Posted by: John Elliott | July 5, 2011
Could India jointly co-lead the Commonwealth and counter China?
Could India and Britain jointly revive the Commonwealth, not only to boost their own co-operation, but to form a significant international alliance of English-speaking democracies that span religious and ethnic boundaries? If they did this and brought the organisation’s other 52 member countries into an active association, could the Commonwealth emerge as a new influence in a world that will be increasingly dominated by China and sternly Islamic nations?
These ideas, which contrast with earlier suggestions (usually negative) about what to do with the largely ceremonial and British-dominated Commonwealth (logo, right), have been put forward by C.Raja Mohan, one of India’s leading strategic and foreign affairs analysts, in a book of essays by Indian and British writers.
Mohan has little time for the Commonwealth as it is now, saying it has been a “political bully that was incompetent at its best, impotent at its worst, and increasingly irrelevant on the economic front”. But he suggests that India should take over some of the leadership role from London because, as a rising power, it can influence the Commonwealth’s economic prospects, offering technical, economic and security aid to the smallest states.
“If Delhi and London don’t act together and decisively, they will soon find that China, whose commercial and strategic presence across different regions of the organisation has grown, will turn the Commonwealth into an historical footnote,” he says.
The book, *Reconnecting Britain and India , was launched last month at a reception in London’s Downing Street. It has been edited by Jo Johnson, a former Financial Times India-based correspondent and now a Conservative MP, together with Rajiv Kumar, secretary general of FICCI, a leading Indian business federation.
It marks the first anniversary of a heavyweight ministerial visit to India led by David Cameron. That visit achieved little in real terms, and Cameron has complained in recent months (with little effect) to India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, about British business problems in India, notably Vodafone’s mobile phone tax liabilities and Cairn Energy’s delayed sale of gas assets.
The book lists more points that are currently wrong with India than it does about faults in Indo-British relations. This is not surprising at a time when India’s reputation for relatively good top political leadership and governance, together with gradual economic reforms and sustained economic growth, has taken a beating under the dual leadership of Sonia Gandhi, who heads the current governing coalition, and the reticent Manmohan Singh.
India foreign policy
Jo Johnson and Rajiv Kumar, in a joint introductory chapter, argue that India’s government should shed its complacency about the benefits of its young “demographic dividend” and that the private sector can thrive “despite the government”. They touch on the foreign policy theme that lies behind Mohan’s Commonwealth idea when they say that India will have to shed its “historically evolved self-perception of being a member of the ‘have-nots’ and allocate sufficient resources to the design and execution of a foreign policy commensurate with its newly acquired status”.
Manmohan Singh writes, somewhat grumpily, about “there always being room for improvement” in bilateral relations, calling for closer attention (implicitly by the UK) to areas such as fighting terrorism, and British investment in India.
More has been said about Indio-UK relations at other events in London over the past week that have included a visit by S.M.Krishan, India’s foreign minister, and Nirupama Rao, the foreign secretary. Unsurprisingly, Rao did not even mention the Commonwealth during a speech on India’s foreign policy at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The last time that the role of the Commonwealth was debated in India was late last year when there was a row about whether Prince Charles, representing the Queen as the head of the Commonwealth, or India’s president, should perform the formal opening of the at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi – ultimately a compromise solution involved both people, but not before the future role of Britain’s monarch at the head of the Commonwealth was questioned.
I have found few supporter’s for Raja Mohan’s Commonwealth idea, but he is regarded as a serious down-to-earth policy analyst who would not idly fly kites, so I asked him (right) to expand what he had written. He acknowledges that the idea “is indeed new and does not have much currency at the moment” but says that, having studied foreign policy during the years of British rule, he sees it in the context of “the power calculus of a rising India”.
“I believe if and when India becomes a great power, its foreign policy might look a lot like that of the [British] Raj in terms of providing security to weaker states and preserving regional order,” he says. “A rising India must consider taking over the leadership of the commonwealth at some point of time”. At a time when it is competing with China around the world, it could work with English-speaking leaderships of Commonwealth countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.
This links with an essay in the book by Sanjaya Baru, editor of the Business Standard, who was Manmohan Singh’s prime ministerial spokesman. He picks up a statement made at Oxford University by Singh in 2005 when the prime minister (controversially) acknowledged that there are some “beneficial consequences” of the former British rule, and added: “The sun may have set on the British Empire, but it shines continuously on the world of English-speaking peoples, thanks to India and the Indian diaspora spread across all continents and all oceans”. Baru, who wrote the prime minister’s speeches in 2005, says that the two countries’ post-colonial relationship is remarkable for “the complete absence of rancour and obsession with past prejudices”. He notes that “the most powerful axis of this new world will, for a long time, be the world of the English speaking peoples”. Two hurdles There are of course two main and maybe insuperable hurdles for India to cross before it could be accepted as a leader of English speaking peoples, possibly through a rejuvenated Commonwealth. Firstly, the Commonwealth is moribund and inadequately led – in political terms by Britain and organisationally by a low profile retired Indian diplomat. Alongside its ceremonials, it has little more than some useful technical aid functions, and there seems to be little interest in changing that. More importantly, India is dreadful at handling diplomatic relations and it is surely inconceivable, at least at present, that it has the diplomatic skills needed to become accepted as a leader by other Commonwealth countries. India is generally known for ineffectual heavy handedness on the world stage, perhaps stemming from its “have-not” instinct mentioned above, and for bullying its neighbours (apart from the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, it has good relations with none of them though there are improvements currently with Bangladesh). Some individual Indian diplomats are of course admired, and the country does important work in the United Nations, including manning international security operations. But it hesitates to take firm lines, and rarely rises effectively to international challenges. Nevertheless, the ideas of trying to revive the Commonwealth, and unite English speaking peoples, as a new international force must be worth exploring even if, as seems likely, India fails to rise to the challenge. * Reconnecting Britain and India – Ideas for an Enhanced Partnership. Edited by Jo Johnson and Rajiv Kumar. Published by Academic Foundation, Delhi, with FICCI