the disruptive tendencies of the colonial empire. To try to build on old foundations, to continue to think in terms of a vanished age, to dream and talk still of an empire and of monopolies spread out all over the globe, is for Britain an even more unwise and shortsighted policy than it might be for some other nations; for most of the reasons which made her a politically, industrially, and financially dominant nation have disappeared."

However, soon after the book's release, India climbed on board and by signing the London Declaration of 1949, became a member of the Commonwealth. Since then, India has emerged as the largest member, accounting for 60 percent of the grouping's total population. As per the Ministry of External Affairs, "(India) is the fourth largest contributor to the Commonwealth budgets and programmes. It provides the largest number of technical experts engaged by the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation extending assistance to developing Commonwealth countries after the UK."

Over the years, India has been a part of several important committees within the Commonwealth, including the Steering Committee on Commonwealth Connects, the Standing Committee on Terrorism, Commonwealth Advisory Board on Sports, Grants Committee of the Commonwealth Foundation and the Executive and Accreditation Committees of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Board of Governors. Further, the 1983 edition of the CHOGM was held in New Delhi and chaired by Indira Gandhi.

It was in 2009, long before the landmark 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris, that India demonstrated some of its clout acquired over 60 years of membership to issue a critical intervention on climate change. "It is unfortunate that the global discourse on climate change has become enmeshed with arguments about maintaining economic competitiveness or level playing fields. Climate change is becoming the pretext for pursuing protectionist policies under a green label... India and other developing countries will strongly resist this," Manmohan had said at the time.

A win-win for India and the UK

India's growing stature on the global stage has not gone unnoticed within the country and outside — notable in the Queen's personal invitation to Modi to attend the CHOGM. At face value, the Commonwealth is just another in the long list of groupings that number India among its members. However, there are two fundamental differences.

The first is that this is an association of countries that is neither undergirded by trade, economics, security or regional considerations. What that means is that members will not be able to hold the grouping hostage to their own respective agendas. This also means that in the absence of any expectation of concrete outcomes or resolutions, India can focus on using the platform to build consensus among over a quarter of the world's UN-recognised countries. This consensus could well carry forward to global fora like the United Nations, where New Delhi seeks support on a number of issues.

The second is the absence of the US, Russia and China. With a handful of exceptions (SAARC and BIMSTEC, for instance), all multilateral groupings of which India is a part include either Russia, China, the US or all of the above. The Commonwealth represents a rare opportunity for India to throw its not inconsiderable weight around as one of the biggest — if not the biggest — world power in the room. That Modi used his public meeting on Wednesday as a stage from which to take potshots at Pakistan a mere day before the CHOGM, shows that he is acutely aware of this.

For the UK, the Commonwealth represents its biggest shot at regaining relevance. Nehru's observations that "most of the reasons which made (the UK) a politically, industrially, and financially dominant nation have disappeared" hold truer in 2018 than they did in 1964. Brexit represents a further shrinking of the country's already fairly minute influence on the world stage, as well as a need to seek reliable partnerships outside the European Union. That May felt the need to join in the US air strikes on Syria — a move widely condemned in Britain — demonstrates the desperation of the UK to matter once more. A vibrant Commonwealth gives London, as the progenitor of this grouping, some semblance of relevance. And with India-UK relations on an uptick, the former colonised can help the former coloniser along on the global stage.

Ultimately, the Commonwealth is undoubtedly a colonial hangover, but then so are neckties. And there's no reason to throw either out just yet.

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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2018 14:02:14 IST

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