India’s Ascendance in the Commonwealth

Within half a century, history has come full circle and India is now the rising star among the Commonwealth nations.

As the world watched with keen interest, India organized the nineteenth Commonwealth Games in New Delhi last month. The event was accompanied with the usual chaos but affirmed that India has rapidly ascended on the world stage — something that was rightly acknowledged by American president Barack Obama during his trip to India last week.

India’s ascendance in world affairs coincides with the slow and steady decline of so-called “Western power”. At least one can safely say that Europe is on the decline whereas the United States are trying to maintain hegemony in an Asian twenty-first century. In fact, Canada’s Hamilton lost out to India’s New Delhi in hosting the Commonwealth Games this year because of the financial maneuvering the latter could boast.

India definitely considers the year 2010 as a watershed for major reasons. It is important to note that the leaders of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have visited India recently. This emphasized the growing importance of New Delhi in world affairs.

Also, in a historic coincidence the year 1510 was when the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama landed in the state of Goa setting the stage for the colonial onset from European powers as the Dutch, Portuguese, the French and English in India. Before attaining independence in 1947, India had been under British imperial rule for over a hundred and fifty years.

Indian policymakers have shrewdly understood the legacy left over by the colonial British. In the immediate years after winning independence, they employed a clever and subtle diplomacy much like the United States did during its formative years. It initiated the Non-Aligned Movement, courted the Soviet Union to use its Security Council veto on Kashmir (in fact India’s economy was largely planned like Russia’s with the planning commission still prevalent), it got weapons from the Americans to fight China, talked about “Atoms for Peace” while using the Canadian aided nuclear power reactor for the Smiling Buddha nuclear test of 1974 and it didn’t hesitate to jump on the bandwagon of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Though India’s ascendance in world affairs is largely because of its English-speaking population, its more forward looking strategists understand that the country needs to reach out to continue to rise as a global power. President Obama’s support for permanent Security Council membership for India was a welcome gesture therefore. Incidentally, India became a nonpermanent member of the Council this year.

By gaining such accolades and attention around the world, India has decided to exploit its colonial roots and reach out to other countries that used to be part of the British Empire. Though the Commonwealth was founded in 1931 for different political reasons, its first modern day objectives were formulated in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, which committed the organization to world peace and the promotion of representative democracy and individual liberty.

The above lofty idealistic principles are easily recognizable in India’s democratic growth as a republican nations for the since time since 1947. This was aptly said by President Obama in his speech to the Indian parliament and he called for greater Indian role in fostering democracy around the world.

In fact, India has started with the Commonwealth. Its reasons are twofold: the first being geopolitical; the second, economical.

Though ceremonially, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, it will only be a matter of time before New Delhi starts wielding more power in the organization. Its high position in the Commonwealth is buttressed by its position in the Commonwealth Secretariat. The current head of the Secretariat is Kamalesh Sharma, the first Indian to hold the position. His election came briefly after Pakistan’s second suspension from the Councils of the Commonwealth in November 2007 after then President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency in the country.

India understands that it will face stiff competition from China in regions as Africa, Latin America and South Pacific. To compete effectively, India needs allies and these Commonwealth nations scattered around the world will serve as excellent launch pads to open up markets and spread influence.

The South Pacific Islands are a case in point. There are twelve countries in the region and India needs their support in the United Nations General Assembly to secure a seat as a permanent member of the Security Council. To that end, India had extended its “Look East” policy to the South Pacific Islands through two means. First, by joining the Pacific Islands Forum and second, by renewing old contacts among the Commonwealth nations, it has started to have more bearing on the region, taking up the issue of Fiji’s military rule in international bodies as the United Nations to keep Fiji out of the Commonwealth Nations Council. This was very much evident in the Pacific Islands Forum meeting held in August of this year at Vanuatu, a tiny Pacific island. India achieved its goals there by courting larger countries in the area, including Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, India has been generous in extending aid to Haiti where tens of thousands were killed in a devastating earthquake this year. India’s then external affairs minister, Dr Shashi Tharoor went to Haiti to oversee the relief work. This gesture had gone well with other tiny islands in the West Indies where India has a diaspora connection.

India would also strengthen its relations among the Commonwealth nations by holding the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas which is aimed at connecting the influential Indian diasporas around the world. India has in fact established a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, aimed at keeping an eye on the needs of India’s booming economies abroad. The annual Confederation of Indian Industry taps into this need.

In conclusion, it seems history has come full circle since the “half naked fakir” came knocking the doors of the British Empire for dominion status on the way to independence to a situation when the newly-elected British prime minister David Cameron came to India this support to promote closer business ties. India is no more a crown in the jewel of British colonial power. In fact, one may argue that India is now the Raj of the Commonwealth.

One comment

  1. Vasco da Gama did NOT reach India in 1510, but in 1498. Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa in 1510, establishing the Portuguese ‘Estado da India’, to take a monopoly on the spice trade. It made Lisbon Europe’s richest country for the next century.

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