By Shastri Ramachandaran*
Indians who think that we have outdone Britain in all things British – such as the English language, cricket and the Westminster model and that only the Commonwealth remains to be captured – should think again.
Since the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held from April 16-20 in London, interested sections are trying to create a buzz on how the mantle to ‘revive’ the Commonwealth may fall on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sources in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) declined to lend credence to these reports.
Yet if the talk has not abated, it is because Modi attended the CHOGM, which Indian prime ministers had chosen to skip in recent years. Modi did not attend the CHOGM in Malta in 2015; and, Manmohan Singh kept away from the 2013 summit in Colombo, under pressure from Tamil parties that wanted India to boycott the event as a protest against human rights violations.
If the UK is now set on reviving the Commonwealth, it is for the obvious reason that post-Brexit, Britain is in quest of a new identity and a platform for a larger global role. For, both London and New Delhi have ignored the Commonwealth.
During the Cold War and for 10-15 years after, Britain was tied to Europe and the U.S. India’s positions on international issues were at variance with that of Britain, Europe and the U.S. India’s close ties with the USSR, leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement and subsequent priorities in the region such as SAARC and coming to terms with China took precedence over the Commonwealth.
Even before Manmohan Singh, neither Atal Bihari Vajpayee nor PV Narasimha Rao had much interest in the Commonwealth. If Rajiv Gandhi and, before him, Indira, had kept up the association, it was, perhaps, out of a sense of duty to uphold a legacy. When Jawaharlal Nehru cast India’s lot with the Commonwealth in 1949, no political section liked this link to our former colonial ruler. Nehru’s loyalty to the Commonwealth was attributed to his desire to keep alive close ties with Britain as a major power.
India’s current interest in the Commonwealth comes at a time when the country is determined to make the most of every multilateral forum in pursuit of a larger role on the world stage. This is evident in India’s ambitious effort to join every forum it can get into — as well as where it is difficult to get in, like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). India’s founding role in the International Solar Alliance, launched in New Delhi in March is also reflective of this ambition. The Commonwealth is thus perceived as another ‘target’ on this path that New Delhi has embarked upon.
Even assuming that Britain is ready to make way for India, there is no certainty that the 53-member Commonwealth would unanimously welcome India’s leadership of this English-speaking club. Britain is no longer interested in sustaining the Commonwealth to uphold the values it has stood for until now, i.e. a commitment to democracy, including free and fair elections, representative legislatures and due regard for human rights. In the matter of British development assistance, too, recipients know that it is extended on considerations that serve the UK’s economic, strategic and security interests.
Post Brexit, Britain is more interested in using the Commonwealth to advance its economic and security interests through trade and investment, defence deals and sale of military equipment.
This may also suit New Delhi’s objectives as its own interest in human rights and humanitarian issues – in the neighbourhood and elsewhere – is declining. China, as a global player, has altered the nature of discourses: development and democracy no longer go together any more than trade and human rights.
There was a time when countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Pakistan and Fiji were suspended from the Commonwealth for disregarding democracy and violating human rights. That is no longer the case. Britain, along with the rest of the West, has not covered itself with glory in the way Julian Assange is persecuted. Nor has New Delhi’s response to the genocidal attack on the Rohingyas set an example of leadership in the region.
Thus, the Commonwealth, far from being reinvigorated as a community with shared values, is sought to be recast as a platform for transactional ties, where the business of members is business. That too calls for certain ground rules to ensure comfortable equations in a body with so many developing countries, including small island nations, of diverse ethnicity. Although Britain unfailingly points out that Commonwealth citizens can vote in the UK’s national and local elections, they are denied access to education and employment on cosy terms, which Europeans and Americans enjoy. Besides, Commonwealth citizens are targets of almost all anti-immigration measures.
As the most populous member and the largest democracy in the club, India could rightfully stake its claim to leadership of the Commonwealth if it continues to be about democracy, human rights, fair elections, development partnership, etc. However, that is not the basis on which India’s case is being canvassed. India’s credentials are cited to be its economic achievements. And, that is debatable.
Merely because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated, in 2017, Britain’s GDP at $2.56 trillion and India’s at $2.43 trillion and it is generally presumed that India would soon overtake Britain’s GDP, it does not follow that the leadership of the Commonwealth is for India’s taking. In fact, GDP figures can be misleading about the economic health of nations.
As India’s GDP is growing, so is the income inequality in India. Since 2000, economic disparity in India has been increasing year by year and the rise in GDP is reflected only in a miniscule percentage of people at the top cornering bulk of the national wealth and results of growth.
Hence, even in 50 years, the average Indian – howsoever he is defined – may not attain the living standards of the average Briton. India’s political leadership should pay more attention to the wealth of the commons at home instead of chasing chimeras such as the leadership of the Commonwealth.
* The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator. Views are personal. This article first appeared on DNA India on May 3, 2018 with the headline Futility of the Commonwealth. It is being reproduced with author’s consent.