India can have dramatic impact on Commonwealth’s trading future
As the fastest growing economy of the 53 nations, India has the chance to be one of Commonwealth’s largest powers.
LONDON: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK in April, the first Indian head of government to attend CHOGM in almost ten years, reflects a significant resurgence of Indian interest in the Commonwealth. The visit is symbolic of India’s growing activity in the organisation—an organisation which can assist India not just in furthering Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to advancing India’s international engagement, but as a platform through which India can acquire lucrative new trade partnerships.
The Commonwealth was not originally conceived to be a formal trade bloc, and the truth is that the Commonwealth’s trade potential has gone largely unexplored until very recent years. Whilst the Commonwealth is a great bastion of democracy, shared values and language, the trade benefits for members have long been overlooked. This is not to say that trade between members has not occurred— rather, that it has not been acknowledged that the latent commonalities which exist between nations are underpinned by the Commonwealth. Intra-Commonwealth trade costs are 19% lower when both trading partners are members, yet this “Commonwealth Advantage” is still not being fully capitalised on.
For India and the UK over the last 30 years, although still two of the largest contributors to Commonwealth trade, the Commonwealth opportunity has yet to play a key role in their respective trade policies. But with rapid growth having now accelerated India onto the world stage at an unprecedented rate, it is looking to consolidate its international position, and look outwardly to new trade prospects. For the United Kingdom, despite its history as one of the Commonwealth’s founding members, its trade engagement over recent decades has been engrossed by its European neighbours. Although the UK has developed profitable relationships with some Commonwealth countries such as Nigeria, with whom it is the second largest trading partner, there is still a wealth of opportunity to explore. India and the United Kingdom therefore find themselves in similar positions, albeit through different circumstances, with the Commonwealth emerging as a mutual network of huge trading potential for both nations.
In the last 10 years, the Commonwealth has undergone a significant renaissance, and is rapidly gaining attention as a lucrative platform for business and trade. Whilst the network may previously have been vulnerable to accusations of being an imperial relic, thanks to the commitment of many Commonwealth nations, including India, it is evolving into something far beyond its origin. The next chapter in the Commonwealth’s story is beginning, and India has the opportunity to play a leading role.
The Commonwealth itself offers an inimitable collection of potential trading partners, alongside the even greater possibility of a Commonwealth-wide trading area. These factors are no doubt attributable to the Commonwealth’s resurgence in appeal, however action is now required to turn this potential into a reality.
Prince Charles’ personal invitation to Prime Minister Modi to attend CHOGM was a very clear indication that the UK is keen for India to reengage with the Commonwealth. Yet whilst stronger ties with India are of course beneficial for the United Kingdom, this was not the principal motive behind this invitation. In very simple terms, India is home to 60% of all Commonwealth citizens, and one quarter of intra-Commonwealth trade involves India. India is therefore an obvious and natural leader for a re- imagined Commonwealth.
It is no secret that as the fastest growing economy of the 53 nations, India has the chance to be one of the Commonwealth’s largest powers and loudest voices. This extends further than just powerful status however, as the Commonwealth also offers India coveted access to emerging African markets.
India’s exposure to these markets should not go understated, as the Commonwealth offers something quite unique for India; a multilateral group, without any one member exerting an overwhelming dominance. Where China dominates the BRICS alignment, and the US many other multilateral international bodies, the Commonwealth offers the chance for India to have an extremely influential voice in a huge international grouping. Considering factors such as India’s longstanding desire for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, opportunities such as that presented by Commonwealth leadership will have a marked and positive influence on its new global image.
Moreover, India has the opportunity to engage some of its trillion-dollar economic weight in Commonwealth markets, with a notable lack of Chinese opposition. India has been very public about its desire to enhance India-African trade, which currently totals USD $52bn, and the Commonwealth may well emerge as a direct route to achieving this goal. The Indian government has found itself in direct trading competition with China on certain fronts, but this will not be such a problem in the Commonwealth.
Whilst the UK can help to facilitate the development of a Commonwealth trade agenda, given their size, key demanders of trade growth will no doubt be India and Africa. With a burgeoning middle class, and a growing desire to strengthen its international ties, India is certainly poised to make a dramatic impact on Commonwealth trade figures; an impact that will be mutually beneficial for both India itself, and the wider Commonwealth.
