Unhappy With Commonwealth Chief, India Mulls Over Its Association With Grouping

Besides rethinking its financial contributions to the body, India is concerned that Commonwealth secretary-general Baroness Patricia Scotland will work only towards promoting the agendas of UK, Australia and Canada.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Patricia Scotland. Credit: The Commonwealth

Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Patricia Scotland. Credit: The Commonwealth

New Delhi: Over the past few months, Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland has been relentlessly targeted by a British newspaper over allegations of impropriety. Although she has responded in detail to the charges by writing to all Commonwealth member countries, raised eyebrows in the Indian capital have still not been lowered. Despite being only six months into her term, India is worried that the largely cliquish aspects of the multilateral body – working mainly on the agendas of three countries, especially the UK – will get further burnished under her leadership.

Official sources told The Wire that India has been “concerned” about the recent controversies surrounding Baroness Scotland, as well as the general direction of the multilateral body in its development and political agenda.

Alarm bells went off in South Block in July after the Daily Mail published a series of articles accusing the secretary-general of hiring a new “transition team” with the help of an outside consultancy firm belonging to a “friend”.

In a missive to the then 53 Commonwealth high commissioners, Scotland claimed that the transition team was to help reduce her learning curve and allow her to “hit the ground running”. She also argued in another letter that she had “the discretion to recruit persons the secretary-general deems appropriate and who add value”.

In the letter (a copy of which is available with The Wire), she also countered reports about her lavish expenditure on the official residence of the secretary-general in London’s posh Mayfair neighboorhood.

While the refurbishment tender was issued before she took over, Scotland admitted that it was “true that proposals were made for various upgrades after my assumption of duty, in light of the official use I propose to put the residence to rather than it just being a family residence”.

To justify the costs, she noted that during her predecessor’s first four-year term, work on the house amounted to £219,000. The budget of the current round of refurbishment agreed in January was £250,000.

Scotland took office as the Commonwealth’s first woman executive head on April 1. She succeeded Kamalesh Sharma, a former Indian diplomat and a two-term secretary-general.

She did not, however, give the cost of the “various upgrades”, as final costs would not be known till the work was completed. Promising to share the “final figure”, Scotland assured member states that it would be “within an acceptable range of the amount budgeted by the secretariat and certainly not the outrageous figure quoted by the press”.

Though the issue died down in Britain’s normally raucous press, Scotland’s explanation appears to have cut no ice with New Delhi, as evidenced by the Indian governments continuing uneasiness about her role. “We are the fourth largest financial contributor to the Commonwealth. We have concerns in how [the budget] is being spent,” sources in South Block told The Wire.

What The Wire has been establish, however, is that these budgetary concerns reflect a more complex backstory that has more to do with India’s political misgivings about the direction the Commonwealth could take under Scotland’s direction.

The Maldives issue

On October 13, the Maldives snapped ties with the grouping. The separation came about three weeks after the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) – the enforcement mechanism of the Commonwealth – threatened to suspend Maldives from the council at its next meeting in March if effective steps were not taken to resolve the ongoing political crisis in the archipelago .

Given the Maldives’ rocky relationship with the Commonwealth, the move was not a total surprise – especially for South Block.

India is not enamoured of Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen’s government. But New Delhi is also convinced that the Commonwealth’s active role has not been helpful in sorting out the political impasse in the island nation.

The Indian position articulated at CMAG meetings was that “the Commonwealth should not coerce the Maldives, but to provide assistance to help it to conform to rules”, sources said.

The UK government had been the prime mover in lobbying to get the Maldives officially on the formal agenda of the CMAG, according to Indian officials. Not coincidentally, London has been the preferred destination for several opposition leaders, who have had to leave the Maldives under threat of arrest and incarceration.

“By putting CMAG onto the Maldives and by issuing strictures, the Commonwealth has been ensuring that normal South Asian politics is not being played out there,” an Indian official told The Wire.

Interestingly, in contrast to its discomfort over the Commonwealth’s intervention, New Delhi seems to be much more upbeat about efforts by the United Nations through its special envoy and senior advisor in the department of political affairs, Tamrat Samuel. Indian officials believe that the UN, with its well-established path for decision-making – and  its professional bureaucracy – may be less susceptible to manipulation by a small group of countries.

India has had to face a “lot of pressure” in fending off UK-led moves since last year to put the Maldives on the formal agenda, first at the CMAG’s meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2015 and then two months later at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting summit in Malta.

“There was a lot of pressure in Malta that the Maldives had to be on the agenda. At the table, General Vijay Kumar Singh told others really firmly that the time was not right. There was a lot of argument, made politely. The compromise was that a ministerial mission would travel to Maldives and that an extraordinary session [of CMAG] would be held in January [2016],” an Indian government official said.

In between the CMAG meetings this year, Yameen rushed to India and asked for “continued support in preventing any unfair, any punitive action by CMAG on the Maldives”.

At the last meeting of the CMAG, India was again all alone in its corner. The threat of ‘suspension’ was not decided at the initial CMAG meeting, but over dinner and further discussions.

But now that the Maldives has exited the grouping, deep-pocketed backers like Saudi Arabia and China would likely buffer any further pressure from the international community as a fall-out from the ‘divorce’.

While there may not be a substantial impact on the Maldives, the Commonwealth may suffer some unpleasant side-effects, South Block observers said.

For small states, the incentive to be part of the Commonwealth is that it is an easier platform for their voices to be heard. But the Commonwealth’s informal culture seemingly contrasted with the CMAG’s more coercive mandate to deal with “serious or persistent” violations of the 1991 Harare principles. “This tension had been brewing for some time,” an official said.

