Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UK last week (April 17-20) to participate in a multilateral Commonwealth summit and hold bilateral talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May. This was Modi’s second visit to the UK in 2.5 years and the first time in nearly a decade that an Indian prime minister had attended the biennial Commonwealth summit.
Although Modi’s participation in the Commonwealth summit was partly due to the UK’s invitation as host, India’s aim to ‘step up’ its role in the Commonwealth could serve to enhance India-UK relations post-Brexit.
Right from the start it was clear that the UK intended to accord a special status to Modi, among the other 52 leaders attending the Commonwealth summit. British foreign secretary Boris Johnson welcomed him on arrival at London’s Heathrow Airport; Modi was one of only three heads of government to be granted an individual private audience with the Queen and he had two meetings with May.
The main agreement between the two countries was an India-UK Tech Partnership for the creation of high-value jobs and the promotion of trade and investment. A significant, though less-noticed, development was the use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in the bilateral joint statement. This highlighted that “a free and open Indo-Pacific area is in the interests of the UK, India and the international community”.
This term has gained currency in India and ‘like-minded’ countries like Japan, the US and Australia concerned in varying degrees over China’s expanding influence in the region. This indicates growing bilateral consensus on the importance of this region as well as the freedom of navigation and overflight and adherence to the rules of law. This takes place soon after May’s decision to refuse to officially endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative during her visit to China last January, a project which India is staunchly opposed to.
Surprisingly, an MoU on the return of illegal immigrants was not signed; reportedly due to a failure to agree upon the number of returnees and the speed at which they would be required to be returned.
This visit was in marked contrast to Modi’s previous visit in November 2015. The reasons for this were clear. There was then no sign or sight of Brexit; the referendum for Britain to exit the EU (Brexit) took place seven months later – in June 2016, disrupting the UK’s energy and enthusiasm for boosting relations with India. In November 2015, Modi had been in office for just 18 months; it was the first bilateral visit of an Indian prime minister to the UK in nearly a decade; and there lay ahead an exciting domestic developmental agenda. This time round, India’s domestic political agenda held sway with five state elections and the next general elections less than 12 months away, about the same time as Brexit takes place.
Even though India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, played a key role in the creation of the modern Commonwealth, an international political and development organisation, in 1949, India has largely considered it as a relic of empire and steeped in colonial legacy. As a result, the interest taken in the Commonwealth by Indian governments has been sporadic and generally lukewarm.
For the past 8.5 years, Indian prime ministers have been absent from Commonwealth summits. But with the UK hosting the Commonwealth summit at Lancaster House and Windsor Palace, the British government made extraordinary efforts to seek Modi’s confirmation, including a letter from the Queen and a visit by Prince Charles to Delhi; largely as a result of which Modi provided an early confirmation.
India comprises over half the total Commonwealth of 2.4 billion people. More importantly, as the fastest-growing large economy in the world expecting to overtake the UK as the largest Commonwealth (and fifth largest global) economy later this year, India possesses a certain gravitas within the organisation. A recent report of the Commonwealth Secretariat recognised India’s key position in driving intra-Commonwealth trade and investment to over $1.5 trillion by 2020 and pointed out that intra-Commonwealth investment had seen a dramatic rise driven by India in recent years, as a leading recipient of greenfield Foreign Direct Investment, more than doubling the amount it received over the last ten years.
India now seeks to ‘step up’ its role in the Commonwealth for four reasons:
First, as a prospective leader
With the UK seeking to provide new momentum and a sense of purpose to the Commonwealth, which Australia and Canada are unable to lead, there is a natural focus towards India. During the summit, India made clear that it is willing to ‘step up’ its role in the Commonwealth. It has announced the doubling of its contribution to the Commonwealth fund for technical cooperation to $2 million; raised $2.5 of $5 million for the trade financing facility for small states; and doubled the country’s contribution to the Commonwealth offices of small states. India also aims to help build the capacity of the coastal nations through training programmes at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa.
It is also unlikely that key political decisions, such as an attempt to bring back Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth fold, can now be made in the absence of India. Yet, India will shy away from any overt leadership role for the time being, instead focusing on trade and investment promotion; the small states; and, importantly, a key change in approach.
As India’s highly successful high commissioner to the UK, Yash Sinha, has pointedly written:
“While the advocacy agenda of the Commonwealth has focused for too long on a prescriptive approach, we need to find a way to assist most member states in meeting their developmental goals through an institution building or capacity building approach, rather than a rights-based approach.”
Second, to enhance its global role and maximise its bilateral relations
The Commonwealth, virtually spanning the entire globe, has a membership of 53 countries, making it the third largest organisation after the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Of these, 19 are located in Africa and 12 are littoral or island states of the Indian Ocean; a high proportion, 31 states, are small states with a population of 1.5 million or less.
In some of these states, India has no diplomatic presence; diplomatic contact usually takes place at the UN. As a rising great power seeking changes in international institutions, as made clear through India’s recent bruising but successful battle against the UK for the continued presence of an Indian judge at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, India seeks to reach out to these states to help it secure votes during key UN and other multilateral fora contests. It was notable that Modi had 12 bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the summit, nine of which were with leaders of small states.
Third, the absence of China
The fact that China is not and will never be a member of the Commonwealth is a huge plus for the Modi government. Despite its recent ‘reset’ in bilateral ties, China has risen dramatically as India’s principal foreign and security challenge. India has real concerns over its territorial dispute with China and China’s expanding influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, there is some concern that Pakistan may seek to curb any Indian leadership role in the Commonwealth at the behest of its close ally China.
Fourth, Commonwealth-wide presence of the Indian diaspora
For the Modi government, the Indian diaspora is an important cultural, and potentially political, priority for its foreign policy, in contrast to previous governments. The fact that there are diaspora Indian communities in virtually every Commonwealth country further underscores the importance of the Commonwealth.
As India ‘steps up’ its role in the Commonwealth, India-UK relations post-Brexit are expected to be enhanced. For the next two years, the UK will be the chair-in-office of the Commonwealth till the next summit in Rwanda in 2020. India is expected to work closely with the UK on Commonwealth reforms and governance.
The UK sees India as one of its leading economic partners in the world post-Brexit. The first visit of Theresa May as prime minister outside the EU was to India in early November 2016. This also signifies an important power shift between the two countries – whereas earlier the UK was more important to India than India was to the UK, today the reverse is true, namely, that India has become more important to the UK than the UK is to India.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is a Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.