In the wake of CHOGM 2018, Humphrey Hawksley considers the organisation’s global future, and India’s role in reshaping it

After months of planning that required the most choreographed of diplomatic skills, Britain hosted a lavish visit in April for the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, followed by a summit for the 53-member Commonwealth, a large international grouping that comprises a bygone colonial power and those it had once colonised.

At first glance, not much happened outside routine announcements and ceremony. But beyond those, there has been a shifting of emphasis in Britain’s relationship with those in its now extinct empire, similar in many ways to the rebalance of power taking place globally.

In short, Britain has unlocked the door and laid down a welcoming carpet for India, the Commonwealth’s biggest member and its one-time unwieldy, rebellious and violent colony, to take up the mantel in re-designing the Commonwealth for the 21st century, should it wish to do so.

How India faces this challenge will be both a test and a training ground. As the wider global rebalance unfolds, India will be expected to the show leadership at the top tables of more institutions, and its track record so far has not been exemplary.

In the regional South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), India is seen by many as somewhat heavy-handed and its unclear foreign policy has been constantly outpaced by China.Most recently, it has lost sway in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan.

Now, the Commonwealth may give India a workable platform to reassertinfluence and prove itself.

Founded in 1949, with just eight members, the Commonwealth now includes a third of the world’s population, some 2.5 billion people.  It is a huge global entity that, according to its critics, punches far below its weight and has no defined mission.  The main glue holding it together remains Britain and, more specifically, its 92-year-old queen who has presided as the Commonwealth head since taking the throne in 1952.

Within the current cycle of populism and political uncertainty, where global institutions are weakening and nationalism is on the rise, the familiar, slow plodding solidity of the Commonwealth may be no bad thing.  Indeed, the Commonwealth, the Queen and India itself have something of the comfortable, old trusted glove about them. The royal family exudes no brash rebellious fervour. It just keeps doing what it does.

The Commonwealth may give India a workable platform to reassert influence and prove itself

Commonwealth members share little in common apart from colonial history and they often ignore the stated values centred on freedom and fairness. India, on the other hand, with its noisy melee of ideas, religions and contradictions, remains the world’s biggest democracy, as it has been since its independence in 1947.

Unlike the United States, Russia, China and other powers, India has not undergone civil war or revolution to usher in new styles of government. It inherited its political system from Westminster and has pretty much stuck to it.

In contrast to many other global institutions, the Commonwealth has a mountain of principles, but few specific targets. The end of summit communique included issues about the oceans, health care, education, climate change, cyber-crime and the strengthening of democratic institutions. But there is no Commonwealth Security Council to push for implementation and no NATO strike force should a country step out of line.

The Commonwealth has one overriding benchmark: its members must have democratic government. If a member nationbrings in military or dictatorial rule, it gets thrown out. In the current climate, where liberal democracy is under fire and authoritarianism increasingly coming into fashion, this, too, is no bad thing.

Three developments have now come together to usher in the Commonwealth’s rebalance. First, a successor to the Queen has now been chosen. Members could have opted for a new, charismatic face, brimming with ideas and ambition. But after a brief and predictable closed-door session, and much lobbying from the Queen herself, they chose her son Prince Charles in a sign that the Commonwealth prefers tradition and continuity to sudden change.

Second, Britain is looking for new partnerships once its leaves the European Union next year and believes the Commonwealth can, in part at least, take on this role.  The dynamics have therefore changed in that Britain, in some respects, now needs its former colonies more than they need it.

And third, within a few years, India is set to overtake Britain as the Commonwealth’s biggest economy, underlining the natural swing of power from the developed to the developing world.

‘After decades of ignoring it, Delhi now believes that a rejuvenated Commonwealth could lend greater depth to India’s global outreach,’ says C Raja Mohan of the Carnegie Institute in Delhi. ‘It’s about time India got over the defensive mindset in relation to a former colonial power.’

Commonwealth reform with India at its heart would need to focus on two areas. One is trade and the other is democracy and human rights.

With trade, a 2016 Commonwealth study found that members had a 19 per cent advantage in costs when trading between each other because of long-established relations, the shared English language and a mostly familiar administrative and legal system.

It also found that both Britain and India could gain from their re-adjusted relationship. An Anglo-Indian trade agreement would increase bilateral trade by 25 per cent, with Britain’s exports to India rising by 50 per cent, from $5.2 billion to $7.8, while India’s to Britain would go up by 12 per cent.

There is nothing stopping trade between Commonwealth members strengthening year on year, although the idea, advocated by some British politicians, that the Commonwealth could replace the EU as a trade entity remains, for the time being at least, a fallacy.

With regard to democracy, despite its lofty principles, the Commonwealth is riddled with political repression, human rights abuses and violence against those who challenge governments.  Commonwealth governments do not rank highly on registers of anti-corruption, political transparency and basic democratic freedoms.

Queen Elizabeth II, head of the Commonwealth, opens the 2018 Summit
Queen Elizabeth II, head of the Commonwealth, opens the 2018 Summit

Thirty-seven still have laws that criminalise homosexuality and, while this summit emphasised the strengthening of civil society, organisations within the Commonwealth often find themselves squeezed and harassed, including India.

The media, too, is under threat. In the five years up to 2018, 57 journalists in Commonwealth countries were killed in the course of their work.  ‘Journalists are only one of many categories of people who may face violence in Commonwealth countries,’ says William Horsley of the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association, who called on states to pledge an open investigation into all unresolved cases.

Britain, in some respects, now needs its former colonies more than they need it

The decision to hold the next summit in Rwanda, itself shrouded in stories of repression and abuse, suggests that Horsley’s request will not be met.

The Commonwealth emerged from its 2018 summit with its contradictions intact and its goals small. Doors were opened with an opportunity to lay down new road maps and set examples. But there is no sign yet of a plan or the will to do anything quickly.

Lack of ambition, however, should not be confused withlack of resolve.

The Commonwealth is what it is, a club enveloping a third of the world’s population who have come to terms with the injustices of their history and are happy to sign up to democratic values.  Even if reform comes at a snail’s pace, against the current global backdrop, the Commonwealth is a considerable asset not to be ignored.

Humphrey Hawksley is an Asia specialist. His next book, Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy for China’s Expansion, is published in June

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