“I am sure that this [the departure of the Maldives from the Commonwealth] will have a demonstrative effect on other small islands states. They would be watching what international impact there would be from the Maldives leaving the group,” said an official.

According to Indian officials, the function of the secretary-general becomes key, especially in a unique body like the Commonwealth which runs mainly by “gentlemanly rules”.

As the ‘guardian’ of “Commonwealth values”, if the secretary-general felt there was any violation of the Harare principles, she could offer to get the country back on track – either by appointing a special envoy or through the less ‘intrusive’ means of providing technical assistance. The secretary-general could also alert the chair of the CMAG, if the former feels that there has been no improvement or response from the parties.

“This would be disputed, but it is clear that the Commonwealth’s informal rules give a lot of leeway to the secretary-general in shaping the agenda (of CMAG),” sources asserted.

Promoting the interests of the ‘ABC’ countries?

Until now, barring Arnold Smith, the secretary-generals of the Commonwealth had come from countries other than its three biggest funders – the UK, Australia and Canada, known as the ‘ABC’ countries. Although Scotland was born in Dominica, she holds dual Dominican and British citizenship and has lived in the UK since childhood. She has been a British barrister, held various positions in the British government and has been a member of the English parliament.

India had not been too enthusiastic about Scotland’s candidature but had preferred to go with the flow.

The decision to appoint Scotland as the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth was taken last November at a closed-door meeting in Malta and was apparently close. But “contrary to the impression being built later, there were a lot of countries who were against her,” sources assert.

But when the final call was made, India did not want to be seen hindering a consensus, especially after Antigua and Barbuda decided to withdraw support from their own candidate, Ron Sanders, in the second round of voting. CARICOM – the Caribbean community of 15 states – also initially backed Sanders as Scotland was considered a British candidate, but the open lobbying by the ‘ABC’ was apparently tough to resist.

A senior Commonwealth official described the selection process as a “song and dance routine where there is a straw poll and all the leaders are told, ‘Well, this appears to be the candidate who has the greatest support,’ and then everybody joins in a consensus around the person with the greatest number of straws.”

In the run-up to the election, UK tabloids had a field day over Scotland. Her record as special advisor to President Mohamed Waheed after the Maldives was put on CMAG’s formal agenda in 2012 over the transfer of power was dusted and re-examined.

“She was already under a cloud when she came in, so after that, when the reports about renovations are published, these compound our worries about her effectiveness,” Indian officials said.

There is an increasing conviction in New Delhi that Scotland, who is nominally Carribean, will highlight the ‘ABC’ agenda. “We are anticipating that she will push their socio-economic agenda,” added sources.

There has been a persistent historical divide within the member states over the importance that is to be given by the Commonwealth to ‘good governance’ in member states as opposed to development.

Where does this leave India?

India joined the Commonwealth in 1949 after signing the London Declaration, which allowed the newly-independent country to join as a republic and accept the British crown only as a “symbol for the free association of its independent member nations and as such the head of the Commonwealth”.

Having India as part of the Commonwealth was so important for the UK as it left the subcontinent that the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, described the challenge of keeping India as a part of the grouping his “most important single problem”.

With the Maldives’ departure from the Commonwealth, 30 small states remain part of the group. These countries are the main beneficiaries of development projects like the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC) and the trade financing fund.

Indian officials say that the main utility of the Commonwealth for New Delhi has been to maintain an interface with small island states. “We don’t have many missions in most of those places, so the Commonwealth is a good platform for engagement,” an official said.The envoys from the smaller states in London are usually well-connected political appointees who have a direct line to their top leadership.

India is one of the principal sponsors of the Small States Office in New York and Geneva, which is a shared space for a dozen permanent missions of the smaller Commonwealth members.

Due to the economic crisis in the last few years, there has been an incremental reduction by several countries in their financial contributions to the Commonwealth. According to the Commonwealth Secretariat Revised Strategic Plan issued in December 2015, there has been a drop of £11 million a year in funding. A recent report on the implications of the Brexit by the Commonwealth secretariat also raised questions about whether EU aid to Commonwealth small states – approximately £1.4 billion – will survive the UK’s official departure from the union.

India contributes nearly £1022100 to the CFTC, with additional funds for the secretariat, Commonwealth foundations, offices in New York and Geneva, and the youth program. Recently, India also pledged to make up to $100 million of incremental trade finance available over a period of three years to the Commonwealth Small States Trade Finance Facility.

About two months ago, a proposal was floated for revising the financial contributions from member states. India had “reservations” about this proposal. A Commonwealth spokesperson, however, denied that there was any such suggestion.

“The Commonwealth secretariat is already under financial strain and has a limited budget. If instead of going to small island states, the money is being spent elsewhere, then we have a reason to be worried,” sources added.

Amid the reports of alleged financial profligacy by Scotland, Indian officials even mulled over whether the country should cut its financial contributions to the Commonwealth and divert the money saved towards the UN – which has been a principal platform for recent Indian diplomatic efforts. “Remaining in the Commonwealth is a legacy issue… But, this (reducing funds) is still a possibility if the situation persists,” sources said.

The Wire reached out to the Commonwealth secretariat on whether India had expressed its serious concerns over the controversies and the course that has been forged by the body. “Your questions should be addressed to the government of India since they are focused on India’s relationship with the Commonwealth,” the Commonwealth spokesperson replied.