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[Sansad TV] Diplomatic Dispatch: India and the Commonwealth

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  • Recently, the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) took place from June 20 to 25 in Kigali, Rwanda.
  • External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar led the Indian delegation.

In this article, we examine the role of the Commonwealth and India’s unique relationship with it.

What is the Commonwealth of Nations?

  • The Commonwealth of Nations is an intergovernmental organization of 53 member states that are mostly former territories of the British Empire.
  • It dates back to the first half of the 20th century with the decolonization of the British Empire through increased self-governance of its territories.
  • It was originally created as the British Commonwealth of Nations through the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference.
  • It was formalized by the UK through the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
  • The symbol of this free association is Queen Elizabeth II, who is the Head of the Commonwealth.

History of its creation

  • The Commonwealth was created in the early 1900s when nations that were formerly a part of the British Empire began to secede.
  • India is one of the founding members of the modern Commonwealth.
  • 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.
  • Membership today is based on free and equal voluntary cooperation.

Working of Commonwealth

  • Commonwealth members has no legal obligations to one another.
  • Instead, they are united by language, history, culture and their shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Actual functioning: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM)

  • CHOGM which takes place every two years is a platform for all Commonwealth leaders to meet and discuss issues pertaining to the Commonwealth.
  • The motto behind the meeting is to reaffirm common values, address the shared global challenges and agree how to work to create a better future.

Why is Britain promoting Commonwealth?

  • The Commonwealth has become an important forum for London to recalibrate foreign policy.
  • Britain also wants to reinvent itself politically after Brexit.

India & the Commonwealth

  • India became a member in 1947, the first with chiefly non-European populations.
  • India’s new political interest in the Commonwealth is evident by the participation of PM at the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London in 2018.
  • It marked the first Indian PM’s presence in a Commonwealth Summit after nearly a decade.

India’s interest in the Commonwealth

  • Old global grouping: First, the membership of the Commonwealth, virtually spanning the entire globe.
  • Scope for bilateral engagement: For India, membership and prospective leaders of the Commonwealth helps enhance its bilateral ties with individual countries.
  • Extending India’s soft power: The growing importance of small states for India’s foreign policy. For a rising India, the Commonwealth is the most natural theatre to demonstrate its credibility as a “leading power”.
  • Indian diaspora: Commonwealth-wide presence of Indian diaspora who once went there as indentured labour is another factor.
  • Ring-fencing against rivals:  China is not and will never be a member of the Commonwealth.
  • Economic interests: India has the largest economy in the Commonwealth after the UK, India is expected to overtake the UK as the fifth-largest economy in the world and the largest in the Commonwealth.

Issues with the Commonwealth

  • No agenda: The grouping has no political or economic power, and even former immigration advantages between Commonwealth countries have also ceased to exist.
  • Declining relevance as a group: Considering its declining importance former PM Manmohan Singh skipped two CHOGM meets, while Narendra Modi didn’t attend the last one, held in Malta in 2015.
  • Imperialistic setup: Amidst the calls for the position of Commonwealth Head to be more democratically shared or rotated the announcement of Prince Charles as the successor has also put a dent on its democratic credentials.

Importance of Commonwealth

  • Reach to small nations: From the Indian perspective, the Commonwealth offers opportunities to reach out to small states that make up around 60% of Commonwealth members.
  • Extending diplomatic presence: In some of these states, India has no diplomatic presence, and forging relations with these countries could help India secure crucial votes during UN or multilateral contests it is involved in.
  • Voice for small nations: It is also a larger network of countries than any other, except for the UN, which gives a chance for smaller countries to have their voices heard and make their concerns heard.
  • Most peaceful alliance: On a geopolitical scale, the Commonwealth continues to be an impressive show of the force of a peaceful alliance.
  • Democratic bloc: Also, for India, it provides an excellent opportunity to give shape to a model of international cooperation and partnership distinct from that of China.

Way Forward

  • India’s new political interest in the Commonwealth is encouraging. This provides a focus on the Commonwealth looking towards the future.
  • India has clear opportunities to enhance its global role and maximize its bilateral relations within the multilateral framework of the Commonwealth.
  • It will seek to focus on enhancing trade and investment in a multilateral Commonwealth-wide context.
  • The bloc may prove to be an important channel through which India can attempt to build a consensus to develop collaborative ways in dealing with global institutional reforms.

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