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CHOGM: Reviving Commonwealth is the buzz as key role awaits India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to lead some sessions on April 19 and go through a busy diary of individual meetings with other heads of state or governments.

world Updated: Apr 14, 2018 22:11 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May.(PTI file)

There is much poignancy to the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next week - an Indian minister visiting in 1973 toldLondon not to neglect the group soon after the UK joined the European Union on January 1 of that year.

The caution was delivered in a light-hearted way: “When you find a new girlfriend, you should not forget your wife,” the minister told his British counterpart. But decades went by as the EU occupied centre-stage in London, and the Commonwealth of mainly former colonies of the British Empirefell into someneglect.

Now Britain is poised to leave the EU and London finds itself heading an organisation of 53 countries that have much in common, capped by its potential tocompensate for some of the economic loss that will hit Britain on leaving the European Single Market.

The neglect was also in evidence elsewhere, with limited awareness of the word “Commonwealth” in member states (mainly due to games), as the organisation trundled on and contributed particularly to smaller countries on best practices for issues such as elections, corruption and youth mobility.

But the Commonwealth has long been plagued by the existential question: What is the point of it? Even Philip Murphy, director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, insists the Commonwealth is a myth.

In this context, CHOGM 2018 reflects some congruence of interests, with revival being the buzzword. The Theresa May government sees it as a trading bloc for post-Brexit Britain, India is keen to play a greater role in global organisations and leverage its engagements, and 31 small island states (many battling the effects of climate change) are hoping to benefit the most from its theme of “towards a common future”.

“The organisation is at an inflection point…India is prepared to step up to the plate and play its due role in re-energising the Commonwealth…India would like to explore the possibility of an enhanced economic engagement,” said YK Sinha, India’s high commissioner to the UK.

London’s eagerness isreflected by Tariq Ahmad, minister for the Commonwealth, who admitsthat “we have neglected (the Commonwealth) in terms of other priorities…we haven’t paid attention to our relationships, but there are huge opportunities…the person who is overseeing (CHOGM) is the prime minister (Theresa May) herself”.

There are already a large number of studies, documents and proclamations with lofty words on various issues: business, people, youth and women. As Sinha put it, “the advocacy agenda of the Commonwealth has focused for too long on a prescriptive approach”. The grouping lacksa mechanism for enforcement and is not a major funder.

What shape the re-energised Commonwealth takes remains to be seen, but India – with its long and defining engagement in the group'searly years – is expected to be at the centre-stage in framing and taking forward CHOGM 2018’s focus areas of security, prosperity, sustainability and fairness.

Modi is likely to lead some sessions on April 19 and go through a busy diary of individualmeetings with otherheads of state or governments, before joining themat the retreat in Windsor on April 20, when a declaration willconclude the event.

Commonwealth facts:

Founded: 1949

Head of the Commonwealth: Queen Elizabeth

Secretary-general: Patricia Scotland

Member-states: 53 (31 small states, many of them islands)

Population: 2.4 billion (60% under the age of 30)

Smallest country: Tuvalu (11,000); largest: India (1.3 billion)

GDP: $13 trillion by 2021

Commonwealth secretariat: Marlborough House, London

Commonwealth organisations: more than 80

CHOGM 2018: April 16 to 20, in London and Windsor, to be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and heads of state orgovernment of 52member-states.

First Published: Apr 14, 2018 22:11 IST