India must share leadership of the Commonwealth

India must share leadership of the Commonwealth
India must share leadership of the Commonwealth

It is time for the Commonwealth to introspect on its role for the 21st century and look at adding new members and acquiring a sharper financial focus. As a British citizen of Indian origin born in Uganda, I enjoy a triple connection with the Commonwealth. I was therefore drawn towards speaking in a recent debate on the Commonwealth in the House of Lords - almost like a magnetic field. The focus of my remarks was on two themes. Firstly, the relative roles of Britain and India as two linchpins among the Commonwealth′s 52 members and, secondly, suggestions on some bold steps which the Commonwealth should consider to secure its relevance well into the 21st century. Britain's interest in rejuvenating the Commonwealth is self-evident. It suits the country′s post-Brexit narrative and objectives, particularly on trade. However, multilateral organisations are not fashionable at the moment, given the rise of nationalistic and protectionist tendencies, so we should legitimately ask: why would 51 countries want to play ball with Britain As part of addressing this fundamental question, it is critical that we examine India's future role. The modern Commonwealth effectively started in 1949 with the London Declaration, which allowed India to remain a member even though it was no longer a dominion, and thereby it became the first republic to do so. As part of this settlement, India agreed to accept the British sovereign as a symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and, as such, as Head of the Commonwealth. This pragmatic solution secured the participation of India, which could easily have taken a more anti-imperialist stand. To its credit, India's leadership was more far-sighted and adopted Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of “forget and forgive”. Speaking on 17 May 1949 to the Indian Parliament, Prime Minister Nehru -previously an arch opponent of continued Commonwealth membership - said that: "I had a feeling when I was considering this matter in London ... in a small measure perhaps, I had done something that would have met with the approval of Gandhiji." Today, India represents more than half the Commonwealth population of 2.4 billion and is the joint largest economy alongside the UK. For obvious reasons, Britain has historically been seen as primus inter pares among Commonwealth members but I believe it is a mantle that should now be shared with India. This might be seen as a sensitive subject but we should not be afraid to address it directly. This is not to dilute the equal value and status of every member but it recognises the geopolitical realities and choices open to an emerging superpower such as India, for which a seat on the UN Security Council is long overdue and only a matter of time. The second area which we should assess candidly is the future ingredients of success. Yes, the Commonwealth enjoys some alluring features: scale, growth, youth and diversity. All these are certainly necessary but in my view not sufficient to take the organisation to the next level. I believe the Commonwealth should consider three specific suggestions. The first is to aggressively add new members. As statisticians would confirm, the power of any network is proportionate to the square of the number of nodes, so that each new member is of increasing value to the others. It is hugely positive that Mozambique and Rwanda have joined in recent years and that South Sudan and Gambia are in the queue. However, the Commonwealth needs to be much more ambitious. Why not attract Japan or the Gulf states, or even some European countries-perhaps those sitting outside the Eurozone Given the shifting plates of the world geopolitical order, this is an opportune moment to be brave and think big. The second proposal is to create a sharper financial focus that provides some more glue to bind the Commonwealth together. Despite the relative unpopularity of multilateral organisations it is interesting to note that two new bodies have been created in recent years, both of them banks: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS' New Development Bank. The idea of a Commonwealth bank has been doing the rounds for some time but there is little point in creating a copycat entity. However, the other two are focused on infrastructure and development respectively, so there does appear to be a gap in the market for an institution focused on global trade finance. This would provide a sharper and more practical focus for the Commonwealth and should be considered very carefully. Thirdly, I believe that it is appropriate to review the leadership profile of the organisation. In doing so, I am in no way criticising the current or previous secretariat of the Commonwealth and support the laudable reform agenda advocated Baroness Scotland. However, I feel strongly that the role of Secretary-General should be seen as one of the top global roles that public servants covet in the same way that there is fierce jockeying for position to become the UN Secretary-General, the head of the IMF or president of the European Council. We should absolutely aspire to entice a David Cameron or a Stephen Harper; a Kevin Rudd or a Manmohan Singh to become Secretary-General. This would be a worthy ambition and help to take the organisation to the next level. It is an interesting thought experiment to apply the “visitor from Mars” test to the Commonwealth and ask whether we would create the organisation if it did not exist today My heart, influenced by my triple Commonwealth identity, would, of course, say yes, but my head would hesitate a little more. However, given that the Commonwealth does exist, we should unequivocally build and strengthen it further so that it achieves its full potential. In this effort, India must take a leading role. Lord Jitesh Gadhia is a UK-based businessman and investment banker and was made a Life Peer last year.

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