The organisation is in need of a shake-up, and Delhi is being asked to play a leading role, reports John Elliott

The Commonwealth, which brings together 52 nations, mostly former British colonies, and 2.3 billion people, could within two or three years become a more devolved and effective association than it is today. That is the aim of ideas now being pursued by Britain with India and other countries.

The current central control of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s London headquarters in the chandeliered grandeur of Marlborough House,close to Buckingham Palace, would be dispersed, with different membercountries taking responsibility for individual functions and subjects.

These ideas are being prepared ahead of the 25th Commonwealth Summit, which takes place in London next April. The aim is to have proposals ready for what is traditionally called the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that can then be developed and implemented during the following two years, while Britain takes its turn as Commonwealth chair.

Following targeted approaches by London, India seems to have abandoned its long-held lack of interest in the Commonwealth, and is discussing how it could gradually play a leading role alongside the UK in the run-up to CHOGM and beyond. Neither government has yet said anything publicly about this, however, and progress will be slow till nearer the time.

Narendra Modiwill be the first Indian prime minister to attend the summit since 2007, andwill have a formal bilateral visit to the UK at the same time. He is believed to be interestedin hosting a Commonwealth business hub in India,and maybe taking responsibility for the grouping’s trade and investment initiatives.

Preparations have been pushed forward by two visitors to Delhi in recent weeks.Prince Charles was in the capital in November at the end of a 10-day tour that also took him to Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. He had two hours of talks with Mr Modi, including a small working dinner hosted by the prime minister, who tweeted that it had been a ‘wonderful meeting’ on India-UK bilateral ties. Key issues such as climate change and sustainability were on the agenda along with the Commonwealth’s potential, though this was not mentioned by Modi on Twitter.

Prince Charles said later that his message to the prime minister had been that ‘as the world’s largest democracy, India’s role in all of this could not be more crucial, nor her contribution to the Commonwealth more essential’.

The second visitor, a week later, was Tim Hitchens, a senior Foreign Office official who was earlier ambassador to Japan and assistant private secretary to the Queen. He is in charge as chief executive officer of the team preparing for the Commonwealth summit, reporting direct to Theresa May, the prime minister (who with Brexit and a weak divided government currently has other priorities). In Delhi, Hitchensdiscussed details of how India could become a leading player with, among others,the foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

LADY OF THE HOUSE: Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland (inset) and the Commonwealth Secretariat’s London HQ, Marlborough H
LADY OF THE HOUSE: Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland (inset) and the Commonwealth Secretariat’s London HQ, Marlborough House

Hitchens is one of two top British diplomats attached to the Commonwealth – the other being Sir Simon Gass, who was last year made the Secretariat’s acting chief operating officer. The appointments reflect Britain’s concern that the Secretariat is administratively weak under its controversial secretary-general, Lady (Patricia) Scotland. The former Labour government attorney general has hadextensive negative media coverage for herheavy expenditureand other alleged failings at a time when the Secretariat’s funding is under pressure.

Critics will say that reviving the Commonwealth, and including India, are far from new ideas. They will see the aims of Prince Charles and the two diplomats as efforts by the heir to the throne and a declining world power to revive a post-colonial talking shop that carries little authority among member nations, and is not consideredsignificant by the rest of the world. They will say that Britain has fallen back on the Commonwealth because it is desperate for trade deals and international under-pinning as it staggers towards Brexit in 2019. Complementing that, having failed for years to become a full member of the United Nations Security Council,India is looking for international clout and wants to find an arena where it will not be dominated by China, as it is in many other international forums.

Narendra Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to attend the summit since 2007

It is also widely recognised that India has not proved itself adept at managing diplomatic relations even with its South Asian neighbours, which mostly resent the way it exercises its clout and have welcomed blandishments from China. Probably encouraged by China, Pakistan will undoubtedly oppose any significantIndian role,and India’s critics will cite its poor human rights record in Kashmir as proof of its unsuitability.

But the London view is that, as a leader among developing countriesand with 55 per cent of the Commonwealth’s population and 26 per cent of its internal trade, India is in a unique position to provide the economic and political heft that is needed, providing consensus can be reached.

The message is that there are three basic areas where the Commonwealth should become more focused – economic and trade issues, climate change, and basic values, such as furthering democracy. These would build on what is currently being done in a low-key way. Along with work on terror and cyber attacks, they also point to areas that could be devolved from London to other countries. This would boost the characteristically innocuous theme, Towards a Common Future, that has been chosen by the Commonwealth Secretariat for the summit.

It seemssome of the larger Commonwealthcountries might see the benefit of India gradually moving towards a leading role, despite inevitable differences of approach. Canada has good relations, while Australia has been growing closer to India, most recently as part of aquadrilateral grouping with the US and Japan. That is emerging as a counterweight to China’s grab for international influence with its One Belt One Road trade and transport project linking Asia to Europe.

Australia is looking to India for help on a project to develop mental health support following disaster or trauma incidents. India is also interested in providing assistance to Commonwealthcountries on subjects such as electronic voting in elections and on solar energy –it has played a leading role in a121-member International Solar Alliance. India already hosts the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which has had offices in Delhi since the early 1990s.In a separate exercise, there is a move started by the new head of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Michael Lake, to establish some sort of direct link with the US in order to spread the grouping’s influence.

One prominent lobbyist for India’s role is Manoj Ladwa, an Indian-born businessman and consultant based in London, who is on the board of the Commonwealth Enterprise & Investment Council. Ladwa was in charge of Modi’s massive rally in London’s Wembley Stadium in November 2016, and was one of the top people in his highly successful general election campaign in 2014.He has written several times on the subject of expanding India-UK relations and on India’s Commonwealth potential.

Critics will say that Britain has fallen back on the Commonwealth because it is desperate for trade deals as it staggers towards Brexit

In a widely circulated article headed Re-imagining the Commonwealth, which appeared earlier this year in India Global Business, a magazine that he publishes, Ladwa argued for ‘rebalancing and redistribution of power within the Commonwealth – not just India, but in key countries like Nigeria, Australia, Canada, Singapore and the East African economies’.

The only other Indian voice publicly advocating India’s Commonwealth role is CRaja Mohan, a leading Delhi-based writer on international affairs who now heads Carnegie India. He had scarcely any supporters when he first broached the idea in 2011, but returned to the subject in the Indian Expresswhen Prince Charles was about to arrive. While ‘political conservatives’ in Delhi still dismissed the Commonwealth as ‘a relic from the past’, he wrote,‘a much smaller but bolder group of realists in the foreign policy establishment sense India’s new possibilities with the Commonwealth’. They would want ‘to explore with Britain the idea of a long-term partnership between Delhi and London in rejuvenating the Commonwealth’.

These ideas have so far had little public debate. The Commonwealth rarely hits the headlines unless there is a crisis, and its good works are so low-key that they get scarcely any notice. The logic is that, embracing a third of the world’s population in English-speaking democracies, it could and should play a bigger role as a significant international alliance. But that will involve a shake-up of the organisation, while boosting India will test the potential for consensus, challenging members’ diplomatic skills, not least those of India itself.

John Elliott, a former Financial Times journalist who has been based in India for over 25 years, writes a current affairs blog called Riding the Elephant

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