Considering the sheer magnitude of India’s economy, influence and its population, if India wants to play a central role in the development of the Commonwealth, other countries will absolutely follow suit. India has a key role to play in cementing the establishment of the new Commonwealth, which is truly on the cusp of something great. Lord Marland of Odstock is Chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. There is little doubt that over the past one year Rahul Gandhi has evolved as a politician and the transformation is evident from the manner in which he has been addressing vital matters that crop up from time to time. However, he still has a long way to go, and thus is vulnerable to traps set up through questions and statements aimed at inducing him to stir a controversy of sorts. Most of the time he seems to forget that the Congress, with its back to the wall, is facing a rejuvenated Bharatiya Janata Party led by two full time politicians, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who have perfected the art of realpolitik.
The duo has the capacity to create chances for their party where none exist, and have always taken head-on a street combat, regardless of the outcome. In other words, Modi and Shah are political gladiators, who would employ every conceivable method to checkmate their opponents whether inside or outside the Sangh. Drawing a leaf from the manner in which world heavyweight boxing bouts are listed, providing the defending champion the prerogative of picking his opponents in a title defence fight, apparently Modi and Shah are applying the same principle to the political confrontations in the country as well.
On many occasions both also play rounds two and three, while concurrently playing round one, thereby anticipating and pre-empting threats from their potential rivals at any given time. For instance, not only these two, but the entire political class, including the Congress, realises that if the 2019 election was to be showcased as a contest between Modi and Rahul, the incumbent Prime Minister would have a decisive advantage.
Therefore, when Rahul, while answering a query during an interaction in Karnataka, expressed his inclination to become the Prime Minister, in the event of the Congress or its allies winning the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, he must not have figured how the innocuous remark would become the talking point of a serious political discourse on virtually every TV channel. Bringing in the hypothetical element of the question he had clearly stated, “that it depends on how the Congress performs... if it emerges as the biggest party—yes”. When further probed that what would happen in case it was an alliance, he replied, “...if the Congress is the biggest party, then yes”. The candid answer was enough to incur a calibrated and well thought through response from the BJP’s spin doctors, who lost little time in mocking the Congress president for making himself a PM nominee, and projecting next year’s epic showdown as a Modi versus Rahul one.
In the process, the BJP attempted to alter the Karnataka Assembly election narrative from Siddaramaiah versus Modi that was not working to its benefit to Rahul versus Modi. Whether their efforts succeeded or not would be known only on counting day, since the general consensus is that a Rahul-Modi fight would end with the PM winning hands down.
Coming as it did a year before the Parliamentary polls, the BJP’s think tanks would now ensure that this narration remains unchanged. Modi and Shah would also be at ease that their work would be less burdensome if the billing was conducted on these lines. It goes without saying that the Modi versus Rahul fight has its own abundant share of political advantages.
Alternatively, a Modi versus Mamata Banerjee contest for the top slot would be a far more difficult proposition. Modi would have to deploy all his political astuteness to get the better of the West Bengal Chief Minister, who like the Prime Minister, is essentially a street fighter, and knows the turf like the back of her hand. She is the undisputed leader of her state, and thereby the prospects of her being in line as the first potential Bengali PM nominee would make her the recipient of unprecedented support. Significantly, her opponents, despite their best efforts, have been unable to nail her down to anything substantially damaging.
Mamata is a Brahmin, who has the capacity of garnering a pan India support-base if in the event caste politics comes into play during the 2019 finals. She has acquired her political acumen from the Congress, and therefore could readily secure the support of Congress activists, past and present, in view of ideological similarities. Being a woman, in large sections she would touch a chord, thus coming out as the most formidable challenger to the Prime Minister. Some of her methods bear an uncanny resemblance to the tactics used by the BJP’s top leadership. Finally, she has wide acceptability amongst regional leaders, who are exploring the possibility of forging a federal front against the BJP and the Congress.
In fact, the BJP would prefer to pit itself against an alliance led by Rahul Gandhi, rather than the one spearheaded by Mamata Banerjee. This is where Rahul has to understand the intricacies of politics. At present he has to choose between his own ambition whose actualisation appears difficult and the larger opposition objective of weakening the BJP. Given this scenario, his role should be that of a facilitator rather than that of a main combatant. Within his own party, there are leaders with better credentials, yet on account of inner party politics have had to take a back seat.
Modi and Shah possess the knack and strategy to stall Rahul and secure the ground. Between us.