India Seeks Expanded Commonwealth Role

India is set gradually to increase its involvement in the affairs of the Commonwealth. This will emerge next week in London at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, where prime minister Narendra Modi will play a prominent role, having first had a short official visit to the UK.

The Commonwealth of Nations, as the former British Commonwealth is known, is at a crossroads. Britain, which is the host next week to 53 member countries and will be the leader till the next summit in 2020, has been working for the past year to try to turn it into a more constructively useful international organization.

Charles passes the baton to Modi

It has been urging India, by far the largest member country with 55 percent of the Commonwealth’s 2.3 billion population and 26 percent of its internal trade, to become more active, with a long-term possibility of playing a leading role.

There has been a continuing debate in Delhi about how much it wants to respond to the UK requests, including whether it should host a trade and investment sub-headquarters or hub.

The conclusion appears to be that it will increase the work that it has been doing, but that the idea of a business hub did not gain sufficient traction either in Delhi or among other members of the Commonwealth. It is likely that this and other similar ideas will be considered again in 2020.

The arrangements for next week’s summit do however provide Modi with a special role, and it will be the first time an Indian prime minister has attended since 2009.

During his official bilateral visit on April 18, Modi will meet Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles (with whom he developed a good relationship in Delhi last November) and Theresa May, the prime minister, who had a difficult visit to India in November 2016. India is expected to renew an agreement that expired in 2014 on the return of illegal immigrants from the UK. Modi’s engagements will include a visit to London’s Science Museum and signing of high tech pacts.

He will also have a televised event with about 2,000 UK-based Indians. This will be more low-key than his 60,000-people spectacular at Wembley Stadium on his last visit to London in November 2015.

Prior to the UK, Modi will visit Sweden for a day and attend an inaugural five-country India-Nordic summit.

Draft communique

It is not yet clear what will emerge in the final communiqué, currently in draft form, about how far the Commonwealth should go ahead with what is officially called “reform and renewal” of its organization and functions. This will probably not be resolved till April 20 when presidents and prime ministers go to a “retreat” at Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s homes outside London.

The informal talks on that day will probably also include whether and when Prince Charles should inherit the Queen’s (personal, not constitutional) position as head of the Commonwealth.

The meeting starts in London the day before the retreat with structured formal meetings on four broad-based subjects – prosperity, security, fairness and sustainability – under the overall theme of Towards a Common Future. Earlier in the week, there will be foreign ministers’ meetings as well as four forums on youth, women, people, and business, plus fringe sessions on other issues.

Indian proponents of the country taking a larger role see the Commonwealth as an international organization where it can operate without interference from China, its potential long-term enemy that has managed to gain access to other forums such as a South Asian grouping known as SAARC. They argue that it would help it strengthen its presence in areas where China is increasingly active, for example in Africa where India is building a development role, and in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere such as the Pacific and Caribbean where India could strengthen its relationship with the Commonwealth small island states.

India and China

This comes at a time when India is responding to China’s increasingly global reach by becoming more active in international organizations, shedding its traditional role of an often reluctant and frequently negative participant.

“India has been gradually stepping up the entire range of its multilateral engagement…You should see our engagement in the Commonwealth within the framework of that broader perspective,” Surendra Tandon, a senior external affairs ministry official told a media briefing in Delhi this week. The most obvious example was the United Nations, but India was also stepping up its role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Tandon said that the Commonwealth had the added attraction that it looked after and advocated the interests of small states, including small islands. “This is a category of country in the international system that is of particular interest to India,” he said.

India will therefore be shouldering more responsibilities and expanding the Commonwealth work that it has been doing in a low-key way, but without much real influence. In recent months it has played a much bigger role than in the past on preparation of next week’s agenda and draft communiqué.

The aim is to test in the years ahead whether the bigger role has more benefits and opportunities than liabilities.

The current international crisis over use of chemical weapons in Syria, which is supported by Russia, illustrates possible problems. India regards Russia as one of its oldest allies and will be wary next week of being drawn into US and UK-led condemnation, and support for military action, before investigations have been completed.

A report, India and the Commonwealth: Redirecting the Relationship, published this week by Carnegie India notes that, in 2015–2016, India was the fourth-largest contributor to the Commonwealth’s budget. It also provided 16–20 percent of the experts in the Commonwealth technical assistance program (more than any member, after Britain). Another new report, Commonwealth Trade Review 2018: Strengthening the Commonwealth Advantage, produced by the Commonwealth Secretariat says that India is the top recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) from within the Commonwealth group of countries, and the second biggest source of investment after the UK.

