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The Commonwealth gets extra attention

Some 5,000 participants from government, business and civil society have arrived for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The central theme of the deliberations is ‘Towards a Common Future’.

lead Queen Elizabeth hosts Commonwealth Diaspora community at Buckingham Palace, in the lead up to CHOGM this April in London. Jonathan Brady/ Press Association. All rights reserved. Great Britain is known for its grand events and theatre. Magnificent pomp and pageantry awaits the leaders of 53 Commonwealth nations arriving here for their summit. The masters of ornamentalism have pulled out all the stops and a prominent role is being played by the Queen as the head of the Commonwealth, and other royals.

Some 5,000 participants from government, business and civil society have arrived for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The central theme of the deliberations is ‘Towards a Common Future’. Their vision is to promote peace, prosperity and democracy.

Providing relief

The Commonwealth has been playing a constructive role over the years by highlighting the problems of the developing countries and small island nations and by providing aid. Concerned British leaders and groups see it as an effective instrument for helping the helpless of the world through aid programmes. It fights malaria, malnutrition and other maladies in the member-countries. It provides relief in the face of natural calamities. Concerned British leaders and groups see it as an effective instrument for helping the helpless of the world through aid programmes.

Some want the Commonwealth to promote democracy and free speech by enforcing these virtues and punishing the offenders – even throwing out a member-country straying from the democratic path. Some others feel that the institution’s extra emphasis on human rights was driven by cold war considerations.

The business leaders expect every institution to promote commercial interests. So, the Business Forum will have a busy schedule during the summit.

A valued talking shop

Since the present British Government is tasked with implementing the result of the referendum favouring exit from Europe, popularly known as Brexit, it has come to value the Commonwealth even more.

It has drawn an elaborate programme for the summit and the supplementary events involving business leaders, youth, women and civil society. The institution is often derided as a “talking shop” but the flow of ideas at various fora will be quite interesting. Only a Commonwealth Literature Festival is missing from the long list. The Declaration will, of course, present a concrete plan for marching towards a common future.

The substantive part of the proceedings apart, the summit will provide plenty of grist to the sketch-writers’ mill, generating any number of colour stories. Odd Republicans may criticise the intense involvement of the Queen and the royals and the selection of Buckingham Palace, St. James’s Palace and Windsor Castle as the venues for the Summit.

Some of the giant portraits on the regal walls may cause an allergic reaction in those who refuse to believe that the British Empire was a benevolent enterprise. Mercifully, Shashi Tharoor, an Indian MP, who called the period of the British rule in India an era of darkness, will not be part of the Indian delegation.

Relocating to India?

Most leaders of the Commonwealth countries are not that sensitive. The hosts know that the current masters of their old colonies value photo opportunities as much as concrete benefits. India’s Prime Minister, who will simultaneously address his domestic audience, is expected to find the splendorous Buckingham Palace quite impressive. The hosts know that the current masters of their old colonies value photo opportunities as much as concrete benefits.

Modi will have to refrain from criticising dynasties since the event involves the Queen, her son, the grandsons and other royals. Also, the Queen is accustomed to being greeted in exotic ways when she visits some Commonwealth countries, but she will not be amused if any leader tries to hug her!

A non-substantive issue that is causing waves here is the reported proposal that Prince Charles should be the next Head of the Commonwealth. The post is not hereditary. It appears that the Queen, while not ready to abdicate, may be willing to let the Prince be given a consolation prize. Amid secret lobbying about succession, a British Labour MP has come out against the move, even criticising the Prince. India’s stand on the British shahzada inheriting the office is not known as yet.

If this move faces any hurdle a deal-maker summiteer may suggest that the next Head should be a democratically elected leader. Some British commentators have also proposed that the Commonwealth Secretariat be shifted from London to the capital of another member-country. New Delhi could be a strong contender. Such a relocation will bring a few low-level jobs to India and a windfall of votes for the Prime Minister! India has become a bit more enthusiastic about the Commonwealth which was not always the case in the recent past.

Amazing diversity

Next to the UN, the Commonwealth is one forum that showcases amazing diversity at a time when diversity is under attack. It signifies the importance of multi-culturalism and multilateralism when both have entered a phase of decline. So, the forum itself is the message!

Britain is hosting the summit at a time when the Commonwealth has acquired a special significance in its contentious domestic politics. So, while the British Government has become more enthusiastic about it, more critics have emerged to devalue the Commonwealth.

For this reason, this summit’s outcome will come under closer scrutiny. Those expecting concrete results will not be satisfied only with colourful stories about the fanfare marking the occasion. The Commonwealth is used to indifference by the people of the member-countries and by the leaders of the emerging powers that were powerless earlier.

