Just before the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace in April, he reminisced about the days he used to sell tea himself – for less than a rupee a cup – from small stands on railway stations. His story won loud applause when he recounted it at an event in Westminster Central Hall called Bharat Ki Bata, Sabke Saath, (Talking of India, With Everybody). There was an especially loud cheer from expatriates from Modi’s home state of Gujarat who now live in the UK.

Modi’s success reminds them of India’s rise in status to become the fastest growing economy in the world and a nation which has won the respect of their host country. India is one of the largest investors in the UK – 800 Indian companies support more than 100,000 British jobs – and the UK is also one of the largest investors in India. Modi’s visit therefore had a dual purpose: to strengthen India’s ties with Britain and to engage with other world leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

On a visit to London’s Science Museum with Prince Charles, Modi celebrated India’s thriving trade with Britain. The countries collaborate in innovative areas such as life sciences and information technology. But there remain sensitive issues, particularly with regard to immigration. India wants more students and skilled workers to have access to the UK and may make this a condition for any special trade deals after Britain leaves the European Union.

Brexit has prompted Britain to think afresh about its association with the Commonwealth, a rather unfashionable political concept which seemed to be shuffling towards its retirement. Its critics associate it with the days of empire and colonialism and India’s republicans seemed particularly indifferent. In fact, 2018 was the first time an Indian prime minister had attended a CHOGM meeting in nearly ten years.

Modi visited London on a personal invitation from the Queen but there are other good reasons, which have little to do with the UK, why India would gain from playing a fuller role within the Commonwealth.
The association has a collective population of 2.4 billion people and a GDP upwards of $13 trillion. Many of its 53 countries are rich in natural resources and open to imports and technology. Its members show commitment to democracy, international cooperation and the rule of law. And many countries, such as Canada, Australia and Kenya, are home to large Indian diaspora populations.

One major diplomatic advantage from India’s point of view is that the Commonwealth is the only major multinational alliance of which China is not a member. At CHOGM, its members agreed to work together on the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade and Investment, as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The Commonwealth offers status and connections. These can add weight as India seeks to counterbalance China, a role in which it is supported by its key ally, the United States. The challenges will come when splits and disagreements appear among the Commonwealth’s members – as inevitably they will – and if India reverts to grumbling or indifference, instead of patient problem-solving.

Naturally, there is caution in India about the revival of the Commonwealth concept, given the institution’s history. However, if India wants to team up with friends which share many common values – and who are not looking at the world through a Chinese or American prism – it would do well to develop a patient strategy for leadership.

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