The Commonwealth: our past and future - By Lord Popat
How Modi’s India is a force for positive change in the Commonwealth
In an era of global uncertainty, it has been fashionable to talk about new beginnings. More often than not, the key to unlocking a brighter future can be found in our past. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) represents a natural fusion between history and the path ahead, where old partnerships come together to address new challenges.
The arrival of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the UK-hosted summit is symbolic in more ways than one. His presence reminds us of the deep and abiding friendship between the UK and India but also the strategic importance of our relations within the Commonwealth family, which has overcome the test of time, the memory of Empire and the toils of partition.
Leading a prestigious delegation of Ministers and business leaders during his 4-day visit, Modi will preside over meetings with Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, and of course Prime Minister Theresa May. Together with other Commonwealth Heads of State, he will help chart a course of action for the future.
As Modi prepares to take up the mantle for India’s next chapter in the Commonwealth, it is fitting to reflect on the role of former Prime Minister Nehru in paving the way. A fervent opponent of imperialism, Nehru’s decision that the newly-independent India should join the Commonwealth was as controversial as it was surprising. After all, it was assumed that nationhood for India would entail an automatic severing of political ties under the aegis of the British Empire. Nehru, however, was more than a nationalist: he was an outward-looking humanist who understood the importance of international solutions to increasingly intertwined world problems.
Of course, that was a different time, a different India and Prime Minister Modi is a very different leader. But he shares Nehru’s fundamental understanding that India’s success will depend upon its ability to build international relationships. Since assuming office, Modi has proved that he is not only a Prime Minister but a serious statesman whose country’s global role is acquiring ever more heft. In a short space of time, he has undertaken several state visits, participated in the World Economic Forum and articulated a new vision for security and defence. All of which send a powerful signal of India’s growing global ambitions. The world is watching.
Looking to the future of the Commonwealth, Britain and India can be powerful partners for positive change. The Commonwealth then as now, was regarded as a force for good: A family of fifty-three nations, its diverse membership is committed to a set of values founded on democracy and rule of law which is embodied in the Commonwealth charter. Today it is home to one-third of the world’s people, contains some of the world’s fastest growing economies and accounts for one fifth of the world’s trade. There is vast untapped potential.
As head of the Commonwealth and the oldest Parliamentary democracy, Britain remains an active world player, with our impressive soft power, historic relations and commitment to trade. As the Commonwealth’s largest democracy of 1.3 billion people with an economy that is forecast to outperform China, India has both an opportunity and responsibility to play a serious role in shaping the Commonwealth’s future for the benefit of all members.
Britain and India’s individually strong relations give us an added advantage: We are defenders of democracy, champions of commerce and evangelists for the power of entrepreneurship. Trade between our two countries hovers around the $14bn mark and is set to rise. As the world’s seventh largest economy, it is not inconceivable that India could supersede the United States as the UK’s principal trading partner.
Britain is home to some of the largest Indian companies and a large Diaspora which has been galvanised by Modi’s brand of aspirational politics. I know I speak for many British Indians who, like myself, are excited by what Modi’s India has in store. To celebrate this new beginning, I will be hosting an event in Parliament with a gathering of British and Indian industry leaders and Members of Parliament. I hope it will be the first of many.
Going forward, India and the UK’s combined talents and resources could help the Commonwealth unlock its powerful trading potential, and this should be our priority. The US will always be a stalwart ally; but the Commonwealth is our family. Like all good families, the Commonwealth is not without its complications and challenges. And like all good families, we should work together when the going gets tough.
At this time of great global unease, these familial ties can bring fresh comfort: the Commonwealth has the historical blueprint to make it a serious player on the world stage. The partnership between the UK and India can and should be a bedrock in the effort to reinvent the Commonwealth as a model of stability and hope for the 21st Century. The Commonwealth is our past; it is also our future.
Lord Dolar Popat is Vice Chairman of the APPG on the Commonwealth, and the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda.