History has a curious habit of repeating itself. In 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, arrived in Britain for the fourth Commonwealth heads of government meeting, hosted by Clement Attlee. They were joined by leaders from Australia, Canada, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), New Zealand, Pakistan and South Africa, which all recognised the British monarch as Head of State.
Among them, Nehru was a known sceptic of the Commonwealth, keen to shed the last vestiges of imperial rule. Severing all colonial ties would also allow him to pursue a distinctive foreign policy of non-alignment and build relations with countries like Russia and China. As India made plans to become a republic from 1950, events came to a head. Following an intense campaign led by Earl Mountbatten — Nehru opened the door to some form of ongoing association if an acceptable formula could be found.
Nehru had also started to re-evaluate the political and economic advantages for India of being conciliatory in its formative years of freedom. Mahatma’s Gandhi’s philosophy of “forget and forgive” is likely to have played on Nehru’s mind. So statesmanship and draughtsmanship came together in the text of the London Declaration, which “affirmed India’s desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.”
At a State banquet afterwards, King George VI quipped: “Mr Nehru you have reduced to me to an ‘as such’.” And so the modern Commonwealth was born. Each successive country to gain independence, or become a republic, could comfortably follow India’s lead and remain in the club. Following her accession to the throne, the Queen became Head of the Commonwealth, not by right of succession but by common consent.
Now, almost seven decades later, as leaders of the much-enlarged Commonwealth family of 53 nations gather in London for their 25th meeting, all eyes are once again on the Indian prime minister. Neither Narendra Modi, nor his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh, have attended the last three summits. And like Nehru, Modi has struggled with the relevance of the Commonwealth, looking instead to the US, Japan, Asean, and increasingly Israel, as his innermost circle of allies.
This matters to the group. Without India’s active engagement, the Commonwealth would be a shadow of its potential. It is by far the biggest member, representing more than half of its 2.4 billion combined population and, alongside Britain, the biggest economy. After 66 years at the helm the question of the Queen’s successor is also on the horizon. With the Commonwealth at another inflection point, Indians are asking the fundamental question: what is the Commonwealth for?
This is a point that the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has also made in its latest report, calling for “clear aims for what the UK wants to achieve ... with a credible strategy, specific objectives and metrics for success”. It is clear the Commonwealth cannot be a fully-fledged political bloc given the widely diverging interests, and long-standing bilateral disputes, between its members.
But the UK could, for example, build a caucus in the UN bridging its role as the sole Commonwealth member of the Security Council with the General Assembly. Nor can the Commonwealth be a multilateral defence pact like Nato without defining common interests and a framework for military coordination. So this leaves economic collaboration as the only alternative.
A greater focus on prosperity would suit the British agenda. The combined GDP of the Commonwealth is over $10 trillion (Dh36.7 trillion) and includes some of the fastest growing countries and regions in the world. Intra-Commonwealth trade and investment is projected to surpass $1.5 trillion by 2020. It is also a conduit for the fast-growing corridor of south-south activity between developing economies, now representing over a quarter of world trade. So the prosperity agenda is plausible but it cannot stand alone.
Britain must show the other 52 members that its renewed focus on the Commonwealth is not just an opportunistic antidote to Brexit but a real change of heart from the British Government. Here too the Foreign Affairs Committee has called for a “long-term vision for the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth” and clarity on what “members can expect from global Britain”.A greater focus on trade and investment should certainly be welcomed by prime minister Modi as he enters a critical pre-election year. Delivering tangible results from his economic reforms will be a top priority.
Aspirational India is becoming impatient India. Beyond the short-term electoral horizon, there is also a wider geopolitical prize too. There are few international forums where India doesn’t face head-on competition from other emerging superpowers. This might be relevant in Africa, with 19 Commonwealth members, allowing India to bring counterbalance to the region. More broadly, the global rules-based order is in desperate need of new champions, like India, who are in a position of influence with Russia. Although India’s ambivalence towards the Commonwealth is understandable given the colonial baggage, and lack of clear purpose and direction, there is arguably more alignment today than in 1949.
Last November, the Prince of Wales visited Delhi, meeting prime minister Modi for the first time. He was following in the footsteps of his favourite Uncle Dickie (Earl Mountbatten) on a mission to persuade an Indian prime minister of the merits of the Commonwealth. By all accounts, the meetings were warm and friendly and it is possible to see how the contours of a New London Declaration might emerge. India could take a lead on trade and investment and shift the centre of gravity of the Commonwealth away from London. As for future leadership, Indians understand families and the need for a “family arrangement” and “as such” might graciously repeat Nehru’s words of almost 70 years ago and accept Prince Charles as the next Head of the Commonwealth.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Lord Gadhia is a British-Indian investment banker and businessman and member of UK-India CEO Forum. Tom Tugendhat, MP, is chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.