A question of relevance

London is looking at Delhi to steer the Commonwealth towards a new direction

  • Published 19.04.18

London this week is preoccupied with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It is an event made particularly special because this is probably the last occasion the Queen will perform her ceremonial role as the Head of the Commonwealth, an honour she inherited from her father, King George VI, when the old British Commonwealth was redefined in 1948 to accommodate the newly-independent colonies, particularly India.

Is the Commonwealth relevant in the 21st century? At a session in the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi earlier this year, I compared the Commonwealth to a venerable club, located in a historic building, boasting a great address but hamstrung by resource crunch, archaic facilities and membership indifference. The institution could do with renovation and a relaunch. I was happy to note that Lord Marland, a former Conservative Party treasurer, used broadly similar imagery in an interview to The Times of April 16: "The Commonwealth has been a jewel that actually has been parked in someone's drawer for too long."

How is this institution whose origins go back to the British Empire and whose relevance is universally questioned going to claw its way back to relevance?

What is first needed is a mental reorientation. In the old days, at least till the early-1980s, arrivals into Heathrow airport used to be greeted by three separate immigration queues: one for British passport holders, one for Commonwealth citizens and one for all others. This was a relic from the days when all citizens from the Commonwealth had an unrestricted right to both enter Great Britain and even live there permanently. Even when the rights of unrestricted entry were curtailed after the Immigration Act of 1971, the fiction of visa-less travel was maintained. Till the early-1980s, British consulates used to issue 'entry permits' to Commonwealth citizens, not visas. To this day, Commonwealth citizens living permanently in the United Kingdom retain the right to vote and even contest elections.

What is interesting is that this generosity to and accommodation of the Commonwealth were not replicated in the other 52 member states. In India, for example, the Commonwealth acquired a small measure of relevance when there was a visit from a Commonwealth cricket team. In the past week, the Commonwealth reacquired some interest when Indians won gold, silver and bronze medals in the Commonwealth Games in Australia — achievements that constantly eluded them in the more competitive Olympic Games involving the entire international fraternity.

Indeed, the biggest problem of the Commonwealth was its fixation with the 'mother country'. Despite its large membership, not least in Africa and the Caribbean, it almost seemed that the UK enjoyed the majority stake in the institution. There were historical reasons for this one-sidedness. In a book — The Empire's New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth — whose release coincided with the London CHOGM, Philip Murphy, the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, has written about "the idea of the Commonwealth as a great, soothing comfort blanket for the... dwindling band of post-war imperial enthusiasts. They could reassure themselves that the sad business of granting independence to British colonies wasn't really the end of the line. Like the souls of the faithful departed, these countries would simply join the heavenly throng of the Commonwealth and live in eternal peace and harmony."

This was certainly the raison d'être of the Commonwealth till the UK embraced the European Common Market in 1973. It is interesting that in the 1975 referendum on the issue, the opponents of the Common Market often posited the Commonwealth as an alternative to the European market. Certainly, in countries such as Australia where the notion of the 'mother country' had a resonance, the UK's decision to embrace Europe was seen as a big let down. It certainly paved the way for Australia distancing itself from its 'whites only' British identity and seeking a role within Asia.

Post-1973, the UK's commitment to the Commonwealth eroded quite significantly. The only exception was the Queen who took her role extremely seriously and maintained the bonds of the old empire. But the rest of the British Establishment, in tune with the philosophy of 'managing decline', shifted gaze to the United States of America and Europe. The Commonwealth wasn't entirely forgotten but was relegated to the lower rungs of the foreign policy hierarchy. The only occasion when the Commonwealth regained some importance was in the international battle against apartheid. Margaret Thatcher certainly found the Commonwealth member-states' strong commitment to black majority rule and sanctions an almighty nuisance.

It is this prolonged indifference to the Commonwealth that has made the UK's post-Brexit rediscovery of its possible importance so suspect. With the media narrative controlled by an editorial class that is inimical to the idea of UK asserting its national sovereignty, the Commonwealth has been posited as a last throw of the dice of all those who cherish wildly romantic dreams of Britain becoming great again. It is noticeable that the importance the UK is attaching to the CHOGM is matched by the deep scepticism of the intelligentsia for the project. In many Commonwealth member states, this scepticism of the pro-EU intellectuals has found reflection in the belief that the UK is on a downward spiral economically.

Where does India fit into this scenario? It is significant that over the past six months the UK has courted India quite systematically to ensure it takes the Commonwealth seriously. Since Jawaharlal Nehru was a principal architect of the 1948 settlement that made the Queen (but not the British monarchy) the head of the Commonwealth without the simultaneous obligation of pledging loyalty to the Crown, there is a belief that India must play a lead role in facilitating the smooth transition to Prince Charles in a post-Elizabethan era. The prince made a special trip to Delhi to personally invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the CHOGM. Modi's presence in the summit is a big achievement for British foreign policy.

However, more than ensuring Prince Charles's succession as the titular Head of the Commonwealth, the UK is anxious to divest itself of the role as the sole custodian of the body. London is in fact looking to Delhi to take a lead in steering the Commonwealth into another direction: as a meaningful trading bloc. The UK is already engaged in trying to negotiate trade treaties, perhaps even free trade agreements, with countries such as Canada, Australia and India. During its term in office, the Modi government has not negotiated any FTA and its functionaries have often expressed misgivings over the terms of some of India's existing FTAs. However, on the issue of an India-UK agreement, it seems remarkably receptive. If any meaningful trade agreement is indeed negotiated and comes into play post-Brexit, the possibility of an India-UK-Commonwealth partnership is enhanced. Of course for this to happen the Indian bureaucracy has to demonstrate far greater enthusiasm for the very idea of the Commonwealth. As of now this has not been in evidence.

On Thursday, a lot of Commonwealth eyes will be on Modi. His interventions on this 53-member multilateral body will be keenly observed for what leadership role India is willing to undertake. As a rapidly growing economy, India has transcended its post-colonial convulsions. It is ready to increase its stake in a body whose basis is only nominally connected with an imperial past. Modi can either embrace the opportunities or retreat into tokenism. The first course is preferable.