The recently concluded 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) summit in London saw the participation of fifty-three countries. Of these, only two countries (Rwanda and Mozambique) do not have a colonial past or a constitutional link to Britain. All Commonwealth members avow the leadership of the British royals. This biennial gathering of leaders from around the world is indeed a grand show of pomp and splendor.
This year’s Commonwealth Summit has been billed as a grand opportunity for India not only to showcase its growing economy but also project its leadership in an emerging new world order. It has been further argued that it provides a unique platform of influence for India where China is conspicuously absent. No wonder, Prince Charles air dashed to New Delhi on a charm offensive to invite Prime Minister Modi in person to attend the Summit.
But there is more than meets the eye. Many see the Commonwealth as a vestige of the past, conceived by Britain to arrest its declining influence in the world. Despite its large membership, it continues to be high on optics and low on influence as it struggles to find relevance in an ever-changing world order.
India’s relationship with this body can best be described as lukewarm. From India’s perspective, despite being home to over 50% of the population of the Commonwealth and with the second largest economy, next only to the UK, it has never enjoyed pride of place. That Prime Minister Modi decided to even attend the CHOGM 2018 Summit came as a surprise to many, given that he had declined to attend the previous Summit.
Large sections of Indians, given its track record, are not exactly enamored by the Commonwealth and even view it as suspicious. For instance, the Commonwealth provides that no bilateral or internal issues should be raised by members in its meetings. Despite this, Pakistan has been allowed to raise the Kashmir issue on multiple occasions, angering the Indian establishment.
Secondly, the UK’s anti-India stance as seen from its support of Pakistan in its wars against India has not endeared itself to Indians. Its support of Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 conflicts are well documented. In peacetime too, for example during the cold war era, it worked against India’s interest. In the eighties, it had actively supported Kashmiri separatists and refused to crackdown and deport them despite official requests from India.
So the average Indian cannot be faulted for a lack of interest in the Commonwealth or its affairs. Despite the slick campaign to project the CHOGM 2018 Summit as an economic and leadership opportunity for India, the disinterest is obvious.
The Commonwealth’s claim of providing economic opportunity for India is doubtful. This is because it is difficult to ascertain how much of India’s trade with fellow members came from bilateral dealings or directly as a result of the membership. Also, there is no exclusivity clause that binds members to trade with fellow members. India’s policymakers are acutely aware that with or without the Commonwealth, its growth trajectory will stay its course for many years to come.
But what could be the reason for this desperation in rejuvenating a moribund organization? The truth probably lies in the sinking economic fortunes of Britain itself. That the UK economy is in the pits is by no means a secret.
Firstly, Britain is having major economic upheavals on the domestic front amidst an unfriendly European Union following Brexit. According to UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), its economy grew slower than expected. Its annual GDP growth for 2017 was put at 1.7%. Secondly, UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that its economy is expected to see an average growth of 1.4% over the next five years. This is indeed bad news for the Brits.
According to an analysis (The Guardian, Feb 22nd, 2018), the British economy continues to show fresh signs of deterioration. It has been pointed out that economic activity in multiple sectors has lost “momentum”. The alarming rise in unemployment, low wage growth, and weak consumer spending are now part of Britain’s new normal.
The only saving grace, according to the UK’s National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), was a robust global economy which helped its exports, thanks to a weaker Pound. Post BREXIT, Britain is seeking new economic pastures to revive its economy. It is common knowledge that many developed countries are courting India to kick-start their own economies. Thus it is no surprise that the Brits went all out to woo India.
As far as Modi’s trip to London was concerned, the CHOGM 2018 Summit itself did not make much of an impact or news in India. The strong anti-British sentiments in India, largely due to the colonial rule as well as UK’s long anti-India stance after 1947, provides a powerful overhang that will not be easy to dissipate.
What really captured the minds of Indians was Modi’s meeting with the diaspora at an event of invited guests at the Central Hall, Westminster. Although attended by a smaller audience, the event was telecast live around the world and as expected had a huge viewership. Modi smartly used the opportunity to convey what many believe is the clarion call for the 2019 general elections in India. This dominated his London trip, rather than the meetings with heads of fifty-three governments from around the world.
The Commonwealth’s impact in providing tangible benefits to the member nations is debatable. The benefits, if any, are skewed unduly in favor of the UK. This is an unsustainable model in today’s world where China and India are fast emerging as economic powerhouses. Britain has pumped tons of good money in keeping alive an organization that is long past its shelf life. With a failing economy, Britain too may quietly bid goodbye to an institution that stood as a grand testimony to a bygone era. That being said, the Commonwealth, despite bold statements to the contrary, is probably in its last innings.