As the UK prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) in April next year, Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall will be in India for two-days beginning November 8 to mark the celebrations of the ‘UK-India Year of Culture’.
But the heir to the British throne will have an even more important task at hand, that is, to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the Commonwealth Summit in London in March next year, signalling the importance the UK attaches to India’s role in this multilateral group.
Importance of India
Britain is especially keen to see Indian participation at the prime ministerial level given that Indian PMs have been absent from the last three summits, sending others instead to represent the country. This is perhaps an indication of the low priority New Delhi attaches to the Commonwealth despite affirming the continuing relevance of this comity of 52 nations. Even Modi who has criss-crossed the globe as part of his diplomatic outreach, chose to skip the last CHOGM held in 2015 in Malta and sent external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj instead to the biennial meet.
Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh too gave the CHOGM meets in 2011 and 2013 a miss. In 2011, UPA-2 cited other pressing engagements abroad for PM Singh’s absence from the Summit in Perth, Australia, while in 2013 he was forced to boycott the Summit in Sri Lanka owing to domestic pressure from Tamil parties protesting against its human rights record.
But as UK prepares for life post-Brexit and seeks fresh pastures beyond the Continent, it can ill-afford to allow this state of affairs to continue. More so as it is looking to leverage the Commonwealth in general and India in particular to boost trade.
Trade and services ties
Post-Brexit, the two countries want to expand their bilateral trade which was pegged at $14.02 billion in 2015-16. The two sides have also been looking to work out a trade deal. According to a Commonwealth report titled ‘The Commonwealth in the Unfolding Global Trade Landscape’, trade within this grouping was pegged at $592 billion in 2013 and is projected to surpass the $1 trillion mark by 2020. Asian members account for 55 per cent of intra-Commonwealth trade with India, Malaysia and Singapore contributing to over half the total intra-Commonwealth goods exports.
A founding member, India is the largest member, and the fourth largest contributor to its budget after the UK, Australia and Canada. Besides, India shares close ties with many Commonwealth members including the African nations and island states.
It will be incumbent upon the UK to address the growing scepticism among members. Many member states believe its sustainability, relevance and efficacy has deteriorated.
As the UK works to persuade India into playing a greater role in the Commonwealth, it needs to tell New Delhi what it stands to gain. Among the reasons put forth by PM May’s government for India to throw its weight behind the Commonwealth is that it can generate more influence for itself and increase its soft power.
New Delhi clearly would want something more substantive from the UK in return for backing it on the Commonwealth reforms front. A sticking point between the two governments has been restrictive visas for Indian students and IT professionals. It was an issue that cast a shadow over Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to India in November last year with New Delhi making it clear that nothing less than a relaxation in visa norms would work for it.
However, with 10 Downing firm in its resolve not to grant concessions, it’s unlikely to bag a trade pact with India. And is likely to find the pitch queered vis-à-vis its endeavour to have India’s strong support to revitalise the Commonwealth.