Denying democracy to itself

CHOGM: PRINCE CHARLES AT HELM?

India’s new-found enthusiasm for the Commonwealth, clearly shown through its participation at the prime ministerial level at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) after almost a decade, is bringing forth interesting justifications, some valid, some exaggerated.

It is understandable that Britain, as it seeks new moorings in a post-Brexit world, should seek to consolidate its old colonial constituency — although in new garb — but India, which is the largest member of the organisation, needs to take a dispassionate view of the Commonwealth’s importance to its interests. For this purpose, a realistic analysis of the additional value the Commonwealth can now provide to India’s outreach to its members in Africa, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean and Americas and Asia is essential.

In a media briefing on the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s departure abroad, the Ministry of External Affairs placed his presence at Chogm 2018 as part of India’s deeper engagement with multi-lateral organisations including Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

It also emphasised the Commonwealth’s commitment to democratic ideals, peace and justice and promotion of citizens’ rights and its ‘niche position” in promoting the welfare of small states and small island states and in “giving them a voice” on global issues of particular concern to them. The former aspect’s significance is over-rated for the cement that truly binds small states to major powers is material assistance not the attraction of democratic practices but the latter point can be leveraged by India to some
extent.

There can be no quarrel with India using the Commonwealth as one more platform to foster its engagement with these states. Its decision, announced during Chogm to double its contribution to the Commonwealth for its technical assistance to small states is appropriate. However, in using the Commonwealth it has to conscious that its basic engagement with the small states has to be direct. Indeed, it is so doing through the India-Africa summit process and the India-Pacific Island states meetings. The Commonwealth can only play a minor role in India’s diplomatic play and provide an additionality.

Notwithstanding the attention Britain devoted to Modi through rolling out a red carpet in London, coinciding a bilateral visit along with Chogm, making special gestures and by projecting that India will have a special role in the organisation the Commonwealth’s usefulness cannot be taken at face value. The Commonwealth is and will remain, at its core, a British enterprise. The fact that its leadership of the organisation, even if it will be symbolic, will remain with the British Royal family points in that direction.

 For India in 2018, Parivaarvad should be as unacceptable in domestic politics as in modern international organisations; it is therefore regrettable that the Queen Elizabeth openly canvassed the Heads of Governments for Prince Charles to be her successor. It is noteworthy that Charles did not mention any Indian leader among the Commonwealth “giants” in a speech that he made at the inaugural ceremony.

Was he following the traditional British policy of equating India and Pakistan? Since no Pakistani leader is among the giants, did he avoid mentioning any Indian too? Besides, in what capacity he was allowed to make a speech when his mother opened the Chogm, is an obvious question. The leaders explicitly endorsed Charles as the next Head of the Commonwealth after their discussions at the Retreat. They did not prescribe a term of office for him.

Unless it is their intention to do so later, the Commonwealth will be denying international democracy even while it emphasises within the domestic jurisdictions of its member-states. As the leaders decide all issues by consensus, it would be appropriate for the government to reveal its stand on these decisions even if it did not wish to stand against the emerging consensus at the meeting.

The final communique revolves around the theme of a fairer, more prosperous and sustainable common future. The stress on a common future is timely for the world faces challenges that have a global impact and can only be tackled through intense international cooperation. Foremost among them is climate change.

This is of critical importance to India for its impact will be great on all parts of the country including the coastal areas. Small island member-states of the Commonwealth are also particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Blue Charter

Thus, the adoption of the Commonwealth Blue Charter which is designed to mitigate climate change’s impact on the oceans is very relevant to India. It must now purposefully contribute to the development of the envisaged action plan. In the context of climate change, Indian negotiators did well to get a profile for the International Solar Alliance which is an Indian initiative.

Prior to Chogm, Indian diplomats had correctly cautioned that it was not the forum where countries like Pakistan, which is a Commonwealth member, could be named and shamed for being an epicentre of terrorism. However, it is noteworthy that the word terrorism was basically replaced by the term violent extremism in the main paragraph dealing with the phenomenon.

It is only in the section dealing with transnational crime that the meeting called for measures to strengthen cooperation to staunch the flow of terrorist financing. In this connection, it is satisfying that the implementation of the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force are emphasised but Indian negotiators must in future work to ensure that references to terrorism are not avoided.

Some commentators have mentioned that Commonwealth is of special importance to India as China is not part of the group. China’s shadow looms over many member-states of the organisation. It offers a different model of political practice and development and as it is eager to foster an international constituency it is leveraging its financial clout through assistance packages.

The Commonwealth heritage is all very good but small states and small island states that are ‘living’ at the margins look for economic assistance. Hence, unless the larger Commonwealth countries can match China, its embrace will increase. India can play a part through its human capacity development programmes and by paying greater diplomatic attention to them. This would require sustained effort but it will give it direct advantage.

(The writer is former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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