“Child in an orphanage”

But the Carnegie author, C. S. R. Murthy, a Delhi-based academic, says rather scathingly that “scholars have described the position of the Commonwealth in India’s foreign policy as ‘no more than a child consigned to [an] orphanage’ in recent decades.” During the late 1940s and 1950s it was a “cornerstone” but then became a “useful embellishment” during the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1970s, Indian leaders suggested that the “economic content of the Commonwealth must become more meaningful and purposeful if it had to survive” – the same point that is being made now.

The long-held counter-view is that India, as one of the world’s two largest emerging economies, should not get involved in a relic of its old colonial ruler and the British Empire. There is also doubt whether the short-staffed and under-funded external affairs ministry should be stretched further by taking on a Commonwealth role.

Britain sees the Commonwealth as an opportunity to build new international relationships as Brexit takes it out of Europe, though it acknowledges that it cannot hold an overt post-imperial leadership role after its two-year term in charge ends in 2020.

It hopes however that its Commonwealth activities will help with its primary interest of negotiating the post-Brexit bilateral trade pacts that it will desperately need. Widely rumored (and criticized) ideas of the Commonwealth becoming a trading bloc is not however a runner in the foreseeable future, despite someone in the British civil service last year stupidly dubbing the UK’s Commonwealth country trade ambitions as Empire 2.0 (initially for an Africa free trade zone). That Empire 2.0 tag is frequently cited by critics to over-state and then criticize Britain’s Commonwealth ambitions.

“Imperial amnesia”

Behind all these short-term issues there are basic questions about whether the Commonwealth is worth saving. A new book, The Empire’s New Clothes The Myth of the Commonwealth, being published in the middle of CHOGM is highly critical of the organization and its future. It was written by Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University who, despite being the head of the Commonwealth’s only academic institute, is a well-known critic. According to the publisher’s blurb, the book “strips away the gilded self-image of the Commonwealth to reveal an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia”.

That is an unduly negative and unfair view because the Commonwealth is valued by 31 small states among its 53-member countries, which rely on support they receive and welcome the voice it gives them in international affairs. The other 22 countries of varying size have mixed views and many – including the UK and India – are critical of the negative influence exerted by the central secretariat on new ideas. All decisions have to be taken by consensus, which slows and even kills progress.

Prince Charles with Narendra Modi in Delhi last November

The Commonwealth is split with many African and smaller countries wanting it to continue focusing on providing them with aid. Others, led by the UK, want it to take an active role – for example in areas such as a Blue Charter on the governance of oceans, an agenda for trade and investment, a declaration on cybercrime and revised guidelines for independent (including younger) observers of elections, that are lined up for approval at the summit.

There is also a debate about whether the ponderous grip of the Commonwealth Secretariat, currently located in Marlborough House near the royal residences of Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace, should be decentralized with functions such as climate change, trade and investment and the oceans governance, moving to other countries.

That now seems less likely than it was a few months ago though it will be discussed during the retreat. There is strong pressure from some of the Commonwealths official and nonofficial bodies – there are over 70 – to keep the secretariat intact.

Prince Charles role

Behind the scenes there will be discussions about whether Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, should inherit the leadership of the Commonwealth when he succeeds the Queen. He has been touring Commonwealth countries in recent months and will play a prominent role next week. This appointment is not automatic but is in the hands of the Commonwealth’s 53 leaders, and it is not yet clear whether there will be a consensus at the retreat to announce his role or consider it again when he becomes King.

There will however be a royal splash at the Youth Forum next week and a Women’s Empowerment reception, which will be attended by Meghan Markle along with Prince Harry, Charles’ second son, who marries the American actress next month.

The reasons for widespread skepticism bordering on cynicism about the prospects of the Commonwealth becoming a useful organization were well illustrated on April 11 when six Commonwealth organizations, including the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association, unveiled proposals for a 12-point code of conduct titled Principles on Media and Good Governance. This was aimed at reducing threats to the media and reducing the killing of journalists – 57 journalists have been killed in Commonwealth countries in the four years to 2017.

The organizers said they had failed to interest the Commonwealth Secretariat in including the code in next week’s communiqué.

Akbar Khan, secretary general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, downplayed the setback, saying, “the Commonwealth is a soft power organization”.

The questions for next week are how soft it should remain, and whether New Delhi has will get involved in toughening it up during the summit and in the following two years.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.