The Commonwealth is used to indifference by the people of the member-countries and by the leaders of the emerging powers that were powerless earlier. This time an external factor has spawned a new breed of critics painting a pessimistic scenario about the Commonwealth’s present and its future.

This is because the institution has been dragged into the ongoing battle over Britain’s relationship with Europe that has polarised the country. In a 2016 referendum, Britons wanting to leave the European Union won a narrow victory. In their vigorous campaign, they used the Commonwealth to allay the nation’s fear of isolation in the event of severing the official link with the European Union. They assured the voters that there was a world beyond Europe, the world of former colonies with people long accustomed to treating Britain as their mother country.

Oxygen of publicity

This angered the pro-European commentators who jumped into the fray to demolish the myth that the loss caused by leaving the European Union will be met by the Commonwealth family. The Commonwealth-sceptics say that the former colonies are still problem-ridden. They present a strong case because the trade and investments within the Commonwealth do not amount to much. They represent the realistic school of foreign policy.

However, their efforts to pull down the Commonwealth have given it the oxygen of publicity. And that is one thing that this institution lacked even during its hey-day.

The Commonwealth-sceptics strengthen their case by pointing out that the former colonies were not enthusiastic about Britain leaving Europe. They feared that Brexit would adversely affect their foreign trade and aid.

These nations wanting to promote free movement of manpower noted that the Brexiteers ran an anti-immigration campaign with a trace of racism. So, if a country turns its back on the Poles and Hungarians, why would it welcome Indians or Pakistanis, they wondered. If a country turns its back on the Poles and Hungarians, why would it welcome Indians or Pakistanis, they wondered.

The pro-European commentators say that the UK-India talks on free trade failed since New Delhi wanted more Indians to be allowed to come and work in Britain. The British Prime Minister was in no position to entertain such a request because migration has become a hot subject in British politics. The summiteers from the rest of the Commonwealth should not expect a grand gesture in this regard from the host nation.

Contrasting styles past and future

The debate on the relative importance of the Commonwealth is suffused with images and words used in personal relationships. So, Britain is painted as a divorcee on the rebound wooing an old flame. In the imagination conditioned by the British Empire, the composite of the rest of the Commonwealth is a female. As it happens, this female is no longer a supplicant. It has become somewhat empowered and is not quite dying to embrace the old lord and master.

The pro-Europeans keep pointing out the futility of courting the old flame and kneading nostalgia into international relations. Commonwealth links were liked by some of these critics only for their entertainment value. The Prince of Wales being ceremonially welcomed by some Australian or African tribe is funny stuff, a reminder of an exotic encounter of the past and the glory of the Empire.

An essay on the Commonwealth is illustrated with a photo of the sari-clad British Prime Minister with a bright yellow garland around her neck standing with a bare-chested Hindu temple priest in Bangalore. One sees in newspapers a visiting British royal wearing a funny traditional wig or dancing with the rural hosts with semi-exposed bottoms. In contrast, the European Union headquarters in Brussels enact a civilised scene with the pin-striped suits from Britain conducting hard business negotiations.

Of course, the Commonwealth has always had sections of supporters who valued it for different reasons. Its origins lay in Britain searching for its identity after it lost its Empire. The search still continues amid a great deal of confusion. At times, Britain wishes to return to its glorious past as an imperial power and at times it wants to be an equal partner with the neighbouring European nations. Some British thinkers and politicians envision the Commonwealth as Empire 2.0, but now voices are heard about the sins of the British Empire.

Some British thinkers and politicians envision the Commonwealth as Empire 2.0, but now voices are heard about the sins of the British Empire. This reaction was provoked by the academic-salesmen who used fiction to list the benefits of the British Empire. This debate is sullying the image of the Commonwealth, even leading to the suggestion that the Queen may be replaced by an elected Head of the Commonwealth!

More equal partners

The imperial Britain’s misdeeds may be an old story, but the Shadow Foreign Secretary wants the British Prime Minister to tender an apology at the Commonwealth Summit for other historic wrongs including what Thatcher’s Government did during the apartheid struggle in South Africa. Margaret Thatcher ignored in the eighties the Commonwealth’s effort to end the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Labour MP Emily Thornberry dug up a 30-year-old story and said that Margaret Thatcher nearly destroyed the Commonwealth by not listening to the member-nations who wanted unified sanctions imposed against South Africa’s apartheid regime. She writes: “We should see our commonwealth cousins not just as trading partners but as full and equal partners.”

The old demand for an apology by the host nation is unlikely to generate any heat but the one contentious issue that the leaders may face is about the rights of the gays and lesbians. It puts Britain in a somewhat awkward position as a large number of member-nations are not ready to decriminalise the conduct of these minorities.

The hosts know it only too well and thus notwithstanding the pressure from the human rights activists, Britain will go slow in promoting gay rights.

About the author

L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul.  

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