Today's Editorial

14 May 2018

Leading the Commonwealth

Source: By Salman Haidar: The Statesman

India has made a notable success of its relations with the Commonwealth. This was achieved through imaginative engagement with that body and steady enlargement of the relationship between India and other Commonwealth members, so as to serve the collective needs of all of them. Their number now having increased to as many as 53, the Commonwealth has matured and become an important global forum that addresses the major international issues that are of concern to its members.

One of its special features is the regular meetings of its leaders at the level of Head of State or Government, which may be similar to such gatherings in other multilateral settings, but has its own distinctive way of conducting business, with a way of functioning that encourages the free flow of debate and discussion, rather than more formal exchanges and speeches, such as those more often encountered at the UN and other multilateral forums.

India has always been prominent at these discussions, having realized at an early stage that participation conferred useful benefits to the country and to the Commonwealth as a whole, and has taken a leading part in them. Through its consistent role India has contributed much to the Commonwealth and it can legitimately be regarded as one of the main pillars of that body. In the early stages, being part of the Commonwealth was not the more or less simple and straightforward matter that it has since become. Britain was shedding its imperial overload and India could be uncomfortable on occasion with some of the lingering manifestations of the earlier age.

There were other partners within the organization too to be taken into account, not always seeing eye-to-eye with India; some of them that had long been within the imperial system enjoyed the benefits of the well-established links of a previous era, could be slow to change or to subsume their perceptions and interests in those of the Commonwealth as a whole. Yet the moderate good sense which is a hallmark of the body encouraged the members to make full use of the diplomatic and other assets they had inherited through their shared association, and helped keep the membership together, to their mutual benefit.

With India playing a central part, the Commonwealth embarked upon the important task of collective change in order to make the organization more amenable to the needs of the modern world, which was a considerable challenge requiring innovative thinking and imaginative diplomacy. In the pursuit of this task, as in many others of its other important initiatives, the lead was taken by India which took the bold step of accepting a substantive link with its former colonial foe, Britain, thereby establishing fresh ties with the Commonwealth as a whole, many of whose members had already developed close ties with India.

This decision was never without an element of controversy, for there were many in India who were sensitive to the continued link with Britain as provided by the Commonwealth, considering that it tended to diminish the independence and freedom of the country. But India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, gave a firm lead and was the key architect of a stronger outreach to core countries of the Commonwealth, seeing strong mutual advantage in their closer shared association.

While the political aspects of the Commonwealth have dominated the interchanges from the start, the economic benefits provided by the association are also valuable to its members, especially the smaller and more remote island developing countries. The Commonwealth has played an important part in the development of these entities and has made a useful contribution to their growth and prosperity, being especially mindful of the fact that many of newly admitted members had only recently embarked on the task of development.

A number of economically more advanced of the Commonwealth countries have contributed substantially to the progress of the others and are among significant donor countries of the Commonwealth. The role of aid-givers may not be as significant today as was earlier the case, given the great strides made by developing countries in recent years and with the economic advantage having shifted towards the developing world. Notable, too, is the expansion of India’s role as provider of aid and of support to some of the more vulnerable countries of the organization.

To reiterate, one of the most distinctive features of the Commonwealth as an international forum is its readiness to adhere to democratic ways of government and rule of law, and to observe methods and processes derived ultimately from that connection. As already mentioned, these values have not always been fully observed but the main principles that have guided the Commonwealth have remained constant, and in this as in so much else India has been in the lead; its democratic credentials are strongly established and it has become an example to others. The Commonwealth has some distinctive formal features that give it a specific way of preceding that is greatly valued by its members. The most notable of these is the position of Britain’s Queen as the symbolic Head of the Commonwealth which confers respect but deliberately does not confer authority.

More important perhaps is the symbolic status of the Monarch that is an important asset for the organization and creates something of the collegial spirit that is much valued by the members. During the recent CHOGM the question of the succession to the Queen attracted some discussion, as the Queen herself was believed to have felt that felt that the time had come for her to hand over and pass the baton to the next in the line of succession. The idea seems to be to provide for continuity in the affairs of the Commonwealth, and to assure the durability of the institution she heads.

The Commonwealth, unlike the UN and other multilateral groups, can be relatively informal in its functioning, especially when compared with other multilateral bodies. Typically, participants at meetings of CHOGM are ready for more vigorous debate among themselves than is often to be seen at the UN. Perhaps it is the fact that they share a common language that facilitates this sort of interchange, which can often be forthright. The Heads come regularly to the meetings, which indicate their sense that they can gain much from each other.

Mr Modi has been irregular in his attendance that could be one reason why the Heads return regularly to participate in the meetings of the Heads of Government. Mr Modi has been irregular in his attendance but the success of his recent visit might encourage him to make more frequent visits in the future.

 

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