Our strategic expert offers an overview of India's participation in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on April 19-20.India's new political interest in the Commonwealth is evident by the participation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London on 19-20 April 2018, marking the first Indian prime ministerial presence in a Commonwealth Summit after nearly a decade. This is expected to lead to a larger, and possibly leadership, role in the Commonwealth for India in both multilateral and bilateral terms.
In the past, the Commonwealth has evoked a mixed reaction within India. Although India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, played a key role in the creation of the modern Commonwealth in 1949, Indian policy-makers over the years have considered it as a relic of empire and steeped in colonial legacy. As a result, the interest taken in the Commonwealth by Indian governments has been sporadic and generally lukewarm. In 1983, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi hosted CHOGM in New Delhi and until 2009, Indian prime ministers have enthusiastically attended the biennial CHOGM summits.Yet, for the past eight-and-a-half years, Indian prime ministers have been absent for a variety of bilateral reasons, not necessarily related to the Commonwealth as a whole. In 2011, India sent its then Vice-President Hamid Ansari to the 22nd CHOGM in Perth, Australia, due to an ongoing dispute with Australia over uranium supplies to India; in 2013, due to pressure from then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's southern political allies over human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, then Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid represented India at the 23rd CHOGM in Colombo, Sri Lanka; and in 2015, then Vice-President Ansari again represented India due to Prime Minister Modi's “prior scheduling commitments”. The presence of senior Indian officials in the Commonwealth Secretariat, including Kamalesh Sharma as Secretary General for two four-year terms from April 2008-March 2016, did not much change India's attitude towards the Commonwealth.
However, Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is beginning to take a new political interest in the Commonwealth. This is being shaped through the lowering of the rhetoric of the Commonwealth as an institution with a colonial legacy and the raising of
prospective leadership role within the Commonwealth. This appears to be due to five factors:
First, the membership of the Commonwealth, virtually spanning the entire globe.
The Commonwealth comprises 53 states located in
, Asia, the Caribbean and the Americas, Europe and the Pacific. For a rising great power like India, with its growing economic interests resulting in an activist global foreign policy, membership and prospective leadership of the Commonwealth helps enhance its bilateral ties with individual countries. This is especially important as India's foreign and security policy priorities include its neighbourhood (as well as the Indian Ocean) and the African and Indo-Pacific regions. Of the 53 Commonwealth states, 19 are located in Africa and 12 are littoral or island states of the Indian Ocean.
Second, the growing importance of small states for India's foreign policy.
A high proportion of Commonwealth members, about 60 per cent, are small states. Of the 53 members, 31 states have populations under 1.5 million. In some of these states spread across the globe, India has no diplomatic presence; diplomatic contact with these states usually takes place at the United Nations in New York. These small states tend to greatly value membership of the Commonwealth.In discussion with the author, Amitav Banerji, a senior former Commonwealth Secretariat official, noted that “India has traditionally undervalued the potential of its relations with the smaller states of the Commonwealth. Collectively, they provide significant opportunities for India's foreign and economic policies”. The Modi government now perceives considerable value in reaching out to these states on the basis of common Commonwealth membership. This could also help it in the future secure votes during key UN or other multilateral fora contests India is involved in.
Third, growing preference for South-South cooperation.
In view of the shift in global economics and politics towards the East and the South, many Commonwealth states prefer to deal with emerging economies. India has the largest economy in the Commonwealth after the UK; indeed, later this year/early next year, India is expected to overtake the UK as the fifth-largest economy in the world and the largest in the Commonwealth. India is also currently the fastest-growing large economy in the world. Many developing member-countries, especially the smaller states, are therefore now interested in South-South development cooperation rather than the traditional North-South model.
Fourth, Commonwealth-wide presence of Indian diaspora.
For the Modi government, the Indian diaspora is an important cultural, and potentially political, priority for its foreign policy, in contrast to previous governments. The fact that there are
Indian communities in virtually every Commonwealth country further underscores the importance of the Commonwealth.
Finally, China is not and will never be a member of the Commonwealth.
has risen dramatically as India's principal foreign and security challenge. The recent military stand-off on the Doklam plateau exacerbated bilateral tensions. Although the optics in India's relations towards China have recently changed to encompass a lowering of rhetoric in preparation for Modi's visit to China in June for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit, India has real concerns over its territorial dispute with China and China's expanding influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. China's absence in the Commonwealth provides diplomatic opportunities for India to raise its profile within the forum.However, there is some concern that Pakistan, an increasingly active member of the Commonwealth with whom India has tense relations, may seek to curb any Indian leadership role in the forum at the behest of its close ally China.
At the same time, it is clear that the traditional leader of the Commonwealth and this year's summit host, the UK, is keen for
to take on a new leadership role within the Commonwealth. The 25
Commonwealth summit was originally to be hosted by the South Pacific island state of Vanuatu at the end of 2017, but was shifted to the UK after the devastation it suffered from tropical Cyclone Pam in March 2016. The UK will therefore be the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office until the next CHOGM, expected in 2020.The assumption of a leadership role by India is expected to improve India-UK bilateral ties, hit by the uncertainties of Brexit. The UK sees India as one of its leading
in the world post-Brexit. The first visit of Theresa May as Prime Minister outside the EU was to India in early November 2016. This also signifies an important power shift between the two countries - whereas earlier the UK was more important to India than India was to the UK, today the reverse is true, namely, that India has become more important to the UK than the UK is to India.
India's new political interest in the Commonwealth is encouraging. This provides a focus on the Commonwealth looking towards the future, not the past. India has clear opportunities to enhance its global role and maximise its bilateral relations within the multilateral framework of the Commonwealth. At the same time, it will seek to focus on enhancing trade and investment in a multilateral Commonwealth-wide context. But, it remains to be seen how India positions itself at the London CHOGM and what kind of new leadership role it assumes in a multilateral organisation in whose creation it played a key role.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London.