Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has emphasised wider interaction with a larger number of countries beyond the traditional focus on the extended neighbourhood and the larger powers. The 53-member Commonwealth provides the opportunity to remain connected with its members, with a summit every two years. But the Commonwealth lost much of its relevance in the past decades, as member countries got involved in regional groupings and other newer multilateral organisations.
Britain, which has taken over as Commonwealth chair, hopes to revitalise the organisation giving it a new direction during its two-year tenure. In its rediscovery of the Commonwealth, the Theresa May government has sought to rope in India and Australia, the two largest economies in the grouping, to take on a more active role in the organisation.
India’s own declining interest in the Commonwealth was evident from the fact that no Indian prime minister had attended a summit since 2009. The only connection most Indians make with the Commonwealth is the Commonwealth Games. But Modi’s presence at the London summit has added to the significance of the organisation’s search for a new path and identity. British leaders wooed Modi with personal invitations to attend the summit and to play a leadership role in the Commonwealth.
Much has been made of Modi being one among only three leaders to have a meeting with Queen Elizabeth.
Though the Commonwealth is a grouping of mainly Britain and its former colonies (some other countries like Rwanda joined in later), London’s interest in the organisation had declined especially after Britain moved closer to the European Market in the 1970s. For London, the Commonwealth meant little beyond the ceremonial but many of the smaller members continued to value the connection with Britain. Over time, the sheen has waned and the grouping has run out of energy and lost its direction. But the prospect of reducing economic linkages with the European Union has brought a rethink in Britain on the usefulness of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet in London provides Britain the opportunity to revive the connections with the 52 other member states, all generally well disposed towards it.
Post-Brexit, Britain is reworking its relationships with other countries around the world. As it moves away from its economic integration with the EU, Britain is turning towards the fast growing economies in Asia and Africa. The Commonwealth is a ready platform of nations with links to Britain spread over Asia, Africa, the Americas, Caribbean and the Pacific to help it project its global influence.
However, while Britain embraces the Commonwealth, it will have to show a greater sensitivity to immigration issues.
The Commonwealth had been a body of significance during the decolonisation era; it was a useful arena for the small and newly independent states. It gave them a voice and an opportunity to mingle with other likeminded as well as powerful states. In the 1980s Britain and Australia faced pressure from other member states for their sporting ties with South Africa during the anti-apartheid campaign.
For the small states, which form about 32 of the Commonwealth members, it has been a means to have a bigger impact on issues of concern. The smaller nations see greater benefits of Commonwealth membership; it allowed the vulnerable small island states to draw a collective focus on the affects of climate change during the 2009 CHOGM summit in Trinidad and Tobago.
The Commonwealth has emphasised on development, human rights, good governance and observation of election norms. It has taken action against its member states on issues of governance and human rights, but its record has not always been consistent. It suspended Pakistan and Fiji after the military takeover in those countries but its actions over Zimbabwe caused a rift in the organisation between the African members and the developed countries. Its effectiveness declined and it has lost the leverage it once had over the members. In October 2016, the Maldives quit the Commonwealth when the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) sought punitive action over the political unrest and the controversial ouster of former President Mohammed Nasheed in 2012.
In this period India has enhanced its involvement with other multilateral and regional organizations as part of its widened global outreach. Before reaching London, Modi attended the first India-Nordic summit co-hosted by him and the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in Stockholm, which was attended by the leaders of the five Nordic countries, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark and Norway.
The launch of the Nordic summit is in line with India’s Pacific engagement. The Forum of India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) for cooperation between India and 14 small island states of the Pacific was set up in 2014 in Suva, Fiji. The India-Africa Forum has been energised with regular interactions with African leaders. India can now enhance its role in the Commonwealth.