Most members of the Commonwealth found other multilateral organisations such as UN, African Union, organizations of Pacific Island States or in the Caribbean to be more relevant.
Both the UK and India, for their own different reasons, are giving enhanced attention to this year’s Commonwealth Summit in London on 19- 20 April — a grouping long perceived as a biennial talk shop with no sustained purpose.
Why is Prime Minister Narendra Modi going there? No Indian PM has attended it since 2009.
Following Brexit, UK leaders have aggressively sought to project that Britain as not isolated, and now freed to consolidate a global role and engagement. British purpose now coincides with Indian global aspirations and strategies.
Sustained efforts have been made by Britain to get Indian participation at the PM level. Prince Charles extended an invitation during his visit in November 2017. There was an unusual personal letter from the Queen and repeated reiterations from Prime Minister Theresa May during meetings on sidelines of multilateral events such as the G 20.
Earlier, UK’s focus had been on the European relationships and EU processes. The Commonwealth, essentially a grouping of former British colonies, rarely went beyond promoting technical assistance and capacity building support to the small and island developing states.
Occasionally, through CMAG (Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group), steps were taken to suspend participation by states that deviated from the democratic path, more as a naming and shaming exercise. But most members found other bilateral relationships or multilateral organisations such as the UN, African Union, organisations of Pacific Island States or in the Caribbean to be more relevant for their contemporary interests.
But post-Brexit, May has attempted to infuse new energy in the US relationship, even though France appears to be the current European country of flavour in Washington. She was among the first foreign leaders to visit President Trump after his inauguration last year. The UK joined the US, along with France, in the missile attacks on Syria on 14 April.
May also visited India in November 2016, the first tour outside Europe since coming to power in July. At that time too, it was projected that India would be among the lynchpins of a new global Britain.
There are, however, objective constraints. The UK cannot do any new trade agreements before leaving the EU. India would not be interested in any agreement that does not have provision for trade related migration of skilled labour. This is difficult for the UK, since Brexit was sparked also by reaction to intra-EU migration. There is continued concern in India with Britain’s history of positions on subcontinental issues, including earlier support to Pakistan at UN on Kashmir, soft pedaling of terrorism from Pakistan because of intelligence support it receives on UK focused individuals and groups, and constituency pressure from Pakistani diaspora.
The UK is now seeking to use the Commonwealth grouping to cement its global role in the post Brexit context. It brings together countries from Asia, Africa, Caribbean, Pacific and Europe. There are historical linkages and affinity of language.
India accounts for around 55 per cent of the Commonwealth population of 2.3 billion, and is among its larger partners for intra-grouping trade, investment and technical assistance. There is a large Indian origin diaspora in many of the member countries.
Since 2014, India has been making a focused effort to widen its reach and global engagements. The third India-Africa Forum Summit in 2015, summit with grouping in the Pacific, India-Asean summit with all 10 heads of state/government present on Republic Day this year, are part of that effort. A pioneering India-Nordic summit is being held in Sweden Tuesday.
Commonwealth now provides India a useful forum to consolidate its reach across the globe. In the immediate post-Independence period, it provided a mechanism to build on historical patterns of trade and political exchanges. However, it remained dominated by British interests and efforts. Political divergence with the UK led India to focus essentially on technical and South-South cooperation opportunities. Even before 2009, Indian participation was sporadic.
The Commonwealth, with its global level membership could be a useful forum to reinforce democratic norms and a rule-based international order. It could be a platform to set norms and alternative strategies to deal with the challenge of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, even as India is working with Japan on an Asia-Africa growth corridor. Additional access to countries in the Pacific, small states and small island-states in Africa and Caribbean would increase support and constituency for India’s efforts at global level, including at the UN, be it in elections to various bodies or in drive for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. It would provide additional opportunity for partnership with Australia and New Zealand as focus increases on the Indo-Pacific.
India has a new opportunity to enhance its engagement in and through the Commonwealth. Its improved relationships with the hitherto leaders in the grouping, the ABC countries of Australia Britain and Canada, reinforces the trend. Success of the effort will require harmonising with these countries as well as the developing ones. With limits on its resources, it cannot take over leadership, but can be a leading member in the collective effort. It can be a ‘jewel’ in the Commonwealth.
Arun K. Singh is a former ambassador to the US and France, and earlier handled India’s relations with multilateral organisations.